The Cubs start a nine-game stretch against their two primary rivals for the division crown, the Brewers and Cardinals, starting Friday in Milwaukee. But which of these two teams actually represents the greater threat this season? Based on last season’s results and the first half of 2019, the obvious answer is the Brewers. Yet I would argue the Cardinals are the more dangerous foe for the remainder of 2019.
The Brewers went an astounding 33-19 in one-run games in 2018, a substantial 14 games above the .500 mark typically expected in such contests. During the first half of 2019, Milwaukee continued to confound the laws of probability by going 10-4 in those tossup games.
But good luck does not last forever.
Since June 12, the Brewers have gone 5-7 in one-run games and, not coincidentally, ceded second place in the division to the Cardinals by going under .500 overall in that stretch.Half of the Brewers’ win surplus the past two seasons has been accounted for by their “luck” in one-run games.
There are those who argue that it is not luck at all, that dominant bullpens are designed to greatly over-perform one-run games. Faced with the slimmest of margins, a manager can make defensive substitutions to lower the chances of further offense and allow his superior relievers to hold the lead. Thus, a team with an elite ‘pen should have a winning record in such games.
The Brewers, ranked 5th in reliever ERA in 2018 and 4th in reliever fWAR, are such a team. Yet when I cross-ranked team relief fWAR against league-wide records in one-run games last season, there was no correlation. The Padres, Astros, and Rays were respectively ranked 2, 3, and 5 in reliever fWAR, yet 12, 14, and 19 in one-run records.
And remember those stellar Royals teams of 2014 and ’15 that were famously built around their bullpens? They went only 45-42 in one-run games over those two seasons.
I see the Brewers as a good-but-not-great team that rode a strong run of one-run luck, not to mention a red-hot September, to a 2018 division title. But that luck appears to be running out, which means the Cubs and Cardinals — two teams with neutral one-run records — will decide the NL Central in 2019.
Ed. note: Sorry, Travis, but not really.