AL Central: At the three-quarter markby Chris Jaffe
August 12, 2013
Six weeks ago, the Tigers and Indians were locked in a hard fight for divisional supremacy, with the Royals (and even the Twins) still not technically out of it.
My, how times have changed! This is now the most settled division in the AL. The Tigers have secured first place, and the White Sox are settled on the bottom. The division’s overall record is around .500—just a hair under.
Ladies in gentlemen, The Tigers are the best team in American League over the last six weeks. They’ve had a four-game winning streak, a five-game winning streak, and a dozen-game winning streak. All that from July 2 to Aug. 8. They’ve won 26 of their last 34 games.
Tigers fans should be used to this second half surge by now. Last year they did the same thing. They stumbled through the first half and caught fire at almost exactly the same time they did this year. In 2012 the Tigers were 39-42 on July 3, but went 49-32 the rest of the way. In 2011, they meandered for the first four months to a 57-51 record, but went 37-16 down the stretch to take the division.
It’s no secret as to why they’ve won as many games as they have. Their top talent is the best of any team in baseball. Miguel Cabrera, fresh off an MVP Triple Crown winning season, is arguably even better this year. And while Justin Verlander has been disappointing this year, Max Scherzer has turned into one of the best pitchers in baseball. He isn’t as good as his 17-1 record indicates, but no one is that good. He’s clearly one of the best pitchers in baseball with his 2.84 ERA and 175 Ks in 158.1 innings.
From top to bottom, the Tigers have clearly the best starting rotation in the AL. Scherzer can match up well with anyone’s ace. The ERA for starting pitchers across the entire AL is 4.21. Detroit’s fifth starter, Rick Porcello, has an ERA of 4.32. Tiger starters have an overall ERA of 3.39. Second best Toronto is way back at 3.83 (which is worse than the other four main starters in Detroit). Also, Detroit’s starting pitchers have been very reliable, missing a total four turns all year.
They have lost shortstop Jhonny Peralta for the stretch run, but they can afford to lose him.
On July 2, the Indians stood in first place, a half-game ahead of the Tigers. Unfortunately for Cleveland, that’s right when the Tigers caught fire.
The Indians have been very up-and-down since then. Technically speaking, they’ve been a .500 as of late, splitting their last 34 games. But they’ve never been .500 at any point in that stretch. After July 2, the Indians dropped five out of six—including three out of four to Detroit—falling 3.5 games back. They won four straight right after that, but then dropped four of five.
Still, that losing streak only put them 3.5 games back and then the Indians caught fire themselves. They won 10 of next 11 as July turned to August. Normally that would put them back in the thick of things. Alas for Cleveland, it came just as Detroit won 12 in a row, so the Indians' big 10-1 spurt moved them up just a half-game.
Still, a week ago the Indians were just three games back with a third of the season to play and about to host the biggest series they’d played in since the 2007 ALCS. The Tigers were coming to Ohio for a four-game series, and if the Indians swept, they’d be in first place. Sure enough, it was a sweep, but a sweep by the Tigers that effectively ended the pennant race in the AL Central. For the Indians, it was a series from hell. The Indians led in three of the four games, including late leads in two of the games.
When you look up close at a season, you can see a million things that can drive you batty. If only a break here or a break there had gone differently, who knows how things might’ve played out? So far on the season, the Indians are 3-13 against the Tigers, and that’s the difference in the race.
True, but sometimes looking at the details can obscure the bigger picture. The Tigers are the better team, and if they Indians haven’t gotten the breaks in their meetings with Detroit, there are other ways the ball has bounced their way this season. They are 7-2 in extra-inning games; only the Royals are better. They are 22-14 in one-run games, second only to the Rangers in the AL. The Indians have had their share of breaks, but they needed more than their share to catch Detroit.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals are still alive in the Wild Card race. They’re not likely to get it, as they're fifth in line for the two slots, but they are still alive. They made a big push for it recently, too, winning 12 out of 13. Wouldn’t you know it, though—that surge came at the same time the Tigers and Indians had their surges. At one point the top three teams in the AL Central had all won nine of their last 10. Thus the Royals gained only a half-game despite such wonderful play.
The real question for them, though, is whether they finally post a winning season. They haven’t done that since their big 83-79 season in 2003. Otherwise, you have to go back to 1994.
