AL Central: state of the division

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It’s a quarter the way through the year, and how is the AL Central doing so far?

Well, they’re in the running for baseball’s most improved division. Heading into Sunday’s action (all info in this article is prior to Sunday’s games, unless stated otherwise), the entire AL Central has a combined record of 104-97, putting the division on pace for its first winning record since 2008 and it’s best overall record since 2006. If you exclude games pitting AL Central teams against each other, the division is 67-60. The AL Central can thank the AL West for its high marks so far, as the Central is 32-19 against the West.

What’s most striking about the division is how tightly packed all five teams are. Just five games separate first from last. That’s smaller than the lead the AL West leading Rangers have on the runner-up A’s. Five games is less than the gap between the AL East’s cellar-dwelling Jays and fourth-place Rays, while nearly a third of the teams in baseball have a worse record than the AL Central’s last-place squad.

So, it’s a tightly packed division full of solid, though not spectacular, performances so far. This just might be a hard-fought race for the division title all season long. Let’s look a bit more in-depth, team-by-team.

Cleveland Indians

So far, the Cleveland Indians are the most improved team in the AL’s most improved division. After a horrible 94-loss 2012 season, the Indians are in first place at the quarter post with a 24-17 record. It’s a nice turnaround, but Cleveland fans can be forgiven if they are still cautiously skeptical. They were in first place last year at this time, too, and then fell apart.

Well, last year Cleveland’s hot start was done with smoke and mirrors; they were outscored on the season, even when the Tribe was standing in first. That ain’t the case this year, as Cleveland is above average in run scoring and run prevention.

The Indians’ offense has been a real juggernaut so far. They are first in the AL in slugging percentage, second in homers, third in on-base percentage, fourth in doubles, triples, and batting average—yeah, they are hitting pretty darn well. In fact, their team OPS+ is a comically high 121.

Strangely, Cleveland ranks just sixth in runs scored, though. It isn’t as bad as it sounds, as there is a tight pack at the top. If you shift to runs per game, the Indians are tied for third in the AL. Still, to date their bats have been at their worst when it matters most, with lousy numbers when batting in close-and-late situations, as well as when the bases are loaded. Odds are that should improve as the year goes on. Then again, they won’t keep a 121 OPS+ all season long.

Aside from hitting, the Indians’ other big strength has been their bullpen. Their main five relievers are all getting the job done. In 78 outings, Chris Perez, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Joe Smith, and Rich Hill have a 1.96 ERA with more than a strikeout per inning. Granted, there are plenty of unearned runs there, but even adjusting for that fact, you have 2.64 runs allowed per nine innings by the bullpen’s core.

The only thing preventing Cleveland from running away with the division is its starting rotation, and more specifically, the back of their rotation. Justin Masterson and Zach McAllister have been dynamite at the top of the rotation, but the rest of the starters have been dreck. The non-Masterson/McAllister starters have averaged barely five innings per start while posting a 5.67 ERA. It’s a good thing the bullpen has been so good because three times out of five, the club really needs the relievers to save things.

Oh, and last but not least, Cleveland also has been aided by stellar defense, as their defensive efficiency is tops in the league. As bad as the back half of the rotation has been, it could be much worse if the gloves behind them weren’t limiting the number of hits opposing teams got against them. Position players and relievers are giving Cleveland a strong chance to win the division this year.

Detroit Tigers

The Tigers are supposed to win the division, and they very easily could, as they’re clearly in the mix of things.

This Detroit squad is pretty similar to last year’s team. The offense still is anchored heavily by Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. However, the lineup still has some gaping holes at DH and catcher. Overall, the team leads the league in runs scored—and hits, batting average, and on-base percentage—but then again, Comerica Park is playing like an extreme hitters’ park so far. Baseball-Reference.com gives it a one-year park factor of 117. Thanks Coors Field copy-cat.

I have no idea what to make of this factor, as Comerica Park isn’t generally considered a hitters’ park, let alone a whacky, crazy bat-rific type place.

Detroit’s fielding is still a sore spot; however, it has improved. Instead of being the worst defense in the league (as it was last year), now it’s merely among the worst defenses in the league. Hey, you take your progress where you can find it. (To be fair, the Tigers have a nice fielding average but are pretty bad going by defensive efficiency and total zone. WAR lists their defense as replacement-level).

The starting pitching, on the other hand, is fantastic. Heck, as I write this, uber-ace Justin Verlander has just the third-best ERA in the rotation behind Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister. That isn’t likely to continue, but it’s the case so far. Max Scherzer is also pitching pretty well. Their numbers are that much more impressive when you figure they prevent runs despite the gloves behind them.

