Notable trends for NL Central teams

June 10th, 2021

We are now past the 60-game mark for each team in the National League Central, en route to a full 162-game season.

With such time afforded already, some trends have become clear for teams in the division. Some are positives, some are negatives and some tilt worryingly between the two extremes.

Here is one trend for each NL Central club as we slowly approach the halfway point of the season.

BREWERS: Pitchers prove valuable

Through their first 60 games -- the equivalent of the shortened 2020 season -- Brewers starters were worth 7.2 wins above replacement in 2021 by the Fangraphs’ measure, which is tops in the Major Leagues. That’s a remarkable development for a club historically built around offense, which has never, in a franchise history going on 53 seasons, led the Majors in fWAR from its starters.

Most of that value comes from the big three of Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta, who essentially have been a no-hitter waiting to happen every time they have stepped on the mound. All three rank in the top 10 of Major League qualifiers in strikeout rate, walks plus hits per inning pitched and opponents’ average. When Peralta worked within five outs of a no-hitter on the Brewers’ last homestand, manager Craig Counsell said, “It’s coming with these guys.” — Adam McCalvy

CARDINALS: Staff-wide control

Pick your poison: the walks, the hit batsmen -- doing either of the two when the bases are juiced -- or the wild pitches. The Cardinals lead Major League Baseball in all of ‘em. (Also, walk percentage, walks-per-nine-innings, walks-to-strikeouts rate, if you’re keeping full score.) Most concerning is how many noncompetitive at-bats have come when the bases are loaded, including an MLB-leading 15 free passes in such scenarios and four plunks. That the Cardinals are second-best in the NL in batting average against with the bases juiced indicates one thing: They have great pitching when it’s competitive, but it’s been hard to uncover, especially in recent weeks.

And it's not hard to see why. The Cardinals have been incredibly bitten by the injury bug, with three-fifths of their starting rotation -- Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas and Kwang Hyun Kim -- out with ailments, the first two of the long-term variety, as well as a few of their high-leverage bullpen arms. But these were concerns that extended far before such injuries and can especially be centralized in the bullpen, where not even the staunch Alex Reyes is safe. The walk rate within the relief corps is the second worst from any club in the Expansion Era (since 1961). The Cards are giving way 90 feet, and in tandem, wins. — Zach Silver

CUBS: Veterans leading bullpen

There have been some feel-good stories in the Cubs’ bullpen this season. Tommy Nance rose from indy ball to the Majors and looks like a real weapon. Rookies like Keegan Thompson and Justin Steele made their debuts and helped stabilize the group. Dillon Maples – an advanced-metrics darling in past cups of coffee – has developed into a multi-inning strikeout artist.

Really, though, the story of the Cubs’ bullpen has been the late-inning combination of closer Craig Kimbrel and setup men Ryan Tepera, Andrew Chafin and Dan Winkler. As a foursome, those vets had combined for a 1.54 ERA with 119 strikeouts against 36 walks in 99 1/3 innings before Wednesday's action.

The relief corps has been pushed hard, especially with setbacks and stretches of short outings from the rotation, but manager David Ross has been able to rely on his late-inning group to lock things down with a lead. Going into Wednesday, the Cubs’ bullpen ranked second in the Majors with a 2.75 ERA. It has been a key for Chicago climbing out of its April slump as a team. — Jordan Bastian

PIRATES: RISP without reward

For some teams, hitting at a high clip with runners in scoring position is nice, but not necessary thanks to their home run prowess. For the Pirates, it’s absolutely necessary.

The good news? The Pirates are in the top half of the league when it comes to at-bats with runners in scoring position. The bad news? Entering Wednesday, their .608 OPS in those situations is the worst in the league, and they lead only the Brewers (.197) with a .210 batting average with RISP.

With a league-worst 41 homers -- nine fewer than the next closest team (the Mets, 50) -- the Pirates cannot afford to squander these opportunities. A few Pittsburgh batters are thriving in them, including Adam Frazier, whose .425 average with runners in scoring position trails only Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (.429) in MLB entering Wednesday. But they will need more consistent hitting in big moments throughout the lineup to win games. — Jake Crouse

REDS: Bullpen woes

The Reds bullpen is last in the Majors with a 5.82 ERA entering Wednesday and one has to look no further than some underlying stats as to why. Cincinnati’s relievers led the Majors in home runs allowed (37) and were second in walks (134) entering Wednesday. Because they are ranked near the bottom of the NL in pitches thrown per inning, more pitches could equate to more opportunities to get into trouble.

During Tuesday’s 5-1 loss to the Brewers, the Reds bullpen afforded nine walks while five runs scored. Like many pitching staffs in the league, the rotation isn’t getting through six and seven innings often enough – which can expose thin bullpens like the Reds to throwing more innings and more pitches per inning. — Mark Sheldon