By John Kern, from Cardsblog.com
On June 19, 2016, the Milwaukee Brewers were 16.5 games out of first place. Just 3-7 in their last ten games, their two-game losing streak pushed them to a 31-38 record, well short of the 46-20 Cubs. Yet today, they sit at 38-33, just ahead of the 34-34 Cubs and a little further ahead of the 31-37 Cardinals. Why has the Central turned out so differently than anyone imagined?
Disappointment in Chicago
The first big reason is that the Cubs have struggled. A lot. Kyle Schwarber's .304 OBP at the top of the lineup has contributed to their slow start, and their offense has struggled to produce runs. They rank 14th in runs scored. Their rotation — which performed historically well last season — has fallen as well.
This was to be more expected: Lackey, Lester, and Arrieta are all getting older, and Kyle Hendricks was unlikely to repeat his terrific 2016 season. Eddie Butler has averaged less than 5 innings per start, and in a rotation that had an under-3 ERA last season, nobody is lower than Lester's 3.89 ERA right now.
Struggles in St. Louis
In a division where the Cubs were heavy favorites, the consensus No. 2 team has yet to take advantage. After finishing last season 17.5 games out of first place, yet still 7.5 games ahead of the third-place Pirates, the Cardinals were expected to be competitive throughout the season, likely looking for a wild-card spot.
But while the Cubs have struggled, the Cardinals have been unable to take advantage. Despite holding first-place for a short time in May, the Cardinals have drastically under-performed this season. Last season's role players have taken steps back this season as players like Molina, Diaz, Carpenter, and Piscotty have all been under-performing.
As a refresher, on May 20th the St. Louis Cardinals completed a trade with the Atlanta Braves. The Braves received Matt Adams and cash, and in return the Cardinals acquired minor league infielder Juan Yepez. Since being traded, Matt "Big City" Adams has seemingly escalated his play to fit the bigger city of Atlanta, and thus can be referred to as "Bigger City".
Fowler's on-base ability has dropped this year, though his power numbers have increased. And just as the Cardinals' offense started performing, the once-solid starting pitching has floundered, with Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Mike Leake, and Michael Wacha all struggling of late.
A Miracle in Milwaukee
With the disastrous starts by the Cardinals and Cubs, the Brewers have taken advantage by playing slightly above-average baseball.
With just a plus-17 run differential, the Brewers have not been dominant. They have not looked like a division winner, rather they have played as wild-card contenders often do: just enough above .500 to stay alive.
Chase Anderson has pitched well above expectations, still with a sub-3 ERA, and Junior Guerra, though limited by injuries so far, has also performed well in the rotation. Jimmy Nelson has been a good No. 3 starter, solidifying a solid rotation for a team that has lacked one recently.
In their lineup, Eric Thames has already hit 20 home runs despite cooling off after his hot start, and Keon Broxton has begun heating up, with five home runs in his last eight games. Travis Shaw has hit well, and Domingo Santana has been solid. This team has, thus far, profiled like the Cardinals last season: a lot of home runs, decent starting pitching, and a winning percentage just above .500. This season though, that has been enough for first place.
Can The Brew-Crew Keep It Up?
How much staying power do these Brewers have? Is it only a matter of time before they are overtaken by the Cubs, or will the Cubs be the ones to fall?
With how the Brewers have been playing this season, it is not hard to believe that they will continue playing above average baseball. Whether that is enough to win the Central is yet to be seen.
Fangraphs still believes in the Cubs, projecting them to finish the season 87-75, good for first in the Central, with the 80-82 Cardinals and 79-83 Brewers behind them. It is hard to see the Cubs not going on a long run at some point this season and locking up the division. The Cardinals may also be capable of such a run, but do not count out Milwaukee. You know what they always say: slow and steady wins the race, and Milwaukee is just steadily going about their business.
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