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Why aren't the St. Louis Cardinals in first place in the National League Central?

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Jeff Curry

As we sit before our computer screens this Thursday morning, the National League Central standings look like this:

Place

Team

W

L

GB

PCT

RS

RA

Run Diff

1

Milwaukee

28

19

-

.596

178

174

+4

2

St. Louis

25

21

2.5

.543

176

159

+17

3

Cincinnati

21

24

6.0

.467

160

167

-7

4

Pittsburgh

19

26

8.0

.422

178

202

-24

5

Chicago

16

28

10.5

.364

174

174

+/- 0


The Cardinals have the best run differential in the division and the Brewers the second best. Yet Milwaukee sits atop the standings and the Cards in second. The Brew Crew and Redbirds are the only clubs in the division with both a run differential or winning record.

Pythagorean record is calculated based on a team’s run differential based on the game’s historical results. What should a team’s record be if it has scored x amount of runs and allowed y?

Baseball Prospectus has given us a different take on the simple Pythagorean record with its third order wins, which can be found on their free adjusted standings page. Rather than looking a team’s runs scored and allowed, BP calculates third order records based on a team’s underlying player performance and adjusts for opponent quality.

The following chart contains the NL Central teams’ Pythagorean records (W1, L1, and PCT1) and BP’s third order records (W3, L3, and PCT3).

Place

Team

W1

L1

PCT1

W3

L3

PCT3

1

St. Louis

25.1

20.9

.545

25.0

21.0

.543

2

Cincinnati

21.6

23.4

.481

22.9

22.1

.509

3

Chicago

22.0

22.0

.500

22.3

21.7

.506

4

Milwaukee

24.0

23.0

.510

23.1

23.9

.491

5

Pittsburgh

19.9

25.1

.442

20.2

24.8

.449


As you can see, in the computer-generated reality of Pythagoras and BP, the Cards sit atop the Central standings. The distance between St. Louis and the Central pack shrinks in BP’s third order win calculation. Contrary to what the standings indicate, BP’s formula suggests the Central has teams playing good baseball when adjusted for quality of opponent. (I know I feel somewhat better about the Cardinals’ performance against the Cubs so far this season after looking at BP’s adjusted standings.)

Of course the games are played by humans on a field of grass and dirt—not on the pixels of a spreadsheet. Over baseball’s history, a team’s run differential may correlate highly with a certain winning percentage. But teams have also defied their Pythagorean records over short time frames and long. Why might the Milwaukee be ahead of St. Louis in the Central standings despite the Cardinals’ superior run differential?

The Brewers (10-4, .714) have been nails in one-run games. The Pirates (12-11, .522), Cardinals (9-9, .500), Reds (8-12, .400), Cubs (2-9, .182) have not, to varying degrees. How much longer can the Brewers—with the team’s league-best reliever ERAcontinue to thrive in one-run games before they fall back to earth? Will the Cardinals’ addition of Jason Motte help the club overcome manager Mike Matheny’s decision-making in close games? Will the return of Reds relievers see their fortunes change in one-run contests? It bears watching as the division race unfolds.