A three-way tie for the National League Central lead in July sounded plausible back in April, but a three-way tie without the Reds but with the Pirates is not something anyone had in mind. That's where we stand today, though: thanks to both St. Louis and Milwaukee losing on Sunday, the Pirates are back in first alongside them. With less than a week to go before the trade deadline, and roughly two months of ball left, who can we expect to come out on top in this tightly-contested division?
Fans of underdogs will have a hard time topping Pittsburgh, as they lost 105 games in 2010 and weren't expected to be much more than a punchline this year, as has been the case every season since 1992. This may be the first trade deadline in years where the Pirates attempt to bolster their own playoff chances rather than those of another team.
Let's not crown them division champs just yet, though. Pittsburgh may have a tough time securing that first winning season in nearly two decades, since the only metric favoring them at present is their actual record. By third-order win percentage -- adjusted for quality of opponents and with underlying statistics taken into account -- the Pirates are the fourth-best in the Central and have nine more wins than they should.
Those victories are in the bank, but it doesn't mean their terrible offense (15th in the NL in True Average and 14th in wRC+) will suffice for the final two months. Especially in concert with their pitching, which has been good but also lucky -- they rank fifth in the NL in runs allowed per game, but are middle-of-the-pack in FRA. The only areas where they excel are the bullpen (.246/.317/.358 allowed on the year) and defensively, where they are atop everyone else in the Central except the fourth-place Reds in Defensive Efficiency.
This is not to say Pittsburgh is destined to lose; the odds just aren't in their favor. With the race as tight as it is, a trade for a bat in the next week is a necessity, not a luxury.
St. Louis's .525 win percentage puts them right in line with their third-order expectations, but, like the Pirates, they have weaknesses. The defense is average (10th in the NL in Defensive Efficiency), the bullpen has been a mess, especially at closer, and they have had to deal with injuries. Those problems haven't slowed down the offense, though, as it ranks first in the NL in both TAv and wRC+, even with Albert Pujols having an un-Pujolsian campaign.
Pujols has been more like his old self since June, at least (.292/.368/.683 with 13 homers in 120 at-bats), meaning the Cardinals may already have the best mid-summer "acquisition" on their roster. The Cards could see some separation between themselves and the rest of the Central if they could fix the bullpen, or get a starter to push Kyle McClellan back into the relief role he held in 2010. It's hard not to think how much different this division race would be had their ace Adam Wainwright not gone under the knife without throwing a single pitch.
The Brewers were expected to combine a fantastic rotation with a powerful lineup, but in reality, both have been average. Newcomer Shaun Marcum has been exactly as advertised, but Zack Greinke has a 5.77 Run Average despite peripherals that suggest a more Greinke-like 3.02 FIP. Overall, Milwaukee's FRA has them in the middle of the league.
Prince Fielder has been a beast at .287/.405/.540, but the offense as a whole isn't that impressive. There are too many holes in the lineup, like Casey McGehee (.226/.278/.309), Yuniesky Betancourt (.252/.272/.371), and Carlos Gomez (.220/.270/.378). Those three have dragged Milwaukee down to a .258 TAv and a wRC+ of just 103.
Less playing time (or better play) from the multiple black holes in the lineup could change their fortunes dramatically down the stretch, as would Greinke's performances matching his peripherals. Gomez's broken clavicle gives them a jump start on that goal, and gets Nyjer Morgan (.346 career OBP) in the lineup instead, but the other two remain a problem. Milwaukee has a better chance than the offensively-challenged Pirates even with two players whose OBPs are hovering in the .270 range, but that's a small victory.
This lack of a clear-cut favorite is why the Reds, three games out, have just as good a shot as the rest. They have been the unluckiest of the four teams, and should be the lone club in first according to third-order wins. They have the weakest pitching of the bunch, though, and their lineup doesn't quite match up with the one in St. Louis -- three games back isn't much, but with three teams in front of them, it will be a challenge to pass all of them and stay ahead.
Gun to my head, it's Tony La Russa's squad that is most likely to be crowned NL Central champs. Their offense, even without Pujols being Pujols (so far), is tops in the NL, and while their pitching isn't excellent, neither is that of any of their competition. A lot can happen in two months, of course, and stranger things have happened in this game than the Pirates winning 90 games. Races like this are why we watch.