With the end of April, the first full month of the season is now behind us and the standings are starting to take shape. This is not to say that things will remain as they are for the duration. In fact, a good bet would be that the end of the season playoff picture will be quite a bit different from the present. But we’re starting to get a good idea of the strengths and weaknesses of individual players and teams, as well.
The division that is the most interesting at this point (to me, anyway) is the National League Central. There were quite a few people who thought the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates would pick up where they left off last year. That isn’t the case at this point, though. St. Louis just avoided a sweep by the Milwaukee Brewers by taking the final game of the series last night. The Cardinals are currently four and one-half games out of first with a 16–14 record. Their offense was a big reason for their success in 2013 as the Redbirds led the league in runs scored. Pitching was also a strength as St. Louis was near the top of the league in ERA, strikeouts and BAA. Results have been mixed so far, with the team still near the top of the league in pitching but in the bottom half in hitting.
The Pirates haven’t been nearly as fortunate, as they sit mired in fourth place in the division, eight and one-half games behind the top spot. After a rainout Wednesday night, Pittsburgh’s record remains at 10–16. The Bucs had a winning record both at home and on the road in 2013 but are below .500 no matter where they are playing now. Offense wasn’t particularly stellar for Pittsburgh in 2013 as they hovered near league average. Pitching, on the other hand, was a strong suit as the Pirates were near the league lead in many categories. No one was better than the Bucs in finishing off games, as they led the league in saves. 2014 finds Pittsburgh in the bottom third of the league in offense and the pitching that did them so well last year has betrayed the team in 2014, as they sit near the bottom of the league in many categories.
The Cincinnati Reds made the playoffs in 2013 as a wild card team and were monsters at home, winning at a .612 clip. Home hasn’t been as friendly to the Reds in 2014 as they hold a losing record after the Chicago Cubs bumped them off last night. It was a balanced attack last year with the team being strong both offensively and pitching-wise. Both sides have turned around for 2014 with the Reds near the middle of the pack now.
The Chicago Cubs are, well, still the same team – a winning percentage that was second to last in the league in 2013 and ditto for 2014. Cubbies fans are still hoping Theo Epstein can do for the North Siders what he did for the Boston Red Sox and bring home a championship after a century of frustration.
Then there’s the Milwaukee Brewers – Bud Selig’s former team. The Brew Crew disappointed many last year with a losing record (14 games under .500) and a fourth place finish, 23 games behind St. Louis with the whole Ryan Braun mess. Turn the calendar ahead one year and the Brewers are not only leading the National League in winning percentage, but all of baseball with a 20-9 record. Offensively, 2013 found Milwaukee pretty much at the middle of the pack. Manager Ron Roenicke has his team performing slightly better in 2014 at the plate. Last year’s pitching was a bit below league average and the team really struggled in the strikeout department, where only the Colorado Rockies recorded fewer punch outs. The 2014 version has the team near the top of the league – a dramatic 180-degree turn around.
The starting rotation is virtually the same as 2013 with Kyle Lohse, Wily Peralta, Yovani Gallardo and Marco Estrada returning. The big addition was the acquisition of Matt Garza through free agency. This group is second in ERA and BAA and first in Quality Starts and WHIP. Even if someone doesn’t like these categories per se, it’s certainly better to be near the top than the bottom.
With the exception of Garza, all the members of the starting rotation have a WHIP under 1.15 and an ERA below 2.90. Even closer Francisco Rodriguez has gotten into the act, going a perfect 13-for-13 in save chances with no runs allowed in 16 innings pitched.
Is this group overachieving a bit? You could certainly argue that, even though there were predictions of better years for Peralta and Estrada. But they are doing this with Matt Garza still not hitting his stride and underachieving. To be honest, I was skeptical of Gallardo returning to previous form and the strikeouts haven’t been lower in his career. There are also some concerns with an elevated strand rate and low BABIP that could correct themselves.
Lohse is striking out hitters at a rate he never did before, and that certainly could regress. But he is stranding runners and maintaining a BABIP within the levels of the past few seasons. Peralta and Estrada were predicted in many circles to take a step forward this year and the 24-year-old Peralta was one of my sleeper picks for 2014.
While the jury is still out on the 2014 Brewers, they are showing they can win, and winning is contagious. When a team gets that feeling, it’s harder to convince them otherwise the longer they win. I look for the Brewers to cool off at some point but think they will remain winners for the rest of the year. It will be very interesting to see just how much they actually believe it themselves.