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September 9, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

Race to the Top

by Marc Normandin

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While no one could decide on the second-place team in the National League Central, it was expected that the St. Louis Cardinals would come away with the division crown when the season began. Heading into Wednesday night's action, the Cards find themselves six games back of the surprise Cincinnati Reds with playoff odds that look better from a wild card point of view than that of division champs. How did the Reds, who were not universally loved, end up with such a commanding lead this late in the season, while the expected favorites sit so very far behind?

If the Reds do one thing exceptionally, it is hit. They rank second in the NL (and fifth in the majors) in True Average, behind only the Milwaukee Brewers. Thanks to a lineup powered by a resurgent Scott Rolen (.306 TAv), Brandon Phillips (.273), Jay Bruce (.282), surprising work at catcher by Ramon Hernandez (.281) and Ryan Hanigan (.291), and of course, Most Valuable Player candidate Joey Votto, who leads the NL in TAv at .341, the Reds have managed to work their way into first place—and stay there—for much of the season. This is the one place where they legitimately stand out amongst the rest of the playoff competition in the NL, and thanks to Paul Janish (.268 TAv) they have even managed to fill in the one hole they had in shortstop Orlando Cabrera, who was much closer to replacement level on the year.

Their bullpen is a different story—having Aroldis Chapman and his record-setting velocity has been a godsend for the pen, but that's a recent development. Before Chapman, their bullpen was very average. It ranks 12th in the majors in WXRL, mostly on the strength of Nick Masset (2.5), Arthur Rhodes (1.9), and Francisco Cordero (1.7). After that you're looking at a bunch of relievers who aren't much better than replacement level, though, so that triumvirate has carried the load.

The defense has helped make the starting pitching look better than it is (more on that in a bit) as it ranks fifth in the majors in Defensive Efficiency. For a team that plays in a hitter's park, this is a significant development, as that gives its pitching staff an advantage over the opposition in addition to the extra damage its already powerful lineup can do. There is a reason the Reds are 41-27 at home this year, more than half of their win total.

As for the rotation: it's not that it's bad, it's just that it's been helped along by a few factors. The defense, as mentioned, has provided a huge boost. The most significant factor, though, is the quality of competition that the team has faced. Amongst NL pitchers with 100 innings pitched, Bronson Arroyo has faced the fourth-easiest lineups via quality of opponent OPS. Aaron Harang ranks sixth (not that it's done much to help his season), Mike Leake is seventh, and Johnny Cueto rounds out the top 25. Homer Bailey and Travis Wood have had it a bit tougher (the second-half schedule for the Reds, though not difficult, was more menacing than the pillow-soft first half) but they haven't faced the stiffest competition, either. This has allowed the rotation as a whole, which is made up of average-or-better starters, to tear through the NL. Looking at TAv from an opponent’s perspective, the Reds have had an easier time of it than any other team in the NL—that's part of the reason why their third-order standings have them with five extra wins they shouldn't have right now.

Even if those wins were taken away though, they rank ahead of the Cardinals. Via third-order standings, the Reds should be 74-64, while the Cards should sit in second at 71-65—that's just one fewer win than the Cardinals actually have, meaning their record is right where it should be given their production in 2010. How is that the Cardinals, the favorites for the division, are right where they should be in the standings when that place is not first?

Injuries to the rotation have been a problem, as Kyle Lohse has thrown just 65 2/3 innings this season while putting up an ERA of 7.10 in that span. That's just slightly worse than his performance over the past two years for the Cards, where he managed an ERA of 4.14 over the course of 317 2/3 innings pitched. Brad Penny has 55 2/3 innings under his belt, though he fared better than Lohse with a 3.23 ERA—the absence (and in Lohse's case, poor production) of these two opened up a void in the rotation that was filled by a reliever, Blake Hawksworth, and by Jeff Suppan, who has been such a poor pitcher the past few seasons that even the Brewers noticed.

One of these holes was filled with the acquisition of Jake Westbrook at the trade deadline, but by then the Cardinals had already lost ground they couldn't get back. It also doesn't help that St. Louis was forced to deal outfielder Ryan Ludwick (who still ranks fifth on the club in equivalent runs, despite a DL stint and his being dealt at the end of July) in order to acquire pitching help—this at a time when fans and the local media expected the Cardinals to acquire a bat to help in the lineup. Throw in an injury to David Freese that put him on the 60-day DL when he was hitting .296/.361/.404, and it's easy to see why the Cardinals lineup sits close to the league average despite the presence of Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday.

By now you have heard of the problems between future star Colby Rasmus and manager Tony La Russa. Part of the reason for that "future" label is that he hasn't been allowed to become the star he is now: Rasmus ranks third on the Cardinals in equivalent runs and fourth in True Average (behind small sample size and BABIP-fueled Jon Jay on the latter) despite just 429 plate appearances. Conversely, the other two sluggers on the club, Pujols and Holliday, have 598 and 549 plate appearances respectively. The feud is more public now, but any fantasy owner with Rasmus on his team can tell you he's been in and out of the lineup all year despite production. He ranks fourth amongst all center fielders in TAv, behind Carlos Gonzalez, Andres Torres, and Torii Hunter, yet he's 16th in equivalent runs due to playing time limitations—that slots him between Michael Bourn and Franklin Gutierrez, two far less impressive names than the company he keeps on a rate basis.

A team dealing with injuries is already at a disadvantage, especially when the replacements are relievers that are stretched out into starters or someone like Suppan, who was cut by a team that couldn't seem to put together its own pitching staff. Trading Ludwick and not playing the players who increase the odds of winning the most as often as possible are two things a team cannot afford to do when they are already behind. With the Reds playing good baseball and getting an assist from a soft schedule at the same time the Cardinals have had tough luck with injuries and questionable moves by the front office and manager, it's easy to see why the standings are the way they stand today, rather than the way they were expected to be.

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