AL Central: State of the division at midseason

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When we last looked in on the division six weeks ago, the surprising Indians were in first place, ahead of the heavily favored Tigers. The Royals had spent much of the early season staying in contention while the White Sox and Twins struggled. Now the Tigers and Indians are still fighting for first, with the Royals falling back and Minnesota and Chicago safely out of the race.

Overall, the division has a losing record. Heading into Sunday’s actions, the teams are 191-202 overall, but that includes games against each other. Against outsiders, they are 118-129 (.478), which is equates to 77-85 over a full season. No, it’s not a good division overall, but that doesn’t mean it lacks good teams.

If any team wants to make it to October, it needs to win the division. It’s damn doubtful the wild card comes from this bunch, so enjoy the pleasure of an old-fashioned pennant race between the Tigers and Indians.

Detroit Tigers

They’re supposed to be in first place. They’re the team with the world-class pitcher and the other pitcher who is 12-0, and the Triple Crown winning slugger, and the All-Star slugger at first, and … they have the most star power, clearly.

And sure enough, they are in first. They’ve been in first for most of the season and non-stop for over five weeks. In early June, they swept Cleveland to take a commanding 5.5 game lead. Instead of pulling away, however, the Tigers have seen the Indians crawl back in, still in striking distance as June comes to an end.

While the Tigers have the best core talent in the division, they still suffer from several holes. Catcher Alex Avila has been so bad at the plate (a .172 batting average) that his current stint on the DL isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the team. Detroit has a fantastic hitting infield but an underwhelming offensive outfield and DH. And they need to win with their bats, as fielding isn’t this squad’s strong point.

Detroit has the best starting rotation in the league, with an AL-best 3.65 ERA, and that’s despite pitching in front of a defense that lets more than its share of balls in play turn into hits.

The Tigers have the second-best walks-per-inning ratio of any starting rotation, trailing only Seattle. Detroit has, by far, the best homers-per-inning ratio in the AL. Detroit starters allow a home run every 12 innings; every other squad gives up at least one per nine innings.

Last but not least, Tiger starters don’t simply have the best strikeout rate in the league; they have a historically dominant K-rate. Currently, the Tigers’ starting pitchers are not only averaging 9.2 Ks per nine innings, but that’s a lead of nearly 1.0 K/9 over second place.

In fact, never in baseball history has a starting rotation had more strikeouts than innings pitched. The record is 8.6 K/9 by the 2003 Cubs. They, of course, got to pitch in a DH-less league. Only three times has an AL team ever topped 8.0 K/9, and one of those was the 2012 Tigers.

So it’s a great rotation, but the bullpen is a sore spot. Jose Valverde has pitched his way out of the closer role (a homer every three innings pitched will do that). Joaquin Benoit has stepped in and is having a much better season, but the real problem is a lack of arms in the relief corps. Aside from Benoit, the team has Drew Smyly and Al Alburquerque and not much else to rely on.

Overall, the Tigers look like they’re in a very strong position. They are in first place, after all, and that’s a good thing. The closer situation can’t help but get better after its early season follies. Also, the club’s remaining schedule is the easiest of any team in the AL Central. In their last 83 games, the average winning percentage of their opponents is .475. That includes a full complement of 19 games against the last-place White Sox (who are looking to sell what talent they have).

The division isn’t a lock—Cleveland is just one game back and has the second-easiest upcoming schedule (.477 for their remaining opponents)—but Detroit is in the driver’s seat.

Cleveland Indians

The Indians have had a real hot-and-cold season so far. Initially 8-13, they won 18 of their next 22 to take sole possession of first place. In late May, the Indians completely fell apart, dropping 16 of their next 20 contests. When that death spiral ended on June 10, the Indians were still in second place, but just a game and a half out of last.

Now they’re good again, winning over two-thirds of their recent games. They’re the most bipolar team in baseball this year.

When they win, it’s with hitting. Despite Progressive Field favoring pitchers, the Indians are fourth in the league in runs scored. Adjusted for park, they have the best OPS in the AL. They have no single huge star, but perhaps the most solid lineup in baseball, certainly in the division.

The Indians have scored five or more runs in nearly half of their games. Normally, teams do that about 40 percent of the time. When the Indians do score five or more runs, they are 30-6. But when they score three or fewer runs, they’re 7-27. This club will go as far as its hitters take it.

While the Tigers have the edge, the Indians control their own fate. They still have 11 games left versus Detroit, eight of them in Progressive Field.

One odd note of concern going forward for the Indians: they are last in the league in attendance with under 18,000 fans turning out per game. You wouldn’t expect this from a contending team, but then again, they weren’t extended to contend.

Cleveland not only got off to a bad start but had to play through a miserably cold April that kept fans away. Just when it looked like they might be for real, they flopped again. If nothing else, though, fewer turnstile clicks can limit the team’s maneuverability come trade deadline time.

Kansas City Royals

Like the Indians, the Royals are having a season of extremes. After a hot 17-10 start, the Royals suffered an epic meltdown even worse than anything the Indians did. By the time the Royals finished a 4-19 tailspin, they were dead last in the division and seemingly done. Instead, they won 13 of their next 18 to move into second place briefly before falling back again.

They’re biggest strength is the bullpen, which has the best unit-wide ERA in the AL at 2.76. That aids a starting staff that also is pretty good. It’s not Detroit-strong, but James Shields and Ervin Santana are both pitching like stars, and Jeremy Guthrie and Wade Davis have been effective innings eaters.

The above misses the real unsung hero in KC’s strength, their fielders. Depending on which metric you look at, their gloves are either pretty good or maybe even historically great.

