Spring-Training Divisional Outlook: National League Central

Previous editions: AL East / AL Central / NL East.

The World Baseball Classic is in its final stages, meaning that both the end of spring training and the start of the regular season are in sight. We’d better get through the remaining installments in this series quickly.

We are using 2016 batted-ball data to get a feel for the true offensive, pitching and defensive talent of each major-league club, while reviewing key player movement and under-the-radar strengths and weaknesses that could make the difference in their respective 2017 campaigns. We’ve already reviewed the two Eastern divisions and the AL Central. Today, we turn to the NL Central.

We’ll start it off with a table that will serve as the backbone of our analysis:

NL Central – Key Team BIP Metrics
CUB 0.328 0.552 0.317 0.505 21.1% 10.4% 24.3% 8.3% 85.0
STL 0.333 0.574 0.321 0.504 21.2% 8.5% 20.9% 7.7% 102.7
PIT 0.327 0.522 0.330 0.524 21.3% 9.0% 19.6% 8.5% 100.0
MIL 0.332 0.546 0.324 0.518 25.5% 9.9% 19.0% 8.6% 102.8
CIN 0.315 0.493 0.330 0.554 21.1% 7.4% 19.6% 10.0% 94.1
NL AVG 0.326 0.528 0.326 0.528 21.5% 8.3% 21.4% 8.4% 99.6

The first four columns indicate how each team “should have” performed at the plate and on the mound if each batted ball generated league-average results for its exit-speed and launch-angle “bucket.” The next four columns list each club’s offensive and defensive K and BB rates.

The last column represents each club’s Defensive Multiplier. This measures each club’s defensive performance compared to its opposition over 162 games. Using granular BIP data, each team’s actual AVG and SLG (excluding home runs) was compared to the projected levels (as described in the previous paragraph) for such BIP, both on offense and defense. This essentially isolates the contributions of pitching from those of team defense. If a club out-defended its opponents, its Defensive Multiplier is below 100. If a club was out-defended, its multiplier is above 100.

Color-coding is used above to note significant divergence from league average. Red cells indicate values that are over two full standard deviations above league average. Orange cells are over one STD above, yellow cells over one-half STD above, blue cells over one-half STD below, and black cells over one STD below league average. Ran out of colors at that point. Variation of over two full STD below league average will be addressed as necessary in the text below.

Next, let’s convert the above data into run values, perform some Pythagorean magic, and come up with a series of projected win-loss records: (a) on only each club’s BIP hit/allowed, (b) further adjusted for K and BB for/against, and (c) further adjusted for team’s Defensive Multiplier. This third projection represents the club’s true-talent W-L record for 2016. For comparative purposes, each club’s 2016 actual and Pythagorean records are listed:

NL Central – 2016 Actual/Projected Records
CUB 91-71 99-63 111-51 103-58 107-54
STL 94-68 93-69 91-71 86-76 88-74
PIT 80-82 77-85 77-85 78-83 78-83
MIL 87-75 76-86 74-88 73-89 74-88
CIN 68-94 63-99 67-95 68-94 68-94

Let’s make some broad observations about each club’s 2016 performance utilizing the data in the two tables above.

In case you weren’t aware, the Cubs broke themselves a “curse” last year. On balls-in-play alone, however, they weren’t even the best team in the Central. At bat, they were only marginally better than average, with projected SLG over a half standard deviation above league average. Their pitching staff did shine with regard to contact management, holding hitters to projected AVG and SLG of over a full STD lower than league average. Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta were the 2016 and 2015 NL Contact Managers of the Year, and Jon Lester is solid in that area, as well. On BIP alone, the Cubs were good but not great, with a projected record of 91-71.

Adding K and BB back into the mix does wonders for the Cubs. Their offensive BB rate was over two full STD above the NL average, while their pitching staff K rate was over one full STD above. The offensive plate discipline is a teamwide effort, anchored by Ben Zobrist, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and the otherwise struggling Jason Heyward. Oh, and they get Kyle Schwarber back in 2017. This step adds eight wins onto their projection, raising their record to 99-63.

And we haven’t even mentioned the club’s foremost strength — namely, defense. They ranked first in the majors according to most publicly available metrics, and did so in my system, as well. Their overall team Defensive Multiplier of 85.0 was exceptional and includes equally glittering marks of 80.6 on fly balls and 84.4 on grounders. The Red Sox were the only club in either league anywhere near them. There were no defensive weak links, with Addison Russell in the infield, Jason Heyward in the outfield, and Javier Baez in both as the leading lights. Inclusive of team defense, the Cubs’ projection climbs to 111-51, 7.5 games better than their already exceptional actual mark.

On batted balls alone, the Cardinals were a better club than the Cubs last season. This was largely due to their exceptional skill at impacting the baseball. Both their projected AVG and SLG were over a full STD higher than the NL average. This, like the Cub defense, was a teamwide effort. The Cards, almost to a man, hit a bunch of liners, and hit them to all fields. Quietly, their pitching staff was almost as good as the Cubs at managing contact, with their projected SLG allowed over a full STD below the NL average, and their projected AVG over a half STD below. Carlos Martinez led the effort in this regard, with usual stalwart Adam Wainwright producing a mixed season with regard to contact management. On BIP alone, this was a strong 94-68 club.

