Brewers, Cubs, Cubs, Cardinals, Cardinals, Cardinals, Reds.
Those are the past 7 winners of the NL Central. As you can see, it’s been quite a toss up. Same story this season.
At the All-Star break, the 5 teams in the NL Central were within 5 games of one another. The cream has since risen to the top. That cream is Chicago, Milwaukee, and St Louis – the three clubs with the best shots at a division title.
Take a look at the current standings and Vegas odds along with the preseason odds for each of these 3 teams to win the Central.
|Record||Win %||GB||Preseason Odds to Win Division||Current Odds to Win Division|
|St Louis Cardinals||51-47||.520||2.5||+175||+225|
The Cubs’ odds have shortened as they remain in first place late into July. The Brewers have a dangerous lineup and are keeping themselves within striking distance. St Louis began the season as co-favorites but are now a third-place team – both in the standings and the Vegas odds.
Cubs Are Spinning Their Wheels
I don’t care if Vegas did name Chicago and St Louis co-favorites in March, nearly every baseball fan was expecting Chicago to take the division. The Cubs’ roster contains 15 players that have been named to an All-Star team in their careers – the largest number in the majors.
Purely on a “big name” basis, Chicago should win the division. Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Cole Hamels, a trade deadline acquisition of Craig Kimbrel … and that’s just the pitching.
Chicago’s lineup boasts the likes of Javy Baez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Kyle Schwarber. Even casual fans have likely heard of most of these players. On paper, this roster is awesome … and expensive.
The Cubs’ payroll is the 3rd-largest in the league while the Cardinals’ is 9th-largest and the Brewers’ 15th. Here we stand, however, in late July, and this star-studded roster is a mere 9 games over .500 and incapable of pulling away from the pack.
Mediocre Pitching is not Cutting It
Obviously, some of these big-name players are not living up to their salaries. Let’s examine the starting pitching first.
Cole Hamels has the best numbers of the bunch but has just landed on the IL with an oblique injury. Team doctors don’t believe Hamels’ injury is too serious, but obliques have been known to linger and be prone to reaggravation.
Jon Lester has been quite solid. He has a winning record and good peripheral numbers. Apart from Hamels and Lester, the Cubs do not have another starter that can be counted upon to win a big game.
Yu Darvish is getting paid as if he’s that guy ($20M in 2019), but he has not walked the walk this season.
If you have read my past work at all, you’ll know I never let my readers forget that starting pitching is only half of the equation. We can’t forget about those bullpens. Let’s put the Cubbies’ pen under the spotlight.
I count about 3 dependable options for Joe Maddon to turn to. That’s more than my hometown Tigers have, but not enough volume for a contender. Some of these fellas will either have to step it up or watch the Brewers and Cardinals fly past them in August.
The Cubs should consider themselves very fortunate. There are several teams – the Indians and Red Sox immediately come to mind – who have much better bullpens than Chicago and yet do not find themselves in first place.
Good Bats, Not Great
Flashback to 2016 – the Cubs last World Series appearance and WS win. 24-year-old Kris Bryant and 26-year-old Anthony Rizzo led the Cubs offensively. These two young men were either first or second on the team in home runs, doubles, RBIs, runs, and batting average.
The duo has not been as productive in 2019. Here is a quick comparison of Bryant and Rizzo in 2016 to their on-pace numbers this season. Many of the stats are similar but home runs are slightly down and RBI numbers are down significantly.
So much “good not great” on this Cubs team. The pitching staff is good. The hitting is good. The Cubs’ record is good. To win a World Series, though, you need to be great.
Let’s see how the Brewers and Cards stack up.
What a Difference a Year Makes
In 2018, the Brewers won the NL Central with 96 wins (in 163 games). This season, Milwaukee is on pace for 84 wins.
Sports fans have short memories. Does anyone remember that this Brewers crew took the Dodgers to 7 games in the 2018 NLCS? We’re talking about the Dodgers – who we can all agree are great. Milwaukee went toe to toe with ‘em!
I was surprised when I saw that the NL Central preseason odds had Milwaukee third. I can understand placing them second behind the Cubs, but third? This seems disrespectful. What has changed in Milwaukee from last year to this year?
