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The NL Central race is heating up

It’s the Cubs’ division to lose.

Chicago Cubs v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Baseball has not given us much in the way of divisional races this year. Three divisional races are all but over, and the NL East is looking like it belongs to the Braves (short of a big surprise). The AL Central originally looked like the Twins were going to run away with it, but the Indians had other ideas over the past two months. The NL Central is the only tight divisional race involving more than two teams.

The Cubs are in first place right now, but are only up two games on the Cardinals and 2.5 games on the Brewers, and they have never had a lead larger than 3.5 games. Despite the small lead and a month and a half left of baseball left to play, FanGraphs gives the Cubs a whopping 72.6 percent chance to win the division! The Cardinals (15.6 percent) and Brewers (10.8 percent) are not projected to have much of a chance at all. Also, the NL Central is the only one projected to have a division winner with fewer than 90 wins.

So why are the Cubs such heavy favorites to win the division even though they only have a small lead on two other teams? One of the reasons is strength of schedule. The Brewers and Cardinals have the sixth and twelfth most difficult schedules left, respectively, while the Cubs are ranked nineteenth. In fact, if we limit it to just the NL, the Cubs have the third-easiest schedule remaining.

The Cubs also have a much better BaseRuns differential than their main competition. They are at +69 runs while the Brewers and Cardinals are at +11 and +9, respectively. Oddly enough, the Reds rank second in the division with a +22 differential, likely due to their shockingly excellent pitching.

After a 2018 season that was disappointing for many reasons, the Cubs offense has bounced back, ranking in a four-way tie for ninth-best in baseball. Kris Bryant has bounced back from an injury plagued 2018 season to hit .292/.391/.532, which is very similar to his career stats. My fellow boricua Javier Báez still swings at everything, but he is showing that his breakout last year was no fluke, hitting .289/.320/.553 with 28 HR so far in addition to his excellent defense and plus baserunning. Even Jason Heyward has finally turned into an above average hitter by slashing .273/.351/.459.

The Cubs’ pitching has been pretty solid, too. For all the grief that the bullpen has been getting, it actually has not been that bad. Their collective 4.27 RA9 ranks seventh and their 4.66 DRA ranks tenth.

As mentioned in a recent newsletter by Joe Sheehan, “much of what went right for the Brewers last year has just gone wrong this year.” They would have been well served to make bigger additions at the trade deadline, but as I wrote about at the time, they lacked the prospects to pull it off. If they want any chance to catch the Cubs, they are going to need their starting pitchers who are currently on the IL, namely Brandon Woodruff, Jimmy Nelson, Zach Davies and Jhoulys Chacín, to get healthy soon.

Unlike the Brewers, I thought the Cardinals could have done more at the trade deadline. It would have been a risk, but the team has been on an uncharacteristically long playoff drought. They better hope that Paul Goldschmidt really is continuing to rediscover his old self.

Even though things are not looking good for the Brewers and Cardinals as far as the division is concerned, they are still firmly in the Wild Card hunt. It is very competitive, though, and FanGraphs currently has the Nationals hosting the Mets (!) as the most likely outcome for the NL Wild Card game.

Of course, while the Brewers and Cardinals have a low projected chance to win the division, it is not at zero. Cleveland had a sub-ten percent chance to win the division in June, and now they’re neck and neck with the Twins. It will be exciting to see how this division plays out!

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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.