The Cards’ offensive and defensive K and BB rates weren’t nearly as stellar as the Cubs’. They rated in the average range in three of the four measures, while their pitching staff’s BB rate was over a half STD lower than the NL average. This solid, if unspectacular, showing shaves a game off of their projection, down to 93-69.

The starkest difference between the Cubs and Cards was in the area of team defense. The Cards’ team Defensive Multiplier of 102.7 was a shade away from the worst mark in the division. Outfield defense was a particular problem, as they posted a 111.2 multiplier on fly balls, second worst in the NL. Father Time appeared to finally catch up with the departed Matt Holliday in left field, and backups Jeremy Hazelbaker and Tommy Pham didn’t fare too well in part-time duty. Their defensive performance shaved two wins off of their projection, own to 91-71, five games better than their actual record.

The Pirates slowly faded out of the playoff picture during the second half of 2016. On batted balls alone, they were a fairly ordinary ball club. Their projected performance on the BIP hit and allowed was largely in the average range, as only their projected AVG allowed veered materially from the norm, over a half-STD worse than league average. On batted balls alone, the Pirates were an 80-82 club.

Adding back the Ks and BBs is a mixed bag for the Bucs. Their offensive BB rate was over a half-STD higher than league average, but that was outweighed by the relative inability of their pitching staff to compile strikeouts. Their staff K rate was over a half-STD lower than the NL average. Perhaps rookie Tyler Glasnow can enhance their performance in that area moving forward. Introducing K and BB into the equation knocks three wins off of their projection, down to 77-85.

The Pirates’ team Defensive Multiplier was exactly average, at 100.0. There was significant divergence between the performances of their infield (96.2 multiplier on grounders) and outfield (111.1 on fly balls). Most publicly available defensive metrics had the Bucs faring materially worse. The club certainly hopes that the reconfiguration of their outfield (Andrew McCutchen from center fot right, Gregory Polanco from right to left, Starling Marte from left to center) will improve matters. McCutchen was clearly a drag on the club’s defense, which in the recent past had been a considerable strength. The club’s projection is unchanged by the effects of defense, remaining at 77-85, 1.5 games shy of their actual record.

The 2016 Milwaukee Brewers were a team of extremes. If the concepts of strikeouts and walks didn’t exist, they would have been a borderline playoff club. Their projected offensive AVG and SLG were both over a half-STD higher than league average. Thanks, Chris Carter. In addition, their projected SLG allowed was over a half-STD better than league average, largely due to the contact-management stylings of Zach Davies. On BIP alone, this was an 87-75 club.

Adding K and BB into the mix was a crushing blow for the 2016 Brew Crew. Their offensive K rate was off of the charts, over two full STD above the NL average. Again: thanks, Chris Carter. Their pitching staff’s K rate was also an issue, over a full STD below the NL average. Their rotation lacked and still lacks a pure K guy; hurry up, Josh Hader. A strong offensive BB rate, over a full STD above NL average, was somewhat of a mitigating factor. No matter, though: the introduction of Ks and BBs lops 11 wins off of their projection, down to 76-86.

Team defense wasn’t the Brewers’ friend, either, as their team Defensive Multiplier of 102.8 was the worst in the Central, fractionally behind the Cards’. They had issues on both fly balls (109.6 multiplier) and grounders (107.4), with the biggest issues on the outfield corners (Ryan Braun and Domingo Santana) and at first base (Carter). Their projection slips by two more games to 74-88, a win above their actual record.

Lastly, we have the Reds. On BIP alone, this was a truly terrible baseball team, despite the presence of supreme ball-striker Joey Votto. Their projected offensive AVG and SLG were both over a full STD below league average, while their projected AVG and SLG allowed were over a half and a full STD worse than league average, respectively. On BIP alone, they were by far the dregs of the division, at 68-94.

It doesn’t get better when K and BB are injected into the mix. The Reds were materially worse than league average in three of the four component measures, over a half-STD worse in offensive BB rate and pitching staff K rate, and over a full STD worse in pitching staff BB rate. Again, the poor offensive BB rate occurred despite the presence of Votto, the most patient hitter in the game. Amazing. Five wins are lopped off of the Reds’ projection at this stage, down to 63-99.

Strong team defense was the only redeeming characteristic of the 2016 Cincinnati Reds. They posted the second-best team Defensive Multiplier in the NL, at 94.1, faring well on both fly balls (90.8 multiplier) and grounders (88.7), with strong anchors in Billy Hamilton in the outfield and Zack Cozart in the infield. Four wins are added onto their projection as a result, up to 67-95, a win shy of their actual record.

