What is the NL Central Narrative? | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

As pitchers and catchers begin to report to spring training camps, fans and analysts can intensify their efforts to preview the 2014 NL. Rosters are becoming clearer as the last free agency transactions occur, and depth charts begin to take shape. For fans of the 2014 NL Central, the general story for previews can take a different shape than in years past: specifically, the 2013 NL Central was the best performance by the division since the Brewers joined in 1998. In fact, the division’s performance of 84.2 wins is one of only six winning seasons for the Central since 1998. Last week, I mentioned that the Brewers and Cubs simply did not stand a chance in the 2013 Central, no matter what went right. It was simply the Pirates’ year, the Cardinals’ year, and the Reds’ year, all at once.

’98-’13 NL Divisions Average Wins
NL East 81.5
NL West 81.2
NL Central 79.2

The truth is, the 2013 season really was an aberration for the NL Central, since it was the division’s first winning season since 2008 (and fourth since 2000). One need not be a downer to ask whether things will go right for the Pirates, Cardinals, and Reds once more. Since the Brewers joined the NL, the NL Central claims the vast majority of the league’s worst divisional performances:

Sixteen Worst NL Divisions ’98-’13 Wins
2009 East 79.0
2003 Central 78.7
2001 Central 78.3
2013 East 78.2
2009 Central 78.0
2004 West 78.0
1998 East 77.6
2011 Central 77.3
2012 Central 77.2
2010 Central 77.0
2007 Central 76.5
2000 Central 76.5
2002 Central 75.7
2006 Central 75.5
2008 West 75.0
2005 West 74.4

Furthermore, one is justified in asking, “if the Central does not boast three of the top winning records in 2014, how will their wins and losses be distributed?” This is a crucial question, because the balance of a division can determine the number of wins required to make the playoffs (or, whether the season will be enjoyable to watch). Ironically, the NL Central’s worst season since the Brewers joined was 2006, and even though the Cardinals barely won the division with a winning record, they still boast a World Series Championship from that year. Ultimately, the success of a division in the playoffs does not necessarily match the success of that division during the regular season, and even when a division’s identity is one of losing, they can produce World Series contenders:

1998-2013 World Series Championships Appearances
NL West 3 6
NL Central 2 5
NL East 2 5

Four of the Senior Circuit’s World Series Champions have come from losing divisions since 1998 (2006 and 2011 Cardinals, 2008 Phillies, and 2012 Giants). So, one might note that even if the 2014 NL Central finds the division returning to its losing ways, that does not mean it will fail to find postseason success.

From a fan’s perspective, the most important aspect of a division, it seems, is its ability to present a competitive season. No one wants to watch an imbalanced division, unless, of course, your team happens to be the one destroying the competition. In this regard, it is worth noting that the very best and worst teams are unevenly distributed between divisions more often than not. In fact, if one tracks the Top Three records and Bottom Three records in the 1998-2013 NL, one finds that those three teams are evenly distributed throughout the divisions in only 13 of 32 potential seasons.

Uneven Losing Seasons Division (teams) Divisional Wins
1998 NL East (Montreal / Florida) 77.6
1999 NL East (Montreal / Florida) 81.8
2000 NL East (Montreal / Philadelphia) 80.0
2001 NL Central (Brewers / Reds / Pirates) 78.3
2002 NL Central (Chicago / Milwaukee) 75.7
2005 NL West (Los Angeles / Colorado) 74.4
2006 NL Central (Pittsburgh / Chicago) 75.5
2011 NL Central (Chicago / Houston) 77.3
2012 NL Central (Chicago / Houston) 77.2
2013 NL East (Philadelphia / Florida) 78.2

It is worth noting that several of these unevenly distributed losing seasons occurred when more than one team was rebuilding (or floundering) within the division. Montreal (now Washington), the Cubs, Houston, Florida, and of course, the Brewers share this distinction. This suggests that it is not necessarily an instance of chance when a division hogs two (or even all, as in the case of the 2001 NL Central) of the three worst records in the league.

While 10 of the NL’s clubs shared the worst divisions in the most unevenly distributed seasons, 13 of the NL clubs share winning seasons when the best records are unevenly distributed.

Uneven Winning Seasons Division (teams) Divisional Wins
2001 NL Central (Houston / St. Louis) 78.3
2003 NL East (Atlanta / Florida) 85.4
2005 NL Central (St. Louis / Houston) 81.5
2007 NL West (Arizona / Colorado / [San Diego]) 84.4
2008 NL Central (Chicago / Milwaukee) 83.3
2009 NL West (Los Angeles / Colorado) 84.0
2010 NL East (Philadelphia / Atlanta) 83.2
2012 NL East (Washington / Atlanta) 83.2
2013 NL Central (St. Louis / Pittsburgh) 84.2

One might question whether a division claiming two of the very best records in the league is more of a fluke than a division claiming two of the very worst seasons in the league. While NL divisions have claimed claimed two of the very worst clubs in consecutive seasons three times (’98-’99 East, ’01-’02 Central, and ’11-’12 Central), no division has ever repeated a claim to two of the top records.

The intersection between winning and losing trends raises questions for the 2014 NL Central. Specifically, (1) the division includes two clubs that are arguably rebuilding, floundering, or between rebuilding and competing, and (2) the Central would be the first NL division to boast two of the top three records in consecutive seasons (since the 1998 realignment). For these reasons, one might be inclined to argue that the NL Central is not likely to be as difficult a division in 2014.

Unfortunately, even if the NL Central is an easier division in 2014, the Brewers’ position in the division is difficult to discern. While it would be great to say that an “everything goes right campaign” could land the Brewers in the playoffs if the Reds, Pirates, and Cardinals stumble, there are also a lot of other NL clubs (and, interleague games) vying for those victories. Even if the Cardinals do not win 97, and the Pirates do not win 94 (and the Reds fall closer to .500), one could argue that the Phillies, Nationals, Braves, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Rockies, and Giants — at the very least — have as many claims as the Brewers and Cubs to grab those extra victories from the top of the division. Even if the top NL Central teams are not as good, we have yet to determine whether the NL Central will once again return to its bottom-heavy fate.

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