Let’s take a tour of the NL Central division. I’ll try to do these more often; perhaps every Friday. I’ll list the teams based on the division standings.
CINCINNATI REDS, 5-1
After his Pirates were outscored 30-8 in three games while getting swept by the Reds, manager Derek Shelton was prepared to evacuate. “We’re ready to get out of Cincinnati,” Shelton said.
The Cardinals can relate after losing two of three in Cincinnati to begin the season.
In going 5-1 against the Cardinals and Pirates, the Reds batted .316, whomped 14 home runs, had 28 extra-base hits overall, and slugged .607.
The Reds lead the majors with an average of 9.5 runs per game. They scored more runs in the first six games of the season (57) than any Reds team in franchise history. The famous Big Red Machine held the previous mark, with 51 runs in the first six games of 1976.
Moreover, Cincinnati’s 57 runs are the third-most by a National League team in the first six games of a season since 1900.
Outfielders Nicholas Castellanos and Tyler Naquin went into the weekend tied for the MLB lead with 4 homers. Naquin — a low-cost pickup in free agency — smoked the Pirates for 3 homers and 8 RBIs in the three-game rout and leads the NL with 13 RBIs. And rookie second baseman Jonathan India is batting .476 with 10 RBIs.
Of the 11 Reds position players that have the most at-bats so far, nine are hitting .300 or better. The exceptions are shortstop Eugenio Suarez and first baseman Joey Votto; they’re hitting a combined .179.
“We play with heart,” India said.. “We play with a lot of pride. We’re just a bunch of ballers out there, that’s the bottom line.”
Noteworthy: It’s been a dramatic reversal by the Reds offense. In the short 2020 season Cincinnati had the worst batting average in the majors (.212) and finished 28th in runs per game … Suárez struck out in six of his eight at-bats at Pittsburgh and has made three errors after transitioning from third base to short … lefty reliever Amir Garrett was ripped for two homers and a 22.50 ERA in his first two appearances.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS, 5-2
After winning four straight from Miami and Milwaukee, the Cardinals rested on Friday and will resume this weekend with two games against the Brewers.
During their four-game winning streak, Cardinals pitchers have been nipped for only three earned runs in 36 innings for a 0.75 ERA. In the last four games starters Daniel Ponce de Leon, John Gant, Jack Flaherty and Adam Wainwright have yielded only two earned runs in 20 innings. The bullpen covered 16 innings during the four-win run, giving up one earned run and striking out 17.
Catcher Yadier Molina is at the center of the winning streak, guiding an excellent pitching performance and batting .357 with a homer, a double, 5 RBIs and 3 runs scored. Molina slugged .643 over the four games.
The Cardinals need to crank out more offense. Through seven games they’re 24th among the 30 teams in batting average (.202), 22nd in onbase percentage (.287) and 19th in slugging (.368.) The Cards are 11th in runs per game (5.14) but have been held to 4 runs or less in four of their seven games. The team strikeout rate (29.5%) is fourth-worst in the majors.
Ranking the outfield: Excluding a few at-bats as pinch hitters, the St. Louis outfield contingent is at the bottom of the majors in hitting performance. Through seven games the outfielders are last among all outfield groups in batting average (.147), last in OBP (.198), last in OPS (.531.) and have the worst strikeout rate (44%.) Thanks to Dylan Carlson’s three homers and. 636 slugging percentage the Cardinals rank 18th in slugging among outfields at .333.
The Cardinals’ five most effective relievers have combined for 19.2 innings and three earned runs allowed (1.37 ERA.) The five are Alex Reyes, Giovanny Gallegos, Jordan Hicks, Genesis Cabrera and Andrew Miller. And Reyes, Gallegos and Hicks have not allowed a run in 12 combined innings.
CHICAGO CUBS, 4-3
The Cubbies are straining to score runs, ranking 25th in MLB with an average of 3.29 per game. They have the worst team batting average (.157) in the majors and are 25th in OPS (.607.)
