In the first half of 2011, no division has been more fun to watch than the National League Central. The surprising Pirates have joined pre-season contenders in Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cincinnati to create a four-team race that has the Brewers and Cardinals tied at the top, the Pirates a game back, and the fourth place Reds just four games out of first place. Still, as exciting as the first half has been for the Central, it wouldn't surprise me if the season ends with the Brewers running away with the division.
We all know about the offense: the Brewers are first in the NL in homers and slugging percentage and fourth in runs scored. Not many teams can match the Rickie Weeks, Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder trio. All three of them are legitimate MVP candidates and with a presumably healthy Corey Hart in the mix (he missed the season's first 22 games, then took almost another month to heat up), everyone knows the Brewers can score with anyone.
After finishing in the bottom part of the National League for the most part of the last few seasons, the Brewers went out and sold the farm for Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. Unfortunately, they haven't seen the results they expected quite yet. In 2010, they finished 14th in the National League in runs allowed, giving up 4.96 runs per game. This year, they're up to just tenth in the league, giving up runs at a 4.41 runs per game clip.
That's better, but it's not good enough. Sure, the Brewers are right in the mix of a playoff race in the NL Central and it's easy to argue that their opponents are all flawed baseball teams, but the Brewers didn't trade Brett Lawrie and Jake Odorizzi and Alcides Esobar and Jeremy Jeffress just to have a shot at a playoff spot with Prince Fielder staring down free agency. The Brewers wanted a playoff spot and a shot at a World Series in 2011. Anything less would be disappointing.
If the Brewers are fretting about their first half performance (and their late-night acquisition of Francisco Rodriguez and his dangerous $17 million option for 2012 indicates that they probably are), there's good news. They may be tenth in the National League in runs allowed, but they're third in both strikeouts and walks. The difference between their ERA (4.07) and their FIP (3.71) is more than a third of a run, the second highest in baseball. Their xFIP (3.49) is even lower. In short: their pitching has been much better than their run totals suggest.
Greinke is the most extreme example of this on the team. His strikeout rate is a career high 12.1 K/9 (his previous career best is 9.5 K/9) and his walk rate is a career low 1.9 BB/9. His groundball rate (43%) is at his career norms, and yet his home run rate has nearly doubled from 0.7 HR/9 to 1.3. His ERA has ballooned as a result to 5.45, despite his excellent peripherals. It'd be crazy for him to keep pitching the way he has and not see a big improvement in the second half. Mix him in with Marcum and Yovani Gallardo, who are already pitching well, and
The other thing the Brewers have going for them is that Fielder's expiring contract makes this their proverbial "go for broke" year and GM Doug Melvin isn't afraid to do just that. The only Brewer team to make the playoffs in his tenure did it on the broad shoulders of CC Sabathia, who Melvin acquired as a rent-a-player to put his team over the top. He dealt for Greinke and Marcum this winter, essentially cleaning his system for the pitching the Brewers desperately needed. He's already dealt for Francisco Rodriguez to shore up this year's bullpen: he's pretty clearly not afraid to do anything in the name of 2011. While the Cardinals might be in the same situation due to Albert Pujols' pending free agency (probably not, though, since I think the chances of Pujols staying in St. Louis are much better than Fielder's chances to stay in Milwaukee), the same can't be said of the Pirates or probably even the Reds.
But what about the rest of the division? The Pirates pitching staff has been great, but the peripherals don't support the runs allowed and ERA. They may not fall off the map, but they seem pretty likely to at least falter a bit. The Reds are currently where the Brewers usually find themselves: they've got a phenomenal offense (first in the NL in runs scored) that simply doesn't have the pitching to support it (fourteenth in runs allowed). The Cardinals are getting by on the strength of their offense, too (second in the NL in runs scored), but how long can they count on Lance Berkman? And can their duct-taped pitching staff hold up over the course of a full-season?
The Brewers, though, have the offense that's getting healthy and there's plenty of reason to think that the pitching will come around. They've got a front office fully committed to 2011 and they're likely willing to make more trades if they think those moves will help. The NL Central is crowded at the top right now and it's not for lack of good teams in the division, but I still think that the Brewers are the best bet to put some distance between themselves and the pack in the coming weeks and months.