We know that the Cardinals, 58-76, are having a crummy season. They’ve languished in last place in the NL Central for 96 days this season. They’ve never led the division at any point this season. They haven’t been above .500 since their 2-1 record on April 2 after the first series of the season.
There are a million reasons – or so it seems – to explain why the Cardinals have the second-worst winning percentage in the National League and wander into the Labor Day Weekend at 16 and ½ games behind the first-place Brewers.
But we also have to give credit to the other NL Central teams for keeping the Cardinals covered in dirt. The Brewers, Cubs, Reds and Pirates have done their part to turn the division upside down.
Through Thursday the Brewers were 74-59 and had a three-game lead over the second-place Cubs (71-62.) The third-place Reds (69-66) have fallen back in recent weeks, going 10-17 in August. That leaves them six games behind the Brewers in the standings. But the Redlegs are much improved after losing 100 games in 2022. The Pirates don’t have a handsome record (61-73), but they’re making strides.
Pittsburgh’s .455 winning percentage through Thursday would be the best by the franchise since 2018. And like the Reds, the Bucs, the Cubs and the Brewers, the Bucs have a top-five rated farm system that’s loaded with young talent.
What have the NL Central rivals done better than St. Louis? What are the factors? Well, that’s why I like to find the answers.
1. Manager Craig Counsell. He’s there with Bruce Bochy and Terry Francona for the honorary title of best manager in the majors. No one consistently gets more out of his team than Counsell. His brilliant bullpen navigation is a big part of why the Brewers are 27-13 in one-run games.
2. The Milwaukee front office is impressively resourceful and can succeed despite being at a payroll disadvantage. The Crew is headed for its fifth postseason spot in the last six seasons, and only missed making the playoffs by a game in 2022. Since the start of the 2018 season the Brewers rank sixth in the majors with a .557 winning percentage. Over that same time the Cardinals (.536) are ninth in MLB for regular-season success.
Based on the 40-man competitive-balance tax payroll – and prorating the 2020 Covid-shortened season – the Cardinals have spent $1.12 billion on player talent. And the Brewers? They’ve spent $810 million but still have won more games than the Cardinals over the last six years.
3. The Milwaukee organization does a superb job of maintaining upper-tier pitching. It’s no different in 2023. The Crew is 12th overall in starting-pitching ERA – and 8th since the All-Star break – despite taking a hard hit with injuries this season. Unlike St. Louis, the Milwaukee front office built starting-pitching depth that saved them when the injuries struck. And the bullpen is the best in the bigs based on Win Probability Added. The Brewers starters rank 7th in quality starts and are tied for 6th in quality-start percentage.
4. Run prevention. The Brewers are No. 1 in the majors in defensive efficiency and second in defensive runs saved. Combined with the sturdy and deep pitching, Milwaukee ranks third in the NL and eighth overall in allowing 4.22 runs per game. That’s how they’ve overcome an offense that’s struggled for much of the campaign and is currently ranked 18th in runs scored per game.
5. Two notable things about the Milwaukee offense: Christian Yelich is having his best season at the plate since 2019 … and the Brewers do an above-average job at getting their baserunners into score, ranking 14th in the category.
1. The Cubs rank sixth overall in runs per game (5.02) for the season and only three MLB teams have scored more runs since the All-Star break. The situational hitting has been terrific. The Cubs are batting .293 with an .852 OPS with runners in scoring position since the break. And for the season they’re the best team in the majors at moving runners along, ranking first with a productive-out percentage of 31.5%. The Cubs have an offense that makes things happen. They are tied for sixth overall in the percentage for extra-bases taken, and are seventh in MLB with 112 stolen bases. Only five MLB teams have converted a higher percentage of their baserunners into runs scored than the Cubs.
2. The front office fixed a glaring weakness: defense. The Cubs have been brutal in this area but it’s much different in 2023. Unlike the Cardinals, who lazily let a great defense fall apart, the Cubs added shortstop Dansby Swanson and center fielder Cody Bellinger (among others) to become a good defensive team. This season they’re tied for seventh in defensive runs saved and rank 10th in defensive efficiency. Needless to say, the improvement has benefited Chicago’s pitchers. Perhaps the Cardinals’ front office and dugout staff can learn a few things from their arch rival.
3. Despite having some concerns (Marcus Stroman, Jameson Taillon) the starting pitching is surprisingly good. Led by Cy Young candidate Justin Steele, the Cubs are fourth in the majors for most quality starts, and rank a respectable 14th in starter ERA.