A few regulars are struggling early on: Through Thursday OF Joc Pederson was hitting .095 with a 33% strikeout rate. Catcher Willson Contreras is batting .111 with a 36% strikeout rate. Other low batting averages belong to OF Ian Happ (.118), 1B Anthony Rizzo (.174) and RF Jason Heyward (.190.) SS Javvy Baez was batting .200 with 11 strikeouts in 25 at-bats. Kris Bryant has the highest average (.250) among starting position players,
The Cubs are rolling with their pitching, ranking 6th in the majors with an overall 2.95 ERA. Starter Jake Arrieta is 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA in two starts. And the Cubs are happy to see closer Craig Kimbrell regain his dominance; since the final month of the 2020 season Kimbrel has worked 12 scoreless innings, striking out 22 with no walks. What’s the difference? “Throwing strikes,” Kimbrel said.
When assessing Cubs pitching, keep this in mind: they played the poor Pirates in four of their first seven games through Thursday.
MILWAUKEE BREWERS, 3-4
Where did the offense go? The Crew ranks 27th with an average of 2.86 runs per game. They’re hitting only .172. The slugging percentage (.267) is 29th, and the OPS (.510) is dead last. Strikeouts are a big problem, with the Brewers getting punched out in 31.6 percent of their plate appearances. (Only two teams are striking out more than Milwaukee.)
The Brewers are wasting some excellent starting pitching from the top of their rotation; in four starts Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes have combined for a 1.54 ERA with 33 strikeouts in 23.1 innings. Burnes has allowed one run and two hits in 12.1 innings with strikeouts; the Brewers have lost both of his starts.
“We have to score a little bit more, there’s no question about it,” manager Craig Counsell said after Thursday’s 3-1 loss to the Cardinals. “We have two guys who are pitching well. They’re off to good starts and have a lot of confidence in what they’re doing. That’s going to help us down the road, we know that.”
Christian Yelich hasn’t homered — but he has struck out 12 times in 25 at-bats. Most of the lineup regulars are doing terribly early on: Keston Hiura is 1 for 23, Luis Urias is 2 for 21, Jackie Bradley Jr. is 1 for 19, Kolten Wong is 2 for 19, Lorenzo Cain is 3 for 18, and Avisail Garcia is 4 for 22.
After leaving Thursday’s game with an oblique strain, Wong may go on the Injured List. The Brewers recently traded former starting shortstop Orlando Arcia to the Braves to give Urias the starting job, and the infield depth is lacking.
“I would say that was probably as bad as it felt,” said Wong, who departed after facing Andrew Miller in the 7th inning. “I really couldn’t finish my swing. I think you could tell by the swing I took. It wasn’t pretty. Just one of the things where I tried to go out there and compete in that last AB and stay in the game for the guys out there. And I just knew I wasn’t going to really be any help at that point.”
St. Louisan Devin Williams, still rusty from an inactive spring training, has a 10.80 ERA after two relief appearances. Williams was wickedly good last season (53% K rate) but has been slowed by rotator cuff inflammation.
PITTSBURGH PIRATES, 1-6
After winning the season opener at Wrigley Field, the Bucs have dropped six straight. The run differential in the six losses is Other Team 46, Pirates 14.
“I think our fans realize that we’re building something here and that it’s going to be a journey,” manager Shelton said.
Their best player, the dynamic third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, is on the IL with a wrist injury.
The starting rotation ranks 29th in MLB with a 6.99 ERA and has been rocked for 7 homers in 28 innings.
Offensively the Pirates are 29th in runs per game (2.7.) The center field competition isn’t getting anywhere; Anthony Alford is hitless in 11 at-bats with eight strikeouts, and Dustin Fowler is 3 for 14 with six strikeouts. Right fielder Gregory Polanco is 3 for 20 with seven strikeouts.
After emphasizing smart and aggressive base-running in spring training, the Pirates have advanced on the bases only 17 times, fewer than any NL team. That stat courtesy of The Athletic.
“It’s hard to be aggressive when there’s nobody on base,” Shelton said.
It’s only April 9. But it’s already been a long season for the Pirates.
Thanks for reading and have a great weekend.
Please check out Bernie’s 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 live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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.