We're about a day from the purported second half the season starting, even though mathematically it's not, so I wanted to take the time to go over a few things we can expect during the playoff chase. Some of this is about the Braves, and some of it is about the NL as a whole, so I'll start with the Braves issues and then branch out into a divison by division prediction of the playoff seeding. Let's check it out.
The Braves in the second half need a few things to go right, and they need to capitalize on the things that have been good for them so far. The first thing they need to keep rolling along is the pitching staff. Right now, the Braves have the second best ERA in the NL, the best bullpen ERA in the NL, and the 3rd fewest walks allowed by any staff. With those kind of numbers, it's hard for any team to really rough us up for a huge run total consistently. However, here's the problem. The Braves in July are 11th in the NL in ERA. The huge falloff this month isn't a good thing. We were limping to the All-Star break anyway, but what has previously been a gigantic strength has suddenly become a liability in July. Suddenly, the Braves have to rely on the bats to get wins, and that has been a hit or miss prospect at best. Pun intended! A 6-7 record in July thus far speaks to how well things go when the pitching isn't tops. That leads to the primary concern. It's hard to win games when your best bats are on the bench. That statement has two meanings. A part of it is related to the recent injuries with the entire outfield and Freeman. The other part is that some of the hottest hitters on this team aren't the starters or moneymakers.
If I asked you who the hottest hitter in July was, who would you guess? Maybe Freeman or CJ? The answer is actually McCann. He's been hitting at a blistering .419 on the month after just crawling through the month of June. I dogged him as bad as anyone, and he's responded with one of his best months to date. Why? Because he's an All-Star. Freeman, Justin, McCann, and CJ all have averages over .300 in July. That's been great, and that's the reason we've won games while the pitching has floundered. However, Heyward is hitting .205, and BJ and Dan are hitting .176. A guy like Reed has been getting more time and hitting .261 with an OBP of .346. Constanza has lit it up for .333 in a small sample size of 2 games. Pastornicky has been hitting .333 in 8 games. At some point, if we actually struggle enough to get within 3 games of the Nationals or Phillies in the standings, we're going to bench some people. That much I can guarantee. However, if we continue to coast along at 5+ games up in the standings on the division, absolutely nothing is going to change. That's a certainty.
Now let's take a look at the divisions. I'll start with the West and move East, much like the jet stream. The NL West is extremely tough to handicap, mainly because nobody seems to want to run away and hide. Here's what we know. Arizona has pretty much held the lead for the majority of the season at this point. The Dodgers have been hard charging after a crappy start. The Padres are completely out of it, and the Giants have one foot out the door. Colorado sits in a weird position where they don't have a good chance, but they also aren't out of it. The reason the Dodgers are charging isn't Puig, it's because their pitching has stopped being a complete nuclear meltdown. In the month of July, the Dodgers have the best ERA in the entire NL as a staff. As a point of reference, in May and June they were 8th, and in April they were 9th. It's a staff that's starting to figure it out, and since they are only 2.5 back of the Dbacks, that has Arizona fans chewing nails. With the two teams basically neck and neck in team OPS, a better pitching staff could be the difference. What should REALLY scare Arizona is they got swept by the Dodgers in Arizona in July. Everything in July is trending the Dodgers way, and Arizona seems to be treading water at best. I think when the dust clears, the Dodgers are sitting on top of that division. Arizona finishes strong and gets a WC slot.
The Central is on fire. Three teams are playing well, pitching well, and filling up the All-Star team with candidates. The Cardinals seem to be the best team of the bunch, mainly because they are the best hitting team in the NL. Period. And it's not close. They have a team OPS of .753 on the season, and second place in the division is Cincy at .722. The Pirates aren't even in the same zip code as those two teams with the bats at .697. However, the Pirates are living and dying with their pitching. Come Hell or high water, the Pirates are either going to shut you down, or they are going to lose, because if the games have more than 4 runs they are toast. In fact, the Pirates are 13-23 when the opposing team scores 4 or more. That's the magic number if you want to beat them. There is no magic number for the Cardinals because they can club you to death. The way I see this going is that the Cards win the division going away, the Pirates fade back to 3rd because they have hitting problems that the pitching can't save, and the Reds move up to 2nd and secure the WC slot. The Pirates question what happened as they miss the WC by a game or two to Arizona, but have their first winning season in forever.
The East is simpler. Braves win, Nats go to pieces, and Philly thinks they have a shot until August when they realize they don't. Philly's pitching is mostly a joke, so they can't contend down the stretch with the problems that aren't going away. Also, they have too many marketable assets at the trade deadline. They've seen a resurgence of good pitching in July, but that still puts them at 11th overall in the NL on the season in ERA. It's too much ground to make up with the hopes that their staff can continue to produce at a 3.00 level. Washington is going the other way. From a solid starting core that's now beginning to show cracks, to their bullpen that is still a large problem, Washington has pitching issues in the second half. An even bigger problem is Detwiler and Haren, who haven't won a decision since May, and Detwiler heading to the DL. Haren hasn't won a game at all since May 9th. Zimmerman and Strasburg exploded in July several times and put their monthly ERAs in the 4.50+ range with Strasburg over 6. Gio Gonzalez is basically the only consistent starter they have on the team coming out of the break right now. That's tough to overcome with a schedule that includes the Dodgers and Pittsburgh, two playoff contenders, right off the bat. I think the Braves win, and nobody gets the Wild Card here.