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May 18, 2010

Expanded Horizons

The Unlikely First-Place Teams

by Tommy Bennett

Back on April 4, when many of our writers made their staff predictions, not one person picked either the San Diego Padres or the Cincinnati Reds to win their division. The average ranking for the Reds put them fourth in the six-team National League Central, while the average Padres' ranking had them finishing last in the five-team NL West. The Reds did appear as high as second on a few ballots, but the Padres ranked dead last on every single one.

As of the end of play on Sunday, both teams stand atop their respective divisions. The Padres remain a half-game ahead of the Giants, despite being swept in a three-game series by the Dodgers. The Reds, meanwhile, capitalized on a sliding Cardinals team by going 8-2 in their last 10 to put them in first by a half-game. How likely are these two improbable division leaders to maintain their early success?

First, a disclaimer is in order. Before we go reading too much into the standings in mid-May, at the same point last season, the Blue Jays were three games up in the American League East, the Mets were in first place in the NL East, and the Royals were playing above .500. Nevertheless, the games played so far really count, and the difference in the standings has to be determined on the field. Whatever we might say about a team's true talent or regression to the mean (as people ‘round these parts have been known to do), wins earned in April remain on the ledger in September.

Like Noble Cincinnatus, They Accept First Place Only Reluctantly

Our analysis of team performance, as is traditional, begins with Pythagoras. Currently, the Reds' Pythagorean record is 17-20 (three games worse than their actual record), while their Pythagenpat record has them just fractional games below .500. Their third-order projection is 18-19, which suggests that the Reds have been about a .500-quality team so far. That may be strong enough to hang tough with the Cardinals for a while, but PECOTA saw the Cardinals as a 93-win team before the season, and Redleg fans should hope their home nine can put some additional daylight between them and the Cardinals.

How about individual performances? According to Sean Smith’s batting runs above replacement, recently added to Baseball-Reference, Reds hitting has been 11 runs below average so far this season. The combined efforts of Joey Votto and Ryan Hanigan (who has hit a surprising .368/.478/.561 in 69 plate appearances) have given the Reds 17 runs above average, but have been completely swamped by the poor offensive performances of Drew Stubbs, Miguel Cairo, Chris Dickerson, and Orlando Cabrera, who have collectively been 21 runs below average.

The pitching and defense have not been significantly better. The defense ranks 16th (slightly below average) in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (PADE), a measure of the rate at which the Reds have converted balls in play into outs. So far, the standout pitcher has been rookie phenom and 2009 first-rounder Mike Leake, who has put up a nifty 4-0 record and a 3.09 ERA. The peripherals, though, suggest some caution: Leake has just a 33/20 K/BB ratio in 46 2/3 innings, though he has induced grounders in over half of all plate appearances. His .245 BABIP is tough to accord with the Reds' average defense, particularly in light of his ground-ball tendencies. His 4.23 SIERA is much closer to what we can expect going forward.

Were it not for outcomes on balls in play as miserable as Leake’s have been good, people would be talking about Aaron Harang’s comeback year. The 32-year-old has a 3.75 K/BB ratio and an uncharacteristically high ground-ball percentage despite his 6.02 ERA. The combination has conspired to give Harang a 3.51 SIERA. The rest of the rotation has clustered around league average, with decent efforts from Johnny Cueto (3.94 SIERA) and Homer Bailey (4.26).

Taken together, these elements suggest that the Reds are a slightly pitching-heavy squad with some holes in their lineup and a mix of over- and under-performers in the rotation. If that sounds like the description of a team that goes .500 the rest of the way, it’s because that’s what it is most likely to be. Even that would put the Reds at 84-78, which would be the team’s best finish since 2000 and could give them a chance at the playoffs. If Brandon Phillips can rebound a little bit, and Jay Bruce can complete the Feats of Strength to appease the BABIP gods, no one should be surprised to see meaningful baseball in Cincinnati this September.

Like the Mendicant Orders, They Live Off the Balls in Play of Others

The Padres have simultaneously surprised more people with their hot start and justified believing in it more than the Reds. Their 22-15 Pythagorean record is two wins better than their actual record, and their third-order results are slightly better still. Like many surprising teams (most recently the 2008 Rays), the Padres have played excellent defense. They rank third in the majors in PADE, and have converted 73 percent of balls in play into outs. By UZR, they have been remarkably good at center (where Tony Gwynn, Jr. and Scott Hairston have both been above average), second base (David Eckstein), third base (Chase Headley), first base (Adrian Gonzalez), and shortstop (Everth Cabrera). Their only truly below-average performer so far has been Kyle Blanks in left field, but even he has not been as brutal as his worst plays can make him seem.

The pitching, while good, has certainly benefited from the strong defense. Mat Latos, only recently a touted prospect, has quickly become the most effective starter on the staff. His last start was a shutout in which he allowed just one hit (on an extremely close play at first, albeit to the slow-footed Eli Whiteside), didn’t walk any batters, and struck out six. His control is excellent, and many expect better strikeout numbers as he becomes more comfortable pitching in the majors.

Two other starters, Kevin Correia (26) and Wade LeBlanc (25), have also performed quite well, although their success is more likely attributable to the strong defense behind them and the favorable home park. Each has a higher ERA on the road than at home, and both have SIERAs higher than their ERAs: Correia’s is 3.67 and LeBlanc’s is 4.19. Those are both still useful starters, and as long as Jon Garland can continue to belly-up to the innings buffet, the Padres should have no problem preventing runs. Together, the pitching and defense have led the Padres to allow just 2.97 runs per game, a mark that has them on pace to allow fewer than 500 runs. Wouldn’t that be a fancy—if extremely unlikely—trick?

There is one pretty weird thing about the Padres’ pitching. They have the fewest hit batsmen (3) of any pitching staff in baseball (the median team has 11). It’s not much, but it does demonstrate one way in which the Padres have been good in an unconventional way. They are also an above-average base-running team, and they rank ninth in the majors in Equivalent Base Running Runs (EqBRR). Their efforts on the basepaths are led by Will Venable (1.8 EqBRR), Headley (1.2), and Gwynn (1.0). If Cabrera can become a little smarter in his stolen-base opportunities, he has the legs to end up helping the Padres even more in the EqBRR department (he was 73-for-89 in 2008 at low-A Asheville).

Granted, the offense is otherwise pretty mediocre. Even Adrian Gonzalez, who leads the team in batting runs (7), has been off so far. His .250/.366/.445 line so far would bode poorly for what the Padres could get for him in trade, only now it looks like they might not trade him at all, given their hot start. Blanks (.162/.284/.333) hasn’t come close to matching expectations, but drop 100 points of batting average on him and things start to look significantly better. The rest of the team lives in the doldrums between 600 and 725 OPS, which is no great shakes even after you adjust for the home park.

As long as the Padres can keep playing good defense, they have a real shot at winning the NL West. The Dodgers look weak after a lackadaisical offseason, and if you believe the Giants will continue to score 4.4 runs per game, I’ve got a San Francisco treat for you. The Rockies may pose the biggest threat to the Friars, but the Padres have so far played well enough to earn their top spot.

Question of the Day

 Which of these two teams would you be more surprised to win its division? Is your answer different today than it was before the start of the season? If so, what have you seen so far that led you to change your mind?  

Related Content:  The Who,  Padres

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