Who will win the NL Central?

Hint: it won’t be the Pirates, Cubs or Reds.

The Milwaukee Brewers (50-43) went into the All-Star break with a half-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals (50-44) and the division title is there for the snatching.

FanGraphs projections give Milwaukee a 65 percent chance to finish in first place. The Cardinals have a 35% shot to do it.

Baseball Reference is up on St. Louis, listing the Cardinals with a 74.4% division-win probability … well above Milwaukee’s 25.6% probability.

Baseball Prospectus puts Milwaukee as the most likely team to capture the Central (65.7%) with the Cards second at 34.7%.

Here are the reasons why I believe the Cardinals will prevail in the NL Central. And that’s my call. But at the end of this column, I’ll explain why it may not happen. This isn’t a layup for either side. Both teams are flawed.

1. St. Louis Is The Better All-Around Team: Let’s start with the basic necessities in sizing up the two teams. This season the Cardinals are allowing fewer runs per game than Milwaukee, and scoring more runs per game than Milwaukee. The Cards grade out higher in the baserunning metrics. The Cardinals have more defensive runs saved than the Brewers, 41 to 24, and more Outs Above Average, +15 to minus 7. And St. Louis has a better run differential by a margin of 40 runs. That pretty much covers it all, right?

2. The Cards Have Superior Position Players: As a group, STL’s non-pitchers rank 4th in MLB and 2nd to the Dodgers in the NL with 16.6 WAR (FanGraphs version.) Third baseman Nolan Arenado leads the NL with 4.6 WAR, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt is 2nd in the league with 4.5 WAR, and infielder Tommy Edman ranks 7th with 3.7 WAR. Milwaukee’s highest-rated position player is shortstop Willy Adames with 2.4 WAR. To gauge it another way: the top six St. Louis position players have amassed 17.2 WAR compared to the 8.2 WAR collected by the top six Milwaukee position players. WAR is an all-encompassing metric that assesses value in hitting, defense and baserunning.

3. Tyler O’Neill Is Due For A Noisy Breakout: Here we are at the All-Star break, and O’Neill has only four homers, six doubles and a .352 slugging percentage in 198 plate appearances. O’Neill bashed his way to 34 homers, 26 doubles, a .560 slug and .912 OPS last year, but in 2022 his season has been abridged by shoulder and hamstring injuries that caused him to miss 44 days.

This is reminiscent of last season when the St. Louis outfield had a miserable first half offensively, mostly because of injuries to O’Neill and center fielder Harrison Bader and a league-average offensive performance by right fielder Dylan Carlson over the first three months.

At the break a year ago, the STL outfield ranked 11th in the NL offensively at nine percent below league average in park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+). After the All-Star break the healthier and stabilized Cards outfield provided offense that came in at 33 percent above league average in wRC+. A huge difference, yes? The collective second-half numbers for the St. Louis outfield included a .287 average (1st NL), .350 OBP (4th) , .518 slug (1st), .868 OPS (3rd), 45 home runs (2nd) and 122 RBI (3rd.)

This group may not reach those second-half stats in 2022, but the upside is considerable. And if O’Neill can stay in the lineup, we should prepare for liftoff. The St. Louis outfield also has improved depth in 2022 thanks to the surprisingly robust young-player impact from Brendan Donovan, Juan Yepez and Lars Nootbaar.

4. The Cardinals Have A Softer 2nd-Half Schedule: I wrote about this on Monday, but here’s a brief recap: the Cardinals’ remaining strength of schedule is the easiest in the majors. The Redbirds will play 69 percent of their remaining regular-season games against teams that went into the All-Star break with a losing record. That bodes well for the Cardinals, who had the sixth–best winning percentage in MLB (.675) in games against losing teams.

5. If The Front Office Is Inclined To Make An Impact Trade, The Cardinals Can Deal From Strength. The updated organizational rankings at FanGraphs puts the St. Louis farm system at No. 14 overall, which is considerably better than Milwaukee’s No. 26 rating. The Cardinals have flocks of prospects to offer – if motivated – and that gives STL a substantial trade-market advantage over Milwaukee. In theory, anyway. The farm system rankings mean nothing if John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch are unwilling to trade coveted prospects.

6. The Brewers May Have A Josh Hader Problem: It would be ludicrous to believe that Hader’s recent problems will continue in the second half, but the wipeout closer appears vulnerable for the first time in his MLB career. In his last 14 appearances before the All-Star break, Bader was cracked for 15 earned runs in 12.1 innings. The damage included seven homers, four doubles and an .800 slugging percentage against him in only 55 opponent at-bats. And in his final six appearances before the break, Hader was clobbered for five homers, two doubles, 12 earned runs and a 1.208 slugging percentage in only 4.1 innings. (ERA: 24.92.) In the final Friday night of the first half Hader was mauled for three homers and six earned runs in the ninth inning at San Francisco, blowing a three-run lead in the Giants’ 8-5 victory.

