The NL Central: Powerhouse?

We know this much: The NL will send a team from its Central Division to the World Series. Who? We do not yet know. But: The fact remains that this circumstance is no less a surprise to many prognosticators, forecasting systems, and blathering media faces. I cannot recall any one credible source projecting the the NL Central as the team to send a World Series team into the fray — much less to two playoff-teams to the tourney.

Nonetheless, here we sit on the cold stone of pondering, staring into the abyss of unpredictability, the majestic, mysterious abyss of this:

A moon ago, we heard news of the impending Astro’s sale, which comes with a DH apparently, as the proud once-Colt .45s intend to move AL-wise.

This is bad news for the top chihuahuas of the NL Central who feasted on their weak division, and produced perhaps the two least-qualified World Series contenders in a long… long… long time.

With both the Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals battling in the 2011 NLCS, we are guaranteed the first NL Central World Series contender since 2004 through 2006, when the Cards and Houston Astros combined for three straight Central showings.

But let’s be honest; this Central Division is… unspectacular.

The average winning percentages of the Central for the last three years: .478, .475, and .483. This year, with a .478 win-rate, the NL Central trailed both the West (.502) and the East (.519) Divisions. Granted, somebody’s got to be the loser, but — by being so dramatically the loser — the NL Central has given an extra edge to its moderately good teams.

The Milwaukee Brewers, now down 1-2 in the NLCS, finished the 2011 season with a strong 96-66 record, winning the division by 6 games. However, the Brew Crew went a stunning 51-29 against the NL Central, and a much-less-impressive 45-37 (.549 winning percentage) against the remainder of the league.

Digging deeper, we see the Brewers scored 392 runs, allowing 294 — good for a .629 PythagenPat in the Central — but scored only 329 runs while allowing 344 to the rest of the league — leading to a dismal .479 PythagenPat. In other words, if the Brewers had a division that was like the rest of the league, they would have mustered only a .549 winning percentage and an 89-73 record. If they played with their PythagenPat, they would have finished 90-72.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals actually did finish the season with a 90-72 record, narrowly escaping the Atlanta Braves as Georgia exploded in a fantastic fireball. The Cardinals had a 44-35 record, a 0.557 winning percentage, and 0.595 PythagenPat within the NL Central. Against the rest of the league, they went a respectable 46-37 — good enough for a 0.554 winning percentage, but only a paltry 0.513 PythagenPat.

Imagine how different the season may have finished had neither team faced the Houston Astros? The Brewers went 13-3 against them, and the Cardinals managed a 10-5 record. Both scored upwards of 85 runs against them, allowing less than 60. That’s an average runs per game of about 5.7, while allowing less than 4.

Granted, these hypothetical experiments are more allegory than statistically and logically rigorous, but the point remains: The NL Central had two 90-win teams largely on the merit of the garbage teams in their unbalanced schedules.

Well, let’s hope the Cardinals, Brewers, Cubs, and Pirates enjoyed whipping on the Astros these past few years because that era appears quite concluded now. Because, now, the AL West appears to be finally a powerhouse.

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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.

68 Responses to “The NL Central: Powerhouse?”

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  1. SaberTJ says:

    Will this increase the likelihood of two AL west teams not making the playoffs?

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    • SaberTJ says:

      Should say now*

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    • Yes says:

      Short term – Mariners, As, and Astros in the same division. They had a combined .405 win percentage last year.

      Long term – 5 teams instead of 4 trying to make the palyoffs.

      This also helps the NL central teams long term by having less competition for the division title.

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      • Antonio bananas says:

        i understand the whole “more teams=more competition” thing. However, doesn’t that assume they all are equal? I mean, let’s say you play in the AL West and pretend (it’s hard) that the As, Rangers, and Angels are all really good. There are only four teams, but that sucks because you play a good team more often. In the Central, most years there are 2 horrible teams, 2 mediocre teams, then maybe one good one and one great one. I’d rather play in the central.

