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Can Anyone In The NL Central Stop The Cubs?

In honor of the 2017 Major League Baseball season, which starts April 2, FiveThirtyEight is assembling some of our favorite baseball writers to chat about what’s ahead. Today, we focus on the National League Central with FanGraphs writer Craig Edwards and FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver. The transcript below has been edited.

EXPECTED NUMBER OF WINS
RANK TEAM PECOTA FANGRAPHS DAVENPORT WESTGATE AVERAGE
1 Chicago Cubs 93 95 95 97 94.9
2 Pittsburgh Pirates 81 82 83 83 82.1
3 St. Louis Cardinals 78 84 80 84 81.4
4 Milwaukee Brewers 77 70 73 70 72.4
5 Cincinnati Reds 74 70 74 71 72.1
How forecasters view the NL Central

Based on projected wins or over/under win totals. Data gathered on March 16, 2017.

Sources: Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs, Clay Davenport, Las Vegas Review-Journal

neil (Neil Paine, FiveThirtyEight senior sportswriter): So let’s get started with the elephant in the room of this division: The Cubs are once again huge favorites — 88 percent to win the division, according to FanGraphs. What can we say about them that hasn’t already been said ad nauseam during their World Series run last year?

craigjedwards: Just replace “Will they end the drought?” with “Will they repeat?”

neil: Or maybe “Will they form a dynasty?”

natesilver: I would say that 88 percent to win the division intuitively sounds very high. We had them at 56 percent last year in a similar-ish situation.

craigjedwards: 88 percent is high. Although last season both the Cardinals and Pirates appeared to have better teams than they do this season.

natesilver: But bigger picture … What is there to say except that it’s been a while since we had a baseball team that was set up for this sort of long-term success?

craigjedwards: They basically have the same team back, with few guys to worry about suffering precipitous aging declines, plus Jason Heyward possibly not being as bad as he was last season.

natesilver: Let’s not forget that they’re also up one Kyle Schwarber this year (although he won’t help on defense).

craigjedwards: The only question is the pitching rotation. In 2015 and 2016, they had all their top guys healthy and pitching well. It would take a major disaster in the rotation, but if they don’t meet expectations, that is where it is likely to come from.

neil: Right — did that pitching performance last year contain a lot of luck in addition to skill? They allowed an MLB-low .255 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), 27 points lower than any other team.

craigjedwards: Luck on the pitcher’s part? Yes, but that luck comes in the form of a fantastic defense. That is luck for the pitchers, not luck for the Cubs. That said, their BABIP is going to go up, since even guys who showed no prior ability to suppress contact did so last season. But even if they aren’t quite as good, it is reasonable to expect a low BABIP again because of that defense.

neil: Another note on that pitching staff is that they were the oldest in the majors last year. And yet, only two other teams have relied on their starting rotation for more innings over the past two seasons than Chicago has. Is that a red flag? Or does it even matter?

natesilver: Pitcher aging is weird. It’s kind of like: you’re good, until you’re suddenly not.

craigjedwards: John Lackey is probably the most worrisome, because he is getting to an age where he could all of a sudden be finished.

natesilver: I think the question is what sort of reinforcements they could bring in if Lackey turned into a pumpkin, for instance.

craigjedwards: Jon Lester has also defied the aging curve over the past two seasons, and his velocity is down this spring, so that is a concern as well. Plus, it will be interesting to see how Willson Contreras plays out defensively at catcher, as he’ll be replacing David Ross as Lester’s personal catcher.

natesilver: But let’s keep in mind that the Cubs are not only smart, but rich — so they’re a good candidate to bring a pitcher in at the trade deadline if they need one.

craigjedwards: Chicago’s minor league system isn’t as deep as it was, since its young stars are already in the majors (or were traded last year), but there are a few high-end prospects they could move if they needed to.

neil: I might also be grasping to find holes in the Cubs just to have something to debate. This staff could probably lose half its value from last year and they’d still win 90+ games.

Chicago also seemed to effectively plug the roster holes that opened over the offseason: Lose Dexter Fowler? Here’s Jon Jay. Lose Aroldis Chapman? Here’s Wade Davis. Cut Jason Hammel loose? Here’s Brett Anderson. Like Nate said, they’re getting Schwarber back, too. And I guess it would be hard for Heyward to be worse.

craigjedwards: Heyward has to be better than he was last season. Even if he never hits like he did before he got to the Cubs, an average-hitting Heyward with his defense and baserunning is a four-win player.

natesilver: But we’re talking about a very high bar that the Cubs will have to clear to keep pace with their performance from last year. It’s incredibly hard to win 100+ games two years in a row these days. The last team to do it was St. Louis in 2004 and 2005.

neil: Although maybe the craziest thing there is that, by Pythagoras, the Cubs “should” have won 107 games last year. They underachieved to 103 wins!