The bullpen in Detroit is truly feast of famine. Like Cleveland, Detroit has a solid core of five relievers, as Jose Valverde, Drew Smyly, Darin Downs, Joaquin Benoit, and Al Alburquerque have combined for a 2.11 ERA in 71 outings. Damn shame for Detroit this is the 2010s and not the 1980s, and teams now use more than five relievers. The rest of the bullpen has an ERA north of 7.00 in nearly 40 outings. So, yeah, that hurts.

Looking at this team, you’d expect it to have a better record than a few ticks over .500, but they’ve lost four of six extra-inning games. That ties for the most extra-inning contests and losses by any AL squad so far.

Random note: reliever Alburquerque has a line unlike anyone else. He’s faced 69 batters so far and walked 13 while fanning 26. A majority of people never put the ball in play against him.

Kansas City Royals

For about a month, 2013 looked like it might be the start of something special for the Royals as they won 17 of their first 27. In a break with all recent tradition, they stood in first place in early May. Since then, they’ve reverted to form, dropping nine of their next dozen and are in danger of soon falling under .500.

Their successes have come from pitching and defense, and their failures from hitting. Aside from Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, and Lorenzo Cain, they have no batting threats to speak of.

That’s an understatement, as they have a brutally bad offensive infield. KC’sstarting second and third basemen are hitting under .200, and the shortstop has an empty .252 average. First baseman Eric Hosmer is the only one with an on-base percentage over .300, and he’s barely over it (.320) and is posting an even lower slugging percentage (.313). That’s what you’d expect from a utility infielder, not an everyday first baseman. (Hosmer is also their usual cleanup hitter, and KC vies with Houston for worst production in all baseball from the No. 4 slot.)

On the bright side, the Royals are last in the AL in batter strikeouts. And they’re great on the bases, 30 for 35 in stolen base opportunities. But they still need to figure out a way to steal first.

But Kansas City can pitch. James Shields, Ervin Santana, and Jeremy Guthrie all rank in the top 12 in the AL in ERA, with marks of 2.45, 2.77, and 2.82, respectively. They’ve only used seven relievers all year, and most of them have been pretty damn good. In fact, they are second only to Oakland in bullpen ERA.

Chicago White Sox

The Sox have gotten off to a rocky start. Things have improved for them over the last week, putting them in spitting distance of .500, but if you need a good week to get near .500 early in the season, odds are things aren’t quite going according to plan.

The team lost starting rotation stalwart Gavin Floyd to injury for the year, the bullpen has had some shaky moments, and half of their offense has been a giant black hole of suck. Yet there is a silver lining to this dark cloud for the Sox.

First, as bad as things have gone, they’re still just barely under .500. Five games back with 121 left to play isn’t so bad. Second, this is as bad as they’re going to play all year. It’s hard to imagine them doing much worse.

Just look at Chicago’s lineup for a second. At least half of the hitters are replacement level or worse on the season. Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko, Jeff Keppinger, and Tyler Flowers all have been duds at the plate. Shortstop Alexei Ramirez has a nice batting average but not much more. So far, their entire infield has been even worse than Kansas City’s bunch. And due to injuries, fringe player DeWayne Wise has started in the outfield in almost half of the team’s games.

The White Sox just can’t keep hitting this poorly. I’m not saying they’ll be good, but just a less malignant form of bleach. Some guys should improve a bit as the year goes on. Konerko is a decent bet to thurn things around, though he’s unlikely to revert to his prime. Some guys will lose playing time if they keep hitting this poorly. That’s clearly the case with Keppinger, who should find his way to the bench when Gordon Beckham returns from the DL.

Their offense clearly isn’t good and won’t be good, but it might be able to improve from 13th in the AL in runs scored.

Chicago has hung in the race so far despite their woeful hitting due to some typically solid starting pitching. Right now four Sox starters are having good years, with Chris Sale and Jake Peavy both having great seasons. John Danks should return from the DL soon, and, if healthy, should shore up the bottom of the rotation.

It’s funny. Had I written this review a week earlier, it would be a much darker take on the Sox. They were in last place and on pace for a 65-97 season. But in the 2013 AL Central, it takes just a brief winning streak to change things around. They’re still a pretty bad bet to win the division.

They depend on really great pitching, Peavy is always an injury risk, some of their other starting pitchers may fall off the pace, and Danks might not be fully healthy. But it looks like the Sox will be able to hang in there for a while.

Minnesota Twins

Aren’t the Twins supposed to be horrible? They were in 2011-12, dropping 195 games in the past two years. Now, they’re around .500 and were over .500 until a recent slump knocked them back. They’re still break-even in nine-inning contests but have had problems in extra-inning games.