        Not disagreeing with the logic, just saying it’s not perfect. Plus you have the perpetual losers in the Pirates and the cubs who are inconsistent but in pretty bad shape, and for many years had the Reds as perpetually bad.

        Personally, as a Braves fan, I feel the current schedule is bogus. The “natural rivalry” interleague games are bad enough. St. Louis gets to play the Royals twice AND the crappy NL Central? Awesome, playing stiffer competition wouldn’t have changed the outcome at all….

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  2. JoeMac says:

    If the Astros move to the AL, both leagues will have an odd number of teams. How will the schedule work out? Will there be an interleague game every day?

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  3. Nice work and a very good argument for a return to the balanced schedule.

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  4. Ted Williams Head says:

    Woodrum for Cubs head of statistics?

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  5. [astros fan] SIGH [/astros fan]

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  6. Correction says:

    “The Milwaukee Brewers, now down 1-2 in the ALCS”

    … “two least-qualified World Series contenders in a long… long… long time.” That is quite a statement without some historical data. How about some comparison to other ‘least-qualified’ teams?

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    • Semi Pro says:

      Agreed. I believe the 2006 Cardinals take the cake on least qualified world series contender.

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      • adr3 says:

        They seemed pretty qualified to me……in hindsight. They won in 5 games!

        Everyone forgets that the 2006 Cardinals played the whole year without a third of their lineup due to injuries….and then got lucky because everyone got healthy just in time. That was a VERY talented team…even though their record didn’t reflect it. They were more than qualified, ask the Tigers.

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      • Research is Good! says:

        ’08 Dodgers – 84 Wins
        ’06 Cardinals – 83 Wins
        ’00 Yankees – 87 Wins
        ’97 Indians – 86 Wins
        ’87 Twins – 85 Wins

        Just to name a few that would have been nice comparisons…

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    • vivaelpujols says:

      Yeah, that’s not even close to substantiated.

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  7. IvanGrushenko says:

    I’ve no idea whether a .549 record against non NL Central teams is playoff worthy or not. What would the Phillies, Braves or Diamondbacks have done if they hadn’t faced NL Central teams?

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    • Chris R says:

      Phillies win percentage against the Central was .630, the same as it was against the rest of MLB. Braves were .564 vs. the Central and .545 vs. everyone else; Dbacks were slightly worse against the Central (.575) than against everyone else (.582). All were better than the Cards and Brewers were outside their division.

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    • ms says:

      If the Phillies and Diamondbacks hadn’t faced NL Central teams they might be playing in the NLCS.

      +30 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • acr says:

      Well…when it counted, when the Phillies and D-backs faced NLC teams they were eliminated. All kidding aside, let’s not forget the Braves were the worst team in MLB vs. LHP. Their offense was suspect all the way around and their pitching suffered a lot of injuries. There’s really not a lot to suggest they would have faired much better in the NLC verses the NLE. I don’t think anyone can really make a substantiated argument that the Braves were/are better than the Brewers or Cardinals…or even D-backs, for that matter.

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  8. dusters says:

    You can say the same thing for most divisions though. Minnesota, Seattle, Baltimore, they were all terrible.

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  9. Patrick says:

    Just a trash talking article but the fact remains the 2 NL central teams beat the NL East and West representatives..

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Here’s to StL winning yet another lucky World Series title.

      Hey look at ALL the teams form the East in the LCS. Oops. Small sample size and all that.

      Here I thought the teams from the Central should just feel all fortunate they didn;t get swept and stuff.

      Granted i said earlier that Toronto could contend for the NLC division title, but StL is also a much improved team post-trades.

      A handful of years ago, HOU was really something. They also traded two of their best players to playoff contenders this year.

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      • wildcherrypepsi says:

        I have nothing against the Cardinals… but it’s really hard to root for their douchebag of a manager. Really hoping the Brewers pull it out.

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      • Antonio bananas says:

        Yea, I live in Missouri, Cards fans whine a lot. The Cards are either “the only true dynasty because we don’t buy our titles” or they’re screwed out of an entire year by a bad call. i hate Mike shannon on radio too “get up baby, get up” sounds like an e.d. commercial. I also hate LaRussa. Losing to the “arrogant” (like to have fun?) brewers would be awesome.