Milwaukee Brewers Pitching Breakdown
Let’s start with the arms. A lockdown bullpen was the defining feature of Milwaukee’s attack in 2018. If you were trailing the Brewers after 6, it was over. Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress, and Corey Knebel were the foundation of this pen.
Milwaukee had some impact starting pitching as well, most notably Jhoulys Chacin, Chase Anderson, and Wade Miley.
These 6 threw very well for the Brew Crew last year. Corey Knebel underwent Tommy John surgery and has missed the entire 2019 season. Wade Miley moved onto greener pastures in Houston.
Below is a chart with the 2018 stats of these 6 pitchers. A green box means that this pitcher is exceeding or is on pace to exceed the number in 2019. A red box means that this pitcher is on pace for a number below his 2018 mark. Miley and Knebel are red all across because they are not contributing anything to the Brewers in 2019.
A lot of green is good. A lot of red is bad.
Of course, Milwaukee has more arms. 2 pitchers in particular have stepped up in 2019 to reinforce the rotation. These pitchers were not major factors in 2018 but have been vital this season.
Stellar 2019 seasons by Woodruff and Davies have helped to offset the losses of Miley and Knebel and the regressions of Chacin, Anderson, and Jeffress.
With Woodruff and Davies as the 1-2 punch, Milwaukee’s starting rotation is in good shape. It is their back half, the fuel of their 2018 playoff run, that has been undependable this season.
The Brewers Offense – Yelich and Co.
.326 batting average, 36 home runs, 110 RBIs, 118 runs, 22 steals.
These were the gaudy numbers posted by Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich in 2018 – his first season with Milwaukee. Yelich was the runaway league MVP, receiving each first-place vote but one (Jacob deGrom got one).
2018 was a fluke, right? Yelich had never hit over .300, never hit more than 21 homers, and had never driven in 100 runs. Then boom … new career highs in the main-5 offensive categories.
Turns out he was just warming up.
Yelich is even better this season and is on pace to shatter his 2018 numbers. Here are the 27-year-old’s 2019 stats along with his 2019 MLB ranks, 2019 on-pace numbers, and 2018 stats for comparison.
The 2019 NL MVP race is a tossup between 2 hitters – Yelich and Cody Bellinger. The last back-to-back MVP winner was Miguel Cabrera in 2012 and 2013.
Yeli has company in Miller Park. The middle of the Brewers lineup has several hitters capable of giving opposing pitching nightmares. These Brewers bats are doing the most damage in 2019.
Good hitting is making up for a lackluster pitching effort this season in Milwaukee. Hitting alone can only keep you in the race for so long.
The Brewers pitching, and especially the bullpen, is going to have to regain their 2018 form if Milwaukee wishes to push deep into the postseason for a second straight year.
Cardinals Refuse to Go Away
St Louis does not boast a 200 million dollar payroll or an MVP center fielder. The Cards’ biggest-name player – Paul Goldschmidt – is hitting below .250.
A grand total of 1 starting pitcher for the Cards holds an ERA below 4. The injured list for St Louis currently contains Matt Carpenter, Marcell Ozuna, Jordan Hicks, and Yadier Molina – among others.
Nothing is going right for the Birds, and yet they find themselves in an enviable position – 4 games over .500 and just 2.5 back of first place.
Cards’ Bullpen on Bailout Duty
Obviously, someone is getting the job done in the Show-Me State to keep this team above .500. The best performers are found down in the bullpen. Here are the top hurlers of 2019 for St Louis.
|Dakota Hudson||103.1||9-4 (1)||3.57||1.51||6.6||4.1|
|John Gant||47.2||7-0 (3)||2.64||1.03||7.4||3.2|
|Jordan Hicks||28.2||2-2 (14)||3.14||0.94||9.7||3.5|
Of these 5, only Hudson is a starter. The Cardinals bullpen has been stellar in 2019. Their starting pitching – not so much.
Adding an impact starter at the deadline – maybe Zack Wheeler or even Matt Boyd – would tremendously help alleviate the Cards’ front end woes, but I have not seen St Louis appear in any trade rumors.
Hitting Just Enough to Get By
As is the theme in the NL Central this season, Cardinals hitters are doing just enough to keep the team within striking distance of first place – nothing more.
Here are the top-5 hitters for the Cards this season. I’ll warn you, the lineup becomes shallow very quickly.