Even 95 wins this year will probably be enough to take the division, though. Especially if the projections (see above) are to be believed.

But I also think those projections are pretty shocking. They have Pittsburgh second?!? I was tempted to think that the Pirates’ 2013-15 mini-run basically ended with the 78 wins they posted in 2016.

craigjedwards: Pittsburgh has put itself in a difficult position, trying to contend with a low payroll. Most teams at that end of the financial spectrum — like Milwaukee and Cincinnati, to keep it in the NL Central — can get a few good years in before having to do at least a minor rebuild, but the Pirates are still really close to contending for the next few seasons.

neil: What went wrong last season?

craigjedwards: Gerrit Cole wasn’t himself, Juan Nicasio didn’t work out as the Pirates’ annual reclamation project and Ivan Nova didn’t arrive until too late in the season. Yet they still weren’t that far off from contending last year, despite a really mediocre season from their best player, Andrew McCutchen.

natesilver: The projection systems are all frustratingly non-committal on McCutchen, projecting him to bounce about halfway back instead of either the full recovery or the full collapse. Which undoubtedly makes sense if you average him over a whole range of scenarios. But it seems like there has to be a wide distribution of possibilities there, and that’s very much going to affect the Pirates’ fortunes.

neil: Yeah, maybe no team’s season is hinging more on one player’s projection being in the high range rather than the low.

craigjedwards: He’s also making the transition to an outfield corner, which is generally not good for a player’s value. But if you are just looking at last year’s defensive numbers (which generally isn’t big enough an indicator of a player’s ability), he’s going to get better just because he isn’t really one of the worst outfielders in baseball.

natesilver: I get worried when the indicators for a guy’s athleticism are down. McCutchen doesn’t steal many bags any more. He grounded into a lot of double plays. He’s overmatched in center field, according to the advanced metrics.

neil: And the list of McCutchen-like players from history is no help. Some were good after age 30 (Reggie Smith, Andre Dawson); others were already in decline (Vernon Wells, Matt Kemp).

The other half of that tandem fighting for second place is the St. Louis Cardinals, who are slated for only 81 or 82 wins if you believe the projections above. Do we buy these third-place projections for St. Louis? Or are they discounting the Cards? (Who still won 86 games last year, with 88 Pythagorean wins.)

craigjedwards: The projections for Pittsburgh are all bunched together around 82 wins, while the Cardinals have a couple 84s and a 78 from PECOTA (which keeps their average down). Most of the projections that have the Cardinals higher believe in their pitching and maybe a slight uptick on defense, while PECOTA doesn’t believe in either of those things.

natesilver: It’s been a while since I tracked the performance of the different projection systems religiously, but the Cardinals were a team that had a long track record of beating their projections. Maybe it’s because they always tend to be good at player development and have guys play up to their 60th- or 70th-percentile numbers.

neil: One area where it seems like there might be a lot of uncertainty is in the pitching, like you mentioned Craig, since their rotation was down from 2015’s fantastic performance. What was different last year, and will they be able to recapture that 2015 form this season?

craigjedwards: The blame has mostly gone to the defense, and the Cardinals were pretty bad last year. But they also lost Lance Lynn and John Lackey from the rotation, and Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright weren’t their usual pitching selves.

neil: They’ve also done a lot of roster reshuffling and added Dexter Fowler (granting that his fielding metrics are sometimes mixed). Will all that help fix the defense? Or is that just wishful thinking?

craigjedwards: I think Fowler will make the defense better. Randal Grichuk moves from center to left, where, defensively, he’s a big upgrade on Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss. So even if Fowler is a bit below-average for a center fielder on defense, it will still make the outfield defense on the whole better than it was last season.

