The National League has baseball’s best division race and two red-hot races for individual awards. Here’s nine thoughts on the NL landscape with 6 ½ weeks to go in the regular season…
*There’s no topic in baseball more important to me right now than that Cincinnati Reds’ ace Johnny Cueto get his due as the Cy Young frontrunner. He’s got an ERA of 2.05 while pitching in an extreme hitters’ park. Clayton Kershaw has been fantastic, at a buck-78 ERA and a no-hitter, but also pitches in Dodger Stadium. The battle between Cueto, Kershaw and Adam Wainwright in St. Louis for the Cy Young is a true battle, and the media’s love affair with Kershaw shouldn’t blind them to that.
*The difference in the NL MVP race might be the Miami Marlins’ bullpen. Miami rightfielder Giancarlo Stanton should be the frontrunner, with his .395 on-base percentage/.563 slugging percentage and 31 home runs that tie him for the league lead. What’s going to cost him is if the Marlins come up short in the wild-card race—and if that happens, blame the bullpen, with their 17 blown saves and 12th-place NL ranking in save percentage.
*Stanton is part of a trend where a lot of MVP-caliber talent in the National League is on bad teams. We can include two great first basemen, Anthony Rizzo in Chicago and Paul Goldschmidt in Arizona. Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki was leading this list until being recently sidelined for the year. San Diego Padres’ outfielder Sean Smith is having a surprise big year. We might want to reconsider the notion that an MVP has to come from a playoff team—this is an individual award, and it’s nice for the individual to actually have a year worthy of the honor.
*There’s no division race better than the NL Central, with the Milwaukee Brewers up two games on St. Louis and 2 ½ on the Pittsburgh Pirates. This could end up a war of attrition—the Cards have already lost Yadier Molina and Michael Wacha until at least mid-September (and that’s being optimistic). The Pirates just put Andrew McCutchen on the disabled list. And while not as flashy, don’t overlook the importance of a fragile Brewer staff losing starter Matt Garza for a little while, right when Garza had gotten on a roll.
*There’s one pitcher in the National League who is tied with the Cueto/Kershaw/Wainwright trio for wins, at fourteen. The name? It’s Wily Peralta in Milwaukee, with a 3.46 ERA to go with it. Whether Peralta, a live young arm with great stuff, can pitch well down the stretch is the biggest factor—beyond health of the contenders—in deciding whether the Brewers hold off the Cards and Pirates.
*And the third big factor in this NL Central race is the bullpens. Milwaukee and Pittsburgh both have problems here, ranking 9th and 10th in the league in save percentage and being below 70 percent at closing out their chances. St. Louis is up at 77 percent, but that’s still just 8th in the NL.
*One team without any bullpen problems is the Washington Nationals. The Nats have Rafael Soriano to close the door, to go with Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen right in front of him, all with sub-2.00 ERAs. Washington has relievers for their fifth and sixth options that would get immediate prominence on the staff of any of the NL Central contenders. Washington is a nice all-around team, but it’s this pen that’s the biggest reason for their comfortable six-game lead in the NL East.
*It’s been nice watching the overachieving San Francisco Giants hang in the NL West race all year, but it appears the raw talent of the Los Angeles Dodgers is finally taking over, as the Dodgers have nudged out to a 5 ½ game lead. San Fran is still very much alive in the wild-card race, but they needed the breaks to go their way to beat the lavishly funded Dodgers, and those breaks have been anything but kind in Frisco.
*If you ever doubt the importance of park effects on player stats, take a look at the collective examples of the Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres. The Rockies, in the ultimate hitters’ park of Coors Field, are first in the NL in runs scored and last in ERA. The Padres, in the ultimate pitching environment of Petco Park, are first in ERA and last in runs scored. Parks matter. And whenever I bring this subject up, I’m bringing it back to use as evidence for why Johnny Cueto is better than Clayton Kershaw. Let those two pitchers change parks for a season, and it would no longer be a debate.
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