The state of the AL Centralby Chris Jaffe
July 30, 2012
On the whole, the American League Central ranks as the worst division in the league, thanks to the presence of the Twins and Royals.
All season long it’s been a tight race between the White Sox, Tigers, and Indians, and that hasn’t changed a bit so far. If anything, it’s even tighter now than it was earlier.
At this point in the season, on the eve of the trade deadline and as we approach the final build-up to the pennant race, it makes as much sense to look forward as it does backward for these teams, especially the teams still contending for the postseason.
Along those lines, let’s take a look at the strength of schedule for the rest of the season for all teams, ranked from easier to hardest:
Team Opposing Pct. CWS 0.486 DET 0.498 CLE 0.500 MIN 0.509 KCR 0.522
It’s not a huge difference, but then again it never really is. The difference favors the White Sox, who spend the last two months playing essentially a 79-83 team, while the Indians and Tigers play 81-81 squads from here on out.
(Note: all numbers below are through Saturday’s games only and don’t include Sunday contests.)
Chicago White Sox
They’re not supposed to be in first place. All year long, they weren’t supposed to be in first. As soon as things start going bad, many assume that their nice ride will be still over. Yet, here they still are, sitting atop the division.
It’s been a bumpy season for the White Sox as they keep oscillating between hot and cold patches. They were the hottest team in the league in late May, but in June Chicago went three weeks without back-to-back wins. That pushed them into second place, but instead of fading away, the Sox won 11 of 14 to reclaim first.
By this time over half the season is done—and hey, maybe, just maybe, this team really is for real. Instead, after pushing their division lead to a season-high 3.5 games on July 17, the South Siders dropped five straight, including a sweep at the hands of the Tigers. Back in second place, the Sox reversed themselves once again and began a winning streak to put them back in first.
The Sox have received tremendous production from many of their star players this year, most notably pitchers Jake Peavy and Chris Sale and hitters Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn.
However, all those big hitters have slumped over the summer. From June 13 to July 16, Konerko hit .208 with two homers. In roughly that same period (June 16 to July 21 in this case), Dunn hit an anemic .146 with five homers. Even with 24 walks, it’s still just a .307 OBP and .608 OPS. Both, however, have begun hitting better in the last days of July.
But it makes the team’s biggest midseason addition that much more important, third baseman Kevin Youkilis. In fact, he’s arguably the biggest midseason acquisition by any team in baseball this year.
The best way to improve a team is by fixing a glaring weakness. Third base for the White Sox was such a weakness. Opening day third sacker Brent Morel was one of the worst offensive players in baseball, and his replacement, Orlando Hudson, was scarcely better with the bat and considerably worse with the glove. The position was a complete sinkhole that added to Chicago’s losses, not its wins.
With Youkilis, the Sox not only got someone who could stop the hurting at third but also help the team overall. Youkilis has hit for a decent average, drawn walks, and shown power since coming to Chicago. As an added bonus, in his first few weeks with the team, he had the knack for driving in the timely run that provided the margin of victory in several White Sox triumphs. He transformed a position that added to Chicago’s loss total into one aiding its win total.
Bigger names are changing hands at the trade deadline, like Zack Greinke, but the Sox got Youkilis a full month before that.
The Sox have the best record in the division. They have by far the best run differential. They play the easiest schedule from here on out. They should be favored.
And then, after I wrote the above, the White Sox acquired Francisco Liriano from the Twins. Though his numbers on the year are horrible, that’s due to a horrific start to the season. Since returning to the starting rotation two months ago, Liriano has posted a 3.68 ERA in 11 starts with 79 strikeouts in 68 innings.
Liriano walks away from Minnesota and to Chicago.
Remember in the preseason when people ranked the White Sox minor league system the worst in baseball? Well, since then they’ve traded minor leaguers (and some fringe major leaguers) for Liriano, Youkilis, and Brett Myers. The team has received really good production from rookie starting pitcher Jose Quintana (2.58 ERA in 13 games). Closer Addison Reedis also a rookie. For a team with a much-maligned farm system, the Sox sure are making it work for them.
That said, title is far from a certain thing for Chicago, as the Sox have a narrow lead, and the Tigers, in particular, can play better than they have.
This must be a frustrating season in Detroit. The Tigers entered the season defending division champs and overwhelmingly favored to repeat, but they’ve spent much of the year stuck in neutral.
All season long, people have wondered when they were going to wake up, and it looked like it finally happened earlier this month. They entered Independence Day in third place with a record of 39-42. With half of the season in the books, they needed to make everyone remember just how good they were supposed to be or else the entire season would slip away from them.
On that day, the Tigers finally came to life. They won 13 of their next 15 (and one of the losses was a 13-inning contest). The big streak culminated with a three-game sweep of the White Sox that turned a 1.5 game deficit into an equal-sized division lead. Now they looked like the team that roared through the second half of 2011. It looked like 2012 would be the same thing.
And maybe it will be, but it’s not looking as clear as it did then. Since sweeping the Sox, the Tigers lost five of their next six to fall back into second place.
The Tigers are supposed to win because they’ve got the most prominent frontline talent. By and large, the main guys have delivered for them, but it’s the edges that have absolutely killed the Tigers this year.
Look at offense. Stars Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder have had predictably strong seasons, and center fielder Austin Jackson has been terrific. But Detroit has been unable to find a second baseman worth even half a damn. The squad’s second sackers have hit .198 with two homers. The situation is little better in right field.
Then there’s the starting rotation. Heading into Sunday, the main five starters have accounted for 90 of the team’s 101 starts. The other 11 starts have absolutely killed Detroit. In those games, the replacement pitchers have allowed 45 runs in 44.1 innings. You’re not supposed to allow over a run per inning, not even if you’re a replacement-level pitcher. And starters are supposed to average more than four innings per start.