The Cardinals have their own bullpen questions, but if Hader can’t get straight it’s trouble for Milwaukee. But even with Hader pitching well, there wasn’t much difference between the STL and MIL bullpens in WAR and ERA, and the Cardinals’ relievers actually lead the NL in Win Probability Added.

7. The Brewers Are Overly Dependent On Home Runs: The Crew can thump, ranking 2nd in the NL with an average of 1.33 homers per 9 innings. (The Cardinals are 7th with 1.05 HR per 9.) The Cardinals aren’t bad when failing to homer in a game this season, going 16-19. When the Brewers fail to homer they’re 11-18. And they have a 12-16 mark when launching only one home run.

The Brewers have scored 51.3 percent of their total runs via the homer. Home runs have been responsible for 40.8 percent of STL’s total runs. The Cardinals do a better job of scoring runs in different ways, hitting .251 as a team (4th NL) compared to the Crew’s .235 average (13th NL.) The Cardinals hit more doubles, more singles and more triples than the Brewers. And the Cardinals have a higher OPS+ (108) than the Brewers (103.)

St. Louis is more capable of using baserunning to their advantage; this year the Cards have taken 93 extra bases on balls in play, and successfully do it on 48 percent of their opportunities to advance on the basepaths. Milwaukee has taken 56 extra bases on balls in play and moved up on the bases at a lower rate, 40%.

8. Assuming That Yadier Molina Returns, He’ll Likely Make A Positive Difference: He must be healthier, of course. And it’s unwise to expect meaningful offense from Molina when he returns (supposedly) in early August. But here’s all you need to know about the first-half performances at catcher, and I’m focusing on Molina and Andrew Knizner. Ivan Herrera and Austin Romine have played little relative to Knizner and Molina, and their sample sizes don’t mean much …

– Catcher ERA: Molina 3.44, Knizner 3.85.

– Caught-Stealing Percentage: Molina 38%, Knizner 26%.

– Defensive Runs Saved: Molina +3, Knizner minus 5. That’s an eight-run gap between Molina and Knizner.

– Catcher Pitch-Framing Runs: Molina +3, which is tied for 7th among MLB catchers. Knizner minus 4, which ranks 55th.

– Strike Percentage: Molina 49.4%, 10th in the majors. Knizner 43.4%, 52nd.

I believe that Molina is also better than Knizner at kicking a basketball in anger during a hoops game in Puerto Rico while supposedly rehabbing a knee injury there, but I digress.

9. Homefield Advantage? The Cardinals and Brewers will clash seven times in the second half, and five of the seven games will be played at Busch Stadium. That should give the Cardinals an edge because they’ve been successful at home and losers on the road.

OK, now let’s take a look at the flip side … here are a few reasons why the Cardinals won’t win the NL Central. And I can’t predict “new” injuries so please keep that in mind.

–The St. Louis front office doesn’t address the team’s pitching problems, and Milwaukee’s aggressive front office led by David Stearns makes a meaningful move or two.

– The Cardinals wait in vain for Jack Flaherty to return to the rotation. Even if Flaherty’s shoulder heals, he won’t resurface until late August. Freddy Peralta returns to the Milwaukee rotation and pitches well.

– Milwaukee’s starting rotation is better than the St. Louis starting rotation. The Cardinal starters have collectively posted only 3.7 WAR, which ranks 25th in MLB. Milwaukee starters rank 9th in MLB with a 7.5 WAR. The Brewer starters also have a lower ERA, a better fielding independent ERA, and more Win Probability Added than their St. Louis counterparts. Key stat: Adam Wainwright and Miles Mikolas have a combined 2.76 ERA this season. All of the other pitchers that have started games for the Cardinals have a 4.99 ERA collectively.

— Oli Marmol has done a good job in his rookie season as the STL manager, but Brewers manager Craig Counsell may be the best manager in the majors. Counsell has done a superb job of guiding the Brewers through several tight races as the Crew’s leader. He can get more out of less, which is among the reasons why Milwaukee has a higher winning percentage (.561) than the Cardinals (.547) since the start of the 2018 season – despite spending significantly less money than St. Louis on annual player payrolls than St. Louis.

— If the STL offense continues to get shutout too often, it will be a frustrating second half.

— If the St. Louis rookies wear down and stall out offensively, it will be a frustrating second half.

— If the St. Louis front office continues to stash poor relievers in the bullpen instead of going with relievers that give the team a better chance to win … it will be a frustrating second half.

— Yes, the Cardinals will play a softer schedule in the second half. But if you’re making a case for Milwaukee, there are other schedule–related components to consider. The Cardinals have a losing record on the road this season (21-24) on the road this season, and they’ll play 36 road games and 32 home games in the second half. The Brewers were 29-24 on the road in the first half but only 21-19 at home. If the Crew can take better care of their home yard, watch out … in the second half Milwaukee will play 41 at home and 28 on the road.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app which is available in your preferred app store.

“Seeing Red,” my weekly podcast on the Cardinals with Will Leitch, is available on multiple platforms including Apple and Spotify. Please subscribe.

Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz

Please email your “Ask Bernie” questions to BernScoops@gmail.com

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.

 

Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz

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.