AL Central: state of the division as the season ends

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Well, the season is just about over, and we mostly know how the division will end up. The Tigers are on the verge of clinching the division, the Indians are fighting for a wild card slot, the Royals are hoping for a wild card slot, while the Twins and White Sox play out their dismal strings.

Overall, the AL Central has been a mediocre division this year. Prior to Sunday’s action, the teams have a combined record eight games under .500: 382-390. Let’s look at each team and where it stands.

It’s pretty likely that the current divisional standings: Tigers-Indians-Royals-Twins-White Sox will be how the season ends. The Royals have a chance to leapfrog the Indians, but that’s unlikely given Cleveland’s strength of schedule from here on out.

Let’s compare the standings with our preseason predictions here at THT. We came fairly close, with the group consensus placing the division as Tigers-Indians-Royals-White Sox-Twins. We just had the last two teams flipped around. That said, nearly everyone picked the Twins to come in last, while the Sox were tightly bunched in the middle with the Royals and Indians. Clearly, the Sox underachieved badly this year.

Detroit Tigers

It’s a nice little dynasty the Tigers have put together in recent years, as this will be their third straight division title. The last team to do that was the Phillies, who won five straight from 2007 to ’11. It helps that the division hasn’t been especially competitive in that time. None of the other squads has an overall winning record from 2011 to ’13, and this year should mark the first time a non-Tigers team managed to win more than 85 games in the season.

The foundation of Detroit’s success is obvious: their top-tier talent. Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown last year and is better this year. Justin Verlander is having an off year, but Max Scherzer has emerged as the new star. Okay, so Scherzer stumbled a bit recently with four straight winless outings and a 4.70 ERA, but even then he actually had two great outings.

While Cabrera and Scherzer get the attention, the overall strength of Detroit’s starting pitching shouldn’t be dismissed. By ERA, Anibal Sanchez is the real ace, with a 2.51 ERA (a half-point under Scherzer) and the best ERA+ in the AL at 166.

Only 18 AL pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title have an ERA+ of 112 or better, and four of them are on Detroit: Sanchez, Scherzer, Verlander, and Doug Fister. Even fifth starter, Rick Porcello, isn’t doing too badly. His ERA+ of 94 is a bit below league average, but then again, starting pitchers in general have a worse combined ERA than relievers do, so Porcello is essentially a league-average starter. (When you factor in Detroit’s poor defense, Porcello is probably a bit above average).

Not many teams have a fifth starter who is an average pitcher posting enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. In fact, none do. No other AL team has more than three pitchers qualifying for the ERA tile. In the NL, the Reds and Nationals have four each.

So it’s no surprise that the Tigers have the league’s best overall ERA by starting pitchers, 3.49. Only Oakland is close (3.69), and the A’s play in a great pitchers’ park.

The question isn’t why the Tigers are leading the division but why they haven’t completely and totally run away with it. Well, for one thing, they are underachieving their Pythagorean projection. The Tigers have the third-best team ERA and are second in runs scored, but they have the third-best record in the AL. They’re 90-64 record should be 95-59, which would put them on pace for 100 wins.

Also, while they’ve had great frontline talent, their background isn’t as strong. They have one of the lousier bullpens in the league (good thing they don’t need it very much), and their bench hitters aren’t very impressive.

Overall, it’s clear why the Tigers are the class of the AL Central yet again.

Cleveland Indians

While the Tigers are the most talented team and easily could be ahead of the division by more than they are, you also could argue that the Indians could be in control of the division. Sadly for Cleveland, their story of the year is the way they’ve been utterly dominated by the Tigers.

On the year, the Tigers are 15-4 against their rival. In other words, against all other teams, the Indians have the better record: 81-55 versus 76-60. (Though, to be fair, the Tigers would still have the better Pythagorean record.)

I don’t really know what to make of that. I’ll take the sample size of 154 games over 19 games, thank you very much, but it is amazing.

This season does fit in with a proud pattern for the Indians this year. They are bum slayers. They can wallop the lesser teams of this earth but have trouble against good teams. They are 1-6 against the Yankees, 1-6 against the Red Sox, 2-4 against Tampa, and 0-3 against the Braves.

They do have a slight edge against Kansas City (10-9), but then again, that’s probably the worst team with a winning record in the AL. Cleveland also has a slight edge against Baltimore (4-3) and Washington (2-1). The only good teams the Indians have really done well against are in the AL West: both 10-3 versus the Rangers and A’s.

Overall, the Indians are 36-52 against teams .500 or better, which is actually a little worse than the Mariners (37-52). Yet the Indians are in the wild card hunt while the Mariners are also-rans. That’s because Cleveland truly does slay bums, 50-18 against teams with losing records, which is easily the best mark in the AL.

Given that, it is fortunate for Cleveland that it ends the season with a bunch of cellar-dwellers on the schedule. The Indians host Chicago for two games and then end the year with four games in Minnesota. So far, the Indians are a comically advantageous 15-2 against the sad-sack White Sox and a more routinely positive 9-6 versus the Twins. The second wild card slot is Cleveland’s for the taking.

