NL Central: 60 Days At The Circus

It was a nice quiet summer, 2019 was, a little weird having an MVP candidate on a team unable to stay in first place (ahem, cough, BREWERS!) but nice…and quiet.

And then the St. Louis Carnival came to town and now summer is full of screaming children, ghost-pepper-spiked popcorn and crying Cubs fans.

How did St. Louis go from asleep and in third place… all the way to first? Well, they really didn’t have all that far to go. With a really good Pittsburgh team –offensively– and a Cincinnati team that won’t die despite being unable to hit the ball, the bottom of the division has been decidedly unhelpful in helping anybody at the top gather a bunch of cheap wins in order to coast to the finish line. So no one has ever really been out of it. It’s just felt that way.

So, while the Cubs and Brewers were taking an afternoon nap, awakening long enough to stay above .500, Kolton Wong and Paul Goldschmidt were going on a couple of offensive tears. And in true NL Central fashion, St. Louis totally wasted one of them and still was able to move into first.

The two couldn’t be more different, Wong is a ..257 career hitter with seven homers per year on average. Goldschmidt is a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate with numbers that are, let’s say, quite a bit better than Wong’s. But for the first half of the season they might as well have been the same guy offensively which is not what the Cardinals were expecting when they traded three players for Goldschmidt in December.

Then July rolled around and Wong went on a tear hitting .357 but that was largely wasted as he only scored eight runs and only drove in seven in 24 games. Nothing you can do when you’re on fire and neither guy in front of or behind you is. Goldschmidt on the other hand blew up every offensive category while being named player of the month (.308 average, 11 homers, 20 runs, 27 RBI). The outburst came at a great time as half of the Cardinal starters –Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas– had a combined 2.71 ERA in 10 starts. It also came as the other three starters, Dakota Hudson, Ponce de Leon and Adam Wainright combined for an ERA of over 5.06. (Interesting to note: Hudson has a career ERA of 3.64 and a WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) of 1.50. Anyone care to explain that one?)

This club is dangerous not only for Goldschmidt but also a bullpen that had four guys with an ERA under 3.86 in July. But, there are also a bunch of guys with ERAs over 4.00. What does that make them? Balanced, I guess. Equally average? Untrustworthy? I don’t know if they have enough offense to go very far in the playoffs if they make it. But nobody else seems capable, so why not the Cards?

From top to bottom the Cubs might be the most consistent lineup in the National League and consistency, someone once said, is a good thing. First baseman Anthony Rizzo continues to grind out at bats and shortstop Javier Baez leads the team in hitting despite an ungodly 6:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Kyle Schwarber (25 home runs) and Kris Bryant (18) and Jason Heyward (17) make the team dangerous. Great, though, they’re not.

On the mound, Cole Hamels, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks have been as good a one-two-three combination as you could hope for. But Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish have been disappointments…But, nobody else seems to have a fourth starter either, so with the three they have, that may be all they need to advance.

In Milwaukee you have possible MVP Christian Yelich. He has been a model of consistency throughout the year and leads the team in average, home runs and stolen bases and is a hell of a defender (as is Cody Bellinger of the Dodgers. Can’t these two just tie for the award?)

And right behind Yelich on the Brewers in terms of production is infielder Keston Hiura. This month’s birthday boy is all of 23…wait…what…who? Keston who? Where’s Ryan Braun and Lorenzo Cain?

Not gone, but not what they once were, either. So, here’s Hiura, hitting .317 with 11 home runs in his first 44 games in the major leagues. After that you have Braun who’s hitting .270, second baseman Mike Moustakas (already with 28 homers) and then a pretty steep drop off with Yasmani Grandal and Cain leading the rest of the .250 parade.

That’s about where you expect Grandal to be but not Cain. The center fielder has not had a good season and I think that is the primary reason the club is now in the three-headed lady tent. Unless he gets it going, it’s highly questionable as to whether the Brewers can do much of anything in the playoffs if they even get there. The Brew Crew obviously need more Hiuraeauxic-type performances out of the rest of their club. The Brewers hope Trent Grisham can provide some of what they need. After an okay start in AA, he went ballistic in AAA, hitting .381 with 13 homers. Sometimes, you get a guy whose hitting rises to the level of the pitching. If he’s that guy, Milwaukee has a chance.

Even though Yelich gets all the publicity, the strength of this team is its top three starting pitchers. Zach Davies, Brandon Woodruff and Chase Anderson all have ERAs under 4.00. However they, like a lot of teams, suffer from no-decent-fourth-or-fifth starter-itis. Jhoulys Chacin is allowing opposing batters to hit .282 against him and has lasted only 88 innings in 19 starts. Considering he had an ERA of under 4.00 coming into the season, it’s pretty obvious that his trip to the injured list has not cured whatever is really ailing him. The Brewers could certainly use him for the stretch run.

They also have Josh Hader as a closer, which, like eternal enlightenment, is nice. Hader’s stuff is nasty. But, like a lot of fireballers, when he’s off, he gives up runs in bunches. Even though opposing hitters have a .137 average against, his ERA is 2.29.

The Reds can’t hit. So they traded one of their better hitters for a third starter in Trevor Bauer and traded one of their best hitters in the last three years to the Giants for cash. Ummmmm, now what? Not a playoff berth that’s for sure.

And how does Pittsburgh find itself in last place in the Central when it’s first in the National League in batting average? By having the second-worst ERA for starting pitchers and the fourth-worst for relievers.

Trying to handicap a winner in this division? Here are some stats to chew on after you finish that funnel cake: The Cubs average the fifth most runs per game in the National League, Milwaukee is seventh, and St. Louis is 11th, scoring about a half a run less than the Cubs. Chicago and Milwaukee are second and third in home runs. St. Louis is 11th (30 behind the Cubs.) Milwaukee and St. Louis are first and third respectively in stolen bases with about seven per every 10 games. Chicago clogs bases and is third from the bottom with just three per 10 games. St. Louis batters walk about 3.5 times per game compared to about four for the other two. But Cardinal batters strike out one fewer time per game compared to the other two.

What’s that get you? Absolutely nothing. Parity has reared its ugly head in the Central. So, buy a hot dog and some popcorn, sit back, put your feet up, and watch these three teams duke it out.

“That’s a cop-out,” you cry.

You’re right. I’ll take Chicago…in game 163…in extra innings…when an 0-5 Baez hits a Hader slider 400 feet.

Gotta love this game.

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