September 7, 2007
The NL Central
Chicago 71-68 Milwaukee 71-68 St. Louis 69-68
This should be fun. Not only are the three teams tied in the loss column and separated by just one game in total, they're playing for one playoff spot. With both the Cubs and Brewers five games behind the Wild Card-leading Padres, it's a virtual certainty that the NL Wild Card will not emerge from the Central. So while this isn't quite the 1993 NL West race or the 1978 AL East, it is a winner-take-all battle. Least-loser-take-all, anyway.
Additional information is potentially useful in determining how the last three weeks will play out. Here are the run differentials for the three teams:
Chicago +36 Milwaukee +8 St. Louis -58
Now, I'll be the first one to tell you that run differential is both a better indicator of team quality and a better predictor of future performance than actual record is. Other than the impact of a particularly good or bad--or well-leveraged--bullpen, teams don't show an ability to bunch their runs scored and allowed in ways that affect their won-loss record. At the same time, while a team's run differential is a critical indicator of quality and long-term outlook, it's less useful in predicting short-term performance.
In fact, you can take that idea one step further: a baseball team's performance over its next 23 games is virtually unpredictable, by whatever means you'd try to make one. A team's most likely performance over any sample of games is in line with its overall quality, but the fluctuations around that mean are wide, and they widen as the number of games gets smaller. The three contenders in the NL Central could finish in any order, and any one of them could reasonably put up any record between 18-5 and 5-18 down the stretch. If you applied FedEx Cup principles to MLB and, just for funsies, gave the Marlins, Devil Rays and White Sox .500 records, and had them compete with the NL Central squads, their chances of winning the division wouldn't be much worse than one-in-six, even though they're the three worst teams in baseball.
Complicating things is that there are so few head-to-head games left among the three. The Cubs and Brewers do not face each other again. The Cubs and Cardinals meet five times-a makeup at Wrigley Field on Monday, and four games in St. Louis the following week. The Cards and Brewers play three games in Milwaukee the last week of the season. For the most part, this is going to be a race played out on the scoreboards and not the field. With that in mind, let's take a look at the three teams and see what factors will come into play over these next 24 days.
The Cubs might just want to stop shooting themselves in the foot. Trading for Steve Trachsel and using him to replace Sean Marshall in the rotation is a move out of the Rachel Phelps playbook. Marshall had been an above-average starter for three months, with an ERA below 4.00, a 2-1 K/BB ratio, and a strong groundball rate. Steve Trachsel has walked 70 men and struck out 48 in 146 2/3 innings, and I submit that no pitcher in the history of baseball has ever been good while putting up numbers like that. Every time Trachsel pitches, he nicks away at the Cubs' chances of winning the division.
Focusing on Trachsel is, perhaps, the wrong way to go about discussing the starting rotation. It is Carlos Zambrano who is the most important hurler to this team, and he's at another nadir in his roller-coaster season. Big Z has allowed four or more runs in five straight starts, all Cubs losses, and ratcheting up his seasonal ERA by a run. It's arguably a pitching-in-bad-luck thing-Zambrano's peripherals don't support the 30 runs in 28 2/3 innings he's coughed up-but the Cubs can't afford to have their best pitcher taking them out of games every fifth day. Prior to that stretch, Zambrano's ERA had dropped in 12 straight outings, going back to June 8. With five starts left, he has to regain that midsummer form for the Cubs to remain slight favorites in the Central.
Watch the Cubs' offense as well. It's gotten a boost from Jason Kendall, who has hit well above expectations since coming over from the A's by putting up a .281/.378/.375 line. Since Kendall is going to play almost every day no matter what he hits, the Cubs can't afford for him to revert to his Oakland form. Infielders Mike Fontenot and Ryan Theriot have been important to the team's .331 OBP, its best since 2001. They have to continue reaching base for the offense to hang on.
One last thing to watch: the Cubs are regularly running out some awfully bad defensive outfielders in an effort to get some extra runs. Daryle Ward, Craig Monroe, and Cliff Floyd are all well below average with their gloves. The team's high-strikeout pitching staff allows them to absorb this risk, but on any given day, they could be hurt by someone turning an out into a double. Plays like that will be magnified in a pennant race, as Brant Brown will attest.
The Brewers have survived an unimaginably ugly run of baseball to find themselves tied for first place with 23 games left. They're seemingly being carried by Ryan Braun, who has opened September on an 8-for-18, three-homer tear. Everyone got healthy at home against the Astros, but the test for the Brewers comes when they travel outside the Cholesterol State. The Brewers play 13 of their final 23 on the road, where they're a a terrible 26-42 (versus 45-26 at Miller Park). They've lost 16 of 23 road games since the All-Star break. With a six-game road trip to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh starting tonight, the Brewers have to reverse this trend and start picking up wins against the teams they can beat, no matter where the games are played.
One player to watch is Rickie Weeks, whose .228 batting average is obscuring what is a reasonably productive season. Since returning from a brief exile to Nashville on August 10, Weeks has a .484 OBP (courtesy of baseballreference.com) and is a perfect six-for-six on the bases. Having the high OBP in front of two of the best power bats in the game will give the Brewers the best chance of maximizing the work of Braun and Prince Fielder.
As with the Cubs, the Brewers take a lot of chances defensively. Bill Hall is best described as adequate in center field, and in Braun and Weeks, the Brewers feature two of the worst-fielding everyday infielders in the National League. If they fall out of the race in a hail of runs, you can expect the pitching to take the heat, but the defense will be as much to blame. The Brewers are 24th in MLB in Defensive Efficiency, and while they've struck out many more hitters than I expected them to this season, their defense is a soft spot that gets exploited on contact.
The Cardinals' biggest problem is their schedule, which is loaded with good teams over the next two weeks: a visit to Arizona, five games with the Cubs, and three more with the Phillies. The five with the Cubs, four at home, will be the closest thing to a showdown series in this division over the last three weeks.
I never figured the Cardinals could come back this far, so I'm not sure how to analyze them from this point forward. Just to make a point, consider how their rotation lays out over the next six games:
Those are the good pitchers.
A team with that rotation is a game out of first place with 25 to play. I can't really explain it all that well. You can credt a bullpen that has been excellent since the All-Star break thanks to random returns to effectiveness such as Troy Percival, Russ Springer, and Ryan Franklin. The Cardinals have gotten more "huh?" performances this year than any team in baseball, from Piniero and the relievers to Brendan Ryan (.341/.399/.484 on the heels of showing nothing in two Triple-A stints) and, of course, Kevin Maas' comeback role as Rick Ankiel (.358/.409/.765). A pennant race isn't a beauty contest, and as ugly as this roster is right now, it's playing meaningful baseball games a week after Labor Day.
The Cards' talent level is so far behind that of the Cubs' that you can't see it, but we might have said the same thing during the 2006 NLCS and the 2006 World Series. The wins that Percival and Ryan and Ankiel have put on the board all count, and while it's unlikely that out-of-character performances like these can be sustained for another month, it's not impossible. It's just not the way to bet, or to make predictions on the Interweb.
I liked the Cubs in February, April, June and August, and I'm sticking with them now. Sometimes, the best team wins, and the Cubs have the best team.