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Friday, June 27, 2003

Bi-Weekly Review: N.L. Central

The N.L. Central through June 25th.

National League Central













Chi. Cubs











L 1

St. Louis











W 1












L 3












L 1












W 1












W 1

The National League Central "race" brings to mind the fable of "The Tortoise and the Hare," which, if applied here, would be renamed, "The Tortoise and the Tortoise and the Tortoise and the Tortoise and the Two Really Slow Tortoises."


Since we last peeked in on baseball?s most scintillatingly stagnant division, the teams have combined for the following records:


St. Louis	13-9

Houston	11-10

Chicago	11-10

Cincinnati	10-10

Pittsburgh	7-11

Milwaukee	9-11


Only the Pirates are above .500 in their last 10 games, but the Cardinals may be making a move?going 5-5 during that stretch.  Watch out, Central Division! 


The Cardinals and Cubs are in the hunt, along with Houston (and Cincinnati), but note the number of games each team has played within the Central Division.  St. Louis and Chicago have played more than 40 games versus their anemic intra-division brethren.  Houston has played only 33, and Cincinnati only 32.


The Cubs? Pythagorean record is exactly the same as their real record, 40-34.  Their offense continues to putter along, while the pitching keeps them in the race.  Chicago is 2nd in the league in ERA, and 1st in the league in strikeouts, but near the bottom in the most important offensive categories, including 11th in runs scored. 


Among non-pitchers, Corey Patterson, not Sammy Sosa, has been the biggest contributor.  Patterson?s OPS is .864, and Sosa?s is .895, but Patterson has played in 20 more games than Sosa.  Sosa?s mammoth home run in his first game back from his corked-bat suspension provides a hopeful sign for Cubs fans that he might be emerging from his shell after a long stretch of offensive hibernation.


In an effort to bolster the struggling offense, the Cubs traded for Jose Hernandez and will play him at third base.  Unfortunately, Hernandez was not even a very good hitter for a shortstop.  Everyone points to his strikeouts (he could strike out more than 200 times this year), but his problem also includes all those other types of outs.  Since joining the Cubs this season, he?s 0-for-9 with a walk.


The three young horses in the starting rotation continue to put up good numbers.  Mark Prior (8-3, 2.64) has allowed only four runs in his last three starts, spanning 17 2/3 innings, and that came against two good offenses, in Toronto and Cincinnati.  Kerry Wood was roughed up by Toronto on June 13, but has responded with two good outings, giving up one run each against Cincinnati and Milwaukee, striking out 17 in 16 innings.  Carlos Zambrano has allowed only five earned runs in his last 18 innings.


The Astros are nothing if not balanced.  They?re 4th in the league in runs scored (381), 6th in homers (85), 5th in OBP (.336), and 6th in SLG (.428).  They?re 4th in ERA (3.91) and 4th in strikeouts (549), too.  Defense is part of the reason Houston can?t gain any ground on the rest of the NL Central.  Among NL teams, only Florida and Colorado do a worse job of converting balls-in-play into outs.


Since the last update, the Astros have been pretty bad.  They?ve gone 4-9, including sweeps at Boston and at Arizona.  Only a sweep of the Rangers (and the fact that the other teams in the division are treading water) kept the last two weeks from being a complete disaster.  Still, Houston has not played as badly as its record during that time indicates, scoring 58 runs, and allowing only 61.


Houston got some "bad news" when Jose Vizcaino went down with a broken wrist.  Manager Jimy Williams delivered the obligatory quote calling Vizcaino a "key guy" for the team, but Vizcaino is getting on base only about 27% of the time.  Like the injury to Fernando Vina of St. Louis, the situation could serve as an opportunity for the team?s front-office to learn the lessons of "replacement level," if they pay attention.  Nobody should hold their breath, though.


Craig Biggio has hit well lately, with a .360 average and .560 SLG.  Adam Everett is even better, hitting .417 and slugging .750 over his last seven games.


The stars of the team are still in the bullpen.  Octavio Dotel (1.64 ERA), Brad Lidge (2.36) and Billy Wagner (1.85) are among the top 15 relievers in the majors at preventing inherited runs from scoring.


2nd in runs (419), 3rd in HR(91), 2nd in OBP (.355), 2nd in SLG (.406)

10th in ERA (4.52), 13th in K?s (436)

Bo Hart for president!  The Cardinals have found the answer for their woes at leadoff spot, in spite of Tony La Russa.  Now, it is certainly true that the answer, rookie Bo Hart, is not likely to be a very good answer for very long.  But he?s hitting over .500, so he could slump for a week and still be out-performing the Cardinals? other answers?the injured Fernando Vina and Miguel Cairo.


The Cardinals? best lineup is truly amazing, when La Russa bothers to put it into the game.  But nagging injuries, coupled with La Russa?s ongoing belief that J.D. Drew can?t hit left-handers as well as Wilson Delgado, has the team underperforming its offensive expectations.  Despite that, the Cardinals are 2nd in runs scored (419), 3rd in homers (91), 2nd in OBP (.355) and 2nd in SLG (.406).


