The question of the day: Does anybody want to win the NL Central? The Brewers and Cardinals have it ridiculously easy because the competition in the NL Central is a joke.
The Pirates, Cubs and Reds have combined for a .375 winning percentage this season, leaving the Brewers and Cardinals to writhe for the division title. The NL Central may be a clown car, but at least the Brewers and Cardinals have preserved some dignity by sitting up front, without sporting the mandatory multi-color wig and face paint.
In games played beyond the borders of the NL Central the Cardinals and Brewers are a combined 35-39. The NL Central co-leaders have bullied the Pirates and Reds for a combined 25-6 record. (At least the Cubs have raised their knuckles and landed punches, going 7-8 in games vs. the Brewers and Cubs so far.)
As the rivals set up in Milwaukee for what should be an interesting and entertaining four-game series, they go in with identical 38-30 records.
Let me state this up front: this isn’t a dramatic showdown. I’m looking forward to the Cardinals and Brewers getting after each other and all of that, and after this series they’ll face each other seven more times. That includes two series in September.
For now, I’ll pass on hyping this Midwest meeting into something more than it is. Even if one side loses all four contests this week, the standings deficit won’t be more disadvantageous than four games. And seeing that these teams already have split a couple of four-games this season, no one would be surprised to see this one end in another 2-2 share. Should one team win three or four games? No sweat. The Cardinals and Brewers aren’t dependable in protecting the division lead.
The Brewers were 4 and ½ games ahead of the Cardinals after winning in St. Louis on May 26. Since then, the Brewers are 9-14 and the Cardinals are 14-10.
The Cards should be better than 14-10 over this stretch but their problems held them back: middle-innings relief; getting starting pitcher Jack Flaherty settled in; and manager Oli Marmol having a puzzlingly awful series in Boston. Marmol made a disastrous decision to pull Adam Wainwright for T.J. McFarlane in Friday night’s loss, and inexplicably started Albert Pujols at DH on Sunday against a right-handed starter when he had two superior options available in Nolan Gorman and Juan Yepez.
After passing the Brewers to take a season-high 2 and ½ game lead on June 14, the Cardinals proceeded to spit it up by losing three of their last four games.
As the Cards were screwing up, the Brewers emerged from their deep funk by going 4-1 in the last five games of a three-city road trip. The positive finish was capped by a three-game sweep of the Reds.
No need for the Cardinals or Brewers to worry about falling behind in the standings. The team that takes the lead will wait for the other to catch up.
When the Brewers were playing their most wretched ball of the season, the Cardinals pounced to erase a 4 and ½ game deficit and take hold of first place for a while. Predictably, the inconsistent Cardinals let down and the Brewers rebounded to move into a first-place tie.
– The Cards are back to spinning around on the carousel again, moving but not going anywhere. They’ve posted a 10-9 record in June, and are 9-9 in their last 18 games.
– The Cardinals are only 17–17 on the road this season. They’ve lost five of their last six and seven of their last 11 when away from Busch Stadium. C’mon.
– Of the eight teams with the best winning percentages in the NL, only St. Louis is .500 or worse on the road. Here are the road winning percentages in order:
– After losing two of three games in Boston over the weekend, St. Louis is 15-18 against teams with winning records. I cringe to think what it would look like if the Cardinals had to reside in the American League East. I think they’d finish ahead of Baltimore, but … the Redbirds are 3-8 this season against Toronto, Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Boston. That includes a 1-5 mark against the Rays and Red Sox since June 7.
– The Cardinals are still stuck in their harmful habit of failing to close out opponents. In more recent times, they’ve (A) lost a series finale to Milwaukee with a chance to take three out of four from the Brewers; (B) gave away a win in the first game at Tampa Bay, and couldn’t avoid a series sweep; (C) lost the final game of a three-game series to fall short of sweeping the Reds and the Pirates; (D) couldn’t win the final game at Boston for a 2-1 series win. Instead the Cardinals lost two of three at Boston and won’t go into Milwaukee with the NL Central lead.
Now, let’s open the window and take a look at a wider view.
The Cardinals should win this division but need these four things to happen:
1) John Mozeliak must acquire legitimate middle relief help to fix this team’s most glaring and destructive flaw. I expect the president of baseball operations to slow-play it, or perhaps do nothing at all – and hope that Jordan Hicks and Zack Thompson can redress a serious vulnerability.
2) Needless to say, the three most reliable starting pitchers must remain healthy and successful. (Wainwright, Mikolas, Hudson.) Next, Jack Flaherty must find the 2019 version of himself.
In the words of philosopher Criss Jami: “It is not true that everyone is special. It is true that everyone was once special and still possesses the ability to recover it.” Good message for Jack.
Finally, Andre Pallante looks good (so far) as the fifth starter, but can he hold it? And if Matz has a lengthy convalescence on the IL, do the Cardinals have enough starting-pitching depth?
3) The outfielders must clean up the substandard defense and become more consistent on offense.
As of Monday morning the three St. Louis outfield positions were minus 13 in defensive runs saved. Too many airborne baseballs are landing for hits. And the outfield offense ranks in the middle-of-the pack in the key categories. The status of left fielder Tyler O’Neill (hamstring) was unknown as I typed this. But rightfielder Dylan Carlson has been hitting much, much better since the start of May.
