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August 6, 2002

The Daily Prospectus

Eight Teams, Two Spots, One Column

by Joe Sheehan

This could be fun.

As of Tuesday morning, eight National League teams are separated by 6 1/2 games, and fighting for two playoff spots.

Dodgers       62-50   .554   --
Giants        61-50   .550   .5
Cardinals*    59-49   .546  1.0
Reds          58-52   .527  3.0
Astros        57-53   .518  4.0
Marlins       55-56   .495  6.5
Mets          55-56   .495  6.5
Expos         55-56   .495  6.5

The Cardinals currently lead the NL Central (despite a five-game losing streak). One NL Central team in this mess is guaranteed a playoff spot via the division title. The other seven will scramble for the wild card, unless the Diamondbacks come back to the pack in the NL West.

Are these standings reflective of team performance to date? On his ESPN.com Web page, Rob Neyer calculates the current Pythagorean standings, which are based on runs scored and allowed. If we re-order the teams that way, how do they rate? 

Giants        67-44
Cardinals*    58-50
Astros        59-51
Dodgers       59-53
Reds          56-54
Mets          56-55
Marlins       53-58
Expos         52-59

The Giants should be running away with the NL wild-card slot, with one of the best Pythagorean records in the game. They're not. The first place you would normally look is their record in one-run games, but they're actually 18-16 in those contests. A bad bullpen can sometimes be a culprit, but the Giants' pen ranks third in the National League in Adjusted Runs Prevented.

I had to know more, so I took a deeper look. Here are the Giants' records by margin: 

Margin    Record

1          18-16
2           8-11
3            7-6
4            6-9
5            6-4
6            2-2
7            5-1
8            4-0
9            2-0
10+          3-1

The Giants have lost just one game by more than seven runs all season. They've lost just four games by more than five runs all season. That's in part a park effect--Pac Bell depresses run scoring, making blowouts harder to come by--but it is also a tribute to the Giants' offense and the work they've gotten from their bullpen. Their Pythagorean record isn't separated from their actual record because they've gotten unlucky in close games, but because when they've played blowouts, they've almost always been on the good side. 14-2 in games decided by more than six runs creates an excellent run differential while only counting for 14-2 in the standings.

Is this unusual? I think so; even the best teams in baseball get hammered every now and then. The Yankees and Red Sox both got racked by the Texas Rangers last week. The Yankees are 14-6 in games decided by seven or more runs, the Sox 14-3. The Diamondbacks are 10-4 in seven-plus-run games. Of the best teams in the game, only the Braves, 9-2 in such games, have as few losses in this category as the Giants do.

The Astros are the other team that looks better by Pythagorean record than they do by actual, moving from third in the NL Central to first. They were repeating their 2000 campaign earlier this year, losing one-run game after one-run game. On June 9, the Astros came back from a 6-1 deficit to tie the game in the top of the eighth, only to watch Octavio Dotel give up a run in bottom of the inning for the loss. At that point, they were 26-35 overall, with a 3-12 record in one-run games.

Since then, the Astros are 31-18, with a 10-3 record in one-run games. Dotel, who was arguably the team's MVP last year, has been a huge part of that, allowing three runs in 31 innings since losing that game. The Astros have put together the turnaround they weren't able to make in 2000, when they finished 15-31 in one-run games on their way to a 72-90 season.

What does all this mean for the two playoff spots? The eight teams that can lay claim to spots in this race divide neatly into halves, the contenders (Giants, Astros, Cardinals, Dodgers) and the pretenders (Reds, Mets, Expos, Marlins). The two teams that helped themselves the most by the trade deadline were the Giants and Cardinals, while the Expos and Marlins went the other way, shedding talent in July despite being part of the playoff picture. The Mets, Reds and Dodgers all made minor moves that won't impact their hopes of playing into October, and the Astros watched the meat market from the sidelines and made their improvements--like adding Kirk Saarloos--from within.

While it's nominally an eight-team race, and I would love to see some 1967 American League-type scramble to the finish line, the fact is, three of these teams are clearly better than the others. The big question is whether the Cardinals can sort through their rotation problems in time to hold off the Astros, and if they can't, whether they can edge past the Giants to grasp the wild card.

I'm predicting that they will win the Central, even carrying some significant dead weight in the lineup. The Scott Rolen trade and Edgar Renteria's apparent willingness to finally make the true believers on our staff look good will be the difference-makers down the stretch.

I also like the Astros to hold on for the wild card, as Jeff Bagwell pushes an 1100 OPS in the last two months and Richard Hidalgo justifies his contract. If they make October, the Astros could be the only playoff team to start pitchers they drafted and developed in the first three games of the Division Series. (Saarloos, Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller).

As for the Giants... I would love to see Barry Bonds get a chance to go crazy in October. Unfortunately, the rotation outside of Jason Schmidt is a bit scary, with no one sporting a respectable strikeout rate, and the chances of a late-summer collapse are unacceptably high. That 14-2 record in blowouts is nice, but Kirk Rueter and company have some poundings coming, and that will be what allows two NL Central teams into the playoffs again this year.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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