Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Handicapping the Division Races, Part I

Despite being advertised as a "Sports blog," there has been whining that all of my content since March has been about the Yankees. This is true and I haven't paid as much attention to baseball outside of the Yankees as I would have liked to this season. In an effort to right both wrongs in one fell swoop, I'm going to take a look at each of the playoff chases. I'm starting with the NL Central, because I said so.

Following the 1997 season, acting commish and Milwaukee owner Bud Selig bit the bullet and offered that his team would switch leagues to accomodate the inclusion of the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League (and prevent the scheduling nightmare of having an odd number of teams in each league). Since then, the Brewers have spent exactly zero days in first place in the six-team division past May 1. This season, they have had the pole position since April 21, with a lead that swelled to as much as 8.5 games on June 21.

There is little chance that anyone could have seen this coming. The World Series champs were in the division after all, and the Cardinals had dominated the NL Central for all but the final week of the 2006 regular season. The Brewers were in the back-seat as the Astros made an ultimately futile attempt to wrestle the division from the Cardinals- a 9 game winning streak ended when, on September 29, back-to-back homers by Edgar Renteria and Chipper Jones wasted the Astros' chance to take first place with two games to go. The Brewers, meanwhile, were wrapping up their season with fine performances from three players: 22-year old firstbaseman Prince Fielder (28 homers), 26 year-old shortsop Bill Hall (35 homers), and 30 year-old, free agent to-be Carlos Lee (28 homers).

Lee would stay within the division, signing a monstrous deal with the Astros. The Cubs, who finished fifth in the division, threw a ton of money at Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Ted Lilly, and Jason Marquis. The Astros lost Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens but still had Roy Oswalt and a trio of young power-hitting outfielders. The Brewers, meanwhile, would be going into the season with an astounding four players aged 25 years or younger: Fielder, 2B Rickie Weeks, SS JJ Hardy, and RF Corey Hart. When 3B Ryan Braun was called up to replace Craig Counsell in late May, it assembled quite possibly the youngest infield of all time. Adding to that the loss of Carlos Lee and the addition of 31 year-old catcher Johnny Estrada (no matter what his Spring Training SLG), the Brewers looked to be headed to one of those bumpy rebuilding seasons.

It was not so; and the team in Milwaukee has been the surprise of the season. Fielder is putting up MVP numbers while Hardy and Braun are dominating the Rookie of the Year discussions. The pitching staff has been anchored by a healthy Ben Sheets (10-4, 3.39 ERA)- who has not missed a start and is on pace to top 200 IP for the first time since 2004. A rock-solid bullpen has made up for the league average (or worse) performance of the starters not named Sheets. Still, what was once an 8.5 game lead has shrunk to just 3 games after an extra-inning loss to the Reds last night.

Getting larger in the rearview mirror have been the spend-thrift Cubs. After Carlos Zambrano remembered he's in a contract year, the Cubs have gone 29-16 since June 1. Though their lineup has had a revolving door of rookies (with great names such as Felix Pie and Angel Pagan) finding various success, the trio of Soriano, Ramirez, and Derrek Lee have mashed. Inneffective bullpen vets (such as Scott Eyre) have been replaced with oustanding performances from Carlos Marmol (1.82 ERA and 42 K in 36 IP). And the other starters- Marquis, Lilly, and Rich Hill, have been joined by sophomore Sean Marshall to have a rotation well above league average.

With the Cardinals fading fast, the NL Central looks to be a two team race down the stretch. Coolstandings.com has the race as basically a coinflip (or AK v QQ), which reflects the dead-even Pythagorean records the two teams possess. The Brewers and Cubs have just three games left against each other, at Wrigley at the end of August. Each team has the bulk of their games against the Cardinals (11) and Reds (12). In fact, the only difference in the teams' remaining schedules is that the Brewers play eight versus the Braves and Padres, while the Cubs have eight against the Diamondbacks and Dodgers.

The difference, then, is going to be which team finds regression first. Neither team is playing above their heads with regards to their Pythagorean record (the Brewers slightly ahead, the Cubs slightly behind). The Brewers' starting pitchers are more or less performing to their career norms (Suppan and Bush are actually below their league average career ERA+), while the Cubs' starters are more likely to falter- Lilly and Marquis are performing quite a bit above their career norms. The lineup is a different story- the Cubs' top three sluggers are likely to keep it up for the rest of the season, while the rest of the lineup struggles to maintain league average. The Brewers, meanwhile, need to hope that the rest of the NL doesn't figure out how to pitch to all their youngsters, or that the phenoms don't tire during the pressure of a playoff push. Ryan Braun and Corey Hart aren't likely to keep up their hot streaks, and JJ Hardy has (predictably) cooled from his hot start to an OPS+ of just 107.

Each team is far from perfect, and both will look to improve in the final week before the waiver-free trade deadline- the Brewers looking for a starting pitcher (but who isn't), while the Cubs should be looking for an outfield bat. While it would be great for baseball for a very young, very cheap small market team like the Brewers to pull a division win out of nowhere, in the end it's probably best to trust the more expensive team. While there are no illusions that the Cubs are likely to end their 101 year World Series drought, they are a good bet to win the coin flip for the division.

Final Verdict: Cubs over the Brewers by 2 games.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've created yet another playoff race simulator. It only uses the "flip a coin" method (like CoolStandings dumb mode), but it lets you drill down a bit more into the figures:
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