“A storm is threatening my very life today. If I don’t get some shelter, I’m going to fade away”. In keeping with the musical greeting from the American League check-in, the opening line from the Rolling Stone classic Gimme Shelter fits when looking at the National League, where all of the division leaders have leads of two games or less. Everything is still up for grabs as we reach the quarter mark of the year. There has been a recent addition to the fray from a formerly feared slugger in the form of Albert Pujols. The Dodgers/Padres series has lived up to the considerable hype to this point. This is not to mention the surprising and under the radar surge on the part of the San Francisco Giants to the top of the National League West. So following let’s look at a reason for optimism and concern for the senior circuit ball clubs.
National League West: The aforementioned San Francisco Giants are in first place, which very few would have seen coming. They are 9th in pitching WAR (4.3) which is fueled by being 6th in the majors in the fewest BB/9 (2.96), and 5th in fewest HR/9 (0.94). So if teams don’t walk guys and keep the ball in the park, then they have a chance. While they are 7th in home runs with 53, they are only 12th in SLG (.399), so if they aren’t hitting homers there isn’t much in the way of extra base power, as their middling hard hit rate of 31.7% shows. The San Diego Padres are in second as expected, but they aren’t chasing who they thought. The Padres have some really good parts- 1st in ERA (2.86) and 4th in K/9 (10.29) from the pitchers; the hitters have the 2nd lowest strikeout percentage (20.9), and and third best walk percentage (10.9%)-all while leading the league in stolen bases with 43. Their problem is they haven’t shown enough power; 22nd in the majors in home runs, and 28th in isolated power (Slugging percentage minus batting average) at .130. Once the power comes they should take off. Despite all of the doom and gloom in Los Angeles, the Dodgers are tied for 3rd in runs scored with 205, and are third in offensive WAR at 8.1. The team is 5th in pitching WAR at 6.1. They are 5th in K/9, 3rd in BB/9, and 2nd in ERA. If this is rock bottom for the Dodgers, then what will we see once they get their players back and kick it into gear? The Arizona Diamondbacks are 8th in offensive WAR (5.6) and are 7th in runs with 194. The offense is competent; the pitching is not. They are 20th in pitching WAR (2.0), 27th in ERA (4.88), and 27th in K/9 (8.23). This is a real issue as the summer months have not arrived, which is a better run scoring environment. As for the Colorado Rockies, the season is about as bad as expected. They are 17th in offensive WAR (4.5), at least they are fifth in runs 199. The pitching just hopes to aspire to become mediocre. Being 29th in pitching WAR (1.4) and ERA (5.19) means the less said about them, the better.
National League Central: The St. Louis Cardinals pace the central division. Their being tied for first in the majors in home run rate with 0.70 is the second best in baseball, and their leading the league in HR/FB% with 7.7% are propping up an otherwise unremarkable pitching staff. Less homers against you is always a good thing. They are struggling on offense. They are 8th in home runs with 53, but are 10th or worse in every other major offensive category. In the Windy City, the Chicago Cubs are a decidedly average offensive club. They sit 16th in offensive WAR (4.7). They are 9th in SLG (.404) and 9th in OBP (.318). Now where they are not average is on the pitching side of the ledger. Being 27th in pitching WAR (1.4) is well earned as it is fueled by their 27th ranked FIP of 4.53. Meanwhile, up north in Wisconsin, The Milwaukee Brewers are getting their solid pitching with the 6th ranked pitching WAR (5.2). They are punching out the most guys per game in the league by averaging 10.54 K/9. They haven’t kept up the magic with the bats. 23rd in offensive WAR (3.6) and 26th in runs (153) means they spoil a lot of the good work from the pitchers. While the current iteration of the Cincinnati Reds won’t make anyone forget The Big Red Machine, they are 6th in offensive WAR (6.6) and 6th in runs scored; tallying 208. The pitching has been bad, but not awful. 20th in pitching WAR (2.6) and 23rd in FIP (4.42) means the guys from Driveline Baseball have some work to do. The Pittsburgh Pirates are mostly not terrible from the bump, as being 17th in pitching WAR (3.1) shows them to be just below the mean for Major League Baseball. Their hitters are doing their thing- 28th in offensive WAR (2.3), last in homers (26), and their 138 runs rank 29th.
National League East: Despite the roller coaster ride so far, the New York Mets lead the eastern division. The pitching has quietly been elite- 2nd in pitching WAR (6.9), 1st in FIP (3.05), and tied for first in home run rate at 0.70. The hitters have been the embodiment of ineptitude. Last in runs with 122, 29th in homers (27), but at least they are 26th in offensive WAR (2.9). The Philadelphia Phillies have partially addressed their bullpen concerns. The relief corps are 3rd in HR/FB rate at 16.5%, and their 28% hard hit rate is 5th best in the league; they are 5th in the league in generating soft contact 17.5%. Being 15th in offensive WAR (4.7) in so much of a problem, except the pitching WAR of 3.9 is 12th. So if the bullpen falls apart again, then they will fall out of contention. Simply put, the Atlanta Braves hit dingers. They lead the majors with 60 long balls. They are 7th in SLG at .413. Despite the homers, the Braves are 18th in offensive WAR (4.4). If they are not hitting homers, then they don’t do much else. The pitching WAR of 1.9 means the work from the center of the diamond needs to improve. From the 305, the Miami Marlins are a bit like the Cubs. 11th in pitching WAR (4.1) and 22nd in offensive WAR (3.7). They have 1.4 WAR from the relief pitchers, which is sixth in the majors. Their 26.5% strikeout rate is too high for an effective offense. In Washington D.C. the Nationals have been able to get hits. The .252 batting average of the club is 5th in the league, their BABIP of .304 is 4th. Their pitching has been disastrous. At 1.3, their pitching WAR is 29th in the majors. The 1.48 home run rate has been the primary affliction for the pitchers.
After 40 or so games, we know who should be in for the long haul and who is looking towards the future. I don’t think the standings will hold. The Dodgers and Mets will get healthy, which will allow them to create space in their divisional races. I am confident the Padres will show more power, and Brewers bats will come around before all is said and done.