10 Years of the American League Central

Last week, THT ran our “Five Questions” preview for the Kansas City Royals, and the previews for the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox ran yesterday. In all three articles, the point was made that a team could win the AL Central in 2004 without really being all that great.

In fact, I have said before that, in my opinion, the best team in the AL Central right now (whichever team you happen to think that is) would very likely finish third or fourth in the AL East and/or AL West. While 2004 is perhaps an extreme example of the AL Central’s ineptness, the fact is that the division, created in 1994, has simply rarely been a good one.

For years, the AL Central was dominated by the Cleveland Indians, who won the division from 1995-1999, and then again in 2001. Prior to Minnesota winning it the last two years, the only non-Cleveland team to win was Chicago, in 1994 and 2000. Of course, just because a division has been dominated by one team for much of its entire existence doesn’t mean the division was necessarily a bad one.

However, take a look at the winning percentages for the AL Central champions each season, compared to the average winning percentage of the other five division champions:

               -- AL Central --           Other
Year           W      L     Win%          Champs
1994          67     46     .593          .562
1995         100     44     .694          .580
1996          99     62     .615          .564
1997          86     75     .534          .572
1998          89     73     .549          .627
1999          97     65     .599          .609
2000          95     67     .586          .575
2001          91     71     .562          .599
2002          94     67     .584          .622
2003          90     72     .556          .601

There have been 10 AL Central champions and exactly two teams – the 1995 and 1996 Indians – won at least 60% of their games. During the last 10 years, the New York Yankees, alone, have won 60% of their games in five seasons.

The AL Central champion has had a better winning percentage than the average champion from the other five divisions in four of those 10 years, but just once in the past seven seasons.

During the last 10 years, the average division winner from the other five divisions had a winning percentage of .591, which is the equivalent of 95.7 wins in a 162-game season. The AL Central winner has reached that winning percentage just four times in 10 seasons.

But okay, maybe the cream of the AL Central crop hasn’t usually been very strong, but what if they simply had really even competition among good but not great teams?

Well, let’s take a look…

Here are the combined records of all the teams in the AL Central each season:

YEAR       W       L     Win%
1994     303     266     .533
1995     359     361     .499
1996     417     391     .516
1997     379     427     .470
1998     376     433     .465
1999     368     437     .457
2000     410     400     .506
2001     390     420     .481
2002     366     442     .453
2003     370     440     .457

As a whole, the AL Central has won half its games in just three of 10 seasons, including just once in the past seven years. The division’s lifetime record is 3,738-4,017, which works out to a .482 winning percentage. The division’s record over the past three years is even worse: 1,126-1,302, for a .464 winning percentage.

Believe it or not, those numbers are actually worse than they look, because the division totals are pulled towards .500 thanks to the AL Central teams having a record of exactly .500 against each other each season. That means outside of the division, the AL Central is 279 games below .500 in 10 seasons.

The AL Central has been particularly awful outside of the division in recent years.

YEAR       W       L     Win%
2001     200     230     .465
2002     177     253     .412
2003     180     250     .419

Combined over the last three years, the AL Central has a 557-733 record outside of the division, which comes out to an absolutely horrendous .432 winning percentage. To put that in some context, the Texas Rangers finished dead-last in the AL West last year, going 71-91. That’s a .438 winning percentage.

Of course, the AL Central hasn’t just been bad on a team level…

In 10 seasons, the AL Central has had one AL MVP, Frank Thomas, in the division’s first year of existence, 1994. In fact, the division hasn’t even had their “fair” share of top-10 MVP finishers. With 10 each season, there have been a total of 100 in the last 10 years.

With an even distribution among the three divisions, each would have 33.3 top-10 finishers. If you evenly distribute them to each team (since the AL West only has four), the AL Central and East would each have 36 and the AL West would have 28.

Yet, the AL Central has had a total of just 29 top-10 MVP finishers. The division had six of the top-10 vote-getters in its first season, 1994, but hasn’t had more than three of the top-10 in any of the past eight years.

The division has also had just one AL Cy Young winner, David Cone, also in 1994. That means the five AL Central teams have been shut out of the two biggest awards (MVP and Cy Young) for nine straight seasons.

The division also has just two of the past 10 Manager of the Year award winners (Jerry Manuel in 2000 and Tony Pena last season), although they have been fairly successful with Rookie of the Year awards, winning four in 10 seasons.

The AL has a Gold Glove team each year, consisting of nine players. Over 10 years, that means there have been 90 AL Gold Gloves handed out. With an even distribution among divisions, each would have received 30 GGs. With an even distribution among teams (again, the AL West only has four), the AL East and Central each would have gotten 32 GGs and the West would have gotten 26.

And how many Gold Gloves has the AL Central gotten? 24. And eight of those came from Omar Vizquel. Over that same time span, the Seattle Mariners, by themselves, have won 17 GGs.

But guess what? It’s not just a lack of winning teams and a lack of individual awards, it’s also a lack of individual statistical leaders.

In 10 years, check out how many times an AL Central player has led the league in the pitching and hitting “Triple Crown” categories…

Batting Average     1
Home Runs           1
RBIs                4
Wins                0
ERA                 0
Strikeouts          1

That’s pretty pathetic. They’ve had seven leaders in those six categories, whereas you’d expect them, with an even distribution, to have 20-21 leaders in 10 years.

So, the AL Central hasn’t had great teams, it hasn’t been deep with good teams, it hasn’t had any success outside of the division, it hasn’t had any success winning individual awards, and it hasn’t been very good at leading the league in the individual Triple Crown categories. I’d say that’s a clean sweep of crappiness, which, I guess, is one area they can say they’ve dominated in.

And with all that said, here are my picks for the All-Time American League Central Team:

 C   A.J. Pierzynski     Minnesota (1998-2003)
1B   Jim Thome           Cleveland (1994-2002)
2B   Roberto Alomar      Cleveland (1999-2001), Chicago (2003)
SS   Omar Vizquel        Cleveland (1994-2003)
3B   Corey Koskie        Minnesota (1998-2003)
LF   Albert Belle        Cleveland (1994-1996), Chicago (1997-1998)
CF   Kenny Lofton        Cleveland (1994-1996, 1998-2001), Chicago (2002)
RF   Manny Ramirez       Cleveland (1994-2000)
DH   Frank Thomas        Chicago (1994-2003)
 
SP   Brad Radke          Minnesota (1995-2003)
SP   Bartolo Colon       Cleveland (1997-2002), Chicago (2003)
SP   Kevin Appier        Kansas City (1994-1999, 2003)
SP   Charles Nagy        Cleveland (1994-2002)
SP   Mark Buehrle        Chicago (2000-2003)
CL   Keith Foulke        Chicago (1997-2002)
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