The Cardinals as a team were overdue for such an outburst; after homering 28 times in April (tied for second in the league), they'd hit just 15 in May, at one point going nine games without a dinger, their longest drought since 2007. On Memorial Day, the Redbirds beat the Reds 12-4, moving back into a tie in the NL Central, though they turned around and lost on Tuesday night to slip one game back again.
The Central wasn't even supposed to be a race. At the outset of the year, PECOTA forecast the Cardinals to win the division going away; the nine-game cushion between their 88-74 projection and that of the next closest team (the Astros) was the largest in the majors. Houston (79-83), Chicago (78-84), Milwaukee (78-84), and Cincinnati (77-85) were projected to wind up in a four-team pileup en route to the right to call themselves the sub-.500 runners up to the Cards. The Astros have been ghastly, the Brewers brutal and the Cubs decidedly mediocre, but the Reds came into St. Louis with a 30-21 record, their best start since 2004. Just what in the name of Tony and Dusty is going on here?
Despite going just 12-15 since May 3, the Cardinals' overall .566 winning percentage and .591 Hit List Factor aren't much to complain about, at least beyond the fact that they're slightly underplaying their Pythagenpat record. The offense may appear to be a little light, as they're scoring just 4.5 runs per game, ninth in the league. That's partly a product of their ballpark; they're actually fifth in True Average at .266, third in batting average (.265), fourth in OBP (.341), and sixth in slugging percentage (.412), a few points better than where PECOTA said they'd be (.263/.335/.408). Furthermore, the Cardinals are above the league average when it comes to hitting with runners in scoring position, and in high-leverage situations. The offense's most glaring weakness is baserunning; the team is 29th in the majors in EqBRR at -7.5 runs, mostly due to bad results on stolen bases (they're -4.9 runs on 29/44 stealing) and hit advancement runs (-2.4); in last Wednesday's extra innings loss to the Padres, the Cards had two runners thrown out at third and two more at home.
For a team whose offense has separated into a mixture of stars and scrubs all too often in recent years, the Cards can boast a fairly balanced attack. Pujols, despite his temporary power outage, is hitting .318/.430/.569, good for a .345 True Average, second-best in the league. Youngsters Colby Rasmus (.312 TAv) and David Freese (.307) both rank among the NL's top 20, while Ryan Ludwick and Matt Holliday (both .300) are hardly shaming themselves, even as they too struggled to hit the ball out of the park last month. As Christina Kahrl pointed out, the main problem with their lineup basically boils down to the middle infield, where the mediocrity of Skip Schumaker (.237) and the wretchedness of Brendan Ryan (.209) have at least been somewhat offset by supersub Felipe Lopez (.296), who left last night's game with a bruised thumb.
On the other side of the ball, the Cardinals' pitching has been outstanding. The team is allowing just 3.6 runs per game, third in the league, and one-third of a run better than the fourth-place team, the Rockies. The rotation's 8.6 SNLVAR is third in the league, with Adam Wainwright and rookie surprise Jaime Garcia ranking in the league's top five, offsetting Chris Carpenter's slide from last year's number three ranking to a still-respectable 19th. Garcia's been a revelation, a 23-year-old rookie whose microscopic 1.32 ERA is second only to Ubaldo Jimenez's 0.78, and whose .687 Support Neutral Winning Percentage ranks third behind Jimenez and Roy Halladay. Before suffering a strained lat, fourth starter Brad Penny (.534 SNWP, 3.23 ERA) had done good work as well; only Kyle Lohse (.360 SNWP, 5.89 ERA) has been a drag, and he's since gone under the knife to alleviate compartment syndrome. Neither Adam Ottavino nor P.J. Walters has impressed in their few turns patching the rotation, which rates a concern. While it's not beyond either to prove serviceable, the team will likely need a reinforcement from outside the organization unless at least one of the two injured starters (more likely Penny) returns in a timely fashion.
Meanwhile, the bullpen's 3.3 WXRL is a solid fifth. Closer Ryan Franklin has built upon last season's surprisingly strong showing to lead the league in WXRL (2.5), lefties Trever Miller and Dennys Reyes are both in the top 40 (though the latter tumbled about 10 places due to last night's misadventures), and righties Jason Motte and Kyle McClellan have both provided a pair of solid right-handed set-up options. Mitchell Boggs and Blake Hawksworth have been stashed in low-leverage spots, limiting the amount of damage their sub-replacement performances have provided. The Cardinals haven't lost a single game they've led after seven innings, and they're a strong 22-2 when leading after five.
The close race in the Central has less to do with St. Louis falling short of their mark-they haven't, except in terms of their expected cushion-than it does with the Reds playing much better than expected. Projected to rank 11th in the league in scoring on .255/.325/.403 hitting, they're instead leading the league in runs per game (5.2), all three triple-slash categories (.277/.348/462) and home runs (70). Not all of that is a park effect, either; their .280 True Average is second in the league.
The Reds are getting impressive balance throughout their lineup. Joey Votto (.331 TAv) is sixth in the league in True Average. Scott Rolen (.305) was enjoying a resurgence even before last night's two homers, Jonny Gomes (.304) has picked up where he left off last year as a low-cost source of platoon-based pop, Jay Bruce (.296) is finally living up to his top prospect billing, Brandon Phillips (.285) is again providing above-average offense from the middle infield, and the catching tandem of Ramon Hernandez (.301) and Ryan Hanigan (.348) has been unusually productive, though the latter broke his thumb last week. Even leadoff hitter Drew Stubbs, who was batting .174/.267/.283 when he was deposed from the leadoff spot on May 7, is up to .272 thanks to a strong stretch.
