While we all catch our breath with the exciting news that, as of this late day in the season, the Pittsburgh Pirates maintain sole possession of first place in the National League Central, the reality is this is still a four team race with the Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and those Pirates all in the thick of the battle. The bunch certainly qualifies the division as a horse race. What will be the factor that pushes a team to the top when all is said and done? All the teams have similar bullpens now that the Brewers have K-Rod. All boast decent rotations, but not dominant. All have a few holes in their respective line ups. So what will win this thing? Might it be defense?
The Pirates have prevented the most amount of runs, but have also scored the least of the four contenders. The Reds, Cardinals and Brewers all have mashers in the line up surrounded by question marks. The Reds, Cardinals and Brewers all have decent rotations that seem to even themselves out. The only real separator for these teams is defense. The Brewers and the Cardinals are near the bottom in the majors in unearned runs allowed and defensive efficiency. The Pirates give up a lot of unearned runs due to their relative youth and inexperience. But they can go get the ball too with a high defensive efficiency. The one team that seems to have an strong edge in defense is the Reds.
The Reds may seem to be treading water and if Twitter buddy @diamondhoggers is to believed, the team seems to lack character and leadership. This writer has to smile at the tweets as the tweeter is about as passionate about his team as anyone around. But despite being under .500 and despite too many games where they do seem to sleepwalk, this team is only four games out of first place. And defense might be their ticket to the prize.
The Reds have given up only 22 unearned runs all season. Compare that to Pittsburgh's 39, Milwaukee's 44 and the Cardinals' 42 and that is a huge difference. Only the Phillies and the Braves have given up less unearned runs. Cincinnati is third in the majors in defensive efficiency and only trails the Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox in that category. The Pirates are eleventh in defensive efficiency while the Cardinals are 23rd and the Brewers 27th. The Pirates are third in the majors in Baseball Prospectus' Total Zone Runs Above Average while the Reds are fourth. The Brewers fare better in this category and are 17th while the Cardinals are 27th.
Baseball Info Solutions has another stat called Defensive Runs Saved Above Average and in that statistic, the Reds are third, the Pirates are seventh, the Brewers are 17th and the Cardinals are 24th. And if you like the good old fashioned fielding percentage stat, the Reds are third, the Pirates are 20th, the Cardinals are 23rd and the Brewers are 25th.
Cutting across the entire fielding spectrum, the Reds clearly outshine over the rest of the division in fielding. The Reds did not score lower than fourth on any given category. The Pirates score well in several defensive metrics but do not measure up to the Reds with the gloves (and the feet and arms).
This division will be very interesting and exciting to watch. The Reds out pace the other three in offensive WAR but lag behind the other three in pitching WAR. The Pirates are right in the middle of the road on offense and pitching. The Cardinals are better on offense than all but the Reds but are below the Pirates and Brewers in pitching. The Brewers are right behind the Pirates in pitching WAR but just ahead of them on offense. With all that stuff seeming to even all these teams out, perhaps it will be the defense that sways the final outcome.
The heart is with the Pirates, but the head is still with the Reds.