Minnesota only has one bat worth fearing, but my God is it ever fearsome. Joe Mauer is hitting north of .350 with a rather unusual 17:2 ratio of doubles to homers.

However, while the Twins don’t have as many threats in their offense as Kansas City, the lows aren’t as bad as you might guess. Several of Minnesota’s non-Mauer hitters are still decent, and the club’s two main bench players, Oswaldo Arcia and Eduardo Escobar, have been very good.

Traditionally, the strengths of a pitching staff under manager Ron Gardenhire are control and the bullpen, and that’s the case this year. Minnesota is second in the league in fewest walks allowed. The bullpen has been very good, posting an overall ERA of 3.21. While it’s only the third-best bullpen ERA in the division, it’s also the fifth-best in the league.

The starting pitchers, however, can’t strike a person out. In a rather amazing fact for the 21st century, only one of the Twins’ main five starting pitchers is averaging better than a strikeout every two innings, and that guy just barely (Pedro Hernandez has 15 strikeouts in 28 innings). Closer Glen Perkins leads the club with 23 strikeouts, a total that puts him tied for 76th in the AL.

The Twins are 12th in the league in ERA and 10th in runs scored. I don’t know how they stand only five games back, but I assume it won’t last.

Summing up

Really, all of these teams have their strengths, but all also clearly are flawed. Whichever squad can do the best job plugging up its holes should end up taking the division. This is one division in which a GM should consider making a trade sooner rather than later if he wants to win this year. That’s especially true for Detroit, Cleveland, and perhaps Kansas City.

References & Resources
Baseball-Reference.com provided the numbers. I received some help from friends (and AL Central fans) Mike Webber (a lifelong Royals fan), former Twins blogger Will Young, and THT’s very own business expert and Tigers rooter, Brian Borawski.

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Comments

  1. White Sox Fan Brother said...

    Konerko *is* coming off of off-season wrist surgery, which may be playing a part in his poor start.

    Also, you also failed to note that the White Sox defense has been pretty brutal this year as well.  Not sure about (or how to really read) any of the advanced metrics, but they’re leading the AL in errors at this point.

  2. Jim G. said...

    I’m not sure what it means when you point out that the Indians bullpen has given up a lot of unearned runs, then a couple paragraphs later glow about their defense. Seems like that would be a conflict.
    I don’t think Cleveland’s offense will keep this up. The main guy I look at is Mark Reynolds, who is off to a tremendous start, but has a history of streaks like he’s having, then tanking for long stretches. Because he started the season in good shape, everything looks rosy, but I suspect he’ll stay true to form.

    As for the Tigers, Avila has shown signs of life with the bat. If he could split the difference between last year and the AS year in ‘11, the Tigers will be happy. Martinez, on the other hand, is just not back to form after his surgery, and at his age, it hard to say he ever will be. The Tigers could be looking for another bat at the trade deadline.

  3. Paul G. said...

    bWAR has the Detroit Tiger’s team defense at -0.4, but I believe bWAR considers 0 to be league average.  So a replacement level defense is an average defense which is not bad at all.  Or do I misinterpret?

  4. MikeS said...

    I’m not sure why “The White Sox just can’t keep hitting this poorly.”  They are last in all baseball in OBP and the only guy on the team with a history of patience is Dunn who proved two years ago that he can be even worse than he is now. Konerko is 37 years old and Flowers has no track record to fall back on.  Ramirez’s power seems to have evaporated for over a year now and he never took any walks either.  Even if Keppinger reverts to his usual form, that still isn’t anything great.  And you have him getting replaced by Beckham, who has disappointed with his bat for all but the first 100 games of his career.  Outside of Rios you have Viciedo who could have a future.  Am I supposed to be excited about Connor Gillaspie?  Otherwise, it’s going to be an offensive struggle all year and for a few after that.  This team is full of Has Been’s, Never Was’s, utility infielders and fourth outfielders.

  5. Chris Jaffe said...

    Mike – it is a lousy offense. I don’t mean to say it isn’t.  But lousy is actually several steps up from what it’s currently been doing.  You note that Keppinger reverting to form isn’t anything great.  Very true – but right now he’s arguably the single worst hitter in major league baseball. Reverting to form into lousy is a notable improvement.  Yes, Konerko is 37, but since when does turning 37 mean you lose 75 points off your batting average.  Aging isn’t always a smooth process and some players suffer big drops—but a drop that big through a fourth of the season usually has a corrective as the year goes along. 

    And in general, it’s easier to replace (and find improvements for) talent that’s replacement level.

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