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NL Central Preview: Who Will Play Spoiler To The Brewers?

In honor of the 2022 Major League Baseball season, which starts April 7 — and is actually a thing! — FiveThirtyEight will be focusing our attention on the most intriguing team (or in this case, teams) in each division. Today we take a look at the National League Central, a group of ballclubs that always seem to provide more mystery than their middling preseason forecasts would suggest.

The NL Central hasn’t recently gotten much respect in the preseason forecasts. Last year, our Elo ratings anointed the division as MLB’s worst going into the season,1 and lo and behold, that’s true again this spring. According to the various projections we use to set preseason Elo ratings2 the average NL Central team is expected to win 78.3 games, dead last among all the divisions in MLB.

The NL Central looks weak again (on paper)

MLB divisions with predicted 2022 win totals, according to a composite of FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings and three statistical projection systems

Team Ranks (Wins)
Division No. 1 No. 2 No. 3 No. 4 No. 5 Avg. W
AL East TOR (92.0) NYY (91.9) TB (87.6) BOS (86.6) BAL (64.1) 84.4
NL West LAD (98.9) SD (86.2) SF (84.6) COL (71.7) ARI (70.7) 82.4
NL East ATL (92.1) NYM (84.8) PHI (84.6) MIA (76.3) WSH (73.6) 82.3
AL West HOU (89.8) LAA (83.1) SEA (79.9) OAK (72.6) TEX (71.8) 79.4
AL Central CWS (89.1) MIN (82.5) CLE (78.4) KC (73.6) DET (73.3) 79.4
NL Central MIL (89.2) STL (80.4) CIN (79.7) CHC (74.7) PIT (67.7) 78.3

Projections as of March 29, 2022.

Sources: ClayDavenport.com, Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs

But just as those preseason power ratings belied last year’s NL Central twists and turns — from the return of the Milwaukee Brewers to the Chicago Cubs’ midseason collapse and sell-off and the St. Louis Cardinals’ incredible late-season hot streak — this year’s uninspiring projections could be hiding a few highly interesting seasons to come.

Let’s start with the Brewers, who made their way back to the division winner’s circle last season for the first time since 2018. Just like that year’s team, the 2021 version was predicated on speed, defense and a strong bullpen, but it swapped out offensive firepower for a dominant rotation featuring Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Freddy Peralta, Adrian Houser and Eric Lauer. All five return this season, as does the team’s top trio of relievers by wins above replacement3 in 2021 (Josh Hader, Devin Williams and Brad Boxberger). While pitching WAR — and the relief-pitching variety in particular — is less consistent for teams from season to season than position-player WAR, it seems fair to expect Milwaukee’s staff to once again rank among the league’s elite in 2022.

The biggest question for the Brewers is whether the lineup changes they made over the offseason can boost an offense that ranked outside the top 20 in batting WAR in both 2020 (24th) and 2021 (23rd). The team lost outfielder Avisaíl García, infielder Eduardo Escobar and catcher Manny Piña, but it picked up a number of right-handed bats — including former Phillie Andrew McCutchen (who will start at designated hitter), ex-Red Sox outfielder Hunter Renfroe and also Pedro Severino and Mike Brosseau off the bench. Their performance, plus the ongoing issue of whether 2018 NL MVP (and 2019 runner-up) Christian Yelich can ever regain his form after posting a run-of-the-mill .752 OPS over the past two seasons, will go a long way toward determining whether Milwaukee can meet or exceed its win forecasts.

If you believe the statistical projections, the Cardinals may not offer the Brewers much resistance in their bid to repeat as division champs. St. Louis has, however, quietly made improvements over the offseason, including the addition of lefty Steven Matz to shore up a rotation that ranked 19th in WAR last season. Though a subsequent shoulder injury to Jack Flaherty set that progress back some, new Redbirds manager Oliver Marmol will be leading a roster that contains no shortage of potential — potential that was never more on display than when St. Louis won 21 of its final 25 games to close out the 2021 regular season.

For better and for worse, the meaning of that scorching stretch looms large over the Cardinals’ 2022 chances. On the one hand, St. Louis was just 69-68 before that run began, seeming to mark a second straight season of basically .500 play for the franchise. On the other hand, the Cardinals’ .840 winning percentage from Sept. 8 onward was easily the best in baseball, showcasing top-five ability on both offense and defense. So which segment of the season was more indicative of the Cardinals’ true talent?

The good news for St. Louis is that a team’s September record has a slightly outsized effect on predicting its record in the following season. Based on a regression model using all full MLB seasons since 1996,4 we would expect a team with St. Louis’s September record to win 1.8 more games this season compared to a regression based on its overall season record. But that still places plenty of weight on the Cardinals’ middle-of-the-road pre-September performance when looking ahead to 2022, which means this team could go any number of directions this year.

And finally, we have to talk about the Chicago Cubs. With apologies to the Cincinnati Reds (who appear hell-bent on tearing down their core) and Pittsburgh Pirates (who remain the Pittsburgh Pirates), the Northsiders are this division’s other main source of intrigue. It wasn’t very long ago that the Cubs were vying for the playoffs with Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez, but in the middle of last season, the team broke up that 2016 championship core and seemed to press reset on an era of both historic success and missed promise. Yet, Chicago’s offseason added another plot twist to its recent narrative arc.

Though the Cubs did say goodbye to useful all-purpose infielder Matt Duffy (1.5 WAR last year), Chicago lost little else of note since the end of last season. At the same time, the team acquired numerous potentially valuable players — including starters Wade Miley (4.6) and Marcus Stroman (3.7), catcher Yan Gomes (2.0), infielders Jonathan Villar (1.9) and Andrelton Simmons (0.4), a handful of new relievers and, last but not least, rookie outfielder Seiya Suzuki from Japan. Even without considering Suzuki — who obviously had zero MLB WAR last season but whose Nippon Pro Baseball stats project to an OPS over .800 in 2022 — the Cubs had the best offseason of any team, by net 2021 WAR added from newcomers minus WAR lost from departures.

Given the state of the Cubs by the end of last season — Chicago went 29-52 down the stretch and finished with a 1459 Elo rating (which equates to just 71.1 wins of talent per 162 games) — they might not be competitive even after adding so much net talent over the offseason. But the team has already mixed in enough of the ingredients for a rebuild that a quick turnaround is not completely outside the realm of possibility, particularly given the weakness of the division as a whole.

And that’s why a comparatively weak division isn’t always a bad thing. The 2022 NL Central may not eventually produce a strong World Series contender (the division is a combined 2-12 in the playoffs over the past two seasons, with zero series victories), but there’s enough upside and competitive balance here to keep things interesting throughout the season, mediocre projections be damned.

Footnotes

  1. It ended up finishing third-worst in average winning percentage (.494), ahead of the AL Central (.490) and NL East (.469).

  2. Which give two-thirds weight to an average of the projections found at Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs and Clay Davenport’s site, and one-third weight to a regressed form of last season’s final end-of-year Elo ratings.

  3. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, for which you can download data on GitHub.

  4. Splitting out a team’s record in September versus all other months to predict its record in the following season.

Neil Paine is the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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