That’s good news for the New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, Houston Astros, Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers, all of whom top their divisions at the moment. However, of that group, the Cubs are the only team who do not enjoy a division lead of at least 5½ games at the all-star break, making the NL Central the only division race worth watching in the season’s second half.
The Cubs (47-43) lead the NL Central by a half-game over the Milwaukee Brewers (47-44) but are only four games over .500. The St. Louis Cardinals (44-44), Pirates (44-45) and Cincinnati Reds (41-46) round out the division, with only 4½ games separating first place from last.
“We feel like it’s still our division to win,” all-star Brewers infielder Mike Moustakas told the Chicago Sun-Times. “There’s no reason we wouldn’t feel like that. We know we’re good enough if we pick it up from here. It’s been a little disappointing thus far, but that’s why it’s nice to look up and see we’re basically all [tied] at the top.”
According to FanGraphs playoff projections, the Cubs have a 59 percent chance to win the NL Central, the lowest mark among the current division leaders at the break. The Brewers (21 percent) and Cardinals (11 percent) are the biggest threats to Chicago in the division but the Pirates (5 percent) and Reds (4 percent) can’t be summarily dismissed just yet. If you think chances of 5 percent and 3 percent to win the division are low, consider that none of the bottom two teams in any other division have a greater than a 1 percent chance to reach the top spot.
Some of the Cubs’ viability as the front-runner can be traced to their remaining schedule. Chicago will play teams who collectively should win almost 49 percent of their games going forward, giving them the seventh-easiest slate of opponents overall and the third-easiest remaining schedule in the NL behind the Dodgers (48 percent) and Braves (48 percent). The Brewers and Cardinals, by contrast, have the 10th and 11th toughest remaining schedule in the majors this season, respectively.
The Cubs have one more element in their favor: They’ve been unlucky. A team like Chicago that has outscored opponents by 55 runs should be 51-39 over 90 games played. Instead the Cubs are 47-43. Only the Reds (six fewer wins) and Diamondbacks (five fewer wins) have been more snake bitten among teams in the NL. The Pirates and Brewers have each won three more games than we would expect based on their runs scored and allowed.
“We’re going to need to play better, and I think we, as a team, expect that,” Cubs all-star Kris Bryant told the Sun-Times. “We completely underperformed in the first half. We let some games get away from us that we could easily have won. The questions and stories would be different right now, but we didn’t do that and it’s a little disappointing. But there are still a lot of games to be played.”
The landscape of the NL Central could start to look different soon, as the Cubs and Pirates will face off in a three-game series immediately after the break. Pittsburgh will have to make those games count as it only has 37 more games against division opponents in 2019. Chicago, on the other hand, will have 42 left after this three-game series. It’s also worth noting the Cubs have lost five of their past seven games, including three of four at PNC Park. The Pirates have won eight of their last 12 games.
“The division is where it is supposed to be,” Brewers Manager Craig Counsell told the Tribune-Review last week at PNC Park. “It’s muddled. It’s a mess. Nothing has been decided. It should be exciting for everyone the last 70 to 75 games.”
Correction: A prior graphic had the Twins listed in the NL Central instead of the Brewers.