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Brian Walton's news and commentary on the St. Louis Cardinals (TM) and their minor league system

NL Central is MLB’s Tightest Four-Team Race Since 2006

Coming into play on Tuesday, the St. Louis Cardinals had temporarily lost their grasp of the second-place spot in the National League Central Division that they had held almost the entire season to date.

At three games back of front-runner Milwaukee, St. Louis was also a half-game behind the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cincinnati Reds were just 2 1/2 behind the Cardinals.

NLC – 8 12 2014 W L W-L% GB RS RA pythW-L%
MIL 66 53 0.555 515 479 0.536
PIT 63 55 0.534 2.5 501 487 0.514
STL 62 55 0.530 3 436 444 0.491
CIN 60 58 0.508 5.5 450 420 0.534
CHC 50 67 0.427 15 452 501 0.449

Because of their run-scoring problems, the Cardinals do not fare well in the Pythagorean win-loss projections.

Injuries have affected key players on all four contending clubs, with the Brewers having lost Matt Garza during his last start against St. Louis. The Bucs just placed reigning MVP Andrew McCutchen on the disabled list, while the Reds are hanging tough despite both Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips shelved. Of course, St. Louis is missing Michael Wacha and Yadier Molina.

A poster on The Cardinal Nation message board asserted that no division race had ever been this tightly-bunched this late in the season. His point was that as such, the current NL Central situation has no precedent.

I suspected it was not true. Fortunately, I have a secret weapon, researcher Tom Orf, on call to back me up.

I asked Tom if any divisions in any league on this date had ever been more bunched than the four teams in the NL Central today. It turns out that the answer is not only “yes,” but the last time it happened, five teams were involved instead of the four currently.

It was in 2006, a memorable season for the Cardinals, as they won their first World Series since 1982 after taking the NL Central by a game and a half over Houston.

The 2006 NL West featured a wilder race. Not just were the usual suspects in contention, the Dodgers and Giants, but so were the Diamondbacks, Padres and Rockies. All five clubs were clustered within 5 ½ games of each other on August 12, 2006.

NLW – 8 12 2006 W L W-L% GB RS RA pythW-L%
LAD 60 56 0.517 584 532 0.543
ARI 58 57 0.504 1.5 573 578 0.496
SDP 58 57 0.504 1.5 514 516 0.498
COL 56 59 0.487 3.5 524 503 0.519
SFG 54 61 0.470 5.5 527 536 0.492

Looking at runs scored and allowed, leading to a Pythagorean won-loss percentage, only partially signaled the end result in 2006.

The final six weeks of the regular season proved to be most interesting. The gap between the two haves and the three have-nots grew wide, very wide.

By the time the smoke cleared, Arizona, Colorado and San Francisco all managed to win just 76 games, and fell to double-digits behind the co-winners from San Diego and Los Angeles. That spread became so great that even if there had been six NL Wild Cards that year, the Snakes, Rockies and Giants all would still have stayed home.

NLW – 2006 Season W L W-L% GB
SDP 88 74 0.543
LAD 88 74 0.543
SFG 76 85 0.472 11.5
ARI 76 86 0.469 12
COL 76 86 0.469 12

Though the Padres won the tiebreaker with the Dodgers, that meant they had to face the Cards in the NLDS. The Dodgers also exited in the first round, at the hands of the New York Mets.

Why did I go through this?

First of all, I dug in to refute an assertion I doubted. But more importantly, we can learn from this. The 2006 NL West race taught us that even a tighter division than the 2014 NL Central can sort itself out very clearly in the final weeks – but the end result may not be predictable.

In other words, whether the 2014 Cardinals will follow the lead of the haves or have-nots remains to be seen.

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