There are reasons to be optimistic for KC. After all, the Royals are over .500 so far. They’d have to play .438 ball the rest of the way to finish at .500. That’s like going 71-91 over a full season. Their schedule helps them a little. In their final 48 games, the average winning percentage for their opponents is .497. That’s despite playing 11 games against Detroit.
Their surprising season has been anchored by two easy to overlook items—defense and bullpen depth. To call the Royals' defense good would be a massive understatement. Yeah, they can play defense pretty well—just like Michelangelo could do a decent enough job painting a ceiling. To date, Wins Above Replacement credits their gloves with 8.4 wins. Not only is that the best in the AL, but it’s almost as good as the next three teams put together. (Baltimore, Texas, and New York add up to 9.8 defensive wins.)
The Royals are on pace for 11.9 fielding WAR, which would be the second highest total ever, behind the 1973 Orioles (with their infield of Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger and Bobby Grich). Even if they fall off the pace completely and don’t acquire any more defensive value all season long, their 8.4 fielding WAR would still rank among the top 35 teams ever. Folks, this team is historically great with the leather.
They’ve gotten more than one win from five different fielders so far: Lorenzo Cain, Salvador Perez, Elliot Johnson, David Lough and Alcides Escobar. Meanwhile, they have no real holes on defense. Well, Eric Hosmer, Jeff Francoeur and Billy Butler are all listed with negative defensive value, but Francoeur is no longer on the team, Butler is the DH, and Hosmer is only –0.2 fielding WAR. When you combine a lot of pluses with few minuses, you end up with a great fielding unit.
The second key factor going for the Royals is bullpen depth. They've had 13 different men come out of the bullpen, and 12 of them have a reliever ERA of 4.17 or better—and the other guy has thrown just 7.1 innings in relief. Given that the whole AL has an ERA of 4.03, the Royals are getting league-average pitching or better from essentially their entire unit. And it’s usually better—10 of those men have bullpen ERAs of 3.38 or better. Seven are 1.76 or less.
No wonder KC has the best bullpen ERA in the league at 2.75.
Once a model franchise, the Twins are on pace for their third straight 90-loss season. Well, at least it’s for just 90 losses, not the 96 and 99 they had in each of the last two years.
Their problem is simple: they lack talent. They’re the same basic team they were in their glory years last decade, they’re just not as good. Then as now, their strength was their bullpen. Then as now, the Twins were more concerned with pitchers that didn’t walk batters than guys who struck men out.
The bullpen, while still terrific, is no longer the best bullpen in baseball (which it was about 10 years ago). The Twins' starters, never good at fanning people, are now embarrassingly bad at it. Not only are Twins' starters last in the league with barely a strikeout every two innings, but they’d have to average more than a K more per start to move into next-to-last place.
Also, the pitching staff's control is merely good, not great. They used to lead the league in fewest walks allowed. Now they rank fifth. That’s still nice, but a comedown. Meanwhile, the Twins are 12th in runs scored. They need to win with pitching, and they just don’t have enough pitching.
The Twins have played fairly well over the last month, but they’re just treading in place.
Chicago White Sox
On May 26, the White Sox completed a sweep of the Marlins to rise to .500 with a 24-24 record. Since then, they have been the worst team in major league baseball, dropping 47 of their next 67.
The Sox have spent the last several years trying to maintain a delicate balancing act. They wanted to win know without completely mortgaging their future despite having neither overwhelming financial resources to draw on nor a terribly productive farm system. The club maintained that balancing act very well for years, but now it’s all come crashing down.
They are terrible and they don’t have much of a farm system to build it up with. As a result, for the first time in over a decade, the Sox have thrown in the towel and become sellers. They’ve traded away star pitcher Jake Peavy, relievers Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain, and outfielder Alex Rios.
According to Wins Above Replacement, that foursome has given the White Sox 4.5 wins—and for a team with just 16.5.
The only question left now for the Sox is if they can avoid losing 100 games. They’ve only had three such seasons in franchise history, most recently in 1970. A week ago, that looked rather unlikely. They dropped 13 out of 14—including 10 in a row—to put them on pace for 102 losses.
Since then, they’ve swept the Yankees, which helps. Then again, they have a tough schedule from here on out. Three-fourths of their remaining games come against teams with winning records.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.