by Jason Wojciechowski
Photo by Adam Fagen
The N.L. Central seems like a weird place. The cities involved are a mix of rust belt, beer towns, and major metropolises, the teams a mishmash of ancient storied franchises and relative new kids on the block, the front offices running the gamut from extremely nerd-friendly (Chicago, Houston) to having a rep for being old-school (Walt Jocketty in Cincinnati, though this is neither a criticism nor a complete description -- he worked under Sandy Alderson in Oakland, after all, and, more importantly, he's amassed a record of success that makes the process-oriented questions moot).
Just this off-season, the division has been home to two major player defections (Albert Pujols to Anaheim and Prince Fielder to Detroit), two major front-office changes (Jeff Luhnow to Houston and Theo Epstein (and company) to Chicago), one major trade (Mat Latos to Cincinnati), and ... well, I'm trying to come up with something for the Pirates. I guess they acquired A.J. Burnett. Or they signed Andrew McCutchen to a long-term contract.1 Or they took a flier on Erik Bedard. I don't know.
For all that, though, there's something deeply familiar about the way PECOTA sees the division shaking out this season, with three teams bunched together on top (St. Louis, of course, along with Cincinnati joining the big boys and Milwaukee maintaining its recent stature as a contender) and three also-rans, including one team that is the consensus worst squad in the league (Houston, of course, a team whose starting third baseman, Jimmy Paredes, is projected to be worth a full win below replacement level). Without looking too hard at recent years' final results, in part because those are affected by a whole variety of in-season events, luck, and so forth, this seems to nearly always be the case in this division. The Pirates are a constant at the bottom and the Cardinals have become something of a constant at the top, but the shifting fortunes of the four teams in the middle seems not to have resulted in a breakaway favorite with any frequency.
That bunching at the top, though, makes something like Corey Hart's knee surgery that much more important. In the aggregate, Milwaukee is a lot better situated to lose Hart than, say, Rickie Weeks (who is backed up by Cesar Izturis -- yowch), because they've got Nyjer Morgan waiting. The shape of Morgan's performance is different from Hart's, but they could well be equivalently valuable players: as PECOTA figures Hart to be worth something like an extra run every five or six games on offense,2 while eye-balling their FRAA figures from the last few years, and considering that Morgan has amassed his above-average marks in center field, you might estimate that Morgan earns that entire difference back.3
You also might not think Morgan's defense makes up the entire gap, and in any case, when you're talking about Hart maybe missing a week or three games or being ready on Opening Day but not being 100%, you're at a level where, to paraphrase Joe Sheehan, variance uber alles. By which I/he just mean/s that anything can happen in a tiny sample. We can figure the expected runs the team loses with Corey Hart's injury, and we can convert that to an expected number of wins, but we'll be working with fractions, and baseball in the real world deals in whole numbers. Does Morgan face a hitter that Hart would have mashed? Does Morgan catch a ball in the gap that Hart would have let roll past for a double? Does Morgan steal a key base in the ninth inning?
The point being that I'm tempted to write "Hart's injury doesn't change Milwaukee's playoff aspirations," but I can't bring myself to do it. Even qualifiers don't work for me. Does the injury "likely" not change anything? Probably? If we get down into the murk of "probably" and "maybe," then the entire piece becomes even more superfluous than it already is. So fine. Let me sum it up this way: the Brewers are in a division and league situation with no margin for error, but, fortunately for them, they have an extremely capable backup to Hart for as long as he needs to return to full strength after knee surgery -- so capable, in fact, that there might be no drop in their odds of making the playoffs at all.
I don't want to minimize the importance of the McCutchen contract, which is very likely to look extremely team-friendly when we look back on it, but these deals have become old news, especially when the player is someone like McCutchen, with three years in the league already. Matt Moore or Salvador Perez signing deals with like ten major-league days under their belt? That's exciting. An arbitration buy-out that also eats up a few years of free agency? Eh, we've seen this film before. ↩
Take Hart's .283 projected True Average, convert it to runs by subtracting .260 and dividing by 0.9 (per instructions of Colin Wyers), resulting in about .025 per plate appearance. Do the same for Nyjer Morgan's and you get about -.011. (These figures are compared to league average, so a negative isn't literally taking runs off the board.) So Hart creates about .036 more runs per plate appearance. Figure about five PAs per game to get .18 per game, and that's 5.6 games to get one run. ↩
It's worth asking, as always, whether Milwaukee knows something we don't, especially as regards defense. As I ran through in the main text, the players look awfully similar in terms of overall value. (You could also just look at their WARP projections, which are very nearly equal in approximately equal projected playing time.) Hart, though, is seen as the every-day right-fielder, while Morgan is some sort of fourth outfielder or perhaps platoon center-fielder with Carlos Gomez. There are a million possibilities, both good (something about Nyjer Morgan means he'd be stretched as a regular; Morgan's defense is overrated by FRAA; Hart's is underrated) and bad (the team thinks Hart is better than he because his power-hitting is seductive; attitude issues). It's not really worth speculating about, but I think it is important to note the possibility that we're missing something significant. ↩