WAR wants to have babies with the Royals fielders. That stat gives the Royals 5.7 defensive wins above replacement. Second-best in the AL is the Rangers with 2.9, just half of Kansas City’s total. 5.7 dWAR in half a season puts the Royals on pace to be just the third team in major league history to top the 11.0 dWAR mark for the season (joining the 1969 and 1973 Orioles). I can’t imagine the Royals will keep the pace up, but still, these guys can field!

It’s a good thing they can field, because offensively, they’re a rich man’s version of the White Sox lineup, which is rather poor indeed. The hitters on Kansas City range from decent to horrible. There is no one that impressive; mostly its average or worse.

With clear lows and no real highs in the batting order, the team has struggled to score runs. That’s odd because the strength of former Brewers and current Royals manager Ned Yost has been getting production out of young hitters.

Minnesota Twins

The Twins are barely under .500. I’m not sure how they’ve done it, but they’re just five games under .500. They’ve been one of the worst teams in baseball over the last few years and have largely the same roster, but this year Minnesota has ascended to, well, to nearly the middle of the pack. It’s still uninspiring, but at least its not embarrassing. Since a nine-game losing streak finally ended in late May, the Twins actually have won the majority of their games.

They have the worst starting rotation in baseball. Not only does it have an AL-worst 5.22 ERA, but Twins starters strike out barely one batter per two innings. That’s almost impossible in this day and age. To be fair, they don’t walk anyone (second-fewest walks by any rotation), but it’s still a dismal bunch.

The Twins’ offense isn’t anything too special. Yeah, they have Joe Mauer, and he’s sensational yet again. And yes, there are other good batters like Trevor Plouffe and Josh Willingham, but overall it’s not an impressive collection of bats. Yet the club is still in the hunt for a .500 record.

They are in that hunt because of the perennial strength of a Ron Gardenhire team, the bullpen. The Twins have the best bullpen in the league. Oh sure, the Royals’ bullpen has a lower ERA (2.76 to 2.87), but the Twins’ bullpen has been called on to face an extra 260 batters. That’s nearly an inning a game.

Nearly every single Twins reliever is dependable. They have eight relievers with more than two appearances out of the bullpen, and the worst ERA of the bunch is 3.81. Folks, the entire AL ERA is 4.07. And Target Field is a modest hitters’ park. So when every single arm you have in your pen is above average, you’ll have a more impressive record than your frontline talent would indicate.

The Twins still have no chance this year. If they still can’t quite get to .500 with a bullpen doing this well, how can they hope to win the division? They can’t, but they at least can cease being a joke.

Chicago White Sox

The good news for Chicago is that the Astros moved to the AL this year; otherwise they’d be the worst team in the league right now.

For a while, the season looked promising, too. Chicago completed a three-game sweep of the Marlins on May 26 to pull up to .500 (24-24). That isn’t great, but they were only four games back with plenty of season left to play. They promptly lost 10 of their next 11. Shortly after, the White Sox dropped seven out of eight. As I write this, they’ve lost their last four.

Thus, a 24-24 record has turned into a 32-46 mark. Rookie GM Rick Hahn has said that everyone is available for trade, except young stud pitcher Chris Sale and longtime franchise star Paul Konerko.

Though the ChiSox lost former Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy to a rib injury, the pitching has been pretty good this season. It’s the position players that have let them down.

The defense has inexplicably suffered this season. Normally sure-handed shortstop Alexi Ramirez already has more errors this season than last year. Second baseman Gordon Beckham has made six errors in barely 30 games. It’s not just errors, either. The more advanced metrics also rate the club’s gloves poorly.

As bad as the Sox are fielding, their hitting is even worse. Only two batters on the entire team have a triple-digit OPS+, and those are marks of 106 by Alexi Rios and 100 by Adam Dunn. Okay, so a couple of others are near 100, but no one on this team can hit. Dunn actually has been fantastic over the last few weeks, but he was so bad over the first two-plus months that he’s still batting under .200.

Oh, and to finish up the bad news, try this one on for size. Through June 29, the average winning percentage of a White Sox opponent has been .484, but for the rest of the season it will be .517. So as bad as they’ve looked so far, they’ll likely look a bit worse in the second half as their schedule gets tougher.

Overview

It looks like the division race has been set. The Indians and Tigers will battle for the top spot, with the Royals hoping to make a run for it but likely just making a run at respectability. The Twins and Sox are also-rans, with the Twins exceeding expectations and the Sox clearly doing worse than they hoped. Things can change, but with the season half-completed, radical shifts aren’t too likely.

References & Resources
Stats and info is via Baseball-Reference.com and prior to Sunday’s games.

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Comments

  1. Bryan Cole said...

    The Indians weren’t expected to contend?  I think you would’ve been justified in those expectations since they did make a (relatively) large splash in the offseason, signing Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn and dragging Terry Francona out of the broadcasting booth.

    I would love to see the correlation between their overall performance and starter performance.  I know that sounds borderline McCarver-esque but it strikes me that, maybe more so than most teams, the Indians live and die by their starters’ performance.

  2. Yehoshua Friedman said...

    Two points worth mentioning about the Indians, one very good and one not so. The good news is that the Indians’ bench is awesome. Depth allows a Raburn or an Aviles to start at the drop of a hat and pick up for Asdrubal Cabrera on the DL and injury/slump of Swisher and horrendous start with demotion of Chisenhall. The downside is that the bullpen is a tad less than what the folks in Cleveland have been used to the last few years, despite Pestano moving in to replace DL’d Perez as closer. They may not beat Detroit, but they are giving them a good run for their money. I’m waiting to see if they can make some additions before the trade deadline.

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