NL Central X-Factors: Christian Yelich’s return to normal, the emergence of Dylan Carlson and more
The 2021 MLB season is just around the corner, and since there won’t be an expanded playoffs this year, playoff spots will be in demand. Specifically, we’re back to 10 playoff spots – three division winners and two wild card players per league – after having 16 last year.
Obviously, that means the margins will be tighter and the contention bar will be much higher than it was in 2020. Since we’re back to a single wildcard format, 2021 will bring back those heavy incentives as well. to win the division crown. With all of that in mind, we’re going to preview each division race and break down the potential X factors by opening day. So far it is the NL Central. Here is an X factor for each club, listed in alphabetical order.
Last season the Cubs won the NL Central title, but the offense was not the reason for that success. In 2021, the Cubs placed 10th in the NL in points scored and also 10th in OPS. As Ian Happ and Jason Heyward have turned into productive campaigns, the surprise was that the Cubs’ ‘core four’ hitters – that is, third baseman / outfielder Kris Bryant, the first player. goal Anthony Rizzo, shortstop Javier Baez and wide receiver Willson Contreras – also disappointed to varying degrees.
One key for the Cubs in 2021, especially now that the once-strong rotation has been reduced in the name of payroll reduction, is whether those four hitters can bounce back. History strongly suggests that they should. About:
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OPS + is the most familiar OPS (base percentage plus slugging percentage) adjusted to reflect league and home stadium trends. An OPS + of 100 represents the league average, and every point above or below that rating reflects a 1.0 percent change. For example, a hitter with an OPS + of 120 had a park-adjusted and league-adjusted OPS that was 20% higher than the league average, while a hitter with an OPS + of 95 was five percent worse. than the league average. So from a batter’s point of view, the higher the OPS +, the better.
It all tells the same story for all four hitters. All of them were significantly better in previous seasons, and their decline in 2020 affected a much smaller sample and during a season played out in the midst of a global pandemic. Additionally, 31-year-old Rizzo is the oldest of the quartet, so age-related decline is highly unlikely to sweep the Cubs lineup right now. The reasonable expectation is that these four hitters will roughly hit their mark in a season that looks to be something closer to par on all fronts. It would be the Cubs’ safest way to wrangle over numbers which should be a balanced, if unspectacular, NL Central.
Trevor Bauer’s dominating absence from the Cincinnati rotation will hurt their chances of returning to the playoffs for a second straight year (as will the shrunken playoff field, of course). But the rotation that already includes Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray could absorb Bauer’s loss a bit better if Tyler Mahle continues to grow.
The 26-year-old right-hander has just completed a 2020 season in which he averaged 3.59 ERA / 133 ERA + with 60 strikeouts in 47 2/3 innings. He’s also made a big jump in strikeouts as a batting-up percentage, going from 23.2% in 2019 to 29.9% last season. The latter figure places him in elite territory and pursues a growth pattern in the vital issue of missing bats. Additionally, her tendency to miss bats should inoculate her to some extent against Cincy’s porous tusk.
Mahle’s rise has coincided with a significant increase in cutter use, so there is some pitch blending foundation to his success. Given a more normal routine and a longer schedule in 2021, he might be able to make further progress. If the Reds are to resist losing 2020 NL winner Cy Young to free agency, then they’ll need Mahle to do just that.
If the Brewers want to make the playoffs for a fourth straight year, they’ll likely need Christian Yelich to hit like he did in 2018 and 2019. During those years, Yelich hit .327 / .415 /. 631 with an average of 47 at home. running for 162 games played. For his troubles, he won the NL MVP award in 2018 and finished second in 2019. Last season, however, Yelich demoted to a .205 / .356 / .430 line.
The good news for Yelich and the crew going forward is that we have plenty of reasons to dismiss these numbers. You can see right away that Yelich’s struggles – struggles in a relative sense, given he was still a useful player in 2020 – are driven by a low batting average. This low batting average was in turn motivated by a low batting average on balls in play (BABIP). For hitters, when BABIP deviates drastically from set standards, sheer bad luck is usually the culprit. In Yelich’s case, his 2020 BABIP was more than 100 points lower than his pre-2020 career BABIP. It screams bad luck in part thanks to the small sample of data involved.
The tale of bad luck is also supported by the fact that Yelich hit the ball hard last season. He ranked in the MLB’s 99th percentile in average exit speed right off the bat, the highest rating of his career. And he ranked in the 98th percentile of the pass rate, the second highest mark of his career. Maybe it turns out that Yelich’s 2018-19 is his never-to-be-quite peak. However, it is said here that in 2021 it will at least get closer to that than it will to the (still relative) depths of 2020.
This offseason, the Pirates traded first baseman Josh Bell and right-handed starters Joe Musgrove and Jameson Taillon. They are three main contributors stripped of a team that last recorded a paltry 0.317 win percentage. On a schedule of 162 games which would translate into a season of 111 losses.
Given these subtractions, the Pirates of 2021 – no exaggeration to come – could be one of the worst teams in modern baseball history. Perhaps, however, they did not actively worsen. The Pirates currently have a pathetically low payroll of around $ 40 million, but they still have ways to reduce that number.
They could do it by dealing with outfielder Gregory Polanco, infielder Adam Frazier, infielder (corner) Colin Moran, right-hander Chad Kuhl, receiver Jacob Stallings and closest Richard Rodriguez. Of these names, only Rodriguez figures to bring back a solid return to the Pirates. Pittsburgh already has a strong farming system in place, but any deal before the trade deadline is unlikely to make a big difference. Such deals could, however, bolster the Pirates’ already strong chances of landing the first overall pick in 2022. Be inspired, Bucs fans.
Even after the off-season addition of Nolan Arenado, the Cardinals don’t plan to be a strong offensive team. What might change that expectation is if former prospect Dylan Carlson takes the next step. There is reason to believe that he could.
While he struggled to start his Big League career in 2020 and had disappointing numbers overall, Carlson has improved over the season. Also, shortly after his call, he suffered a streak of bad luck on batted balls and probably deserved better results. Carlson was eventually demoted to the alternate training site, but returned to St. Louis for the second half of September. Combine his regular season numbers after his comeback with his performance against the Padres in the NLDS, and Carlson had a .289 / .389 / .578 line in his last 54 appearances on the board. That’s a tiny sample size, but it’s enough to balance his struggles somewhat earlier in 2020. He has backed up those advancements with strong underlying ball-to-bat metrics. Let’s also not forget that Carlson was a 21-year-old who was getting his very first exposure to the best throws in the world and doing so without the benefit of a normal build-up this season.
It’s also important that Carlson has the pedigree as a former first round who, coming in 2020, was considered one of the Top 10 prospects by many observers. He has the All-Star advantage, and he might realize it as early as 2021.
The Cardinals need this, or something close, to happen. Perhaps this is especially important now that Kolten Wong and Dexter Fowler are elsewhere and Matt Carpenter doesn’t have a clear path to consistent playing time. That leaves just two roster primaries that don’t beat right-hangers – Tommy Edman and Carlson, who are both switch hitters. Edman, however, is much stronger on the right side, while Carlson has been significantly better at batting on the left. The Cardinals sorely needed the balance that a productive Carlson would provide.