At this point in the baseball season last year we got to enjoy watching legitimate division races over the final month of the season for the three American League divisions. Fast-forward to this season and we have just two -- the American League West and the National League Central. No offense to the Texas Rangers or the Oakland Athletics but the battle between the Pittsburgh Pirates, the St. Louis Cardinals, and even the Cincinnati Reds is far more interesting.
Why do I find the NL Central divisional race to be the most interesting, the most compelling of all the playoff races?
The answer is simple.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are relevant for the first time since the early 90s. Not only are they relevant but they are legitimate playoff contenders for the first time since 1992 when they won the NL East with 96 wins, but lost in the NLCS to the Atlanta Braves in seven games. This was a time when (future Hall of Famer) Barry Bonds was still on the team, his final season as a Pirate, and future Hall of Famer Jim Leyland was the manager.
Other than the Pirates, the way these three teams are winning and find themselves in most games is intriguing because they each do it a bit differently.
The Cardinals have the highest scoring offense in the National League, second in all of baseball, and they also happen to be the most consistent offense in the game. Their .322 wOBA is tied for the highest in the NL and their 105 wRC+ is the highest in the NL. Long story short; the Cardinals don't always have to have the best night on the mound to beat you, even though they often times do.
When looking at weaknesses their only legitimate concern is defense. According to Fangraphs they have an UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) of -43.1, which is just rotten, and their defense has cost them approximately 40 runs over the course of the season so far.
When it comes to the Reds, well, they have scored the second most runs in the NL but they are nowhere near as consistent as the Cardinals in that aspect of the game. Where the Reds are truly dominant at though is in the starting rotation. Any one of the Reds starting five could match up and beat the opposing team's best starter on any given night, which is something that bodes well for them if they have to play the wild-card play-in game.
The lone weakness for the Reds appears to be their bullpen. Outside of their top three options in Aroldis Chapman, Sam LeCure, and J.J. Hoover, Reds manager Dusty Baker doesn't exactly have anyone that is a lock to come in and shut anyone down. Even those three go-to guys are prone to issuing free passes nearly 10 percent of the time so nothing is even close to being a sure thing once they go to the bullpen.
Finally, we have the Pirates who have reinvigorated a fan base that had long since forgotten about them. This is a team that doesn't have any glaring holes when compared to their division rivals. Their pitching staff is solid in the rotation and bullpen, largely relying on getting ground balls at a NL leading 52.8 percent rate to get outs. The reason they can do that with great success is because they have a solid defense; one that has the sixth best defensive efficiency rating in baseball at .704 and one that has prevented approximately 42 runs on the year thus far.
This team won't necessarily out-hit you but they will run opposing teams ragged on the bases and as a result of their overall team speed and smarts on the bases they are able to avoid double plays seemingly at will. Throw in the fact that they hit line drives at a 21.6 percent clip, the fourth highest rate in the NL, and have the third most triples in the NL and they seem to do enough with the opportunities they get to score runs to keep themselves within striking distance of winning most games.
Even though the St. Louis Cardinals have the offense, and even though the Cincinnati Reds have the starting rotation, it feels like the Pittsburgh Pirates are the team to beat in the National League Central. This is a tight battle between the Pirates and Cardinals, with the Reds staying within striking distance, but this Pirates team seems to have the want and the desire to overcome all odds even if the experience and expectation to win by the Cardinals makes them the most logical choice for division champion.