Tagged: Houston Astros

Breaking Down the NL Central…It’s a Two Horse Race

Since the beginning of the season, the NL Central has been the
tightest overall division race in all of baseball.  Currently, four
teams are within five games of first place, and as recently as June 28th, all six teams were within that same striking distance of the division title.

With approximately two months two go in the regular season, we are
not much closer now to determining the division winner than we were
back in April.   As a Cubs fan, I want to know whether I should be
setting myself up for a September or October disappointment this
season, so I decided took a closer look at the past performance and
remaining schedules of each team in the NL Central to try and predict a
winner.

Below is a quick snapshot of each team in order of current standings:

Chicago Cubs (57-49)

56 Games Remaining (29 Home, 27 Road)

.485 Remaining Opponent Win Pct

The first advantage the Cubs have is the lead in the loss column. 
With the most games remaining of anyone in the division (thanks to
rainouts), the Cubs’ destiny is in their own hands.

The Cubs will play more than half of their remaining games against
teams under the .500 mark, with 30 games coming against teams currently
with losing records.  Half of those games are against divisional
opponents, as the Cubs face Houston and Cincinnati for one more series
apiece, and three more series against last place Pittsburgh.  These are
the games the Cubs must win to have a chance.

Divisional games will play an important part in the Cubs’ quest to
win the Central, as they play 16 of their 25 remaining divisional games
in a row from September 7th to September 23rd, including six straight road games against St. Louis and Milwaukee to close out the stretch.

Based on their current home and road winning percentages, the Cubs
are predicted to finish the year at 87-75.  In order to reach this
number or improve on it, the Cubs will need to win some series on the
road, as they are just 24-30 away from Wrigley Field this year.  Road
matchups against Colorado, LA Dodgers, NY Mets, and San Francisco will
be crucial in the Cubs’ quest for the crown.

St. Louis Cardinals (59-51)

52 Games Remaining (27 Home, 25 Road)

.472 Remaining Opponent Win Pct

While the Cubs may have more games remaining, the Cardinals have a
more favorable schedule down the stretch.  The Cards have 30 of their
final 52 games against divisional opponents, with six games each
against Houston, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.  Combine these with seven
games against San Diego and three against bottom of the barrel
Washington, that makes for a division-low .472 opponent winning
percentage.

The Cardinals’ additions in June and July of Mark DeRosa, Julio Lugo
and Matt Holliday have made their offense a formidable foe to go along
with their strong starting pitching.  The Cards have a run differential
of +31 so far this year, which should only improve as a result of their
additions.  Look for this to come into play against strong pitching
teams like the Dodgers, Cubs, Braves, Rockies and Marlins.

The final factor that could propel the Cards above their current
pace of 87-75 is their .500 record on the road.  St. Louis is the only
team in the NL Central with a .500 or better record away from home this
season, and they will need to maintain this in the final weeks of the
season as they embark on a nine-game trip to Houston, Colorado and
Cincinnati.

Milwaukee Brewers (54-54) – 4.0 GB

54 Games Remaining (28 Home, 26 Road)

.488 Remaining Opponent Win Pct

The Brewers likely had higher expectations than .500 at this point
in the season, but there is still plenty of time to make a run at the
postseason.  The Brewers can be in control of their own destiny as a
result of their remaining schedule against the division.

The Brewers face NL Central opponents 34 more times, but more
importantly 16 of those games are against the first-place Cubs and
Cardinals (7 and 9 remaining respectively).  These 16 games come in the
Brewers’ final 32 of the season in September and October, culminating
with a 3-game series in St. Louis over the final weekend of the season

In order for these games to matter, however, the Brewers need to
improve upon their current position of four games back during the month
of August.  The Brew Crew have 22 straight games against Sub-.500 teams
between now and August 30th, including 12 of those at Miller Park.

While all these schedule advantages are helpful to Milwaukee, none
of it will matter if they don’t get their pitching in order.  The
Brewers lead the Central with 536 runs allowed, and are second to last
in the NL with a 4.82 team ERA.  Without an improvement in their
pitching staff, the Brewers might be sitting at home in October.

Houston Astros (53-55) – 5.0 GB

54 Games Remaining (25 Home, 29 Road)

.500 Remaining Opponent Win Pct

The Astros, despite a rash of recent injuries to their club, are
just five games out of first place and two games under .500. 
Unfortunately for Houston fans, their remaining schedule doesn’t do
them many favors.

The ‘Stros will play just one-third (18) of their remaining 54 games
against sub-.500 teams, half of those being Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. 
In addition, of their 27 remaining divisional games, only nine come
against first-place Chicago and St. Louis combined, meaning Houston
will need some help to gain ground in the Central.

The other obstacle the Astros face is having more road games left
than home games, something none of the top three teams in the division
need to deal with.  The Astros are just 24-28 away from Minute Maid
Park, and spend their final seven games of the season on the road in
Philadelphia and New York.

While the Astros have been a notorious second-half team this decade,
it doesn’t seem like they will be able to make another impressive run
to the postseason in 2009.

Cincinnati Reds (46-61) – 11.5 GB

55 Games Remaining (27 Home, 28 Road)

.490 Remaining Opponent Win Pct

This is where we reach the teams without much of a playoff chance. 
The Reds looked like they might be for real this year, as they were
just 1.5 games out of first place as late as June 10th.  Then injuries struck, the most brutal to starting pitcher Edinson Volquez, who will miss 12 months with Tommy John surgery.

The Reds would need a very favorable schedule to have a chance at
the postseason, and it just isn’t there.  Only 23 of their remaining 55
games are against sub-.500 teams, and more than half of their remaining
games are on the road.  Cincy will have a chance to play spoiler, as
they have at least one series left with each of the top four teams in
the division.

Pittsburgh Pirates (45-63) – 13.0 GB

54 Games Remaining (29 Home, 25 Road)

.508 Remaining Opponent Win Pct

Another season, another losing record for the Pirates.  The Bucs
appear to be rebuilding yet again after gutting their team at the trade
deadline.  With 30 of their remaining 54 games against teams above
.500, it would appear that a 13 game deficit is too much for the
Pirates to overcome.

The Pirates too can play spoiler in the final two months, with a
******** 37 games remaining against NL Central opponents.  The Pirates
face the Cubs nine times, Cardinals and Brewers six times apiece, and
the Astros twice.  Those 13 games remaining versus Cincinnati will be
unlikely to draw large crowds.

So when it comes down to it, in this writer’s opinion the NL Central
is a two-horse race, with the Cubs and the Cardinals battling it out
neck and neck down the stretch.  Milwaukee and Houston are both solid
teams, but the Brewers’ lack of pitching and the Astros’ difficult
schedule will likely be too much to overcome.

The Cardinals have given themselves a big boost with the addition of
Matt Holliday to protect slugger Albert Pujols, and solidified their
lineup with Julio Lugo and Mark DeRosa.  The Cubs added much needed
lefty bullpen help with John Grabow and may have picked up a steal with
Tom Gorzelanny if he can continue to pitch like he did in Cincinnati on
Tuesday.

The two teams have very similar schedules down the stretch, so the
division might come down to a three-game series in St. Louis from
September 18th-20th.  Whichever team comes through that enormous arch in first place will have the upper hand and likely take the division crown.

For now, I’m going to give my biased edge to the Cubs, as there is a
good chance they could sweep their final six home games against
Pittsburgh and Arizona, while the Cards are on the road in Cincinnati
and then host Milwaukee on the final weekend of the season.

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