I can't decide if this whole situation in the NL Central spits in the face of the second wild card or somehow validates it. The Reds and Pirates have been in lockstep for what seems like weeks now, while the Reds have held the smallest of margins on second place and both teams staying within striking distance of the Cardinals. Put a different way: six teams in the majors have won 40 games. Three of them are in the NL Central.
This week, these two teams are going to actually play each other - four times IN A ROW - instead of doing all this passive-aggressive proxy battle against "other teams."
Playing their division rivals is not something the Reds have done particularly well this season, having gone 5-10 against Pittsburgh and St. Louis. But they've (kind of) outscored the Pirates (25-24). Both teams have good pitching, competent offenses and are separated by just a half game. They've played about the same strength of schedule to date. It really couldn't get any more even unless the Reds were playing themselves. (Side note: I've always been disappointed that video game characters don't act strangely or horrified if you choose to have them play themselves)
The caveat, as always, is that the Pirates might be overachieving. In recent history, that's been the knee-jerk reaction whenever they up and do anything good. It seems mostly hollow when you're talking about a team that has one of the best records in baseball after 2 and a half months. But some of it is there in the numbers.
The Pirates have only scored 261 runs. Taken with runs allowed, Pythag says they should be 37-32 (instead of 41-28). It's not for me to say how many games they deserved to win, but if they are overachieving, it's probably in the pitching staff.
Every pitcher in the Pirates' "classic" rotation (Top 5 by 2013 innings pitched) is outperformning most any projection and peripheral stat (Zips, Steamer, FIP, xFIP, SIERA), with the exception of Francisco Liriano - whose peripherals say he's about where he should be, maybe even a little better.
Now that an entire rotation's worth of starters have been moved to the DL (Burnett, Wandy, Jeanmar Gomez, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens), the regression might come on an end-run. Except it might not: while the Reds have the signifcantly better pitching staff by ERA+ (121 vs. 111), the Pirates have more depth by a wide margin. They just inserted their top prospect, Gerrit Cole, into the rotation. And there was some blog post linked on Baseball Reference entitled "Do the Pirates have too much pitching?" See?
No one ever has enough pitching, though. Remember all those injuries, from mentioning it before? For proof, I tried windmilling my arm around a few times just now and I already feel a little injured.
Here are the probable starters. Missing Cole for Cumpton (very funny, but what's his actual name) I don't think it's being too partisan to say the home team has the edge:
Tonight: Mike Leake vs. Francisco Liriano
If you just looked at the list of probables and the ERAs, you might think these were the #1 starters. And you wouldn't be far off. Which is weird.
TUE: Charlie Morton vs. Mat Latos
WED: Jeff Locke vs. Bronson Arroyo
THU: Brandon Cumpton vs. Homer Bailey
Pittsburgh vs. Cincinnati should be a natural rivalry - some post-season history, a common division, a common river, a common desire for post-industrial urban renewal. This series should be called the "Riverboat Series" or "Barge Bash" or something. Maybe it will earn the title.