Joe Janish over at Red Leg Nation did a good job compiling the ZiPS Projections by Dan Szymborski to figure out the projected NL Central standings for 2011. I'm not going to give you a homerific projection of the Astros' season. I've got a pretty good record of being excessively critical of the Astros, and I'm certainly not turning around on that to say they're going to the World Series or anything absurd like that.
But don't you have to question the methodology of anything that places pretty much any team behind the Pirates?
The pessimist in me is perfectly willing to buy Szymborski's breakdown that compares the Astros to the Orioles in the way they keep getting just enough wins to convince management that the team doesn't need to go in a drastic new position. He's right that it's a slow downward spiral and I've been saying as much for years.
But, even granting that it is true, there are a number of reasons to think the Astros will not finish behind the Pirates.
First of all, the Astros have history on their side. In 17 years of sharing the division, the Astros have never finished behind the Pirates. They have had some scares in recent years, but the Astros never finished last in the division and have never finished behind the Pirates. History can change at any moment and that's the beauty of sports, but I'm looking at a Pirates team whose best full-time starter (Ross Ohlendorf) posted a 4.01 ERA last year, and I'm not seeing any reason to think the pattern of the Astros beating out the Pirates is going to change this year.
Secondly, the Astros' offense should get better this year. Nobody's going to confuse them with the 1927 Yankees or even the 2004 Astros, but there's plenty of reason to think the Astros will be better with the bats in 2011. They added Bill Hall and Clint Barmes. Chris Johnson will probably take a step back from his surprising rookie campaign, but there's no reason to think that Brett Wallace and Jason Castro won't see improvement, and no reason to think that Carlos Lee and Michael Bourn can't rebound and hit more like they did in 2009. They were a team in flux last year, and even with their complete offensive futility, I'll let you take a stab at one of the two teams that finished behind the Astros in virtually every offensive category. Did you guess? Yeah … it was the Pirates.
Thirdly, the Astros have pitching. You can knock their offense from here to October, and maybe their pitching even overperformed a little bit last year with a resurgent season from Brett Myers. But Myers, Wandy Rodriguez and J.A. Happ lead a solid rotation (3.30 ERA last year for those three) and the bullpen is coming together with great young guys like Fernando Abad, Wilton Lopez and Mark Melancon, with Brandon Lyon anchoring the closer's spot. Again, nothing that will compete for the World Series, but certainly good enough to finish ahead of the Pirates and maybe even enough to surprise other NL opponents.
I don't write this to proclaim the virtues of a team that might be just this much better than the lowly Pirates. I write it to say that this statistical finding doesn't pass the smell test. I'm sure that Dan Szymborski has put a lot of thought and work into his equations, but when those equations come out with the standings shown by Red Leg Nation, it might be an invitation back to the drawing board. Or, at the very least, a reminder that all the stats in the world will never tell us what we often know just by looking at what's in front of us.