Last weekend, most teams around Major League Baseball played the 54th game of their season, marking the one-third point of the year.
It’s easy to look at standings this early in the season and talk about “slow starts” or “small sample sizes,” but the fact of the matter is, we’re pretty much at the point where teams are showing their true colors. The contenders have either started to mark their territory or are still firmly in their respective races. The hot start teams (of which there is one below) are regressing, and the middling teams are having a hard time gaining traction.
Still, despite what has seemed a frustrating year for the Cardinals, the NL Central is still a highly competitive division that is within reach. So how much have we learned about the Cardinals division rivals one-third (meh, slightly above) of the way through the season? Let’s take a look at the standings.
Milwaukee Brewers (37-24)
Real: The Brewers are a confusing team in a many ways, but there are definitely a few strengths that don’t seem to be going away. The bullpen has been much lauded as being one of the best in the MLB, and you won’t find any argument here. The Crew’s relievers rank 3rd in fWAR (3.3) and ERA (2.65), and strikeout rate (28.7%). Meanwhile, they’re 4th in FIP (3.30) and 2nd in xFIP (3.16), so none of this seems to be a fluke either. The only knock could be their relatively low .276 batting average on balls in play, but…
The Brewers are also currently sporting one of the league’s best defenses. Lorenzo Cain has been a revelation in the outfield, while regulars like Travis Shaw, Ryan Braun, and Orlando Arcia have also contributed. Christian Yelich and Jesus Aguilar have been the only net negatives so far, though Yelich has been pretty close to average and Aguilar is holding the spot of Eric Thames – though he’s not great either.
Finally, in a non-strength capacity: Though their lineup is much touted, the Crew have actually been below average by wRC+ this year (94). They’re pretty middle of the road in terms of on-base and slugging skills, and rank right next to the Cardinals in terms of their strikeout and walk percentages (23.2 and 8.8 percent, respectively.) The Brewers are also running a group .295 BABIP, so their luck doesn’t seem to be affecting them too much.
Fake: It’s hard to say anything about the Brewers is “fake” – the fact is they’re just a pretty good team. However, their starting rotation is noteworthy.
The Brewer’s starters have put up a 3.52 ERA on the season, good for 8th in the league and just two spots behind the Cardinals. However, the Brewers also have the 2nd biggest negative ERA-FIP differential in the majors (-0.52) and are currently benefitting from the lowest group BABIP (.269) in the MLB. They’re a middling group as far as strikeouts (22.9%) go and are toward the bottom of the league in walks (9.2%). Last, and maybe most important, the Brewers starters are giving up the 5th highest rate of hard contact (38.1%) in the majors.
Clearly, that defense is doing wonders.
Conclusion: The Brewers are good. There isn’t a whole lot of analysis to do beyond that. Are they good enough to carry on with the NL Central crown for the rest of the season? Maybe, maybe not. Their rotation isn’t as good as it has been thus far, and if they’re going to crack, it’ll be there. But a good bullpen and good defense, of which they have both, will pick up for a lot of that slack.
I don’t know if they’re a legitimate World Series contender with that rotation, but weirder things have happened.
Chicago Cubs (33-24, 2 GB)
Real: There are a lot of real (and good) things about the Cubs, but it all starts with their league-best defense. I suppose that’s not that a major surprise when you’ve got Jason Heyward, Albert Almora Jr., and Ben Zobrist patrolling the outfi– wait. What’s that? You’re telling me Kyle Schwarber is actually the second most valuable outfielder on the team? *checks notes* Well, damn. As it turns out, the slimmed down version of Kyle Schwarber is actually one heck of a defender, sporting a UZR/150 of 23.6. (A little ‘fake’ addendum here: Javier Baez is actually a below average second baseman by FanGraph’s numbers. Just wanted that out there.) I digress: this sterling defense will be important later in the section.
In addition to having the league’s best defense, the Cubs also have the league’s best offense! Fun! They’re 3rd in team wRC+ (110), but they get a major boost by having the league’s best Base Running number (8.2, again by FanGraphs.) They’ve currently got six players with 150+ plate appearances running a 120 wRC+ or better and none of them is Anthony Rizzo, one of the team’s better hitters of the past few years. He’ll likely pick it up at some point due to a very low BABIP (.252), but even then, he’s still sitting at 111.
Fake: “The Cubs seem really good, but you haven’t mentioned their pitching yet. Is that what you’re getting at?” Yes, hypothetical reader, it is.
As I mentioned above with the Brewers, the Cubs starting rotation has been fine so far in terms of results, but things don’t look amazing moving forward. The Cubbies currently have the 9th best starters’ ERA in the league at 3.67. But they also sport the lowestERA-FIP differential at -0.80. Their xFIP is a little better than their FIP – 4.35 to 4.47, respectively – but it’s still a big difference than the results they’ve seen so far.
The rotation’s problem isn’t so much giving up hard contact, though. They’re in the bottom half of the league in hard contact percentage and rank about the same in home runs allowed per nine innings. The real issue is they walk so many damn people; 10.8 percent, good for 2nd most in the league. On top of that, they don’t really strike out a lot of batters: 21.5 percent, which ranks 15th. They’re a contact heavy staff that relies a lot on a good defense. So I suppose there’s an argument that they’re doing their job… but walking that many batters without getting strikeouts would make me nervous as a fan.
The same problems exist with the rotation which, by ERA, has been the 2nd best in the majors so far. But they’re running the league’s highest walk percentage as a unit and the 2nd lowest BABIP (2.60) and ERA-FIP differential (-0.84). Their batted ball profile looks slightly better as they give up a lot of soft (and not a lot of hard) contact. So maybe my bias is working a little bit here, but again, walks make me very nervous.
