I was futzing around with the FanGraphs projected standings this morning when I noticed something very fun, even if it’s not necessarily something you should take as a hard data point:
Good morning. After the Reds' recent moves, the AmFam Brewers are currently projected by FanGraphs to finish last in the NL Central. pic.twitter.com/9WYwCkjJKK
— Bleacher Nation (@BleacherNation) January 23, 2019
Would I actually bet on the Brewers winning only 79 games? No way. Do I think this system is missing on some Brewers players and also has trouble quantifying bullpen usage? I do. But am I still going to share this and chuckle? Absolutely.
I think the more meaningful takeaway at the moment from these projected standings (based on Steamer and FanGraphs’ estimated depth charts of playing time) is how extremely tightly packed the NL Central figures to be in 2019. It’s so hard to tower over a division for more than a couple years at a time, but the Cubs’ moment in that phase lasted only about a season and a half before the Brewers caught up. Even that would be chill if not for the other three teams in the NL Central sprinting back towards the top, at least on paper. Heck, the fact that all three of those teams are currently projected to be better than the Brewers, if nothing else, at least tells you that the Cardinals, Reds, and Pirates might be better than a lot of people would have figured back in September.
Moreover, thanks to the unbalanced schedule that has you playing your own divisional opponents 19 times per season, the Cubs (and the other Central teams) currently look locked into 76 very competitive games in 2019. That’s nearly half the slate of games! (When people point out the enormous win totals that some of the great teams in the AL have had in recent years, remind them of this aspect of schedule-making, and of the Tank City, USA that is the American League.)
The nature of the schedule, then, is such that it’s going to be very, very difficult for any one NL Central team to put up a huge win total:
I would be happy because I reckon winning 95 games in the Central in 2019 is going to take the division. With all five teams competitive and an imbalanced schedule, cheap wins are gonna be much harder to come by. Thus, if you win 95 games, you probably ran away with it. https://t.co/HGBu9TMb9y
— Bleacher Nation (@BleacherNation) January 22, 2019
That, in turn, means you’re going to project to have a serious cluster in the standings. How serious? Check out this chart from Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs on just how crowded the NL Central currently projects to be by the spread in winning percentage from worst to first, compared to all final division standings since the advent of the six-division format in 1994:
If the NL Central actually played out as currently projected, it would be the tightest division race since 1994. That’s out of 150 division races!
A big caveat there is that projections are only projections, and they will very often differ considerably from the final outcome, because you’ll have teams more willing to sell off in July if the race is super tight and they’re back by even five or six games. That will cause teams to fall way off, and also the buyers in the division may see their win totals bump. I doubt the final standings in the Central will actually see all five teams fall within eight games of each other.
HOWEVA, that’s not really the point. Rather, the point as we sit here today is that, whether you project the Brewers for 79 wins or 89 wins, the Central is probably going to be a hellaciously tight race. The Cubs still strike me as the best team on paper, and also the team with the highest upside. But when you have four other competitors going at you in a given season, absolutely nothing is guaranteed (not even a winning season! gulp!).
With so much talent under team control right now, the Cubs need to make sure they do everything they can to win the Central this year, regardless of how tough the division figures to be.