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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.