Indeed, the only aspect of Dusty Baker's lineup one can consistently find fault with thus far-as opposed to the godawful temporary measure of using Miguel Cairo as the first baseman and number two hitter while Votto sat with a neck strain, is that leadoff spot. Between Stubbs, replacement Orlando Cabrera, and the injured Chris Dickerson, the Reds have gotten just a .229/.296/.318 performance from their leadoff hitters, for the third-lowest OPS in the NL from that slot. This is not a new problem, of course; the Reds were dead last in 2009 (.254/.302/.348) due to Baker's stubborn insistence upon leading off with Willy Taveras and then Stubbs for most of the year. The manager deserves some credit for getting Stubbs out of the top spot before Memorial Day rather than letting him fester all summer, though Cabrera, who has a career .321 OBP, is hardly an appealing alternative.
The Reds' pitching has been another story; the team is on top despite them, not because of them. The rotation is just 11th in the league with 4.6 SNLVAR, nearly four wins behind the Cardinals. Rookie Mike Leake has been everything the team could have hoped for, with a 2.45 ERA, a 55.2 GB%, and nine quality starts out of 10. He ranks among the league's top 20 in SNLVAR. Johnny Cueto, who rode a streak of five straight quality starts into last night, ranks 33rd, but they're the only two starters who have Support-Neutral Winning Percentages above .500. Bronson Arroyo (.476 SNWP, 4.92 ERA) is now striking out just 4.8 per nine; both that and his walk rate (3.4 per nine) are his worst since his days as a Pirate (2000-2002). Aaron Harang (.420 SNWP, 5.48 ERA) has been even less effective due to gopher problems (1.5 HR/9). Homer Bailey (.433, 5.51 ERA) has put up numbers bearing much more resemblance to the whole of his thus-far-disappointing career than to the late-2009 surge (a 1.70 ERA over his final nine starts) which had observers hoping he'd finally turned the corner. As a unit, the starters aren't missing enough bats (6.5 per nine, 11th in the league) and are yielding too many long balls (1.0 per nine, 13th). The latter's something of an occupational hazard, given that Great American Ball Park has been the majors' second-easiest place to homer this year on a per-plate appearance basis (3.5 percent).
The bullpen's been nothing to write home about, either, ranking ninth in WXRL. Their pièce de resistance was blowing a six-run ninth-inning lead a couple of weeks ago, capped by Francisco Cordero serving up a walkoff grand slam to the Braves' Brooks Conrad. They're 24-2 when leading after seven innings, but that's the kind of loss that leaves a mark; Cordero ranks just 33rd in WXRL (0.6), which looks even worse when the only Reds reliever above him is ageless Arthur Rhodes (1.9). Their highest-leverage righty set-up man, Nick Masset, is below replacement level (-0.3 WXRL, 7.87 FRA), while Micah Owings and the lower-leverage Mike Lincoln are only whiskers above. Where the hell is David Weathers when you need him?
To be fair, the Reds' staff has been better lately, that blown six-run lead notwithstanding, putting up a 3.84 ERA in May after a 5.41 mark in April. The starters were especially good last month, with a 3.18 ERA and 20 quality starts out of 29, with rookie Sam LeCure providing one in his major-league debut on May 28 in place of Bailey, who's on the DL due to shoulder inflammation. He's fifth-starter fodder, but the Reds do have higher-upside reinforcements available. Edinson Volquez is simultaneously working his way back from Tommy John surgery and serving a 50-game suspension for PED usage; one can rail against the absurdity of the latter, but for a team in contention, this counts as a major break. He could be back around the All-Star break.
Meanwhile, lefties Travis Wood and Aroldis Chapman, both of whom spent March challenging Leake for the fifth spot, are at Triple-A. Wood, a three-star prospect, has a 4.19 ERA and a 60-17 K/BB ratio in 62
The elephant in the room, of course, is Baker, and particularly his reputation in handling young arms. His track record lends itself to cautionary tales told around campfires as well as ready-made satire, but even if one discounts the career arcs of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior as ancient history, he's already left his mark on this staff. Harang's ERA since his four-inning May 22, 2008 relief stint is a bulky 4.93, compared to 4.10 prior, yet he's still ranked among the majors' top 20 in Pitcher Abuse Points in each of the past three years. Volquez ranked 17th in PAP in his first season in the rotation, then wound up needing TJS after just nine starts last year. Cueto was pushed hard last summer while battling shoulder inflammation, and put up a 7.05 ERA after July 1.
While the Reds are currently second in the league in pitches per start (101.3), they're just eighth in PAP after ranking fourth last year. None of the starters have thrown a Category 4 start (122-132 pitches), but Bailey (121 pitches on May 1), Harang (121 on May 8) and Cueto (118 on May 5) have all come close. Whether Bailey's long outing and his injury are connected is unknown, though the pitcher vocally defended his skipper upon hitting the DL.
The Reds have an impressive aggregation of young talent, but they don't have a battle-tested team the way the Cardinals do. In order to hang with the big boys, they'll need this latest burst of strong pitching to keep up in some way, shape or form, and they're particularly going to need Baker to handle his young starters with sensitivity, a notion that conjures up visions of a fox licking his chops as he fires up a barbecue outside a henhouse. That in turn will likely require general manager Walt Jocketty to keep a close eye on Baker's handling of the staff, particularly when it comes to protecting the 22-year-old Leake, who's throwing less than 15 pitches per inning, but will nonetheless face an innings limit somewhere down the line. Having Volquez, Wood, and/or Chapman in the mix by season's end should help that, but the Reds will need their share of breaks for that even to matter.
As for the Cardinals, they're coming off a frustrating month, but aside from needing a rotation patch and a bit more production from their middle infielders, they're in pretty good shape. That they're being challenged for Central supremacy is a surprise, but in the end, the smart money's still on them.