Here is the current ranking of the potential playoff teams in the National League by total Wins Above Average, according to Baseball Reference.
- ARI: 18.9
- LAD: 16.6
- WSN 16.2
- CHC 9.4
- COL 7.4
- MIL 4.9
Yes: Arizona has most WAA of any National League team, and trails only the Cleveland Indians (24.2) in the majors. Not bad for a team in second place in their division. Let’s look at each of those sides, and see what the chart tells us about their objective strengths and weaknesses over the regular season.
It’s all about the pitching for the D-backs, and the starting pitching in particular, with a rotation that’s almost five wins better than anyone else in the league. That’s a solid foundation on which to base a playoff run. But it’s the only area where they lead the league, though Paul Goldschmidt will be the best first baseman in the playoffs. The middle infield is Arizona’s biggest weakness, with shortstop and second-base both ranked last. The outfield is no great shakes either, although the arrival of J.D. Martinez has certainly helped there.
This looks to be a well-balanced side, with the best tally for their position players among the post-season contenders. The only area ranked in the bottom three is at first base, and if Cody Bellinger plays there, the Dodgers would largely be sorted. The sole significant spot otherwise below average is center field. However, they aren’t outstanding in many places either. Corey Seager does give them the best shortstop production, and Justin Turner is not far behind the best at the hot corner. Any pitching staff anchored by Clayton Kershaw is always going to be a challenge to face, even if Yu Darvish hasn’t been the hoped-for upgrade.
The Nationals are optimistic they’ll have Bryce Harper back for the NLDS, and that would make a significant difference. Even with all the time he has missed, their RF trails only that Stanton guy from Miami in terms of production. Their rotation is second to Arizona, while the bullpen has been a work in progress at best: 10 different pitchers have recorded saves for them. 2B Daniel Murphy and 3B Anthony Rendon may be mentioned on MVP ballots, but Matt Wieters has been a severe disappointment behind the plate, both as a pitch-framer and for his 62 OPS+.
A trio of players have largely been responsible for powering the Cubs’ efforts to retain the World Series. Catcher Wilson Contreras, 1B Anthony Rizzo and 3B Kris Bryant have combined to be worth 7.2 of the 9.4 wins above average for the team thus far. Both the Cubs’ starting and relief pitching has been solid, rather than outstanding, and elsewhere has been nothing special either. The corner outfield has underperformed in particular, with Kyle Schwarber struggling with the transition from catcher, and Jason Heyward not living up to his $28 million salary.
It’s a bit of a surprise to see the Rockies ranking highly in pitching. Just as the Coors effect tends to make their hitters look better then they are, so it bloats the ERA of their hurlers. Metrics like WAR take the park into account, and the palette of young cost-controlled pitchers Colorado has, should serve them well. On the position side, it’s the usual suspects, Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon, leading the way. But even Coors hasn’t been able to help Blackmon’s neighbors in the outfield, Carlos Gonzalez and the two-headed suck beast of Ian Desmond/Gerardo Parra.
Just hanging in, with an 11.1% playoff chance, are the Brewers. Their overall WAR tally is not much above average, reflecting a run differential of only +38. They don’t have any positions in the league top three, with 2B Jonathan Villar their lowest-ranked spot. CF Billy Hamilton continues to prove that you can’t steal first-base... especially when you are on the DL with a fractured thumb (hey, it’s not just our hitters who break hands!). Travis Shaw - who shares a birthday with fellow 3B Arenado, as well as me! - has been the brightest spot.
Of course, this is just one metric. You could certainly find other stats that point in different directions, e.g. run differential would have the Dodgers at #1, while the Nationals have the best overall record against the other teams. But it’s a sharp contrast to last year, where the Cubs were the obvious best team, by just about every measure. Regardless of who gets to the Division Series in the National League, just about any franchise will have some reason for optimism.