Each team is 9 games over .500 heading into Week 5, and has a nifty +36 in runs scored vs. allowed. And each fan is wearing the malicious grin of the cat who has caught the canary.
For Toronto, the bats are thumping when last year they whimpered, thanks in part to newcomers Adam Lind and Travis Snider. The rotation, hurt but not destroyed by free agent defection (AJ Burnett) and injury (nearly everyone else), has been serviceable. The bullpen has been staunch despite the loss of closer BJ Ryan to yet another round of arm ouchies. And tellingly, they are benefitting from not having to play much against their own powerhouse division.
For the Cardinals, the difference from last season so far has been learning how to stay out of its own way. Last year's team played like a punch-shy boxer, every feint forward leading either to a quick step back or a flattening punch to the gut. "Mo" was a doubly dirty word, standing either for Momentum, which the Cardinals couldn't capture, or for Mozeliak, the too-patient steward of a roster in rebuild.
After an eventless offseason (we do not classify replacing Cesar Izturis with Khalil Greene an "event"), both Mo's seemed set against us. However, after the first month's returns, it appears that the roster needed less tinkering and just a tad more coaching. Both Joel Pineiro and Ryan Franklin are showing off dazzling effectiveness with new pitches – the infamous two-seamer for Pineiro (he calls it "his new toy"), and an Isringhausen-model cut fastball for Franklin. Meanwhile, the defensive genius of Jose Oquendo has made like Rumplestiltskin and spun a serviceable 2nd-baseman out of straw.
These pat observations have some hard numbers behind them, thanks to The Hardball Times.
THT publishes a nifty little statistical view of the league that tells us which of three components are to be blamed or praised for their overall performance: the bats, the starters, or the bullpen. Each is measured by a tricky figure, a cumulative score of how much "win probability added (WPA)" each has contributed. To explain it, I'd need you to imagine an infinite number of monkeys watching the entire recorded history of baseball with an infinite number of pencils and scorecards, except that all the monkeys share a single brain, and that brain has been banned from every casino in Las Vegas. They assign credit for each win and loss based on when each game was won – for example, a ten-run second inning puts the game nearly out of reach, and the bats get the bulk of the credit for the eventual win, regardless of how good the starting pitching and bullpen is down the stretch.
Also, each game starts as a coin flip – there is no pretending that one team is "favored" over the other, even if you lined up the '34 Gashouse Gang against a single animated rabbit with a Brooklyn accent. So for this statistic, each team starts out having "earned" half a win just by taking the field. The other half is either won or lost by the actions on the field. So each game won adds +0.5 to the cumulative score, while each game lost subtracts -0.5, divided among the appropriate parties.
These numbers add some shading to teams whose standings look nearly identical.
|Team (record)||Total WPA||Offense||SPs||RPs|
Looking at the Cardinals' success in these terms, we find a staggering trend, and hopefully one that continues: a bullpen that is not a liability! With Franklin holding down the ninth inning, we can attack teams with Motte and Perez in potentially devastating fashion in the 7th and 8th, innings where each has been so far effective. With Carlos Marmol suddenly on the skids, the Redbirds' pen suddenly holds potential to be the best in the Central. (However, Cincinnati's performance to date is setting an unusually high bar.)
Just for comparison's sake, let's look at our northside friends, as well as the three teams we face this week:
|Team (record)||Total WPA||Offense||SPs||RPs|
The Cubs, for all the fear this lineup and rotation was supposed to be putting into the league, has been spectacularly unspectacular. Only Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano have been up to their own standards so far this season, and of the vaunted rotation, only Rich Harden's patented five innings of hell have been remotely impressive. You have to figure that at some point, slumping players like Milton Bradley, Derrek Lee (grand slam on Sunday!) and Geovanny Soto will return to their established levels of production, and this team will go on a run.
The Phillies' numbers portray a rollercoaster season - a monstrous offense (the best in baseball, by this measure) betrayed by a putrid starting rotation (by far the worst in baseball, by this measure). The offense has been powered by Chase Utley, who was supposed to be enfeebled by a gimpy hip, and free agent signee Raul Ibanez, who was supposed to be Raul Ibanez, not a 7-homer April Superman. Be forewarned: Ryan Howard has not even started hitting yet, and is traditionally a terror for St. Louis pitchers.
The Pirates may be closer to establishing an identity for themselves, starting with a profound improvement from their starting pitchers. After three failed pitching coaches in four years, the starters appear to be listening to Joe Kerrigan.
The Reds, meanwhile, may be the division's sleepers. A resurgent Aaron Harang and a suddenly lights-out Johnny Cueto are leading the starting rotation out of the depths, while a bullpen of Fransico Cordero and a series of unknowns and forgottens are shutting down opponents. Formidably, the team has now won all five of its road series. If this offense (one of the least productive in the league) can gain a foothold, these Reds could be downright dangerous.
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