4) Marmol has to put his best lineup on the card instead of prioritizing nostalgia by playing Pujols against RH pitching too often. I’ll elaborate on this later in a separate piece.
Even with their issues the Cardinals are above the Brewers in three important categories:
– Runs Scored Per Game: The Cards are 5th in the majors with an average of 4.87 runs; Milwaukee is 15th at 4.40 runs per game.
– Runs Allowed Per Game: The Cardinals are 6th at 3.97 runs yielded per game; the Brewers are tied for 13th with an average of 4.16 RA.
– Run Differential: The Cardinals are 5th in baseball at plus 61 runs. The only teams that have a better run differential than St. Louis are the Yankees, Dodgers, Mets and Padres. Milwaukee is 16th in MLB with a run-diff of plus 16.
Let’s hit on a few categories:
OFFENSE: I sincerely believe the Cardinals have more upside than the Brewers, but especially on offense. Three above-average rookies –Brendan Donovan, Juan Yepez and Nolan Gorman – have boosted the lineup’s performance and potential, and Milwaukee can’t match the instant impact of the young St. Louis hitters.
St. Louis is slightly below the National League average in homers – but is tied for second in the NL in OPS+, third in batting average, third in onbase percentage, fourth in slugging and tied for first in stolen bases.
Milwaukee has hit more homers than St. Louis (88-71) but lag in the National League rankings in batting average (13th) onbase percentage (13th) and OPS+ (9th.)
In terms of all-around play – measured by Wins Above Replacement – the St. Louis position players have 11.9 WAR, which ranks an impressive fifth in the majors. Milwaukee’s position players rank 18th with 7.9 WAR.
STARTING ROTATION: Both teams have lost starting pitchers to injuries. Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta are still out for the Brewers. And while Woodruff (finger numbness) has started his injury-rehab assignment, Peralta’s return remains indefinite. The Cardinals lost Steven Matz (shoulder) to the IL. And while he’s making progress (finally) there’s no clear timetable for his return. The X Factor here is Jack Flaherty. The Cardinals need him to reestablish himself as a No. 1 or No. 2 starter, and he hasn’t been that in a sustained way since 2019. Flaherty makes his second start of the season on Tuesday night in Milwaukee.
This stat surprised me but the Cardinals and Brewers enter this series with essentially the same starting-pitching ERA on the season: 3.80 for Milwaukee, 3.81 for St. Louis. But if you buy into Fielding Independent ERA, Milwaukee has a clear advantage (3.76 to 4.15) because their starters have the second-highest strikeout rate (25.1%) in the majors. If Woodruff comes back and pitches the way he’s capable of, the Brewers will be very happy. And less worried. The Brewers have benefited from the positive work of replacement starters Aaron Ashby and Jason Alexander, but Ashby (forearm tightness) was just placed on the IL. The injury-hit Brewers plan to start recent waiver pickup Chi Chi Gonzalez against the Cardinals on Tuesday.
BULLPEN: The Brewers have the bullpen edge for a simple reason: manager Craig Counsell trusts his relievers more than Marmol trusts the St. Louis relievers. But if you want numbers, Milwaukee’s relievers have the superior ERA, the superior Fielding Independent ERA, and more WAR. There isn’t much difference between the two bullpens in Win Probability Added. But ask any manager outside of St. Louis, and they’d choose Milwaukee’s bullpen over STL’s bullpen.
DEFENSE: Let the debate begin. If you go with the defensive runs saved metric the Brewers have outplayed the Cardinals defensively, getting credited by Fielding Bible with 27 DRS this season (tied for 7th overall.) That’s mostly because of the more effective defensive play by the Brewer outfield.
St. Louis is tied for 11th with 21 defensive runs saved but the Cardinals are considerably better than the Brewers at playing infield defense. And that’s vital for a STL pitching staff that has the second–highest ground-ball rate in MLB (46.6%.)
As for converting all balls in play into outs, the Cardinals rank 10th in defensive efficiency (.707) and the Brewers are 17th (.694.) The STL defense has slipped and isn’t as sharp as last season — but it’s still an above-average defense.
The deciding factor for me: while the Cardinals are below-average defensively in the Outs Above Average fielding metric at minus 2, which ranks 15th, the Brewers are minus 11 in OAA which ranks 24th.
The Cardinals get the check mark in this area. It isn’t close.
BASERUNNING: The FanGraphs baserunning metric (BsR) ranks the Cardinals fifth in the majors in quality of baserunning. The Brewers are 15th.
MANAGER: Marmol is good, but Counsell is the widely recognized as one of the two or three best managers in the majors.
It should be a compelling race between St. Louis and Milwaukee. It will likely tip in the direction of the team that has the healthier rotation, the most dependable bullpen, and the more aggressive front office.
If the St. Louis offense doesn’t outperform the Milwaukee offense, the Cards have no excuse. Such a failure would be a clear example of underachieving by the Cardinals, a team that has three of the top seven position players in the National League so far, based on WAR: Paul Goldschmidt is second, Tommy Edman is third, and Nolan Arenado is seventh.
Based on run differential and other underlying factors, the Cardinals should be entering this series with a record of 40-28, going against a Brewers team that should be 36-32. Instead the teams are tied. That’s disappointing for obvious reasons. The Cardinals should be in first place.
Thanks for reading …
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.