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July 14, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Resetting the Races, National League

by Jay Jaffe

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It's a phenomenon more familiar to the AL East, but right now, the most burning question regarding the NL East is in what order the top two teams will finish en route to the postseason. The Phillies (57-34) lead the Braves (54-38) by 3.5 games; the Braves in turn are eight games ahead of the Mets, and lead all wild-card contenders by at least five games. The two teams hold the distinction of having most improved their Playoff Odds since our pre-season PECOTA projections. The All-Star break, of course, makes for a convenient time to re-evaluate the races relative to those forecasts, but unlike years past, this isn't quite as straightforward an exercise as it might seem. The new, consolidated version of our Playoff Odds report uses a blend of PECOTA and third-order winning percentages in its rest-of-season Monte Carlo simulation, instead of one or the other in two distinct reports; to some extent, our forecasting system is being double-counted. Still, we can get a good feel for the extent to which teams have helped or hurt themselves relative to expectations since the beginning of the season.

Team

Act

Exp

Div

WC

Total

Proj

+/-

Braves

.587

.560

26.0%

60.8%

86.8%

45.3%

41.5%

Phillies

.626

.558

73.7%

23.4%

97.1%

59.4%

37.7%

Giants

.565

.531

94.6%

0.5%

95.1%

68.5%

26.6%

Cardinals

.533

.541

48.0%

3.7%

51.8%

43.1%

8.7%

Brewers

.533

.530

41.3%

3.1%

44.5%

39.4%

5.1%

Diamondbacks

.533

.466

3.2%

2.1%

5.3%

1.3%

4.0%

Pirates

.522

.430

2.4%

0.3%

2.8%

0.9%

1.9%

Astros

.326

.406

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

0.1%

-0.1%

Nationals

.500

.436

0.0%

0.1%

0.1%

0.3%

-0.2%

Padres

.435

.487

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

6.7%

-6.7%

Mets

.505

.470

0.2%

1.9%

2.1%

9.6%

-7.5%

Cubs

.402

.476

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

13.1%

-13.1%

Reds

.489

.519

8.2%

1.1%

9.3%

22.6%

-13.3%

Rockies

.473

.535

1.7%

1.4%

3.2%

18.2%

-15.0%

Marlins

.473

.516

0.1%

1.0%

1.1%

25.9%

-24.8%

Dodgers

.446

.482

0.5%

0.4%

0.8%

45.4%

-44.6%

A quick key: Act and Exp are a team's actual winning percentages to date and expected winning percentage going forward, the latter using PECOTA and third-order winning percentage. Div, WC, and Total are a team's chances of winning the division and wild-card races and the sum of those odds. Proj is the PECOTA-based estimate of the team's preseason chances of making the playoffs, +/- the amount by which their total odds have changed.

Biggest Gainers
The biggest winners relative to their projections are the Braves, who thanks to their wild-card lead have nearly doubled their chances of playing into October for the second straight season after a four-year absence from the scene. With the likes of Dan Uggla and Jason Heyward struggling, their subpar offense is eking out just 3.97 runs per game, ninth in the league, but their pitching staff is holding opponents to 3.39 runs per game, second only to the Phillies, with Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson leading from the front, and Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters nailing things down things at the back end.

Meanwhile, the Phillies have gone from mere division favorites to virtual post-season locks. Though the return of Chase Utley has helped, these Phils are a far cry from 2008-2009 offensive juggernaut, ranking just seventh in scoring. Led by Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels—the injured Roy Oswalt has been another matter—they're the league's stingiest team, allowing just 3.24 runs per game.

The defending world champion Giants, who came into the season projected as the league's top team are in a similar boat as far as solidifying their post-season chances. Like the aforementioned NL East teams, an outstanding pitching staff (3.50 runs per game allowed, third) has papered over an underwhelming offense (3.61 runs per game, 15th) reeling from the loss of Buster Posey and a terminal bat fungus that has overtaken 2010 heroes Aubrey Huff and Andres Torres as well as over-the-hill free-agent addition Miguel Tejada.

Holding Steady
NL Central co-leaders St. Louis and Milwaukee don't belong in the class above, but both have incrementally improved their already solid shots at the playoffs, even if they're clearly in a winner-take-all situation, with no real shot at the wild card. The Cardinals have ridden the hot bats of Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday while overcoming subpar first halves from Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter, early-season bullpen tumult, and the loss of Adam Wainwright to Tommy John surgery. The Brewers are contending despite a subpar first half by Zack Greinke (5.45 ERA in just 13 starts) who, along with Shaun Marcum, was brought in as part of a big gamble to push for a playoff bid in what's likely Prince Fielder's final season in Cream City.

Not So Fast
Although the Diamondbacks and Pirates are enjoying surprisingly strong seasons, the odds of either making the postseason don't look too hot. The Snakes are just three games behind the Giants and have virtually the same run differential (+9 to the Giants' +10), but PECOTA isn't convinced they can keep up, largely due to the projected difference between the two teams' rotations; with all due respect to Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson, you'd bet on the staff headed by Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, too. The Pirates are a game out of first place and four games over .500, giving them a legitimate shot to end the misery of 18 consecutive losing seasons, but the staff with the league's lowest strikeout rate has regression in store; PECOTA foresees rest-of-season ERAs in the mid-to-high 4.00s for Kevin Correia, Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton, and Paul Maholm.

Biggest Losers
It's crowded atop the Central, which significantly lessens the likelihood that the defending champion Reds—whose pitching depth has been sorely tested by injuries and ineffectiveness—can repeat, particularly if they continue allowing 4.43 runs per game, the league's fourth-highest rate. The Cubs, who looked like they might be a sleeper team in the spring, have flatlined completely thanks to a pitching staff allowing 4.99 runs per game.

Having lost Jorge De La Rosa for the year and seen the likes of Ubaldo Jimenez, Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler, and even Troy Tulowitzki fail to live up to their 2010 showing, the Rockies came into the break having lost 11 of 16. Not only are they five games under .500, they haven't been more than a game above the mark since May 24.

None of those teams' falls from contention compares to the plights of the Marlins or the Dodgers. The Fish have been without ace Josh Johnson since May 16, and without superstar Hanley Ramirez all year, instead playing an imposter who has hit .242/.337/.370. Last month they fired manager Edwin Rodriguez and disinterred Jack McKeon, who's 80 years old and hasn't managed since 2005. However, the saddest tale of woe belongs to the Dodgers, who haven't seen .500 since May 2. Aside from ownership woes that have culminated in a bankruptcy filing, they've been decimated by injuries to both the pitching staff (particularly the bullpen) and the lineup, while ill-considered free-agent signings such as Juan Uribe, Rod Barajas, and Tony Gwynn, Jr. couldn't hit water after falling out of a boat. Magically, all of their problems were solved on Tuesday with the acquisition of Juan Rivera, so look out, senior circuit.

  A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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