Monday, August 27, 2007


one of the more laughable confluences of events i can remember has somehow turned what looked on june 22 to be a runaway laugher in the national league central into a three-team barnburner, with the 66-63 chicago cubs (!) leading 65-65 milwaukee by 1.5 and 63-64 saint louis by 2 heading into the final month. the divisional quality has fulfilled many a prognostication by being as tepid and mediocre as seems possible -- but mediocrity has fostered a strange sort of race as milwaukee has tried gallantly and unremittingly to hand the division to the cubs, who for their part are trying their level best to refuse it and pass it on to the cardinals.

it pays to ask: what in the hell is happening here? a few things, mostly unrelated but coinciding.

first, milwaukee has suffered an utterly spectacular collapse. the club was a steamroller through the end of june, with a 46-32 record and the second-best run differential in the league (at +42). they had won five consecutive series headed into wrigley for a three-game set we called critical. the cubs subsequently took two of three, and the brewers have since been the worst club in the nl, going 19-33. causation? of course not. but exactly what has happened?

in short, the near-total collapse of their pitching staff. milwaukee's offense cooled from a torrid june, but has still put across about 4.45 per contest. runs allowed per game, however, has rocketed up to well over 6.5 per contest in the trailing month, and the effect has been predictably devastating. chris capuano, yovani gallardo, dave bush and claudio vargas have all been destroyed, and so august saw the brewers cough up a 312/375/521 line to the opposition -- that's an .896 ops. and the primary difference between august and months previous? strikeouts and walks have remained constant, but a .356 babip allowed has combined with a fluke jump in home runs allowed to crush the club.

i asked you all to pray for disaster up i-94, and it looks like it worked.

the cubs, meanwhile, capitalized on milwaukee's time of weakness by going on the hottest extended streak of the decade in june and july to get back in it, the core effort in reversing 10 games against the erstwhile leader in a sport where five games is really quite hard to make up. their 35-18 run from june 2 to august 1 was truly one for the ages and left yours truly agape. as was noted then, though, the foundations were tenuous:

but the simple truth of what has happened to the cubs is that it could not have happened without very liberal and rare doses of good luck. not only have the cubs outperformed their pythagorean expectation since june 2 (at 256 scored and 199 allowed, they should have won 32 of 53 but have actually won 35) -- they have further managed to hit with a babip of .318 and allow just .274, meaning that their runs scored and allowed have been again heavily distorted by good fortune on balls in play, much as they were in april. this is to be compared to the milwaukee brewers, who have over the same span gone 27-25 while scoring 267 on a normal .298 babip but allowing 240 on a disadvantaged .306 babip.

how long can this last? in fact it may already by over -- the cubs have, after all, gone 4-3 in their last seven, scoring 32 and allowing 28. longer term, there's no intrinsic reason to think it should continue -- as noted previously, babip extremes show no permanence from half to half, and as much is very probably true from month to month. good examples are provided this year from the new york mets, whose extraordinary early season pitching babip has reverted to league mean and upward in subsequent months, and the florida marlins, who experienced the same phenomena to a lesser degree on the batting side. this is the normal course, and should serve as stark relief to drive home just how fortunate these cubs have been.

true to form, the cubs since the advent of august has returned to their previous struggles. the loss of alfonso soriano debilitated the already-weak offense, which has scored 4.42 a game (compared to a season-long 4.62). but the real story lay once again in the pitching, the absurd luck of which has been the focus here all season from very early on to just recently. i've waited for the other shoe to drop since april, and now in august it finally has -- a team babip allowed of .294, a very average and anticipatable figure, has left the cub staff exposed as the very mediocre group they were thought to be at the outset of the year, allowing 4.92 runs per contest and letting the club down to a 10-14 august record. jason marquis, ted lilly, sean marshall and (most particularly and surprisingly) carlos zambrano have all contributed to the falloff. as a result, as the graph attests, the cubs' trailing month run differential has sunk again near to the lows that provoked lou piniella's pathetic june tirade. since august 1 they've been the third-worst club in the nl, leading only florida and (fortunately) milwaukee.

and who has taken advantage?

the moribund cardinals exploded to life in august, finally bringing a tinderbox pitching staff under control for a few weeks to go 17-12 since july 26, second-best only to arizona. early struggles led some to write off the prolific cardinal offense, but it returned to respectability beginning in june and has in fact averaged 5.0 runs/game since may 30, putting it on par with milwaukee's scoring unit.

the trouble in missouri has been pitching, pitching, pitching -- early season disappointments from anthony reyes, adam wainwright and... well, if you can call kip wells' normal pitching a disappointment, count that too. but wainwright's babip-plagued start turned around, and he's been excellent since june. reyes' was a huge first-half washout with an 0-10 record and 6.40 era at the break with stints in the minors excluded -- but his ship has righted and then some since his july 28 recall. the typical walt jocketty magic has showed up in the person of joel piniero, who has somehow limited the damage quite nicely in his five starts. even wells has been good since returning from bullpen banishment to the rotation. it's all added up to a team era of 3.78 in august, which is finally a number the offense can overcome to win.

cardinal pitching is riding a .280 babip against in august, and the offense has strung together two consecutive surplus babip months as well -- so this club is every bit as capable of collapse as previously highflying may brewers or june/july cubs. but -- as with the cubs previously -- it really doesn't matter how they lucked their way into the race now that they're here.

for all the weirdness of the path they took to get here, these three clubs are perhaps as evenly matched going forward as most of us thought they would be in march. from a 130-game dead heat to thirty-odd games to decide it all, it's really down to who gets luckiest. the discrepencies we see in year-to-date run differential are affected heavily by differences in luck to date. cub pitching and, to a lesser extent, hitting has been quite fortunate on balls in play. brewer pitching and, again to a lesser extent, hitting has been almost equally unfortunate. the cardinal offense and defense have been luck-neutral in aggregate, but certainly carry the capricious advantage of momentum at this point.

given the analysis which i've been faithful to all year, in spite of their collapse to this point i would still have to handicap the milwaukee brewers still a slight favorite in spite of their small deficit to the cubs. but luck will surely be the determinant now between these three, and i've absolutely no window on dame fortune. i'm as optimistic about the near term as i've been at any point since the seventh inning of game six of the 2003 national league championship series -- and i'm looking forward to watching now as fate takes a hand and selects a winner to play in october.

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