The NL Central has undoubtedly shaped up to be one of baseball’s more peculiar stories of 2017. Just about everybody predicted the Cubs to win the division. People expected the Cardinals and Pirates to contend for wildcard spots, and most discounted the notion that the Brewers and Reds would bring any competition.
While the majority of projection systems and baseball fans agree that the Cubs will eventually rise to the top of the Central, Wisconsinites and Brewers fans all around are delighting in the continuous extension of what seemed to be a short-lived Brewers edge in the division.
Of course, luck has played a large role in Milwaukee’s time at the helm, but the Brewers seem to have also figured things out a bit. Regression is bound to occur, but Milwaukee has held staying power through the first 74 games of the season.
At BP Milwaukee, Nicholas Zettel evaluated the Brewers’ performance over the last 130 games, regression statistics included. I’ll take a look at the progression/regression chances for Milwaukee’s divisional competition.
The Cubs are the obvious culprits for a turnaround, and that conclusion doesn’t require research-driven analysis. The biggest standout-bad luck sign are the Cubbie bats: Chicago holds the league’s fourth worst hitting BABIP at .278.
Cubs hitters individually own four of the league’s 26 worst BABIP scores. Ben Zobrist, for example, is hitting .223 with just a .235 BABIP. However, Zobrist is hitting the ball harder than he has his entire career, posting a 35.9 percent hard contact rate. Anthony Rizzo holds a 1.22 BB/K ratio, nearly 0.5 points better than his previous career high, but a career-low BABIP total (minus his 49-game stint as a Padre) has severely weighed down his offensive production. However, Rizzo has mashed the ball ever since he’s moved into the leadoff spot of the Cubs lineup. Chicago’s hitting is bound to recover.
Cubs pitching? The staff has definitely regressed from last season. Jake Arrieta has a ground ball rate almost 10 percentage points worse than his previous two years. Kyle Hendricks, who finished third in the Cy Young Award voting in 2016, owns a 4.07 xFIP and a finger injury, landing him on the 10-day DL. Progression should come for some of the Cubs’ starters, but the underwhelming numbers are a little less fluky for Cubs pitchers.
Barring a mathematical outlier, or pre-2016 Cubs luck on steroids, Chicago will bounce back. The Cubs have series with Miami, Washington, Cincinnati, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh heading into the all-star break. Remove Washington and the Cubs have a clear path to the division lead by July 11. Chicago still has 69.6 percent chance at making the playoffs, according to BP’s playoff odds report.
St. Louis Cardinals
This is where it gets interesting. St. Louis owns just a 13.2 percent chance at making the playoffs, a healthy amount below Milwaukee’s 21.2 percent chance. The Cardinals hold the third worst Pythagorean Over/Under (-3.3) in the National League. However, it remains questionable as to if St. Louis has enough weapons to turn that around.
For an organization that values fielding, the Redbirds place 16th in Defensive Efficiency. This puts a lot of pressure on St. Louis’ starting pitchers. Adam Wainwright posts an ERA of 5.75 but a 101 cFIP, Michael Wacha owns a 4.78 ERA and a 96 cFIP. Other pitchers like Carlos Martinez and Mike Leake, who are more reliant on the strikeout and ground ball, haven’t been as affected by St. Louis’ glove performance, piecing together solid seasons regardless.
At the plate, the Cardinals have had some pleasant surprises, like Jedd Gyorko, who has brought his batting average up from .243 in 2016 to .291 in 2017. His BABIP is a lofty .346, however, set for regression, as his hard contact rate is more than two percentage points lower than his career average. Dexter Fowler (.275) and Matt Carpenter (.264) have low BABIP numbers, so it’s probable that their batting averages rise. Other than that, St. Louis seems pretty set in its ways at the plate. The Cardinals rank 14th with a .263 Total Average (TAv), and 18th in BABIP, so this could just be who St. Louis is.
The Cardinals look like a middle of the pack team at this point, which obviously doesn’t live up to their post-millennium standards. A full recovery from mediocrity doesn’t appear all too probable for St. Louis, but as Brewers fans know, you can never count out the Cardinals.
The Pirates had a really tough April and beginning to May; Starling Marte was suspended 80 games for PED’s and Andrew McCutchen looked as if his 2016 season wasn’t a fluke. Disappointment aligned what once appeared to be a drool-worthy outfield with a trio of potential five-tool players. The third in the grouping, Gregory Polanco, posted an impressive May but has regressed and then some, owning a .197 AVG in June.
However, the team goes with McCutchen, and the once-dreadlocked talent has turned it around. The Bucs ace, Gerrit Cole, has fired seven inning, three hit, one run outings in both of his last two starts following a slew of awful ones. Pittsburgh has slowly but surely slid back into contention, with series wins against Colorado, and so far, two of three against Milwaukee entering Thursday. They have the two worst teams in baseball (San Francisco and Philadelphia) in consecutive series’ to start July. Whether they can take advantage of those two teams will go a long way in showing if the Pirates can contend or not.
After a strong start to the season, empty hope has showed that there isn’t much to the Reds in 2017. Joey Votto is tearing the cover off the ball per usual, but at a ridiculous rate this season. He leads the league with a 3.69 WARP. The rest of Cincinnati’s offense is also performing, with some players bound to regress.
Not much of that matters, however, when a team has no pitching. With Homer Bailey, Anthony DeSclafani, Bronson Arroyo, and Brandon Finnegan all on the DL, the inevitable pitching massacre has ensued. The Reds pitching staff rank last in baseball with a -3.39 WARP, a full point below Baltimore at team 29. They also rank last in DRA among starters, again by almost a full point.
Cincinnati has lost 11 of its last 12 and poses little threat of progression later in the season.