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Will the NL Central continue to dominate the Wild Card?

the Mets and Giants could break up the Central's party

The site of the last three NL Wild Card games
The site of the last three NL Wild Card games
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In 2015, the three best records in baseball all belonged to three teams from the N.L. Central, the Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs. Consequently, all three made the playoffs, and the NL Wild Card was an all-central affair. 2013 wasn't quite as dominating, but was still notable for the Central. Among N.L. teams, the Cardinals, Pirates combined for three of the top 5 records. The Cardinals of course came out in first with the Pirates hosting the Reds in the Wild Card game.

The Central had a bit of a down year in 2014, as the Reds' window closed and the Cubs' had yet to open. The Cardinals and Pirates still represented the division, though both ended up victims to Madbum-tober. In 2011 of course the Cardinals won the Wild-Card the final year before the Wild-Card game, and followed it up in 2012 by winning the first NL Wild-Card game over the Braves.

All told that means that, of the 8 NL Wild Card spots in the Wild-Card Game Era, 6 have been filled by NL Central teams, with the Cardinals' winning the last single Wild Card year bumping it to 7 out of the last 9 Wild Card appearances. Four out of five of those years an NL Central team went on as the Wild Card in the NLDS, with the 2014 Giants the only exception. That range covers five consecutive postseason appearances for the Cardinals, a strong Reds core that came and went, the rise of the Pirates to one of the most respected small market teams in the game, to the rise of the new Cubs under the Ricketts and Theo Epstein. There was even a brief appearances for the Brewers with winning the 2011 NL Central, and holding onto to the best record in baseball for awhile in 2014 for inevitable regression towards the preseason projections kicked in.

Quality teams in the rest of the NL have been a little harder to find. The Dodgers, Giants, Nationals, and Braves have had varying levels of success with the Mets entering the picture in 2015, and the Braves starting an epic sell-off after a poor 2014. And of course the Nats have had their under-performance problems. Of those four though, only the Dodgers can be said to have the regular season success on the same level as the Cardinals and Pirates.

Fangraphs' projected standings and Playoff odds page now incorporates ZiPS projections as well as Steamer, so now we can get a full picture of what the two best public projection systems together think about the NL as a whole in the coming year. The Cardinals and Pirates, the two of the three best teams of the National League over the last three years, project for the 6th and 7th best records, and would miss the playoffs in the event of each team meeting their mean projections.

If the season played out exactly to mean projections, it would be the first time since 2010 that the NL Central only sent one division winner representative to the playoffs. The Playoff odds page is helpful in providing a clearer picture in terms of what the chances are of each team winning a Wild Card. Here is what the projections show as I write this:


The Cards have the second-best chance of winning the Wild Card, but it's mostly a result of the fact that the Nationals and Mets both have over 40% chance of winning their division, as you can see in the second column which lists the chances each team makes the playoffs in some form or another.

For a better visual of how the divisions compare, we can sum up each team's Wild Card chances by division:


The three divisions profile to be pretty equal in terms of producing one of the two Wild Card teams. The NL Central certainly doesn't look to be the powerhouse it was in 2013 and 2015. The change can be attributed entirely to the ascension of the Mets and the Giants, with the side course of the projections still being a strong believer in the Nationals despite poor records in 2013 and 2015. The Giants and Mets are legitimately strong teams that look better than they did 12 months ago, and the Marlins and Diamondbacks at least deserve a mention, if only that. They're projected around .500 so they're in a spot where if they play above their heads for a few months they would put themselves in the picture as well.

Last year, the Pirates hosted their third consecutive Wild-Card game, which prompted the community at our sister site BucsDugout to rename the game the "Pittsburgh Invitational". However, that informal title is in jeopardy this year, as is the Central division's supremacy in terms of producing Wild Card winners. Projecting can only say so much though, and real baseball is just around the corner.