This post was originally published on August 25th, 2015. Scroll down to see the NL Central’s final win total, and what it could mean for baseball.
In sports, the term “good” isn’t always easy to define. As fans, we constantly argue what it means.
‘This team is the best in their division, by far.’
‘Yeah, but that division sucks.’
‘This team is way better than their record says.’
‘No way man, the Big Ten is definitely the best basketball conference.’
It goes on and on. Like anything, when opinions are involved, there’s never a unanimous conclusion. And of course, things only become messier when people get real aggressive and try to declare a team, league or division as “great.”
Come on guys, one superlative at a time.
But opinions are always stronger when they’re backed up with numbers. And when you look at the numbers, this season’s NL Central division – or the three-headed monster that is St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and our must-watch Chicago Cubs – is ridiculously good.
As of this writing, there are only four teams in baseball that have 70+ wins: The Kansas City Royals and the three teams mentioned above. So, if you were to say that the 2015 NL Central is “good,” you wouldn’t really be speaking out of opinion.
Hell, at this point, it would be hard to classify calling it “the best division in baseball” as an opinion. Only one other division (the AL West) has three teams over .500, and their leader (Houston) would be fourth in the NL Central.
The AL East is ‘deeper’ with four teams that are at least .500 – but the NL Central’s scorching hot Cardinals-Pirates-Cubs trio is so good that it doesn’t really matter who the fourth and fifth teams are.
The only question is, just how good is that trio?
Enter our really old friend, history. With Labor Day around the corner, those stats we hear all season that start with “on pace for” are a little more legit.
In this case, that stat is how many combined wins the NL Central’s terrific threesome is on pace to finish with. Through August 24th, here’s how it breaks down:
St. Louis Cardinals: On pace for 103 wins
Pittsburgh Pirates: On pace for 99 wins
Chicago Cubs: On pace for 95 wins
Do a little math, and you’ll find that the NL Central’s trio is on pace for 297 wins in 2015. Do a little more math, and you’ll find that would be the highest three-team total since the MLB started employing a three-division format in 1994.
In fact, there hasn’t been a division to crack 290 in 13 years.
In the 19 full seasons that have been completed since baseball adopted three divisions in each league, (’94 and ’95 were strike-shortened) one division finishing with three 90-win teams has happened just five times.
During that time period, only one division (2001 AL East) has finished with two 100-win teams in the same season – something the NL Central could easily do if St. Louis and Pittsburgh keep playing like they don’t believe in losing.
Regardless whether St. Louis and Pittsburgh both break triple digits, or if the NL Central’s triumvirate finishes with 297 wins, it’s telling that they’re a near lock to have the highest total since 2002.
It’s also telling that the NL Central was the last division to have three 90-win teams, leading to a Reds-Pirates Wild Card matchup in 2013.
Two seasons later, it appears the same thing will happen – with the Cubs taking Cincinnati’s place and the NL Central sending at least one team to the play-in game for the fourth straight season.
Whatever you want to call this four-year period of baseball – ‘The Play-In Era’ doesn’t sound too bad – there’s no doubt the NL Central has dominated it.
That dominance has reached its peak here in 2015, with the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs forming a division trio unseen in baseball for a long time. Considering St. Louis is always good, Pittsburgh is still crazy young and things are just getting started on the North side of Chicago – that trio isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Maybe they’ll break some of their own records.
Baseball season is over.
And had St. Louis spent the weekend playing baseball instead of celebrating their (admittedly well-deserved) NL Central title, we would officially be crowning the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs as the greatest division trio in recent history.
Thanks to St. Louis getting swept by lowly Atlanta on baseball’s final weekend, the NL Central’s crazy good triumvirate “only” finished with 295 wins in 2015. I say “only” because that ties the 2002 AL West for most by one threesome since MLB adopted the three-division format in 1994.
But like I noted when originally writing this six weeks ago, the actual ‘record’ isn’t what’s significant. The 2015 NL Central is just the fourth trio to break 290 wins since ’94, and the first three all occurred at least 13 seasons ago.
What’s truly insane about this year’s NL Central – and something that reminds me of the SEC West – is that it housed the top three records in all of baseball. Which means both the Cubs and Pirates would have won the NL West, NL East, AL East, AL Central and AL West in 2015.
Instead, one of them will be going home early after Wednesday’s NL Wild Card game.
In the big picture, it makes you wonder when MLB will take the next step and expand the playoffs to 12 teams – especially because it doesn’t appear the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs are going anywhere anytime soon.
MLB brass would never officially label it as such, but the 2015 NL Central may someday be regarded as the catalyst to a new – and ideally permanent – playoff format.
Pretty fitting for a division that was as good as any since baseball last changed the regular season format.