Tim Benz: Cubs manager Joe Maddon thinks he’s figured out Pirates, NL Central
When the All-Star break ends, the second half of the season will resume the same way the first half ended for the National League Central.
Division rivals will be jockeying for position as all five teams reboot the schedule within 4 ½ games of each other in the standings. The Pirates start things off against the division-leading Cubs in Chicago. Then they go to St. Louis. After the the Pirates leave Wrigley Field, the Cubs welcome the Reds.
“Everybody is still working hard to find their rhythm,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said during the series last week against the Cubs. “We’ve all put together some (good) stretches. And then we’ve all had some stretches where it hasn’t gone well. It’s very competitive. Very intense.”
Hurdle is on point there. Each team has between 41 and 47 wins. Each team has between 43 and 46 losses.
No club has gotten loose on an extended win streak to separate itself from the mediocrity. No club has gone into a death spiral to tank out of contention.
“The division is where it is supposed to be,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said last week at PNC Park. “It’s muddled. It’s a mess. Nothing has been decided. It should be exciting for everyone the last 70 to 75 games.”
Cubs manager Joe Maddon has a more positive characterization of why the Central is where it is, rather than calling it “muddled” or “a mess.”
“I’ve kinda been prescient,” Maddon said with a self-aware grin.
Oh, well then, Joe, do tell.
“I’ve been talking about this for the last few years how teams are getting better in our division,” Maddon said. “It’s going to be hard to separate. Teams are not going to go away.”
So, at 44-45 (2 ½ games back of the Cubs for first place), how about the Pirates specifically?
We’ve already spent time talking about how the Pirates are evaluating themselves going into the trade deadline at the end of the month. How are others in the division viewing their shot at hanging around the rest of the way?
Counsell praised all of the clubs in the division for making themselves better from last year to this year. While the other organizations may have done so through free agent signings and trades, Counsell said the Pirates have been wise to turn over the keys of the offense to young players such as Josh Bell, Kevin Newman and Bryan Reynolds.
“Those guys have been difference-makers,” Counsell said. “They’re playing at a clip offensively that has been pretty special.”
All three of those Pirates building blocks are hitting over .300 and have an OPS between .851 and 1.024.
Maddon struck a similar tone but tempered his praise for Pittsburgh a touch.
And these comments were stated before he acted like he wanted to fight the whole Pirates dugout on the Fourth of July.
“We’re seeing them as good as they can hit right now,” Maddon said after the Pirates had won the first three games of their series last week. “There’s a lot of ebbing and flowing before this whole thing is over. They are playing at their best right now. We are not.”
The Pirates wound up going 12-5 to close out the first half of the year. Chicago went 6-10. But Maddon has a theory why the Pirates may be so hot.
“There is a disconnect in some on-base percentage-based (stats) and their batting average. Those numbers are kind of close. The batted ball in play number has got to be extraordinary right now,” Maddon suggested.
In other words, Maddon is hinting that the Pirates have had a healthy amount of good fortune when it comes to batted balls finding holes and safe places to land in the outfield.
For as much as Pittsburgh baseball fans may hate that notion coming from a reviled rival manager such as Maddon, he’s right.
And c’mon. We’ve all said it out loud at some point this season. “How long can (insert Bell, Newman, Reynolds, Adam Frazier, Jacob Stallings, Melky Cabrera here) stay this hot?”
The numbers support Maddon’s theory. The Pirates balls-in-play batting average is .319. That’s second-best in the National League. The league average is .298. The Cubs are the next best team in the division at .299.
The gap between the Pirates’ team batting average and its on-base percentage is .056, the narrowest of any team in the Central. The Cubs have the most substantial gap at .082.
So, we see you working, Joe. You’re saying the Pirates are due to correct to the mean when it comes to batted balls finding gloves, and you’re due to find a few more lucky bounces.
With as close as this race has been all year, a few lucky bounces may make all the difference in the world.
Let’s hope none of that changes for the Cubs and Pirates until next Monday afer the Pirates fly out of the Windy City.