4. The Cubs’ underrated bullpen is 10th in MLB in Win Probability Added. Setup dude Mark Leiter Jr. has exceeded expectations, and the Cubs have found their closer in Adbert Alzolay. The Cubs have a 71% success rate on save opportunities; only the Blue Jays, Red Sox and Dodgers have done better.
5. The aggressive free-agent signing of Dansby Swanson has paid off, at least in 2023. The former Brave is tied for second among MLB shortstops in defensive runs saved (14). He’s clubbed 19 homers. He’s fourth among all shortstops with 66 RBI. Per wRC+, he’s 30 percent above league average offensively when hitting with runners in scoring position. Excluding the suspended Wander Franco, Swanson is No. 3 overall the shortstop position with 3.9 WAR.
5a. Cody Bellinger is back in MVP form. The Cubs made an excellent move in signing Bellinger after his career went in the wrong direction after suffering a dislocated right shoulder in Game 7 of the 2020 NLCS. The Dodgers gave up on him after his poor seasons in 2021 and 2022. But after performing at 33 percent below league average offensively in his final two seasons in LA, Bellinger is stronger and happier in Chicago – and hitting at a level that’s 37 above league average offensively. His comeback campaign features 20 homers, 23 doubles, 77 RBI, 18 steals, 3.8 WAR, and a .333 average with runners in scoring position. He’s upgraded the Cubs defensively in center field and at first base.
1. The Reds have been carried by a dazzling set of rookies. Their rookie position players have collectively accumulated 7.0 WAR, which easily ranks first among MLB rookie delegations. Their rookies lead all major-league rookie groups in slugging, homers, doubles, triples, stolen bases, RBI, runs scored and some other stuff. Roll call: Matt McLain, Spencer Steer, Elly De La Cruz, Will Benson, Stuart Fairchild and Christian Encarnacion.
2. Rookie Reds pitchers have 4.5 WAR which ranks third in the majors. The most impressive is rookie lefty starter Andrew Abbott, who has a 3.35 ERA and 1.9 WAR in 16 starts.
3. The lively offense covers for the team’s flaws in starting pitching and defense. The Reds struggle to keep other teams from scoring; their average of 4.95 runs yielded per game is only slightly worse than the Cardinals (5.02.) But the Reds make up for it by averaging 4.75 runs per game (No. 12 in MLB) and they use their disruptive speed and aggression to rattle opponents. Cincinnati leads the majors with 157 stolen bases and have the third-highest percentage (50%) for extra–bases taken. The Reds get a lot done for a team that ranks 16th in the majors in OPS.
4. The bullpen doesn’t mess around. Cincinnati relievers rank sixth overall in Win Probability Added and are seventh with a 69 percent save rate. The Reds bullpen has allowed 28 percent of inherited runners to score which is tied for fifth best in the bigs. Closer Alexis Diaz has 35 saves, a 2.18 ERA and a 33.7 percent strikeout rate.
5. The energy is relentless. The fiery Reds have 41 comeback wins this season, the most by a National League team and tied with Baltimore for first in MLB.
1. Hmmm. Is feistiness an actual quality that helps a team win games? If so, the Pirates qualify. Through Thursday they were 13-7 in their 20 games against the Cardinals and Reds. The Bucs beat up on losing teams, with a 31-19 record against the lesser clubs. You have to appreciate their winning record (16-14) in one-run games. The Pirates have lots of problems. They’re pretty bad at scoring runs, they strike out too much, and are in the bottom 10 in a bunch of other offensive categories. Only four teams have hit fewer home runs. Pittsburgh’s starting pitching gets slapped around. But this team fights hard … and as the Cardinals have discovered (painfully) you can’t take the Bucs for granted.
2. I’ve always felt that Pirates manager Derek Shelton was underrated. He’s had an acutely difficult job but does a lot of things well in bringing a young team along.
3. The Pirates can throw a good bullpen at you. Closer David Bednar is outstanding. He has 29 saves, a 2.13 ERA and a 28 percent strikeout punch. With Bednar protecting the house, the Pirates are tied with the Cubs for the fourth-best save percentage (71%) in the majors.
4. The Pirates have some positives with their starting rotations. Mitch Keller is one of the best starters in the majors that nobody talks about. Former Cardinal Johan Oviedo has been solid this season. The Pirates have 46 quality starts which is more than the Dodgers, Rays, Marlins, Giants, Mets and Yankees (among others.)
5. The Pirates play good defense. They’re a +14 in defensive runs saved. The glove star is Ke’Bryan Hayes who leads all MLB third basemen with 20 defensive runs saved. He deserves to win the Gold Glove for best defense by a 3B in the National League.
Thanks for reading…
And please pardon my typos.
Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via 590thefan.com or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible and Baseball Prospectus 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.