They aren’t going to be great on defense, they just need to not be really bad.

neil: Final Q on the Cards: Craig wrote last season that Mike Matheny should be fired. Is he keeping this team from reaching its full potential? Or isn’t there research showing that managers don’t really matter very much?

craigjedwards: I think tactically, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between good and bad managers, though I’m not sure too many people really defend Matheny’s bullpen management or in-game decisions.

natesilver: And isn’t it plausible that managers matter more than they used to, given how bullpens are used these days? That’s an area where you might expect to see quite a bit of difference, especially in the NL, where you also have to account for pitchers hitting for themselves, etc.

craigjedwards: Another problem with Matheny is what appears to be a disconnect with the front office. He’s had big problems playing younger players when they are given to him, to the point that trades had to be made. It would be one thing if he just made poor strategic decisions and relied on small samples to determine whether a player was hot or cold, but it is getting to the point where he also has trouble following through with the front office’s plans.

This is going to be a big year for Matheny. He got a lot of credit for managing the Cardinals to the postseason, and he will get blame if they don’t make it. That’s not fair, but it doesn’t mean Matheny deserves to keep a job that was a complete gift to him in the first place.

neil: Whichever team prevails between Pittsburgh and St. Louis, they and the Cubs are still far, far above the teams at the bottom of this division: the Brewers and Reds.

Let’s start with Milwaukee. Over the past few years, the Brewers seem to be emulating the successful teardown/rebuild models seen recently in Chicago and Houston (and maybe Atlanta next). How’s that going for them?

craigjedwards: Milwaukee is doing all the right things. They aren’t going to be able to completely mimic the Cubs — they can’t go out and sign big-name veterans like Jon Lester, Ben Zobrist, John Lackey and Jason Heyward — but they are on the right track. They got one of the top prospects in baseball (Lewis Brinson) from the Rangers in the Jonathan Lucroy trade, picked up another one (Corey Ray) from the draft, and they have a handful of pitchers with potential.

neil: So what’s the next step if you’re trying that type of rebuilding effort, but without the Cubs’ resources?

craigjedwards: Well, the Brewers are carrying half the payroll they had when they were contending, so they have to play younger guys with potential or trade value (Jonathan Villar, Orlando Arcia, Domingo Santana and Keon Broxton) and deal away relievers whenever they seem to have value. The fans in Milwaukee still support the team, and they will do very well if they can get a winner there. The Ryan Braun question looms, and it’s going to be hard to contend with the Cubs, Pirates and Cardinals in the same division. But they’re making progress.

neil: Meanwhile, the Reds are kind of a mess. They had one of the worst pitching staffs ever last year — particularly in the bullpen.

natesilver: I’ve become slightly obsessed with modern bullpens, and it’s actually sort of hard/amazing to have a bullpen as bad as Cincy’s in an era where you can take a failed No. 4 starter and turn him into a 2.50 ERA / 10.0 K/9 guy.

neil: The Reds have also traded away a lot of veterans in recent years — Todd Frazier, Aroldis Chapman, Jay Bruce, etc. — yet still only have the 13th-best farm system in MLB. Should they have gotten more in return prospect-wise? Also, when will Joey Votto join that group? Can they realistically get fair value for him?

natesilver: Votto is sort of the Carmelo Anthony of MLB.

neil: Although I will say, the Reds have won a championship in my lifetime, unlike the Knicks.

natesilver: The Reds ranked 22nd in WAR last year among players acquired through the draft, which isn’t going to cut it in a small market. So I wonder if there isn’t some longer-term work to do on scouting and development.

craigjedwards: I think for a small-market team to succeed, one of the biggest factors is starting pitching because it is so hard to acquire, either in terms of cost in free agency or in trades. Having a cost-effective rotation — like we saw with Cleveland last year and the Mets the year before, or even going all the way back to Oakland’s Moneyball days — can make a big difference for a team trying to push itself into contention.

natesilver: Just to bring it back to the Cubs, the thing to remember is that even if you had a team with 103-win talent — and the Cubs probably aren’t *quite* there — they’d still only have something like a 15 percent to 20 percent chance to win the World Series, given how random the playoffs can be. So if we’re thinking in terms of dynasties, there’s a question of how we’d measure one. It’s likely to be a *long* time before we see another team run off three World Series in a row, or four in five years, even if they’re the best team in baseball the whole time.

neil: That’s a great point. As terrific as the Cubs are, baseball is a lot more chaotic than, say, basketball. So compared with, say, NBA teams against the Warriors, other MLB teams have a much better chance as they target the Cubs. And that also means the Pirates and Cardinals — if not the Brewers and Reds — have plenty of reasons for hope this season.

Craig Edwards is the managing editor of Viva El Birdos.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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