The race for the National League Central crown will be one of the many things the baseball world will follow closely in September. The beautiful thing about the NL Central: all three teams–St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds–are likely headed to the playoffs.
A grand total of 3.5 games separates the Reds from the first-place Cardinals. Pittsburgh sits just a half game back.
Obviously, making the playoffs is the goal. The commonly used phrase “just get there” fits well here. However, as I’m sure you’d suspect, avoiding the one-game playoff is the incentive. The minor events are enhanced in a one-game playoff, whereas a bad roll, or something of that sort, isn’t as dramatic in your traditional best-of-five series.
As September looms, what’s one thing each NL Central contender needs to worry about? Let’s dive in.
Pittsburgh Pirates Key No. 1: Do They Have Enough Offense?
It’s been tossed around before. A lot, actually. The Pirates have Andrew McCutchen and a band of solid but not great alternatives. Pedro Alvarez is a solid second, but his lofty strikeout numbers and inconsistency puts him in a class much farther below McCutchen.
Adding Marlon Byrd, who, by wOBA, has been the NL’s 15th-best hitter, could prove to be a massive upgrade. Best part is, he won’t have to do much to be an upgrade when you consider that Pirates right fielders have totaled the fourth-worst wOBA in baseball. Not to mention that Starling Marte’s DL stint could dip into mid-September. I’d say the timing was quite good, and probably not entirely by coincidence.
The “a lot of pitching and some offense” formula has churned out a winning record. But the fatal question: What if McCutchen digs himself into a deep slump, a slump similar to 2012, when he hit just .253 from August 1 to October 3?
Now that’s an ugly scenario. In this case, they’d probably find their NLDS hopes hinged on a one-game playoff, which still counts as making the playoffs but leaves a smaller gap for error.
Beyond McCutchen, Pittsburgh’s overall offense rates out as a middle-of-the-pack to bottom-20 offense, which sounds about right, and the numbers can confirm. Per FanGraphs, the Pirates’ offense has the 17th-best wOBA in baseball, 19th-best slugging percentage and seventh-worst average.
In English: Pittsburgh’s lineup isn’t loaded. They have made due. They might continue to make due. Or, they might not. A lack of offense probably isn’t going to cost them a playoff spot unless the Diamondbacks or Nationals post historical Septembers, but it could turn them towards the dreaded one-game wild card instead of the traditional series.
St. Louis Cardinals: Adam Wainwright, Then Who?
The Cardinals’ vaunted starting staff is, well, still vaunted. Ask me the same question in three years and the answer will be the same. That’s just how rock solid their next bundle of starters down on the farm is.
So, just why did I pose the question “Adam Wainwright, then who?” Because there’s been an undefined No. 2 starter over the last 30 days in St. Louis. ERA-wise, their rotation is middle-of-the-pack. FIP-wise, they’re a small step down from the mean.
Shelby Miller, the once No. 2 starter, has a 3.47 ERA over the last 30 days, largely due to a 3.5 BB/9 rate and 25 HR/FB%. Meanwhile, Lance Lynn (4.15), Tyler Lyons (3.27), Carlos Martinez (7.71) and Michael Wacha (3.60) have left a lot to be desired.
Outside of Adam Wainwright (4.85 ERA over last 30 days, largely due to one bad start) and Joe Kelly (2.20), the Cardinals’ rotation hasn’t resembled MLB’s third-best rotation in baseball (by ERA, at least). From the top to the middle is a steep nosedive. In a pennant race, it’s even steeper. With an elite offense, the steepness decreases. You get the point.
The variety of advanced stats make for an interesting picture, but let’s go back to the basic of basic stats, the win-loss record. The results? A .500 (16-16) team since July 27. Of course that team remains in first place, but it’s an interesting trend.
So, the Cardinals’ pitching staff has taken a slight step or two back. A huge reason for concern? No. But nitpicking seems to be the only viable approach to finding the Cardinals’ main flaws.
Cincinnati Reds: How About That Bullpen?
Jonathan Broxton returned to the DL last week, and he’ll be out for roughly sixth months after undergoing season-ending surgery to repair a torn flexor muscle in his right forearm (Philly.com). There’s one big blow.
Then there’s Sean Marshall, who has been on the DL since May 24. A report suggests that Marshall hasn’t given up on a return. Whether that’s true or not, it doesn’t appear that the lefty’s optimism level is teeming with joy.
Fill in the blanks. Would Hoover and LeCure be occupying two fairly high-pressure positions if the regulars were healthy? No, they’re sixth and seventh inning guys (sometimes eighth). They’ve made the transition, but it’s sapped up some of Cincinnati’s bullpen depth.
While Hoover has done a fine job (2.38 ERA over the last month), LeCure’s reliability has taken a turn for the worst. He boasts a 6.55 ERA in the same span with peripherals (2.49 FIP, 2.44 xFIP) slightly confusing matters. Dig a littler deeper, though, and you’ll find that his .394 BABIP and 57.7 percent LOB% (left on base percentage) are both a bit off the norm (both over the last 30 days).
So, perhaps luck will start spinning LeCure’s way, while Hoover, who sports a 4.01 FIP, could see a regression.
Either way, only the Angels’ and Astros’ bullpens have been worse than Cincinnati’s bullpen over the last 30 days. And that’s by FIP’s reckoning, which filters out the “unlucky” hits and rolls so the stat-heads can’t turn to that as a “hey, look at this” backup plan.