Rumors persist that J.D. Drew will soon be traded.  There are two reasons to believe these rumors might have a grain of truth: the Cardinals and their semi-official mouthpiece and co-owner, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, have never seemed to like Drew very much; and Drew is one of the only players with any actual trade value who is actually expendable.  Despite the clamoring of Cardinals fans that Vina is now expendable, it?s very unlikely anyone would want him, even when he?s healthy.  Tino Martinez and $7-million clubhouse leadership are unlikely to draw any interest.  And Pujols, Renteria and Rolen are untouchable.


It?s a testament to the weakness of the NL Central that a team with an ERA of 5.46 could find itself only four games out of first place as the Fourth of July approaches.  The Reds? offense is a lot better than it?s pitching, but is still only 5th in the league in runs scored (354). 


Interestingly, the Reds are 13th in OBP and 8th in SLG, despite their ability to score runs. It must be those intangibles, which, in Cincinnati?s case, apparently include "spunk."  This is evident in two(!) recent bench-clearing brawls.  First, the Reds fought the Phillies. Next, they battled the Cubs.


Adam Dunn and Sean Casey were each suspended for three games for their role in the fight against Philadelphia, although Dunn?s suspension was reduced to two games. 


Paul Wilson earned a five-game suspension for his part in a brawl against the Cubs.  Wilson and Russell Branyan were each fined an undisclosed amount of money.  Wilson got into it with Kyle Farnsworth after being buzzed by a pitch as he tried to lay down a bunt.  Benches cleared (don?t they always?) and both were ejected.


In a further display of spunk, catcher Jason LaRue has reopened old wounds by placing further blame in the June 19 fight.  He says Cubs pitcher Mark Prior started the whole thing by throwing behind him in a plate appearance.  Those spunky Reds, they don?t have any quit in ?em!



Lloyd McClendon is hacked off.  His team is 13th in runs scored, 15th in homers, 15th in slugging, and 12th in on-base percentage.  His pitchers are 11th in ERA.  And when his starter pitches well, it seems, his bullpen blows it.  This reality set McClendon off into hyperspace, when he launched the proverbial "profanity-laced tirade" against the team?s beat reporters this week. 


It?s not all bad.  Since his horrible start, Aramis Ramirez has hit well, with a .928 OPS in the past month.  Jason Kendall?s not far behind, and Brian Giles is hitting like Brian Giles.


Unfortunately, the pitching has gone (further) south during that time.  Kris Benson got off to a good start this season, but has fallen apart.  In his last three starts, he has allowed 20 earned runs on 27 hits in just over 13 innings.  His ERA is 5.23.  Kip Wells is the only starter who has pitched decently in the past month, with an ERA of 4.18.


Duaner Sanchez really blew it.  Just a few days after being called up from Nashville, Sanchez showed up late for a game in Montreal.  He was promptly sent back down to the minors.  That scenario must be a recurring nightmare for Triple-A baseball players.  It?s like the dream where you oversleep for your final exam, or where you forget you?d registered for a class altogether, until finals week rolls around and you realize you?ve blown it.


Brewers fans, we feel for you.  But not nearly as much as we feel for the guys in the broadcast booth who have to show up every day and attempt to give you a reason to listen.  In their honor, let?s use creative color commentary to point out just how good these Brewers really are.  For example:


Royce Clayton is batting .333 when facing a count of zero balls, one strike!

Wes Helms is slugging .778 over the last seven days!

Eddie Perez is batting 1.000 when facing a pitcher for the fourth time in a game!

The opponents? leadoff men are batting only .196 against Wayne Franklin!


As you can see, the Brewers really are not as bad as you may have been led to believe.  You good people of Milwaukee are blessed with the opportunity to see such a fine team, especially on days when they outscore their opponents, during which they are an astounding 31-0.


David Brazeal Posted: June 27, 2003 at 06:00 AM | 3 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Jason Posted: June 27, 2003 at 02:22 AM (#611908)
Yeah Wes Helms is dragging the Brewers down, Man ranking 9th in OPS for 3rd basemen and 11th in RC/27 outs. I didn't think he was anything but a scrub either but he has hit reasonably well, so perhaps we should focus a bit more on Rusch, Clayton, and Quevedo as a source of problems for my Brew just took 2/3 from the sCrUBS and Twins.
   2. David Brazeal Posted: June 27, 2003 at 02:23 AM (#611910)
Author's Note: This was written before Mark Prior's start against Milwaukee Thursday, in which he struck out 16 in eight innings. Prior's last three starts: 19 2/3 IP, 29 K's, 3 W's, 3 ER. His W-L record: 1-2.
   3. Mike Emeigh Posted: June 28, 2003 at 02:23 AM (#611932)
I root for the home guys, but Dave's comment on defense is spot on. Every HOU outfielder has been made to play a different position than last year.

The Astros' problems on defense, though, have been mostly in the infield; they have a horrible rate of converting ground balls into outs. It's improved somewhat since Everett came up and Ensberg replaced Blum at 3B, but they're still below 70% (league average is around 72-73%). The outfield has been pretty close to average - not bad, given that one ordinarily expects a below-average rate of converting fly balls into outs because of the short LF in Minute Maid Park.

-- MWE

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