The state of the AL Centralby Chris Jaffe
May 07, 2012
With one-sixth of the year in the books, what do we know about the American League Central?
Well, first off, it isn’t that strong a division. Heading into Sunday’s games (NOTE: unless otherwise stated, all info in this article is prior to Sunday), the division had a total record of 56-74, which is by far the worst division record in baseball. Its .431 winning percentage is worse than the last-place team in either the AL or NL East divisions. And that low winning percentage is propped up by intra-division games. Against outside teams, the AL Central is 33-51 (.393). Yeah, that’s bad.
Well, it’s not as bad as it looks, though. The Twins, the worst team in the division, have played almost exclusively outside the division, dragging down the overall AL Central record.
So the Central isn’t really a sub-.400 bunch, but it is having its troubles. Its bottom feeders are doing even worse than most predicted, and the squad that was heavily favored to win it has been stuck in neutral. The White Sox are the only team with a positive run differential, and they’re just three runs up (107 scored, 104 allowed).
So what’s going on with the division’s pretenders and contenders? Let’s start with the contenders.
For the second straight year, the Indians are the surprise first-place team in the AL Central in the early going. How have they done it this year?
First, it helps to have an easy schedule. In their nine series of the year so far, only two have been against teams with winning records: Toronto and the recently completed weekend series with Texas. Their average opponent record is about .450.
Despite that slow start, the Indians still shouldn’t have as good a record as they have. They won their first half-dozen one-run games. That can’t last, and it hasn’t. Thus, they began the year 14-11 despite being outscored, 113-114.
The Indians have some strengths. They draw far more walks than any other team. Their 118 walks is a half-walk per game better than any other offense. Thus, despite a pedestrian team batting average of .244 (which isn’t too bad in the deflated 2012 offensive environment), Cleveland has the third-best on-base percentage in the AL.
Cleveland has an interesting approach to stopping runs. Its staff has a 0.93 GB/FB ratio, the second-most extreme groundball staff in the AL (behind Toronto’s incredibly high 1.03 mark). Well, with a bunch of groundball pitchers, the Indians put strong gloves in their infield, such as third baseman Jack Hannahan and first baseman Casey Kotchman. That said, as much as they must like Kotchman’s glove, his .158 batting average can’t guarantee him a slot for too much longer.
Detroit was supposed to run away with this division, and for a few weeks did so, as the Tigers began 2012 with a 9-3 record. Since then, they have staggered, dropping 10 of 14.
What’s gone wrong? Well, first Detroit has defensive issues. This was a predicted concern for a team that began the year with defensively challenged sluggers Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera manning the infield corners. Sure enough, the squad’s .674 Defensive Efficiency is tied for the worst in the AL. WAR agrees, calling the Tigers the worst fielding unit in the AL with –2.3 dWAR. Despite being above average in walks, strikeouts, and homers allowed, Detroit has surrendered more runs than most AL clubs.
More distressingly for Detroit is that while the Tigers do have their stars, they don’t have much else. They have a lack of depth, and that’s killed them. A revolving door on non-hitting second basemen has combined to hit .151 so far. They’ve also had issues with their corner outfield slots, where you’re supposed to get powerful bats. Thus, not only do the Tigers have a worse record than Cleveland, they’ve also scored fewer runs so far this year.
Chicago White Sox
In many ways, the year has gone as well as possible for the White Sox. Last year, the Sox' season sank when a trio of high-priced players all performed poorly: Alex Rios, Adam Dunn and the injured Jake Peavy. This year, they’ve all turned it around, especially Peavy, who currently sports a 1.99 ERA.
Adding to the strong start, 36-year-old first baseman Paul Konerko is on pace for his best season ever—he’s hitting .351. Fellow mid-30s player A.J. Pierzynski joins Konerko in mocking Father Time with a terrific beginning to his season. Chicago’s pitching staff has been terrific; only two squads top the Sox' ERA+ of 117. As an added bonus, the supposed steamroller Tigers have been stuck in neutral, leaving the division wide open.
The above explains Chicago’s ability to stay in the division race, but it also explains the team's potential problems. Despite having so many things go their way, the White Sox entered yesterday’s game in third place, a game under .500. It’s a division for the taking, but Chicago hasn’t taken it.
Some of Chicago's big guys will cool off. Yes, the Sox have some weak spots that can and should improve, but if Konerko can’t keep his average over .350 and Peavy’s ERA goes somewhere over 2.00, improvements and declines could even out—and it’s still a .500-ish team.
While this squad has some definite holes, the only players really underachieving are starting pitcher John Danks and shortstop Alexei Ramirez. Most of the other problems, such as the offensively inept third baseman Brent Morel, just plain lack the talent needed.
They’ve had bullpen problems also, but the team’s recent suggested solution has caused concerns. In need of a closer, Chicago announced that young stud-in-training starting pitcher Chris Sale will be given the relief ace assignment. Aside from the fact that you can get more value from a starting pitcher than a one-inning man, the Sox say they want to move Sale out of the rotation to protect a tender elbow.
Wait, because he’s at risk to suffer an elbow injury the team is making him closer? That’s… unorthodox. Closers get injured, too.
The good news for the Sox is that the easiest way to improve is to have huge holes you can fill, and Chicago certainly has them. Half of the Sox' starters can’t hit, nor can their bench. More than that, the division is still wide open. But for the White Sox to have a chance, they need the AL Central to remain a division where 85 wins will be enough to claim the crown.
Kansas City Royals
It’s been more of the same from the once-proud franchise known as the Royals. They’ve had losing records in 16 of their last 17 seasons, and 2012 isn’t going to change that. They’ve already had a 12-game losing streak. For a team that dropped a dozen in a row, the Royals aren’t doing so bad, sporting a 9-17 record. Then again, “for a team that dropped a dozen in a row” is a hell of a qualifier.
They have some strengths. Their bullpen has been rather effective, doubly so given the loss of former All-Star closer Joakim Soria. They also have several nice offensive performances from DH Billy Butler, third baseman Mike Moustakas, and a wildly-over-his-head performance from second baseman Chris Getz. (What the hell is Getz doing batting over .320?)
However, Kansas City also has some massive gaping holes. As good as the bullpen has been, the starting pitching has been worse. Folks, it’s a unit anchored by Bruce Chen for the love of Mike. Starting first baseman Eric Hosmer is hitting .192. Kansas City starts Jeff Francoeur in right, which is a cry for help if every there was one.
In all, KC has the fourth-best batting average in the league, but the Royals are next-to-last in walks and home runs, ranking 11th in runs scored.
The Minnesota Twins have become a bad parody of themselves.
For years, the Twins surprised people by doing better than expected. They typically had one of the game's strongest bullpens, and their entire pitching staff refused to walk anyone. Those are still their team’s strengths, but rather than pull a team up, the rest of the club is pulling Minnesota down.
The bullpen is no longer great, but it’s still better than the rest of the team. The Twins' overall reliever ERA of 4.08 is tied for eighth in the league (it was 3.64 until a bad performance on Saturday). Minnesota is still great at control pitching. The team has issued just 66 free passes, second-fewest in the AL and just one behind the league-leading Rangers.
While it’s nice that their pitchers have such good control, they can’t strike anyone out. Minnesota has fanned 125 batters through 26 games. Not only is that the lowest in the league, it’s nowhere near next-to-last (Cleveland, with 153). It’s bad enough to be a strikeout per game behind the league average; it’s far, far worse to be that far behind the second-worst squad.
The Twins have surrendered 39 homers, tied for the most in the league. They’ve swatted 14 homers, lowest in the league. All other AL offenses have at least 21 so far.
Minnesota’s starting rotation has been a disaster of Biblical proportions. They are throwing pure slop up there. They fan fewer than a batter every two innings. They allow a homer nearly every fourth inning.
The Twins starters' ERA is 6.70. If they keep that pace up, they’ll set the record for the worst starting rotation ERA in baseball history. The current record is 6.64, by the 1996 Tigers. Minnesota almost certainly should have its starter ERA improve (it was over 7.00 not so long ago), but…yikes, they are bad. Really bad even. Minnesota’s overall ERA and ERA+ are the worst in either league.
As for their hitters, overall they rank 13th in runs scored. They’ve plated two or fewer runs 12 times in 26 games. In the last week, they’ve been three-hit, no-hit, and one-hit. At the start of the month, they went 15 consecutive innings without getting a hit. In two straight games they managed to get exactly one man to second base, and that baserunner got there via defensive interference.
Five of their seven wins have been by one run. They trailed at some point in 24 of their 26 games. Want to know how bad the Twins are? Even though the Royals lost 12 straight, Minnesota ended the month in last place. Think about that.
But at least they don’t walk anyone.
The upside for Minnesota and Kansas City is they still get to face each other 16 more times. Imagine how low Minnesota’s walk rate will be when that’s all done.
This is a division with a clear cellar but no penthouse. Last year, Detroit put things together and blew the division away in the second half. If the Tigers or Cleveland or the White Sox can do so this year, they’ll win. Right now, it looks like an ugly battle between a trio of flawed teams, and 85 victories easily could take the division.
References and Resources
Info comes from Baseball-Reference.com. I also received some help from fans of various teams I know: Royals rooter Mike Webber, former Twins blogger Will Young, Indians fan Dan Lee, and THT's main man in Michigan, Brian Borawski.
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.