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NL Central: Best Division in baseball?

As the Chicago Cubs continue to stay red hot on their seven game win streak, the National League Central has emerged as the toughest division in baseball. In an early race for first place, the top three teams (Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, and Milwaukee Brewers) are within two games of each other, the closest race in any division. Following the three teams, the Pittsburgh Pirates still have a winning record at 16-15, making the NL Central the only division to boast four teams with winning records. Rounding out the NL Central are the last place Cincinnati Reds, having a below average 14-20 record. 

What makes the NL Central so competitive? Simple: the amount of top tier players. According to baseball reference, the top three central teams have five players ranked in the top ten for NL WAR, not including Reds pitcher Luis Castillo (2.1 WAR). The Cubs and Cardinals have an ongoing debate over who has the best shortstop in the division: Javy Baez (2.3 WAR) of the Cubs, or Paul DeJong (2.4 WAR) on the Cardinals. Both players have the highest WAR on their team, as well as most hits and highest batting average (Cardinals first baseman Jose Martinez would have the highest batting average, but hasn’t had enough at-bats to qualify). 

Baez and DeJong have the second and third highest WAR behind Cody Bellinger (3.6 WAR) on the Los Angeles Dodgers, and after those three is the Brewers reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich (2.2 WAR). Proving himself as a top hitter in the MLB, Yelich has been unstoppable: 15 home runs (most in baseball), .346 batting average, and a high OPS of 1.253. So far he has carried the “Brew Crew” to a winning campaign, but the team’s Pythagorean winning percentage is 17-19.

Aside from the premiere players, multiple other position players have made an impact. Cubs’ catcher Willson Contreras has emerged as the best catcher in baseball, displaying a 1.9 WAR and 1.110 OPS, third in the NL. The top three teams also have defensive juggernauts: Brewers’ centerfielder Lorenzo Cain, Baez, and Cardinals’ second baseman Kolten Wong. Baez is just as dominant defensively, ranking second Defensive WAR (1.0). The other two players have the lesser offensive numbers, but Cain ranks first in Defensive WAR (1.2) and Wong ranks tied for fifth (0.7). 

The Reds are not a tough team to beat despite their 14-20 record. Referring back to Pythagorean win percentage, the Reds should be in first place contention with a 19-15 record. Often overlooked, the Reds rank first in NL team ERA at 3.50, led by an early Cy Young candidate in Castillo. He ranks top three in ERA (1.97), strikeouts (59), and first in WAR for pitchers. However, with a team batting average (.211) ranking last in the NL, the Reds will continue to struggle. 

Following suit, the Pirates and Cubs also have top five pitching staffs in the NL. If it wasn’t for the Pirates pitching, their Pythagorean win percentage places them last at 13-18 as their offense ranks top-five worst in nearly every offensive category. Five pitchers are in the top six WAR on their team, led by Jordan Lyles and Trevor Williams. In the bullpen, All-Star closer Felipe Vasquez and veteran Francisco Liriano are the best 1-2 punch in the central, maybe best in baseball. If their offense ever shows up, they could make a Wild Card run. 

During the Cubs hot streak of 16-4 the last 20 games, their entire pitching staff has improved immensely after a horrific start to the season. Aside from Yu Darvish, the Cubs starting rotation is among the best in baseball with four pitchers under a 4.0 ERA and a team 3.83 ERA, fourth in the NL. Kyle Hendricks is coming off a remarkable 81 pitch shutout, Jon Lester has a sub-2.0 ERA, and Cole Hamels has thrown five straight games allowing three runs or less. The bullpen has drastically improved, but with closer Brandon Marrow still having an undecided return date, they need to improvise with multiple pitchers closing out games.  

The Cardinals and Brewers both rank in the bottom five for team ERA. For the Cardinals, their starting rotation has been abysmal as no starter has an ERA under 4.0, but the bullpen has been fantastic. Two relievers, John Grant and John Brebbia, have ERA’s under 1.0, and the flamethrower closer Jordan Hicks has nine saves and a 2.13 ERA. Those three have anchored the Cardinals immensely, but their starters need to adjust in order to compete.

Ranking 14 in the NL (4.79 ERA), the Brewers are a mess. Due to multiple pitching injuries, the team is missing key components (Corey Knebel and Jimmy Nelson) and have dealt with early exits from starters. The only consistent starter is Zach Davies, also an early Cy Young candidate: 4-0, 1.56 ERA (NL leading), and has allowed seven earned runs in seven starts. After Davies, the other four main starters are atrocious with ERA’s over 4.0. The bullpen has been average led by the strikeout robot Josh Hader, but even his 3.06 ERA isn’t great. With an unstable rotation, the Yelich needs to continue his tear or else the Brewers will fall behind. 

It would not be shocking if the two Wild Card teams come from the NL Central, but it’s too early in the season to tell. The division is stacked with dominant position players, great defensive stars, and some early Cy Young candidates. The question: can the teams maintain their early season success?

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