Baseball will always be a game of streaks. Some are greater than others, but if a club can navigate the rough waters of tough losses, they are often rewarded with big wins. It could be a series win over another they have no business defeating. It could come in the guise of bats ‘waking up’ or starting pitching finding a degree of dominance.
Through the first month of the 2021 MLB season, no division exemplified this better than the National League Central. Already pegged as one of the most competitive divisions thanks to their teams’ propensity for beating each other up (both literally and figuratively), the month of April showed glimpses of greatness from each team. Eventually, though, April 30 arrived and the first month was carved in stone with little more to glean than one could get from a Magic 8 Ball.
Even that ball would not say much more than “Ask again later”.
Milwaukee Brewers, 16-10, 1st Place
The Brewers began the season unassuming enough, starting 3-4 before righting the ship by the end of the second week. At the April 15 mark, the Brewers were sitting two games above .500 at 7-5 before finishing the month on a 9-5 stretch, largely due to some outstanding pitching. Brandon Woodruff came off a terrific 2020 campaign and picked right back up where he left off. While he was occasionally devoid of run support, Woodruff finished the month 2-0. He had a sparkling 1.55 earned run average to go with a 0.72 WHIP. Those are the numbers you want out of your ace.
Wait, is he the ace? Because Corbin Burnes would like a word. Burnes also logged two wins in the month while finishing with a 1.53 ERA and a 0.55 WHIP as well as an eye-popping 15.0 strikeouts per nine innings. The two pitchers provide one of the best 1-2 punches in the majors.
The Brew Crew has scored the second-fewest runs in the division and are clearly missing all-world hitter Christian Yelich who went on the injured list with back troubles. The former MVP has not played in a game since April 11. Utility man Travis Shaw (five home runs, 22 runs batted in) paced the team in the sexy numbers, but catcher Omar Narvaez leads in virtually every other category at the plate including a .368/.443/.529 triple-slash. He was removed from the final game of the month with a strained hamstring.
Team MVP: Omar Narvaez, 25-for-68, 3 HR, 11 RBI, .972 OPS
Team Cy Young: Corbin Burnes, 2-0, 29.1 IP, 1.53 ERA, 0.55 WHIP, 49 strikeouts
St. Louis Cardinals, 14-12, 2nd Place
Death, taxes, and the Cardinals will always have a say in the division standings. The Redbirds came out of the gate 5-2 before settling in at .500 midway through the opening month of the campaign. The team actually dropped to 8-10 at the three-week mark before rattling off a 6-2 run to launch them into May.
To be fair, this is exactly where they should have been sitting at the close of the month, if not better. St. Louis played a grand total of three games against teams with a winning record. For comparison’s sake, the Cincinnati Reds played 21. Being over .500 is all well and good, but the Cards could be leading this division by a significant margin with more consistency.
Ace Jack Flaherty has continued his winning ways, getting off to a 4-0 start with an ERA of 3.18 and a sub-1.00 WHIP at the end of the month. Much of the rest of the pitching staff has matched the intensity; for the second half of April the staff as a whole combined for a 2.46 ERA (starters 2.25).
800-year-old Yadier Molina was firing on all cylinders to start the season, defying father time and launching five longballs over the fence. He landed on the injured list with a foot strain and is expected out until mid-May at the earliest. Dylan Carlson finished the opening frame with 25 hits in 89 at bats (.281) and an .857 OPS. Third baseman Nolan Arenado batted just .255 but had four dingers while driving in 15 runs. Paul Goldschmidt struggled to a .597 OPS.
Team MVP: Yadier Molina, .323/.366/.631, 5 HR, 5 2B, 14 RBI
Team Cy Young: Jack Flaherty, 4-0, 3.18 ERA, 0.95 WHIP
Pittsburgh Pirates, 12-13, 3rd Place (tie)
The rebuilding Bucs did about what one would expect, tripping over the starting line and stumbling into a 1-6 start. To their credit, they would right the proverbial ship by going 11-7 and closing in on .500 at the end of the April. As you would expect from any young team, consistency was the issue and will likely continue to be. Fans are not expecting much this season, so any wins to keep Pittsburgh in the thick of things is all gravy.
Starting pitcher JT Brubaker made nine starts in 2020, and in 2021 he is raising eyebrows with solid performances on the hill. He has nearly sliced his ERA from last season in half and went 2-2 in this season’s first month. Lefty Tyler Anderson went 2-3 but unlike Brubaker has had an issue with walks. His numbers looked good to begin the season, pitching to a 2.86 ERA. He occasionally has control issues but is another player trending up for Pittsburgh. The trio of Mitch Keller, Trevor Cahill, and Chad Kuhl behind them in the rotation has been abysmal.
Second baseman Adam Frazier was solid (if unspectacular) at the plate last month. While he finished with a fine and dandy .310 average, the utter lack of power coming from him after he socked seven round-trippers in the 2020 shortened season is not encouraging. Colin Moran and Bryan Reynolds combined to go 51-for-179 (.285) with 24 runs, 29 RBI, and 19 walks.