Those hurlers have allowed 66 hits and 24 walks—over two baserunners per inning. While Detroit’s porous defense is partially to blame, that doesn’t excuse the walks, or the 14 homers surrendered. Even by the standards of dreck, these guys suck. It’s literally below replacement level.
Yeah, it’s only 11 starts, and all teams are bad (though not usually this bad) when you get beyond the main arms, but it still costs Detroit. Just like the difference between Detroit’s bad second basemen and a normal lousy second baseman, these things do make a difference. And those differences help explain why Detroit has had its troubles.
One of baseball’s surprising secrets has actually been how solid Detroit’s main starting pitchers have been. Not great, but solid. Only Verlander has been great, but the overall quality of the top five is better than you might expect. Behind Verlander, Detroit has Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello , Doug Fister, and Drew Smyly.
Prior to Sunday, ERA+ scores for those five starters were: 159 for Verlander, 92 for Scherzer, 91 for Porcello, 103 for Fister, and 93 for Smyly. Aside from Verlander, they look pedestrian, at best, but there are two qualifiers to keep in mind.
First, overall starting pitchers have a higher ERA than relievers do. Thus, an actual average ERA+ for a starter is 96, not 100. Three of Detroit's hurlers are still below that, but all are within spitting difference. Second, ERA+ doesn’t take into account defense, and by all accounts, Detroit’s defense stinks. Again, aside from Verlander, none of the arms is great, but the others are all at least average. And damn few teams can claim to have five average starters.
If Detroit can get all five starting pitchers healthy (currently, Smyly is out) and maybe swing a deal for an extra corner outfielder, they can catch the White Sox. Though I said above the Sox should be favored, it’s just a narrow lead with a lot of baseball left to play, and these two teams still face each other seven times.
Verlander: Detroit's not-so-secret weapon
But what about the Indians? The above makes it seem like just a two-team race when Cleveland has been in it all year long. It’s hard to take them too seriously, though, because this is a team with one of the worst run differentials in the league, as they’ve been outscored by 62 runs in their first 101 games.
Fun fact: in the last 100 years, only one team has been outscored by at least 62 runs in a season and ended up with a winning record. One. That was the 2001 Mets, who went 82-80 while being outscored by 71 runs, and it’ll take more than 82 wins to claim the AL Central.
If anything, the above gives Cleveland too much credit. Being outscored by 62 runs in 101 games puts them on pace to be outscored by 99 runs over the course of the season. No team has ever been outscored that badly and finished the season with a winning record, let alone a playoff appearance.
Cleveland has hung around because early in the season they did really well in close games. They won nine of their first 10 games decided by one run. That propelled them to an early division lead with a 26-18 record. Since then, they’ve gone a more typical 6-5 in one-run games, going 24-33 overall.
Their record in close games hasn’t just been a fluke, as they do have a strong bullpen core anchored around closer Chris Perez and setup men Joe Smith and Vinnie Pestano, but no team wins 90 percent of their one-run games.
Cleveland’s other strength this year is the voodoo curse they’ve apparently placed on the Tigers. They’ve played each other nine times, and Cleveland has won seven. Most painful for Detroit was the series they played just last week. Detroit had just swept Chicago and moved into first place when they hosted the Indians. Cleveland took two of three in Comerica Park to dethrone them and ensure that the Idians are still in the race.
That’s the thing about a close division race. Sure, the numbers say the Indians shouldn’t stick around, and maybe they won’t play that well down the stretch, but if they happen to play their best at the right times, they still can do it. And Cleveland still has nine more games against Detroit.
However, the above can be flipped back around on Cleveland. If they have the whammy on Detroit, they’ve been whammed by the White Sox. Cleveland’s dropped eight of 12 from Chicago, allowing 85 runs in the process.
Thank God for Scott Diamond. Since joining the rotation in May, he’s emerged as the undisputed ace of the staff with a 2.88 ERA in 15 starts. His quality pitching is only part of what makes Diamond the undisputed ace. The horrible pitching of everyone else on the staff also ensures hs place as the undisputed ace.
Minnesota’s non-Diamond starters average barely over five innings a start with a WHIP of 1.57 and an ERA of 6.32. Their win-loss record is 16-42. If it wasn’t for Diamond, they’d be in the running for worst starting rotation of all time.
Minnesota’s offense isn’t very good, but on the bright side, it could easily be much worse. At age 33, Josh Willingham is having a career year. He’s on pace to set personal bests in almost every offense stat—he’s nearly there already with home runs. Trevor Plouffe has been a pleasant surprise. And since early June, Joe Mauer has hit around .380 with some decent, mid-range power. No wonder Mauer leads the league in on-base percentage.
Despite that, it’s a bleak season for a team that had a nice run for itself in the 2000s but currently the best it can do is fight Kansas City for fourth place.
[Insert your own "Diamond in the rough" pun]
Kansas City Royals
For a little bit, things were looking up for Kansas City. After stumbling through a dreadful 13-game losing streak in April, the team righted itself. Though never a dynamo, the Royals pulled off winning records in back-to-back months in May and June.
Since then, they’ve reminded everyone how they could lose 13 straight. Since dropping a double-header to the similarly woeful Twins on June 30, the Royals have been the worst team in the American League. They haven’t had back-to-back wins in all that time and have dropped three-fourths of their games.
Kansas City’s problem has been pitching. The team has allowed more runs in July than any other team. Beginning with that June 30th double-header, the Royals have allowed five or more runs 16 times and are 2-14 when they do so.
A month ago, it looked like the Royals might make a run at .500. Now, they have an outside shot at 100 losses.
References and Resources
Baseball-Reference.com provides the stats.
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.