        As for Patrick, it’s a 5 game series. If you just look at their win% and how likely each team is to win 3 out of 5 games, the difference isn’t that much and it’s small sample size. You play these series over and over and you’ll get a variety of results.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        IMHO, that’s the La Russa effect. His continual complaining about how every other team plays against the cardinals, while the Cardinals are just a ‘confident’ team that plays really hard-nosed baseball, really drives other fans to dislike the cardinals and root against them. It also puts cardinal fans in the perspective that the whole world is out to get us.

        The Brewers are throwing at Albert, but the cardinals were just “pitching inside” to Braun, on multiple pitches. I do like that TLR and Dusty baker hate each other because everyone hates TLR and Dusty, so naturally they cannot stand each other. I just think that’s awesome. Those two are always going on and o about the other, and the rest of the world is just thinking “you’re both right”.

        I can’t slight the cardinal fans for thinking they are the best fans and/or StL is the best place to play because quite a few player that have come to StL late in their careers have siad the same thing. I don’t live in StL, so it doesn;t matter to me whether it’s baseball City, USA or not. Now, thinking that lots of free agents are going to take big discounts to play there is goofy as is the one true dynasty stuff.

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  10. Matt says:

    This is a really odd article. You know who else beat up on their divisions this year?

    Texas: 40-17 against AL West, 47-40 against the rest of the league.
    Detroit: 50-22 (!) against the AL Central, 38-34 against the rest of the league.

    Ultimately these records have practically no significance and the sample sizes are small to boot. This is some truly lazy writing.

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    • Telo says:

      Well, I’d say the writing itself was very un-lazy. It seems Bradley put some hard work into this, as usual… but I agree strongly that the analysis behind it was less than rigorous.

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    • This is a really odd comment. You know how often I mentioned the AL?

      Not once. Both Texas and Detroit play in weak divisions too, but I was concerned with the NL here. The oddity is not that weak divisions exist; the oddity is that an extra craptastic showing from Houston resulted in two wild card teams from the NL Central, whereas the best AL division (the East) sent two representatives — like the Wild Card should do.

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      • Matt says:

        I believe your exact comment was “perhaps the two least-qualified World Series contenders in a long… long… long time”. Where is the NL qualifier there? Texas and Detroit are the other two remaining World Series qualifiers, no?

        And now you’re bringing up the two AL East playoff teams. Did you happen to also research the Rays’ record against their own division vs the rest of the AL? Yeah, 42-30 against the East, 37-35 against the rest of the AL. Seriously.

        On top of that, there are so many variables that contribute to these records including pitching matchups, injuries, time of year (playing a depleted cellar-dwellar after the trading deadline, for example) that, combined with the incredibly small sample size that 70 game groupings represent, have practically no significance whatsoever. I’m not trying to be a dick, but, come on.

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      • adr3 says:

        The Cardinals absolutely dominated the Phillies and the Braves head-to-head this year, and then beat the Phillies in the playoffs. What more should they do to win your approval?

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      • JG says:

        Matt: Additionally, the Tigers had a better record against the all-powerful East this season than the Yankees did (and the Tigers actually had to play the Yankees).

        Just goes back to what you were saying earlier about sample sizes.

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      • The Rays may have gone 42-30 (.583) against their division, but they also went 49-41 (.544) in the remainder of their other games. That’s not a huge disparity to me. Yeah, the Rays played over their heads, but they did no have the benefit of a 56-game winner in their division.

        The AL East’s worst team, the Orioles, were — at 69 wins — the best worst team in the AL and a whopping 13 games ahead of the Astros.

        Looking at the record of one team vs. another division is not very instructive because, yes, they just don’t play enough games against them. But with unbalanced schedules, almost half the schedule is within the division.

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      • eastsider says:


        If your article actually said what you did in your comment, that would be fine. But it didn’t. Instead, you used some rather charged language and picked some stats to back it up. Then you feigned surprise in your comment when others used the same stats for other teams.