Conclusion: The most telling number for the Cubs has been the fact they own the NL Central’s best run differential by quite a substantial margin: +88 to the Brewers’ +28 and the Cardinals +24. That’s also good for best in the National League and 3rd best in the majors. The Cubs are still the most dangerous team in the NL. Their pitching may be suspect, but they’re going to get out of a lot of holes because of their great lineup and defense.
St. Louis Cardinals (32-26, 3.5 GB)
Real: I’ll try to keep this short. Y’all read this site for Cardinals stuff everyday. Also, I’m on deadline.
The bullpen is real, and it’s really bad. Worst in the NL Central in fact! They rank near the bottom of the league in line drive rate, home runs to fly balls, walks, strikeouts, and I’m going to stop here to save us time. There’s nothing in xFIP or SIERA that says this is getting any better. Just buckle in.
The starters, though! They’re good! Probably not as good as they’ve shown – SIERA has them as a middle of the road unit – but they rank near the top in FIP and xFIP. The middling strikeout and walk numbers are a little concerning, but I also recognize that Carlos Martinez has been out for a while, and Adam Wainwright probably did noticeable damage to them while he was playing. So, yeah, let’s put them in the ‘real’ section. Why not?
Fake: Maybe it’s just because I’m optimistic, or maybe it’s because I follow the team closely and can’t get a read on them… but is anything else about this team real? They’ve been one of the better defenses in the league by FanGraphs’ Def (4.8), but their UZR/150 is much more average at 0.5. They have the potential to be better, but now that Carpenter is hitting again, he’s likely a lineup staple. That doesn’t help.
The offense? I mean, it actually hasn’t been awful? it’s been pretty mediocre so far, but we’ve also seen prolonged slumps from several of the team’s best hitters at staggered times. The entire lineup has failed to click, so when Tommy Pham is raking, Ozuna, Fowler, and Carpenter are barely justifying their lineup spots. Now that they’re back on track, Tommy Pham is out of whack and Jose Martinez is coming back to earth from his hot start. So I’d like to say they’re better than their numbers so far, but whose to say?
Conclusion: The Cardinals are confusing as hell. Shocking, right?
Pittsburgh Pirates (30-30, 6.5 GB)
Real: The Pirates’ offense gets the real designation because it’s pretty easy to piece together what their issue is. They’re a contact-heavy team, ranking near the bottom of the league in strikeout and walk percentages. However, they also have a league low hard contact rate (29.7 percent) and have one of the highest soft contact rates (19.4). So despite the fact they rank from the middle to the top of the league in a lot of categories (slugging percentage, isolated slugging, on-base percentage, wRC+), it seems like the soft contact is mitigating a lot of the damage they could be doing.
The starters also fall into this category, but there’s not a whole lot to say about them. They’re fine. They don’t walk a lot (7 percent! good!), but also don’t strikeout out a lot (19.8! not as good!). They’re about middle of the road in literally everything else, so let’s just say they’re mediocre.
The same goes for their defense. They’re middle-to-bottom in terms of UZR/150 and Def. It’s not as if they’re terrible: Francisco Cervelli, Sean Rodriguez and a handful of other regulars are good. But they also have a lot of flexibility in their lineup, meaning a lot of those players get cycled out on the regular. These inconsistencies probably aren’t much help to their starters, but I don’t see that as much of an excuse because…
Fake: Surprise wrinkle! The Pirates might have one of the better bullpens in the league. Their group BABIP is .321 which plays a big part in their bottom 10 group ERA (4.22). However, they have one of the league’s highest ERA-FIP differences (0.65), By xFIP and SIERA, the Pirates bullpen rates as one of the 10 best in the league, even better than the Cubs. They’re doing it mostly by avoiding home runs (7th best HR/FB percentage at 9.9), but they also rank in the top half of the majors in both strikeout and walk percentages (11th for both.) They don’t give up a ridiculous amount of soft or hard contact, so they’d probably be better served with a better defense. Unlike the starters though, they’ve got more potential for excellence.
Conclusion: I think the Pirates are right about where they belong, which is bad news for Clint Hurdle. They’re OK. Nothing about them really stands out, but they’ve got the pieces to start working toward a contender. They need a few stars to really boost their profile, but unfortunately parted with their two biggest in the past year: Gerritt Cole (2.8 fWAR) and Andrew McCutchen (114 wRC+). Those were probably still beneficial trades long-term, but it’s left them in a state of stasis that’s going to be hard to sell to fans.
Cincinatti Reds (21-40, 16 GB)
Real: I mean, it’s all real, and it’s all real bad.
The rotation may be the worst of the lot. I would take the time to break down why, but it could fill a whole post. They’re a bottom 10 unit in just about every measure, predictive and otherwise. They don’t strike people out and they give up a lot of hard contact. They certainly aren’t helped by a defense that ranks bottom 10 in UZR/150 and FanGraphs’ “Def” measurement.
As for the offense, it doesn’t get much rosier. They’re actually fairly adept at getting on base (7th in team OBP at .324), but they rank close to last in slugging percentage and isolated slugging. Joey Votto and Eugenio Suarez are both high on the Baseball Savant leaderboards for xwOBA, but there’s no one else that’s much of a threat in that lineup.
The bullpen has had it’s moments early this year, but even they have struggled with consistency. They’re not particularly dangerous in many ways, but they’re average, ranking near the middle of the pack in the ERA-FIP-xFIP rundown. They don’t really strike a lot of batters out (21.6%), and have walked quite a few (10.4%). I guess if there’s a strength this would be it? Regardless, they remain a fairly mediocre unit.
Fake: Some times it feels fake that Joey Votto has had to play a majority of his career on a really bad team. But it is, unfortunately, all too real.
Conclusion: They’re bad, friends. Let’s not belabor the point here.