Kansas City Royals

With the season winding down, it looks like the Royals will miss the wild card after all. Heading into Sunday, they are tied for fifth in the race for two wild card slots, four games behind the leading Tampa Bay Rays, and three-and-a-half games behind Cleveland (and three games behind Texas). Barring a miracle, it looks like they’ll miss out on October ball.

But it’s still been a nice season for KC. The Royals have broken a streak of nine straight losing seasons, and could end up with their most wins in a campaign since 1989! That’s the last time they won more than 84 games in a season. Yowza.

The Royals haven’t had much offensive firepower at all, ranking 11th in runs scored despite playing in a hitter-friendly ballpark. But they are great at stopping runs from scoring.

They have one of the greatest fielding units of all time. At 10.5 defensive WAR, they not only have the best batch of gloves in the game, but one of the best ever. 10.5 fielding WAR places them sixth-best ever. It’s the best by any team in 20 years, since the 1993 Braves posted a 10.6 mark.

The great defense has helped the Royals bullpen post an AL-best ERA of 2.55. The next-best bullpen ERA in the AL is Texas, way back at 2.96. Yeah, that’s a nice-sized lead. In fact, that massive season by KC relievers marks the best ERA by an AL bullpen since the 1990 Oakland A’s unit led by Dennis Eckersley. That squad, often considered to be the best bullpen ever, had an ERA of 2.35 while playing in a pitchers’ park. No, the 2013 Royals bullpen isn’t as good, but it’s close.

Actually, all the above spells a possible problem for KC. Despite getting a historically brilliant season from their defenders and tremendous work from their bullpen, they still likely will miss the playoffs. So what happens next year? Odds are very strong their two twin strengths will regress some, and this is a team that probably will end in the mid-80s wins.

Minnesota Twins

The Twins are, as they have been for a few years now, a sad shell of their former selves. They are a parody of what once made them the class of the division. In their glory years, they won with the best bullpen in the league and pitchers who never walked anyone. The team eschewed other aspects of the game but focused on those areas, and won.

The club hasn’t changed much in its overall philosophy. They still are among the best control teams in the game, with the third-fewest walks in the league. And they still have one of the better bullpens, fifth-best in the AL. But in their glory years, they’d top the AL in both categories. If they’re not No. 1 in them, then they can’t compete.

More than that, all those areas the Twins haven’t prioritized have fallen apart on them. Remember how the Tigers had five starting pitchers qualifying for the ERA title? Well, the Twins have just one, and he’s about as good as Detroit’s fifth starter. Seven men have started at least 10 games for the Twins this year, and five of them have an ERA over 5.25. Their total starting pitcher ERA of 5.21 is nearly a half-run worse than the closest team (Toronto, at 4.76).

The Twins’ starters have pulled off the neat combination of having easily the fewest innings pitched (831.1, over 25 fewer than anyone else), while allowing the most hits (1,019). Well, that’ll happen when you have the worst strikeout rate in baseball: 454 whiffs by starters, over 170 behind 14th-place Houston. Minnesota’s 4.9 K/9IP is nowhere near the 6.5 or better than every other club can claim.

Meanwhile, the offense ranks 14th in the league in runs scored. It’s been a difficult few years for the Twins, and there is no end in sight.

Chicago White Sox

The year began with everyone assuming the Astros and the Marlins would be the worst teams in baseball, and they have been. But the White Sox are the worst of the other 28 squads. That wasn’t expected.

Here at THT, in our preseason picks, six of us (including myself) pegged the Sox to finish in second, seven others said third, and the remaining eight said they’d come in forth place. Everyone said that they’d top the Twins.

Mostly, it’s been the hitting. The entire lineup has been a disaster. Among starting infielders, the best OPS+ is 86, by Gordon Beckham. When Beckham is your best infield bat, you have a serious problem. Catcher Tyler Flowers completely failed his audition, batting .195 on the year. The club’s outfielders haven’t been too bad, but at best they’re average-ish batters. When your best hitters are average, you have issues.

And the bench is horrible. Sure, bench players are, by definition, below average, but the Sox have probably the worst collection of bench bats in baseball. They can’t hit, they don’t have power, and they don’t draw walks. Replacement-level OPS+ is typically around 80. The OPS+ for the entire Sox bench is 64.

So, yeah, even by the standards of bad ballplayers, these guys are absolutely brutal. Currently, just one bat on the entire White Sox roster has an OPS+ over 100: Avisail Garcia, at a 107 OPS+ in 136 plate appearances. (Take him out of the mix, and the Sox bench has an overall OPS+ of 58.)

The Sox’s strength in the 21st century has been their pitchers, especially their starters. This is still the team’s best element, but their starters’ performance still is down from previous years. Chris Sale is a legitimate ace, and Jose Quintana and Hector Santiago have done well behind him. But the Sox normally do well in depth of starting pitchers, but that hasn’t been the case this year.

The bullpen has been below average, a fact highlighted over the weekend when they blew a 6-0 lead in the ninth inning to Detroit on Saturday.

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Comments

  1. John C said...

    “No other AL team has more than three pitchers qualifying for the ERA tile (sic).”

    Not true. The Red Sox do, too. Doubront only has 161 IP, but the Red Sox have only played 157 games to date, and he should get one more start.

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