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Marty’s Musings: NL Central preview

A numbers-based preview of the NL Central.

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Welcome to ‘Marty's Musings,' my weekly column of numbers summarizing the happenings across Major League Baseball. As part of our regular season preview at Beyond the Box Score, I will be your guide in discussing various numbers and metrics that will determine the fate of all 30 MLB teams.

In this series to date, we have looked at the American League and National League West as well as the American League Central. In this week's edition, we take a look at the National League Central.

In 2016, the Cubs rebuild — via terrific drafting and savvy trades — finally came to fruition, as the North Siders won their first World Series in over a century. It appears everyone else in the division is again playing for second in 2017, which is unwelcome news for the competitive Cardinals and Pirates. Meanwhile at the bottom of the division, the Reds and Brewers are in for a tough year. Here’s a look at some of the numbers behind the teams in National League Central.

All projected 2017 records are based on FanGraphsDepth Chart projected standings and PECOTA Depth Charts as of the weekend before publication.

Chicago Cubs

2016 Record: 103-58

2016 Results: Won World Series over the Indians (4-3)

2017 FanGraphs Projections: 95-67, first place

2017 PECOTA Projections: 93-69, first place

1 — Position in the Cubs lineup that is projected for fewer than 2.1 fWAR. Led by Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell, Chicago has a formidable group of position players; only Jon Jay in center field is projected to have an fWAR under two. Even four out of their projected five starters are between 2.9 wins (John Lackey) and 4.5 wins (Jon Lester). Yowzah!

40 — Age of Koji Uehara as of April 3. The Cubs’ bullpen was serviceable last season, and then upgraded by midseason acquisition Aroldis Chapman and the erratic albeit effective Pedro Strop. This season the Cubs bullpen does not have a flame-throwing closer like Chapman, but they have more depth with Wade Davis, Uehara, Hector Rondon, and Carl Edwards Jr. joining Strop and Grimm.

10.4 — Team walk rate for Chicago hitters last season, the best in the majors. This team can hit for power and also maintain a strong on-base percentage (.343, best in the NL). The Cubs walking over ten percent of their plate appearances put them in a position to capitalize on their 199 home runs.

3.15 - The Cubs’ aggregate team ERA, best in the majors by a wide margin. The Nationals were second last year with 3.52, but the Cubs led all of baseball with superior run prevention thanks to quality starting pitching and superb defense.

4 — Of the Cubs’ eight starting position players are 25 or younger. Kris Bryant is the ‘oldest’ of the youngsters at 25 years and two months. Addison Russell is only 23, and Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras are both 24. Having a team this young and this good makes the Cubs payroll that much more flexible since these players have yet to hit free agency.

2000 — The last time we saw a back-to-back champion in Major League Baseball. Since the late-90s Yankees dynasty, there has been some serious parity in the game — 11 different teams have won a World Series in that 15-year span. Can the Cubs shake off their years of futility to become the dynasty of the ‘10s?

St. Louis Cardinals

2016 Record: 86-76

2016 Results: Second place, missed playoffs

2017 FanGraphs Projections: 83-79, second place

2017 PECOTA Projections: 78-84, third place

5 — Consecutive years the Cardinals made the playoffs prior to finishing 17.5 games behind the Cubs and outside the playoffs in 2016. The Cubs were generally a bottom-dweller as the Cards feasted on the bottom and held off the Pirates to take first place multiple in recent years (even when they finished second place in 2011, they won a World Series anyway).

225 — Home runs last season, which led the National League (and was second in the majors behind only the Orioles). We don’t necessarily think of St. Louis as a team that relies on the long ball, but six Cardinals players hit over 20 home runs last season. Even more surprising is that only one hitter on that list played in more than 150 games. Jedd Gyorko (who was probably the quietest 30-homer player in baseball) played 128 games, Matt Holliday (20 homers) played in 110, Brandon Moss’ 28 homers came through platooning in 128 games, and Randal Grichuk saw action in 132 games.

7.0 — 2016 walk rate for veteran pitcher Adam Wainwright, the highest since 2007. Wainwright is fading into the middle of the Cards rotation, with Carlos Martinez emerging as the staff ‘ace’. His K/BB rate of 2.73 was also the lowest since 2008. Having posted a near-three win season last year, Wainwright still has some gas in the tank, but time is running out for a pitcher entering his 12th season.

4 — Consecutive seasons of at least 3.2 wins above replacement for Matt Carpenter, per FanGraphs. Carpenter is often overlooked, as he does everything well, but nothing exceptionally great. With a .271/.380/.505 slash line, Carpenter again hit about 35-40 percent above league average in 2016.

Pittsburgh Pirates

2016 Record: 78-83

2016 Results: Third place, missed playoffs

2017 FanGraphs Projections: 82-80, third place

2017 PECOTA Projections: 81-81, second place

3 — Years of Pittsburgh finishing above .500 prior to last year’s disappointing 78-83 finish. The Pirates made the playoffs in 2013 for the first time since losing the 1992 NLCS. They never broke through for a first-place finish, losing the Wild Card game in 2014 and 2015 before reverting back to their old under-.500 ways in 2016.