Now, let’s look forward. Below are the current FanGraphs projection, as of Monday afternoon:

2017 Projected Records
CUB 95-67
STL 84-78
PIT 82-80
MIL 70-92
CIN 70-92

The Fangraphs projections call for the status quo to remain in effect in 2017, with the Cubs running and hiding, and no other club landing a playoff spot.

Let’s briefly discuss some key issues — and some of the important changes from 2016 — for each club below:

Chicago Cubs
On one hand, add Kyle Schwarber, who could actually be the club’s best hitter, and one shudders to think how good the 2017 Cubs could be. On the other hand, pencil Jon Jay into Dexter Fowler’s center-field spot, and there’s at least some reason for concern. Ben Zobrist is a year older and closer to fading away with the bat, but Javier Baez is a secret weapon with massive offensive and defensive upside who isn’t even needed to play every day at this point.

Some regression should be expected from both the pitching staff and the team defense, but both remain clear strengths. The Cubs are likely to remain the premier run-prevention club in the game, but I’ll go out on a limb and say they won’t score as many runs as the Cards. Short term, 95 wins and a division title appear to be very reasonable expectations. Looking a little further over the horizon, I’m not sure from where their next wave of elite pitching is coming.

St. Louis Cardinals
Despite the departure of Holliday, the Cards possess a Swiss Army knife lineup full of tough outs who impact the baseball. Quality bats such as Matt Adams and Jedd Gyorko aren’t even guaranteed everyday roles. I’m a little concerned about their lack of depth in the outfield if anything happens to the starting group of Fowler, Randal Grichuk, and Stephen Piscotty. The newly svelte Adams is even getting a look out there.

With a healthy Alex Reyes, the Cards would have had a puncher’s chance to take down the Cubs this year. Without him, I look for their rotation to be simply good, instead of a major strength. Look for Adam Wainwright, who yielded a massive number of liners in 2016, to bounce back, and the return of Lance Lynn is a big positive as well. The bullpen is an area of concern, as Trevor Rosenthal appears to have lost his mojo. I think 84 wins is a bit light for the Cards; I see them more in the 88-90 range, which should net them a Wild Card spot.

Pittsburgh Pirates
While they still must be considered one of the game’s success stories over the last few seasons, one can’t get around the fact that this iteration of the Pirates has seemingly plateaued. It must be noted that this group isn’t afraid to make unconventional decisions; rearranging your entire starting outfield and asking your most accomplished player to move to an outfield corner doesn’t happen every day, though one can argue it should have been done on the fly last season. First base is a question mark, though Josh Bell has shown some positive flashes, and the Jung Ho Kang situation has yet to fully play out. Losing him for an extended stretch would hurt this offense severely.

The Pirates are trying to pull off the neat trick of simultaneously competing and integrating youth onto the ball club. Jameson Taillon was seamlessly eased into the rotation last season, but they really need Glasnow to hit the ground running from the get-go in 2017. They need a strikeout pitcher in the worst way; if Glasnow pulls a Taillon, they could be a stealth Wild Card contender. Ultimately, this feels like a slightly-better-than-.500 club to me; I think the FanGraphs projection is right on. Mark them down for 82-84 wins.

Milwaukee Brewers
Eric Thames and Travis Shaw are in, Jonathan Villar is moving to yet another position, and Scooter Gennett is drifting into a utility role. Catcher is a potential issue in the near term in the absence of Jonathan Lucroy, and it’s put up or shut up time in right for Domingo Santana. With all of this happening, Orlando Arcia’s first full year at shortstop is almost an afterthought.

There’s plenty of young player quantity on hand in both the majors and minors, but what this club needs is a couple of them to become stars. Keon Broxton has a very real chance to do that in center field, and Zach Davies could do the same on the mound. Broxton crushes the baseball — when he hits it — and he’s hitting it more often. Davies’ changeup is one of the best pitches in baseball, inducing swings and misses and weak contact. I would not be surprised if the Brewers push the Bucs hard for third place. A .500 record is a worthy goal, but it’s merely a steppingstone to even better things in the next few years.

Cincinnati Reds
The club has traded Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips to clear playing time for some youngsters. The problem is, their kids aren’t as plentiful or as talented as those of the other NL rebuilders. Votto is simultaneously elite and immovable because of his massive contract. Despite his presence, this looks like a below-average offense in the short and long term. I don’t see any of their other regulars among the top half of the offensive performers at their respective positions. Jose Peraza and Scott Schebler are likely to get the lion’s share of playing time at second base and right field, respectively. While their numbers could rival those of their predecessors, the Reds need more than that. Watch for top 2016 pick and third baseman, Nick Senzel, who projects to make a major impact, and soon.

On the mound, there’s plenty of youth, but some injury concerns as well. Brandon Finnegan still looks like a reliever to me, and Anthony DeSclafani has shown the most promise, but is presently on the shelf. The bullpen continues to be a real problem, though Raisel Iglesias has shown signs of becoming a formidable presence at the end of games. On balance, the Reds will be hard-pressed to match their 70-win projection.

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7 years ago

This is outstanding, thank you Tony.