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NL Central Race

With the Astros reaching the .500 mark, only 4.5 games out of 1st place, maybe I can discuss the NL Central race.  I can't really predict at this point whether the Astros can contend for the NL Central title.  But the Astros' sweep of the Brewers triggers the fan enthusiasm in me and allows me to have some hope.  But I have to temper that enthusiasm, knowing that I guessed before the season began that the Astros would be a .500 team --- and the team stands exactly at that point now.  And we know that few, if any, media analysts predicted that the Astros could compete for the NL Central.

One of the reasons that Astros' fans could hold on to a glimmer of hope is the assumption that the NL Central is fairly evenly balanced...and, well, not very good.  One could imagine, or at least hope for, a scenario in which several NL Central teams are in contention and beat each other up, allowing a team like the Astros to sneak into the playoffs with something like a 86 win record.  Maybe it's a low probability scenario but fans like to have such possibilities in order to keep the faith.

The NL Central race, as predicted, involves several teams so far. The surprising Cardinals hold the lead, with the Cubs and Brewers behind St. Louis, followed by the Astros.  The Cubs and Brewers were expected to be front runners.  But the Cardinals are streaking with a 21-12 record, which is the best in the majors, as I write this article.  The Cardinals have used terrific pitching and a league leading OBP to open a nice 2.5 game lead over the Cubs.  Does this surprise me?  Yes.  I was one of many people who felt that the Cards' starting pitching and non-Pujols offense would bury the team. My initial reaction is that the Cardinals are playing way over their head and will come back to earth.  The Cardinals had a relatively weak schedule in April, and one can imagine the Cardinals running into slumps down the road.

But this article in Hardball Times gives me pause with that conclusion.  The author  looks at the history of teams which had an April record similar to the Cardinals and makes the case that such teams generally continue to have a strong showing for the remainder of the year.  He suggests that the 1996 Padres, whom ended up winning the NL West with 91 wins, are comparable to the Cardinals. (Is the author a Cardinals' fan? I don't know.)  Despite this nice historical accounting, I still hold my reservations about the Cardinals.  I wouldn't be surprised if the Cards stay in contention for much of the season, but I have some doubts about their ability to remain the leader over the long term.  As long as the Cards don't run away with the race, it's a good thing that they are in contention, if you subscribe to the "NL Central teams will beat each other up" theory.

The Astros' offense started the season very slowly, but has picked up the pace recently.  The offense still has some issues--a very low OBP and walk rate may lead the list--but I am optimistic because I believe that the offense has room to improve and is likely to do so.  The pitching was the big question mark coming into the season.  And I think the Astros chances to contend will depend on what the pitching does in the future.

The Astros starters' ERA is 4.76 so far, which is nearly the same as last year.  Although we think of the bullpen as a shaky part of the team, the bullpen's overall ERA so far is 3.86, which is significantly better than last year.  Shawn Chacon and Wesley Wright have been pleasant surprises in the rotation and bullpen, respectively.  I like Chacon--I suggested signing him before he was signed--but I wouldn't be surprised if his ERA doesn't creep up.  His current ERA+ is 125.  His career ERA+ is 97; his ERA+ last year was 110.  What do the odds tell you on that?  But I also expect substantial improvement in Roy Oswalt's ERA in the future too, for much the same reason (Roy's current ERA+ is 74 and his career ERA+ is 139).

One way of looking at which starters are over- or under-performing is to compare their Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) results to their actual ERA.  The FIP is based on factors which are most completely influenced by the pitcher's skill,  like strike outs, walks, and home runs.  It's not a foolproof way of evaluating pitcher performance, but it sometimes gives you an idea of who might be getting better or worse results than expected from their performance.

Wandy, Chacon, and Backe all have ERAs better than their FIP, which might indicate that they got better actual results than they "should" have.  I'm not that concerned about Wandy's and Chacon's FIP, because their FIP is still reasonable (3.23 for Wandy and 4.16 for Chacon).  But Backe's FIP at 5.78, is pretty bad.  Oswalt, Cassel, and Sampson all have lower FIPs than their ERAs, which hopefully is a sign for future improvement in their results.  I haven't been very impressed by Sampson this year, and wondered if he would remain in the rotation. But the large difference between his reasonable FIP (4.09) and actual ERA (7.96) makes me wonder if I am selling short his potential for improvement.

Another interesting indicator for pitchers is left on base percent (LOB%).  The NL average LOB% is 71%.  Two Astros starters have very high LOB%, Backe (81%) and Wandy (87%).  One starter has a very low LOB%: Sampson (58%).  I suppose there are two ways of looking at this.  Many people believe LOB% is largely a reflection of luck.  Others might argue that a high or low LOB% reflects above or below average clutch pitching.  I suspect the truth is somewhere between those views.  But I wouldn't be surprised to see the results for Wandy and Backe regressing.  I have to admit that I am concerned about whether Backe can continue to keep the results of his 1.77 WHIP from showing up on the scoreboard.

Okay, I really don't have a conclusion.  The pitching is still a question mark.  But the pitching situation may not seem as bleak as it did before we started the season.