NL Central Under Microscope



With the St. Louis Cardinals visit to the New York Mets being tonight's featured national telecast on ESPN, you know the wild and crazy race in the NL Central is going to be a central theme for Wednesday. St. Louis is in a four-team Battle Royale with Milwaukee, last year's champ, and Cinderella story Pittsburgh (who St. Louis visits this weekend in a suddenly HUGE series).

That makes this an ideal time to put the division under the microscope to see if we can figure out what's REALLY happening in this amazing race. We're really going to turn this Rubik's Cub of a quartet around today in a way that's going to open your eyes. Maybe you'll be more confused after reading the article than before! But, at least you'll have a better sense of the dynamics in play.

First, here were the standings after Monday Night's action (we're using that as a cut-off for all the data in today's article because of publication deadlines).

NL CENTRAL (through Monday)
Pittsburgh 50-44
Milwaukee 51-46 (a half game back)
St. Louis 50-45 (a half game back)
Cincinnati 47-49 (4 games back)

The Reds were just three back entering their Monday-Wednesday series in Pittsburgh. They may fall off the pace soon. But, they grade out so well in our study today that we felt obliged to include them in the mix. The stats say the Reds may be the best team of the lot!

Cincinnati +27
St. Louis +26
Pittsburgh +14
Milwaukee -15

The Reds have played one more game than St. Louis, so we're looking at a statistical dead heat at the top of the division if you're only looking at run differential. Of course, it's the bottom two teams from the "real" standings who are on top of the top two teams in this measure! And, look at how far Milwaukee falls off the pace.

What's up with the Brew Crew? Part of their place in the standings this year is the result of a great record in one-run games. We've shown over the years that one-run records can be strongly influenced by luck. No teams continue to win close games year after year even with the same talent and manager. So, Milwaukee's current 22-13 mark in one-run decisions is actually a red flag that the team may be overrated.

Let's run the records in games decided by 2 runs or more

St. Louis 36-30
Cincinnati 33-28 (a half game back)
Pittsburgh 37-34 (1.5 games back)
Milwaukee 29-33 (5 games back)

If everyone broke out even in one-run games, it's the Cardinals who would be leading the division in a dogfight with Cincinnati (same as in the run differential category), and the Brewers would be well off the pace in danger of disappearing. This is why we're including Cincinnati in today's discussion. Last year's divisional champs are better than their record is suggesting...and there's more than 60 games remaining for the laws of math to catch back up.

It's been noted recently that Pittsburgh's run to the top of the division came at the hands of Houston and the Chicago Cubs. Those teams are horrible. Pittsburgh's seen a lot of them lately, and is mostly just taking care of business against teams in the tank. Has Pittsburgh played more games against the patsies than everyone else?

Pittsburgh 21 (15-6)
Cincinnati 17 (12-5)
St. Louis 14 (11-3)
Milwaukee 13 (6-7)

Pittsburgh has been fortunate in terms of the schedule to this point.

Jeez Milwaukee, a losing record against those guys!! The good news is that the Brewers have a lot of games left against them. That could launch Milwaukee back to the top of division if Houston and Chicago continue to lay unconscious on the ground. Here are everyone's records if you throw out Houston and Chicago.

Milwaukee 45-39
Pittsburgh 35-38
St. Louis 39-42
Cincinnati 35-44

Yes, you turn the Rubik's Cube another direction, and the Brewers are right back in the mix. They've suffered great luck in close games, but horrible luck in the schedule (don't forget about the brutal Interleague slate they had to face, visiting both Boston and the New York Yankees this year). And, even when you adjust for the Pirates volume vs. doormats, they're still equal to St. Louis in games below .500, and ahead of the Reds.

We can't let a discussion like this go by without a look at one of our pet stats, Wins Minus Home Games Played. Let's see if goofy home/road splits are influencing perceptions

Pittsburgh +4
Milwaukee +4
St. Louis +4
Cincinnati even

Well, that didn't help much of anything. All the contenders had played a few more road games than home games as of Monday Night...we're still in a three-way logjam with the Reds within striking distance.

Let's sum up the NL Central this way for now...and we'll be open to new interpretations based on what we see this week.

  • This isn't a very good division. Houston and Chicago are horrible. Only Milwaukee has a winning record this year when not playing those two teams. Whoever wins this division will be a dog to whoever they face in the playoffs...which will probably come from the trio of San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Atlanta).

  • All four contenders are legit in the sense that they're roughly 80-85 win teams in a season where that could be enough to take this division. You can't point to any of the four and say they're an obvious pretender within the division. Conversely, you can point to all four and say with confidence they don't measure up to other NL powers, or the best from the AL.

  • Pittsburgh is probably most likely to fall back to earth based on past franchise history. They also have a couple of rotation starters whose stats seem to be out of line with career norms. But, they're not winning with mirrors. They're taking care of business against opponents who are just going through the motions.

  • St. Louis got Albert Pujols back from injury earlier than expected. And, he had two homers this past weekend in Cincinnati. That suggests he didn't come back too soon. We're disappointed in the Cardinals pitching this year. Their offense is likely to keep them in the race even if pitching doesn't come around.

  • Milwaukee is now the team battling injuries. They don't seem to have much margin for error at this point. The newly purchased starting rotation hasn't quite lived up to expectations (Zack Greinke has been hit very hard even though he's getting a lot of strikeouts). The good luck of close game performance has been cancelled out by some bad luck with the schedule. That means to us that the Brewers are where they're supposed to be. Should Greinke find has past AL form, that might be the ultimate difference-maker.

  • Cincinnati is better than you realize, but probably not as good as last year's playoff entry. We think it's fair to consider this a four-team race with four relatively even teams. So, be sure have the Reds where they need to be in your team ratings.

We were hoping to clear up the muddled mess in the division with our stats today. Instead, we added context to how truly even things are at the moment. This is a legitimately tight race with four "B" caliber teams. It's okay to take them against "C" or "D" caliber opposition at affordable prices. Be careful asking for too much when they step up in class. They're "playoff contenders" because of their weak division, not because of true overall quality. None of the four teams currently has a winning record against the composite of Philly, Atlanta, San Francisco, Boston, and the NY Yankees (this division mostly faced the AL East in Interleague play). You'll see in a moment that this is particularly important to remember this week!

Here's the upcoming schedule in the Battle Royale.

Cincinnati at Pittsburgh (today only)
St. Louis at NY Mets (today and Thursday)
Milwaukee at Arizona (today and Thursday)

St. Louis at Pittsburgh
Atlanta at Cincinnati
Milwaukee at San Francisco

This weekend  features playoff style baseball for all four teams!

Next week, it's going to get tough for Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The Pirates visit Atlanta and Philadelphia in succession. Cincinnati hosts the Mets, then the defending World Champion San Francisco Giants.

St. Louis and Milwaukee will have it easy...flip flopping with Houston and the Chicago Cubs.

We're guessing things will be much clearer at the end of July then they are now. Pittsburgh will have to play GREAT to stay in the race the next two weeks. Either St. Louis or Milwaukee (or both) could catch fire with a dominant homestand.

Here at JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK, we're watching day-to-day developments in baseball very closely. You can always purchase our top plays right here at the website with your credit card. We also have great rates for the rest of the season that give you the most bang for your buck. If you have any questions, call us in the office at 1-800-323-4453.

Baseball coverage continues here in the NOTEBOOK Thursday and Friday. Then, it's back to college football this weekend with our stat previews of the ACC.

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