0.7 — Andrew McCutchen's fWAR in 2016, the lowest of his career. Cutch performed well in 2015 offering no indication of a decline. 2016, however, showed his worst strikeout rate, worst walk rate, and lowest triple-slash (across all three metrics). There were significant calls to trade the veteran outfielder this offseason, but the Pirates held onto him for now. He has a $14.5 million option in 2018 and then becomes a free agent. Considering the Pirates could not break through against the Cardinals, going up against a powerhouse Cubs team puts them in a difficult spot in the short run. It’s possible McCutchen is dealt before his contract is up, especially if he has an excellent first half and the Buccos are out of contention.

2 — Young players whom fans should get to know before the season starts. Prospect first baseman Josh Bell is slated as the Opening Day starter after appearing in 45 games in 2016; Bell still qualifies as a rookie, as he had only 128 at-bats of the 130 that would disqualify him (we’ll just go ahead and ignore those 21 walks, I guess). Jameson Taillon is entering his sophomore season after compiling 104 innings last year —anything over 50 exhaust rookie status. In addition to those two, Austin Meadows very well could be a midseason call-up. The Pirates have plenty of youth to go with Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte, and Josh Harrison.

28 — Number of times Gregory Polanco struck out looking last season. That’s not the amazing part, though; 21 of those 28 times, the pitch was outside the strike zone. Polanco may have a better eye than the umpire, which could end up helping improve his 20.3 percent K-rate.

2,249,201 — 2016 attendance at PNC Park, the lowest mark since the Pirates’ first playoff run of recent memory in 2013. Winning generates excitement. It is certainly not a coincidence that the Pirates put more fannies in the seat in 2013 than PNC’s opening season in 2001 (in which Pittsburgh lost 100 games, but people enjoyed the new digs). 2017 can be a make-or-break season that demonstrates this team can be competitive in the NL, or that the three brief playoff stints were more a fluke than anything else.

Milwaukee Brewers

2016 Record: 73-89

2016 Results: Fourth place, missed playoffs

2017 FanGraphs Projections: 70-92, tied for fourth place

2017 PECOTA Projections: 77-85, fourth place

181 — Stolen bases by the ‘crew in 2016. Milwaukee ran on the bases….a lot. The Reds’ 139 was good for second in baseball and is dwarfed by the Brewers. Former Astro Jonathan Villar put up 62 stolen bases (and 18 times caught) over the course of 156 games. Rookie Keon Broxton stole 23 bags despite appearing in a mere 75 games.

1 — Brewers player projected by FanGraphs for two wins above replacement. Starter Zach Davies is projected to be the team’s best player. It’s a projected step back for both their veterans (Ryan Braun 33 years old, Eric Thames is 30) and younger players. Jonathan Villar had a nice three-win breakout in 2016, but is not projected to repeat it.

50 — Players used in 2016. The Brewers were caught in rebuilding mode, while talking like they were going all-in as a contender. In some respects, 73 wins last season was more than expected. By sending Jonathan Lucroy to Texas for Lewis Brinson and Luis Ortiz, their rebuild looks on track.

1 — Player remaining from the 2011 NLCS team. The Brewers seem so far removed from success, it’s easy to forget they made the NLCS six seasons ago, especially when there wasn’t really any specific performance worth remembering (Zack Greinke tossed 16.2 ineffective postseason innings). Milwaukee’s undergoing a full rebuild, which means some short-term pain.

Cincinnati Reds

2016 Record: 68-94

2016 Results: Fifth place, missed playoffs

2017 FanGraphs Projections: 70-92, tied for fourth place

2017 PECOTA Projections: 74-88, fifth place

103 Home runs allowed by the Cincinnati bullpen over 583 god-awful innings. The Reds’ pen posted an aggregate fWAR of -3.6. To put the 103 number into perspective, neither the Mets nor the Dodgers starting staffs gave up that many long balls. The Cardinals rotation allowed 103, and the Marlins rotation sacrificed 104.

56/8 — Stolen bases/caught stealings for Billy Hamilton last season. He’s crazy-efficient on the basepaths, where he drives pitchers crazy. Last season over 119 games, his OBP took an important step forward, progressing to .321. He improved his walk rate to 7.8, which if he can get it near 10 percent would be pretty valuable.

.408 — Batting average of Joey Votto in the second half last season. The baseball death of Votto has been greatly exaggerated, as he posted one of the best halves in the game. Over 72 post-All-Star-break games, Votto hit 15 home runs, and cut his strikeout rate by more than half compared to the first half (24.2 to 10.2 percent). He also got on base nearly half of all his plate appearances (.490 OBP). Some of this is certainly part of a .418 BABIP, but the strikeout rate cut could be telling. On a team with not much to watch, Votto remains at the top of the class at the plate.


13 - Days to Opening Day!

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Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano