State of the AL Central: pennant home stretch editionby Chris Jaffe
September 10, 2012
We’re in the home stretch, and the race for the AL Central is still anything but decided. Well, if you’re in Kansas City, Minnesota, or Cleveland, it’s been decided. Those teams have fallen out of contention over the course of the season.
But the Tigers and White Sox are still locked in a dogfight as the season approaches its end. Thus, it sure is going to be a fun week as the White Sox host the Tigers for a four-game series in Chicago. Obviously, that series will go a long way in determining who wins the division.
And winning the division is really key because, as it currently stands, neither the Sox nor Tigers would get a Wild Card. In fact, heading into yesterday, the third-place team in both the AL East and AL West had a better record than any team in the AL Central.
So let’s take a gander at the AL Central teams, one by one.
Chicago White Sox
They weren’t supposed to be the best team in the division, but the ChiSox have been atop the standings most of the year, including nearly the entire time since Memorial Day. That said, while they have a lead, it’s never been a safe lead, peaking at 3.5 games, and that was back in mid-July.
It all comes down to starting pitching; the Sox will win or lose with it. If the starters hold up, the Sox will be division champs. If they flounders, they won’t. Normally, that would be a good thing for Chicago as starting pitching probably has been the franchise’s strongest feature in the 21st century. Also, it’s been very good for much of 2012. But the question marks surrounding the staff are pretty substantial at the moment.
Let’s start with Jake Peavy. The injury-prone ex-Padres star was a wild card entering into this season, but he’s delivered. He has an ERA of 3.22 with six Quality Starts in his last eight outings.
Sale: Chicago's ace so far this year
From the All-Star break up to this weekend, Sale’s ERA was 4.18. There are some serious concerns that the kid is worn out in his first full season as a big league starter.
Clearly the Sox think so, as they had Sale skip a start in early August, and rumors swirl that it will happen again. Then again, just this Saturday, Sale pitched a gem, allowing just one run in six innings.
If Sale is ineffective or has to miss a start, things get a bit trickier. Normally, the Sox have a nice one-two punch of workmanlike starters to rely on with Gavin Floyd and John Danks.
This duo has helped solidify the team’s rotation for the last few years, but this season has been a disaster for both. They’ve combined for just 12 wins and a 4.88 ERA. They’ve also both been hampered with injuries. Danks is out for the year, and Floyd currently is on the shelf with a dinged elbow.
At the trade deadline, the Sox made an interesting move to shore up their starting pitching depth by landing Minnesota’s Francisco Liriano. He’s been a disappointment, allowing 27 walks and 40 hits in 40.2 innings for a 5.03 ERA.
The shining salvation for the team’s second-half struggles in filling out its rotation has been 23-year-old rookie Jose Quintana. Part of what was reputedly the worst farm system in baseball, Quintana had a great early summer, but since the All-Star break he's had his troubles. In his last 10 starts, he’s struck out fewer than a batter every two innings while lasting under six innings a game and posting an ERA of 5.31.
Ultimately, the White Sox have a rotation full of question marks, and it looks shakier now than it has all year. Still, Quintana could get his groove back, Liriano does have nice stuff (he’s actually fanning over a batter per inning despite his troubles in Chicago), Sale could hold up, and Floyd could come back and do fine. Could, could, could ... if enough of those coulds becomes dids, the Sox will hold on.
The Sox do have a great pitching coach in Don Cooper. They have a better run differential than their opposition. Also, they have more home games. But nothing is certain.
For Detroit, like Chicago, starting pitching is of vital importance. Unlike Chicago, however, it’s getting stronger instead of shakier as we head down the stretch.
The big improvements have come from Max Scherzer and Doug Fister. In the first half of the year, Scherzer was an enigma. He fanned over 120 batters in under 100 innings—normally a pretty damn good sign for a pitcher—but couldn’t get anyone out otherwise. Sure, Detroit has a bad defense, but Scherzer was especially snake-bit.
Since mid-July, Scherzer has been great. In his last 10 starts, he’s still fanning a ton, while his homers allowed rate has been cut in half, and with it his ERA has also tumbled: 2.37 in 68.2 innings. Reports have come out that he dealt with a family tragedy earlier this year (the suicide of his brother), and either he’s gotten past that or the laws of Voros McCracken have finally broken in his favor.
Scherzer is keeping Detriot's hopes alive.
Fister also has pitched far better since the All-Star break. His ERA was 4.75 before, but it's down to 2.48 since then. His recent success is a little flukish in that he’s allowing a homer every 16 innings, and that’s not sustainable. Then again, Fister is fanning his share of batters and walking very few, so he should keep pitching well.
Oh yeah, they also have Justin Verlander. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. Rumor has it, he’s pretty good. Actually, he’s been roughed up pretty good in two of his last three starts, but do you really want to bet against Justin Verlander?
Rounding out the rotation, Detroit has Anibal Sanchez, whom the Tigers acquired from the Marlins in midseason. He sucked in his first four starts put been pretty good in his last three. Rick Porcello is the other starter, and he’s serviceable, which is a lot better than most team’s fifth starters.
In all, the Tigers staff is clicking on all cylinders lately. Even if Fister falls back and Sanchez pitches like the league-average arm he’s been for the last several years, the rotation is still far better than it’s been for most of the season. All of this puts that much more pressure on Chicago’s increasingly queasy starting staff.
To date, one other key to staying in the division race for Detroit has been simple: playing head-to-head against Chicago.
On July 20, the White Sox came to Detroit for a three-game series. The Tigers swept them to reverse a game-and-a-half deficit into a game-and-a-half lead. Then Detroit immediately flopped while the Sox got hot, allowing Chicago to quickly move into first again.
But Chicago came back to Detroit on Aug. 31 with a seemingly safe three-game lead. Three games resulted in three more Tigers victories, and Detroit’s second straight sweep put them tied with Chicago. And then, the next day, Detroit lost to Cleveland while Chicago won, putting Chicago back in sole possession of first.
It must be frustrating for the Tigers to keep falling back into second as soon as Chicago leaves town, but the good news is they have won those six games. Without them, Detroit’s chances would be much more slender. It’s also something worthy pondering heading into the big four-game Tigers-White Sox series this week.
Immediately after sweeping the White Sox last time, the Tigers got to play the Indians, who had been the worst-slumping team in the league. Cleveland took two of three from Detroit. That was the first time the Indians had won a series in over a month. That previous Indians series victory was also against the Tigers. Those are the only two series the Indians have won since the All-Star break.
Cleveland is Detroit’s anti-Chicago. If Detroit’s success against the White Sox has kept the Tigers in the race, their inexplicable failures against Cleveland have kept them in second place.
Kansas City Royals
Back in April, the Royals had a 12-game losing streak. Since then, they’ve been about a .500 team. From April 25 on, they’ve been 59-62. It’s not good, but it’s a lot better than we’ve come to expect from the Royals. It’s virtually the same record as the Phillies and Dodgers in that time, and the Royals are the one playing in the tougher league. KC even had winning record in May, June, and August (but were 7-19 in July).
Don’t look now, but the Royals might be a good team next year. Every single member of their starting nine offensive players is in his 20s this year and will be again next year. All the key members of their bullpen, which has been fantastic for them this year, also are in their 20s.
The Royals' problem is starting pitching, which really has been horrible. The good news is that the easiest way to improve a team is to have an obvious hole that needs filling. The Royals have plenty of holes in their rotation, and so if the rest holds up next year, they can be a surprise.
Then again, the downside for the Royals is that the quality of a bullpen can veer wildly from year to year. It’s the least consistent part of a game. And it’s damn hard to image KC’s relief core will be as good next year as it is this year. Still, the laughing stock of the last decade now looks like a possible dark horse for 2013.
Manny Acta has had a close view of Cleveland's extended debacle.
Call it the Revenge of Pythagoras. For months, the Indians hung around the race despite having among the worst run differentials in baseball. They kept winning the close ones, even if they couldn’t win any other games.
Remember when Cleveland was in the race? The Indians were in first place in late June and just three games out of first as recently as July 23. They ended August in fourth place, 22 games under .500.
How the hell does that happen? Easy, you have the worst month in the entire history of the franchise. In August, the Indians won five games while losing 24. That tops the old record set in June 1914, when the Indians went 6-24.
Forget monthly records for a second. August was the centerpiece of a 5-28 stretch for the Indians. As it happens, that’s the worst 33-game stretch in franchise history. Yippee.
They went 6-27 in 1991, and 7-26 several times, but never in their 112 seasons had the dropped 28 of 33—until now.
Cleveland's pitching fell apart, averaging over six runs per game in the team's death spiral. The hurlers allowed four runs or more 24 times in that span—and lost all 24 games.
No wonder the Indians haven’t won three straight since the Fourth of July.
There isn’t too much to say about the Twins. Odds are, they won’t lose 100 games, so they have that going for them. Then again, they way they’ve been playing lately, they just might do it anyway. After beating the Indians in back-to-back games on Aug. 6-7, the Twins lost 21 of their next 28 contests.
They still have some games left against the Indians, Royals, and Blue Jays, so the Twins should avoid their first triple-digit loss season in three decades. But they have also safely claimed the mantle as the worst team in the league. Well, as safe as any such claim can be the way the Indians have been playing lately.
For much of the year, Chicago’s looked like the better team. The Sox had the better record, the better run differential, and plenty of solid contributors.
While they still have a better record and run differential, the gap has closed, and Detroit has been playing more solidly.
Let’s throw one last little feature into the mix: strength of schedule. After their big four-game showdown this week, each team will have 19 games left to play. Frankly, both squads face fairly easy schedules, but it’s easier for the Tigers. The average winning percentage of remaining White Sox opponents is .472, but it’s a meager .450 for the Tigers. That breaks in Detroit’s favor.
Right now, I’d pick Detroit to win it all, but it’s a shaky prediction. It’s tough to know how the race will shake up, especially with that big four-game Tigers-Sox series going down this weekend.
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.