        If your thesis here truly is that the division with the worst team in baseball was able to put two teams in the postseason as a result of having the worst team, why not look back at the past years and see if that is a trend? I’d be interested.

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  11. jj says:

    The Astro were not the whipping boys of the NLC in 2010 as they were 12 games over .500. I think the Piratea have more often than the Astros.

    Personally I’d rather be watching the Brewers and the Cards right now than the Braves and the Giants (sub-.550 pythag win%?) who it seems in your opinion would be better qualified to be representing the NL in the World Series.

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    • ICEYhawtSTUNNAZ says:

      First of all, did anyone assert that the NL Central was a powerhouse? Where is that a narrative? Who are you arguing against?

      Second of all, now that you mention it, the four remaining teams certainly have a lot to be excited about going forward. While the Brewers might not resign Prince, they still have Braun, Hart, Weeks, Gallardo, Greinke, Marcum, and Axford for various spans into the future, and while the Cardinals may not resign Albert, they still have Berkman, Wainwright, Carpenter, Garcia, Molina, Holliday, David Freese, a young, cheap, underrated bullpen, and anywhere from 4 to 6 top 100 prospects. The Cubs now have one of the best general managers of the last decade and a boatload of money, and the Pirates now have an irrefutable core of young and talented players. This is all anecdotal as well, but if this article is about the future of the division, you can’t just ignore these stories in your analysis IMO.

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      • Antonio bananas says:

        Carp is old, Berk is old, Waino is over 30 and coming off tommy john, freese/Jay/Craig are just Chis Duncans. Cards have “4 to 6″ top 100 prospects? Maybe 4-6 top 100 Texas League prospects. They don’t have much. They have Shelby Miller, and he’s a pitcher so there’s already a high chance he fails.

        Fact is, the Cards are old. Very very old and they don’t have a lot of prospects. Berkman had a “bounce-back” year. so what, so did Vlad guerrero last year. did he repeat it?

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      • ICEYhawtSTUNNAZ says:

        I disagree. Miller (top 5), Martinez( top 20), and Tavares will be on every list, Wong and Cox will be on most, and Matt Adams will be on some. Thats’s 6. There’s also Matt Carpenter, who would start at 3rd if Freese wasn’t there.Other than Washington and San Diego, I don’t know if any other farm systems took as big of a step forward last year as did the Cardinals.

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      • Antonio Bananas says:

        miller top 5? Yea, he had a great year at a fairly young age in AA. I live in Springfield, I watched him pitch. fact is, guys like that happen all the time. Nothing special. He COULD be special, but there is still a high likelihood that he is never an ace or even an effective ML starter for more than 3 years.

        cards system took a big step forward, but from a bottom feeder that doesn’t mean much. Atlanta’s pitching rapes St. Louis’. Teheran pitched better, at a younger age, at a higher level. Kansas City’s hitting destroys everyone’s system. Of course that’s unfair, but my point is that St. Louis may have made some strides, but they still have a very mediocre farm system. With their current roster full of guys on the wrong side of 30, that’s not a good thing.

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      • ICEYhawtSTUNNAZ says:

        You could say that about every pitching prospect, including Teheran. I agree that minor league talent is combustible, but if that’s your argument then why even evaluate farm systems? Compared to all of the other combustible talent, the Cardinals have more of it than most, and it got better this year.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        @ AB

        This is where I think we need to look at other aspects or change the way we view things.

        Jay, Freese, and Craig are all guys that could put up 3 WAR seasons.

        But, all of the attention goes to guys like Rasmus who “could” put up a 5 WAR season (we;;, y’know).

        3 guys that were not regarded as major prospects being 3 WAR players for team-controlled money, IMO, are the types of things that really add some unforeseen value to a club. They’re not Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, but being above league average for below average money is a big plus to a team that has some big contracts locked up for guys that are beyond prospect age (to put it nicely).