There are two veterans on St Louis’ roster that are vastly underperforming – Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina. Each have an OPS under .700 – which is terrible.
Both of these men are currently on the IL. St Louis needs them back on the field and into decent form if they wish to keep pace with Chicago and Milwaukee into August.
Who’s Hot and Who’s Not?
All teams experience many highs and lows throughout the course of a 162-game marathon. It is the job of each front office and coaching staff to make sure the lows do not last long and that their team is riding a high when it matters – September and October.
Just because the 3 teams atop the NL Central have roughly the same records does not mean they are trending in the same direction. Slow starts are forgivable if you finish hot. Fast starts are meaningless if you stumble down the stretch.
The two most basic aspects of baseball are scoring runs and preventing runs. Here are the runs scored and runs allowed per game for the Cubs, Brewers, and Cardinals – by month. These graphs were made with the help of Venngage.
I have 3 takeaways. The first is that St Louis’ offense has been terribly inconsistent in 2019. We could already tell that from looking at how weak their top-5 hitters were, though.
The second is that Milwaukee’s pitching has truly let them down in 2019 after being their savior in 2018.
Finally, the Cards’ pitching – led by their strong bullpen – started a bit slow but is now a dominant force. You can’t touch ‘em in July. If the Birds get a little extra help from their offense … watch out!
Runs scored and runs allowed paint a nice picture of who is performing and who is not, but they do not tell the entire story. Team record is the only stat that truly matters. Take a look at the ebbs and flows of winning percentage for these 3 teams – again, by month.
The Cubs are trending in the right direction – getting hot when it matters most. Based on momentum, it looks as if the Cubs and Cards are going to make this a two-team race with Milwaukee struggling to keep pace.
I don’t think this will happen. If there is one thing I know about baseball, momentum can change on a dime. With 3 teams all within 2.5 games, the standings can be flipped in one weekend.
Crank up the Heat – the NL Central Leaders Under Pressure
Big league managers will tell you that every series is big. This is partially true. While a May weekday series against the Marlins counts the same in the standings as a September primetime series against your rival, the intensity of the latter cannot be replicated in May, June, or even July.
Games in late August, September, and October have a completely different feel to them. The pressure gets ramped up to a whole new level when your postseason livelihood is on the line.
The closest an early-season game can come to matching the intensity of a late-season contest is when the score is super close – a one-run game.
Teams that have played in the most one-run games theoretically have an advantage when it comes to crunch time in September. The league average in the 2019 MLB season is to have 26.4% of your games decided by one run.
Let’s see how the Cubs, Brewers, and Cards stack up.
|% of Games Decided By 1 Run|
The Cubs have the most experience of the 3 in one-run games, but do they win? The following shows each of these clubs’ records and winning percentages in one-run games.
|Record in 1-run Games||Win % in 1-run Games|
The Brewers are not in close games quite as often as the others, but Milwaukee thrives under the pressure when they find themselves in that spot. This is cause for optimism in Milwaukee moving forward.
The divide between good and bad teams in Major League baseball becomes exaggerated by August. Once the bottomfeeder teams begin selling their best players, they become easy victories for the opposition.
The following chart breaks down the remaining strengths of schedule for the Cubs, Brewers, and Cards:
|Remaining Games||# vs Winning Teams||# vs Last-Place Teams||# at Home|
The Cardinals play the fewest number of games against winning teams to close out the season and have the most home games. The Brewers play the most games against last-place teams, however.
The quickest way to make up ground in a division race is to beat your opponent head-to-head. Here are the head-to-head records for each of these 3 teams.
You can make a case for either of the 3 teams. The Cubs and Brewers have the better offenses but St Louis has great pitching. The Cubs and Cards are hot while Milwaukee is having a rough go in July. The Brewers play the most weak teams down the stretch.
At just 2 games back and +220 on Bovada, I like the Brewers. They proved they had what it takes to win the Central last year, even going as far as Game 7 of the NLCS.
There are grumblings in the South Side about how the Cubs are underperforming. This is never good for morale. As a large market team, however, Chicago’s name appears in many trade rumors. A big acquisition would change everything.
I like the Brewers to win the Central unless Chicago adds a big name at the deadline. I would hold off betting NL Central futures until after the trade deadline, just to be safe.
See you on top!