...And DOWN the stretch they come... (08/18/00)

After the first quarter of the season, I took a look at how the division races were shaping up, using a variation on Bill James' Pythagorean formula (which is the ratio of runs scored squared to the number of runs allowed squared) using expected runs as the base.  This gives a rough estimate as to what each team's winning percentage should be.  I prefer expected runs because it gives a more accurate account of a team's ability to score runs.  It measures the means of scoring runs as opposed to the end result and therefore gives one a better idea of what should be expected, and removes some of the luck elements that are involved.  The formula accounts for most offensive events (stolen bases, sac flies, hit-by-pitches, etc.).  OK, enough stat talk... let's see how everyone is doing at the three quarter mark and look at who's likely to finish with a strong September based on what we've seen so far.

R=runs, OR=Opponent runs, RC=runs created, ORC=opponent runs created, PW= projected wins, PL= projected losses

NL East        R    OR    RC  ORC    W   L   PW  PL  +/-
Atlanta       603  527   597  537   74  46   66  54  +8
New York      624  559   645  558   72  49   69  52  +3
Florida       556  577   567  602   60  60   56  64  +4
Montreal      562  650   573  643   51  66   52  65  -1
Philadelphia  535  624   559  628   50  69   53  66  -3

The Braves are leading the division, but the mets are the ones who should be.  This is weird because teams that don't live up to projections usually have holes in their bullpen or simply have had terrible luck.  The Mets have not suffered from either of these.  So maybe the Braves' bullpen has performed at a superhuman level to date.  Who knows?  Whatever the case, it's fairly clear that this race will go down to the wire barring another late season collapse by the Mets.  But as much as these two teams seem to have overachieved so far, I can't help but think that there's a distinct possibility that the loser might stay home this October.  My preseason pick of Montreal to challenge for the division looks pretty bad right now, until you note that they have lost 2 of their top 3 starters to injury (Pavano, Irabu) and their closer (Urbina).  I doubt the Mets or Braves would have fared as well as they have under the same circumstances.  Health-willing they should be pretty tough next year.  Even more so if they move to Northern Virginia.  The Marlins have matured much more quickly than I anticipated, especially Ryan Dempster.  With more great arms on the way, this division could be very interesting next year.  The Phillies floundered as expected, but will get better much sooner due to GM Ed Wade's very deft mid-season trading.  By giving up Schilling and Ashby, he got 2 potential top of the rotation starters (Bruce Chen and Omar Daal), a potential closer (Vicente Padilla) and an everyday first baseman with tremendous potential (Travis Lee).  And he has money to go after Schilling or another big name free agent at the end of the season.  Depending on what they do this offseason, the Phillies could make this a VERY interesting race next year.

NL Central     R    OR    RC  ORC    W   L   PW  PL  +/-
St. Louis     664  593   672  597   66  54   67  53  -1
Cincinnati    587  589   619  636   59  60   58  62  +1
Chicago       577  626   592  619   54  65   57  62  -3
Milwaukee     521  621   528  642   51  69   49  72  +2
Pittsburgh    571  642   594  634   49  70   56  63  -7
Houston       670  711   690  703   48  73   59  62  -11

OK, a lot of people picked Houston to win the division this year and Houston has been simply terrible.  Or have they?  The projections look fairly promising, considering they lost their closer, 3rd baseman, left fielder and second baseman to injury.  With a healthy Wagner, Caminiti, Cedeno and Biggio, this team will challenge for the division next year, Lima-time or not.  But for now, the Cardinals can rest comfortably knowing that they can basically coast for the rest of the season.  Cubs fans should be happy that their team isn't as bad as their current record.  Of course, they're not that great either.  The addition of Rondell White will help and a healthy Kerry Wood next year will go a long way toward pushing them in the right direction.  Cincinnati has overachieved again this year and GM Jim Bowden and manager Jack McKeon are running out of arms.  It'll be interesting to see how they reload this winter.  However, they will not be in the race for the playoffs this September.  Davey Lopes has done a good job with the Brewers this year.  Hopefully, the Brewers front office will find a way to get him an entire pitching staff by next year.  Uber-prospect Ben Sheets will probably get some playing time this September and should help in that department next season.  Pittsburgh was the trendy dark horse pick in the division, but playing guys like Luis Sojo and Pat Meares everyday is not gonna get you to the promised land.  On the plus side, Aramis Ramirez is making the most of his full-time shot at third, hitting .338 and slugging .554 over the past month while driving in 19.

NL West        R    OR    RC  ORC    W   L   PW  PL  +/-
San Francisco 684  578   693  601   68  51   68  51   0
Arizona       591  542   593  546   67  53   65  55  +2
Los Angeles   616  576   632  589   61  58   64  55  -3
Colorado      727  679   671  703   60  61   58  63  +2
San Diego     575  614   570  605   57  64   57  64   0

Dusty Baker has yet to blow out any of his starters, but not for lack of trying.  The Giants have 24 games in which a starter has thrown 120+ pitches.  Livan Hernandez has half of them and Russ Ortiz has another 7.  Only Arizona has as many as 17 such games and that's with noted complete-gamers Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson.  The Phillies are third with 16 120+ pitch games.  It should be noted that both Hernandez and Ortiz are not even 26 years old.  That kind of use at such an early age doesn't bode well for their futures.  Schilling has been a great addition for the D-backs but they've yet to have anyone else other than Johnson pitch consistently well.  Even more troubling is that Johnson and Schilling have probably camouflaged the fact that their offense is sputtering.  If they can't get Bell and Williams on tracked, or Durazo healthy, the D-backs are gonna need Baker to blow out a couple of the Giants' arms to win the division.  The Dodgers and Rockies look pretty close in the actual standings but they're really not.  Bullpen troubles plagued the Dodgers earlier in the season, while the Rockies have gotten superhuman efforts out of Jose Jimenez, Mike Myers and Gabe White.  The latter two have ERAs under 2!  Not just on the road, but total, including their home games.  That is probably a more remarkable achievement than throwing a no-hitter in Coors.  Whether they finish the season that low remains to be seen, but to have lasted this long is simply unbelievable.  The Padres have been unbelievable as well, but not in a desirable sense - they have had 51 players on their roster this year, most of them pitchers.  They currently have 6 guys on the 60-day DL.  In February, the projected starting rotation was Sterling Hitchcock, Woody Williams, Matt Clement, Carlton Loewer and Brian Boehringer.  Only 2 of those guys are pitching right now, and Williams is just 3 months removed from surviving a career threatening aneurysm.  On the bright side, they've discovered that Phil Nevin was for real, that Ryan Klesko could play everyday and that Adam Eaton is the best rookie that no one knows about.  In addition, they shaved about $10 million in salary while still fielding a reasonably competitive team.  If they can find another power source this winter - either at catcher, shortstop or left field - they will be a very unpleasant team to face next year.  In the meantime, they will try to fight their way out of the cellar over the overachieving Rockies.

Next week: the AL.