        Throw in Garcia and Motte, and there are 4-5 guys that are playing significant roles on a team that is a game away from going to the WS.

        When you put Wainwright back on this team, it’s possible that we’re looking at a 94-95 win team.

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  12. acr says:

    Take the #1 pitcher off any team in baseball and see if they have a chance to make the playoffs and advance. But the Cards did it. Let’s face it, the NL is always seemingly the underdog because MLB likes to advance their media darlings in the East. The Tigers, Rangers and Diamondbacks got to play the majority of their games against teams in very weak divisions.

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  13. Mark says:

    “The Milwaukee Brewers, now down 1-2 in the ALCS…”


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  14. wildcherrypepsi says:

    Why do the Astros have to go to the AL? Why not send the Brewers back to where they came from?

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  15. Drew says:

    Seems a little silly to normalize for playing houston or the crappy NL Central while not accounting for Milwaukee’s interleague schedule, which included trips to Boston (when they were awesome) and New York, and a home series against Tampa.

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  16. Anon says:

    I think your PythagenPat for MIL is off versus the non-Central teams. They got outscored, but you have them at .549. Looks like you copied it from their actual win pct by accident.

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  17. Choo says:

    1) Antonio Alfonseca is to NL Central as extra pinkie is to . . .

    a) sausage racing.
    b) the Iorg family.
    c) Houston Astros.
    d) a high six.

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  18. glassSheets says:

    Just set up a season schedule of who they actually played and how many times, put in the W% odds based on “true win percentage” and log5, and loop it until it balances with observed win percentages. What you need to make each team in order to end up with their observed winning percentages is their schedule neutral performance. Atlanta will be ahead of St. Louis.

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  19. Baseball111 says:

    This is the dumbest argument Fan Graphs has ever posted.

    +16 Vote -1 Vote +1

  20. manbearpig says:

    “Well, let’s hope the Cardinals, Brewers, Cubs, and Pirates enjoyed whipping on the Astros these past few years because that era appears quite concluded now.”

    Did the Reds get contracted and nobody told me?

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  21. wrinklebump says:

    whoa, washington won 80 games.

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  22. CardinalRules says:

    Baseball is only played in the East. And really only in the AL. Any team that is not in the East or in the AL does not play baseball. Why do we allow minor league teams to play in the postseason? They just get lucky and ruin it for all of baseball.

    +18 Vote -1 Vote +1

  23. aj says:

    Funny thing is im willing to bet the O’s go 500 in any division in baseball outside of the AL east and maybe the NL east.

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  24. Topher says:

    Let’s put it this way, win’s are wins and thats all that matters

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    • Antonio bananas says:

      So if I beat a 2 year old in a game of horse, that’s the same thing as beating Kobe bryant? Makes sense, I agree, no need to have a balanced schedule, it’s baseball, it all evens out.

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  25. Cards Fans Are #1 says:

    Perhaps the 06 Cardinals were the least qualified WS Champs ever. It should be noted that teams which win 100 or more in the regular season have not fared very well in postseason play. Seattle won 116 games and didn’t even make it to the WS. You can throw all the regular season statistics out the window when the playoffs start. This year’s Phillies 102 winners: eliminated in round 1. The Cardinals 105 wins in 2004: swept by Boston in the WS. I’d rather have my team fly under the radar (each of the 2011 LCS participants) than be a big target for the underdogs.

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  26. J Rich says:

    6 teams = harder to win a division, (possibly) easier to win the wild card.

    someone still has to win every division, so one of those two teams was going to get in the playoffs anyway.

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  27. Bob says:

    “The NL Central had two 90-win teams largely on the merit of the garbage teams in their unbalanced schedules.”

    Do we know if this is unique to the NL Central or if other division leaders also fed on also-rans in their own division?

    Plus, keep in mind that teams also have to face each other, even the good teams.

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  28. Matt says:

    I know this article is old now, but color me unsurprised that the top teams in divisions tend to have pretty good records against the weaker teams in their division.

    As for the braves, they would be in the playoffs had they gone just 2-4 against the cardinals this year.

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