Team MVP: Colin Moran 25/88 (.284), 2 HR, 16 RBI, 7 BB
Team Cy Young: JT Brubaker, 2-2, 2.63 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 30 Ks
Cincinnati Reds, 12-13, 3rd Place (tie)
Not unlike the Cardinals, Cincinnati came out of the gates with a huge jump, seizing first place immediately with a 5-1 start. By the end of the second week they had dropped to 7-5. The early absence of Sonny Gray (who began the season on the injured list) coupled with poor performances by Luis Castillo was evident. To make matters worse, the bats which were white-hot early, cooled off considerably and the bullpen was faltering. On April 21, they were down to 9-8 and limped through the final week, going 3-5. At one point, the Reds went from first place to last in six days.
The starting pitching was carried by a surprising duo throughout the month. Veteran Wade Miley did nothing flashy, per se, but he won a pair of games while posting a 2.67 ERA and 0.96 WHIP. Tyler Mahle, just 26-years-old, seems to have cemented himself as a potential strikeout machine, racking up 36 over 25 2/3 innings. Unfortunately, that means throwing a lot of pitches and he has averaged barely over five innings per start on the season.
One would think those numbers should provide some easy wins. However, the two combined for a 4-3 record thanks to a woeful bullpen that started the first week well and then the wheels came off. The Reds had the third-highest bullpen ERA in the majors for the month at 5.38. Taking over the closer role in 2021 after the departure of Raisel Iglesias is the usually reliable Amir Garrett. In 7 1/3 innings, Garrett surrendered seven walks, four homers, had two blown saves and finished April with a 12.27 ERA. The reliever let his emotions get the best of him in press conferences and even on the mound… but that’s a story for the May recap.
At the plate, the Reds have found contributions from most everyone in the early going. The bats did go cold for a spell as the level of competition ramped up, but Nick Castellanos (.957 OPS, seven dingers, 16 RBI) and Jesse Winker (chasing .400 with clutch hit after clutch hit) carried the team. Solid and timely contributions from nearly everyone in the lineup followed. The lone outlier being Eugenio Suarez, who is not only batting .130 but has more than triple the strikeouts (40) than hits (12).
Team MVP: Jesse Winker, .370/.414/.679 (1.043 OPS), 6 HR, 16 RBI
Team Cy Young: Tyler Mahle, 5 GS, 1-1, 1.75 ERA, 36 Ks, .159 BAA
Chicago Cubs, 11-15, 5th Place
This is unchartered territory of late for the Cubs as they have not finished in the cellar since the 2013 and 2014 seasons. That said, this is just the first month of a long season, and one cannot expect Chicago to stay down for long. A couple of slumps broken and a couple good bounces will go a long way for them getting back on track. They began the season 4-3, but hovered around .500 for the rest of the month. At the end of the third week, they sat at 8-9 before finishing April 3-6.
The Cubs starting pitching has shown a lack of longevity in games. Through the first 26 games, starters made it all the way through six innings a total of six times. Half of those were Jake Arrieta’s doing. The staff averaged 4.71 innings per start. Arrieta had an unspectacular month at age 35 (3-3, 4.31 ERA) and struck out just 28 batters in 6 starts. Arrieta has been the best of the bunch, though, as the four behind him had some unsightly ERAs, each with at least five starts. Adbert Alzolay (4.71), Trevor Williams (4.44), Kyle Hendricks (7.54), and Zach Davies (9.47) are pulling almost no weight whatsoever.
For what it’s worth, the bullpen was sturdy to begin the season (3.83 ERA) but has control issues. Walks were bountiful. At the back end, Craig Kimbrel continued his return to form, but of his nine appearances, just four were save opportunities.
At the plate, Nico Hoerner has a .310/.429/.448 triple-slash, though he has only started eight games. His position versatility will keep his value up heading into the May games. Kris Bryant is smacking the ball around the yard with reckless abandon and is the gas in this Cubs tank. Javier Baez drew just one walk in the month of April. Not unlike his shortstop counterpart in Cincinnati has been victimized by the strikeout (36 Ks). However, everyone knows that when Javy connects, he is still one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball. Even with the strikeouts, he still banged out 6 home runs and drove in 20.
The Cubs have gotten great plate performance out of Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras. The starting eight will have to continue to hit the ball without getting much help from their pitching. If the bats go cold and the pitching does not pick up, the grumblings of deadline moves will gain steam.
Team MVP: Kris Bryant, .322/.412/.667 (1.078 OPS), 9 2B, 7 HR, 19 RBI
Team Cy Young: Jake Arrieta(?), 6 GS, 3-3, 4.31 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 28 Ks
A Look Ahead
If there is one thing fans can be certain about in the NL Central, it is that they cannot be certain about anything at all. All of these teams have dealt with cold temperatures at times, as well as rain and even snow. At the time of this publication, the calendar will have already flipped to May and warmer weather will aid pitchers’ movement, improve grip, and soften the ball. There will be better pitching performances but there will also be more balls going over the fence at times.
The $500 million question is “What now?” By the time the May recap rolls around, it can be expected that the Pirates will have assumed their rightful place in the cellar, and the Cubs will have improved pitching. The Brewers will be worrying about offense but not pitching, while the Reds remain streaky in both directions. Finally, the Cards will stay a constant in one of the top two positions in the standings.
Well, maybe. In this division, who knows? As the Magic 8 Ball would say: “Concentrate and ask again.”