Does Any Team Want to Win the AL Central?

In the annals of modern baseball history, we’ve seen some pretty bad teams win division titles, with the 1973 Mets and 2005 Padres claiming flags with just 82 wins apiece. If there was a silver lining to the 1994 strike, it’s that it spared us the possibility of a sub-.500 team making the playoffs, as the 52-62 Rangers were the best of the AL Worst, er, West. Which brings us to today’s AL Central. With the Indians (17-18) having lost four in a row and eight out of 11, the division lacks a single team playing .500 ball. Cleveland nonetheless leads the pack, and the division as a whole has a collective 68-102 record and a .400 winning percentage, the worst in the majors.

To be fair, the AL Central did project to be the majors’ worst. Via our preseason Playoff Odds page, here are the aggregated projected standings for the six divisions:

Aggregated 2018 Preseason Projected Standings
Division W L Win%
AL East 422 388 .521
AL West 416 394 .513
NL Central 410 400 .506
NL West 407 403 .502
NL East 390 420 .481
AL Central 385 425 .476

And here’s how the divisions sat as of Wednesday morning:

Aggregated 2018 Standings
Division W L Win% Run Dif
AL West 96 85 .530 36
AL East 92 82 .529 57
NL East 91 84 .520 29
NL West 92 87 .514 -21
NL Central 88 87 .503 23
AL Central 68 102 .400 -124
Through close of play on Tuesday, May 8

The AL Central has become MLB’s black hole, sucking losses into its gravitational field. Currently, it’s the only division collectively below .500 (the NL Central has rallied over the past few days), and there’s now a 103-point difference in winning percentage separating them from the worst of the other five divisions. Coincidentally, their collective run differential is 103 runs worse than any other division’s as well.

Coming into the year, everybody expected the White Sox (9-24 entering Wednesday) and Tigers (15-20) to be bad. The Sox plunged themselves into the rebuilding process by trading Adam Eaton and Chris Sale in December 2016 and then Todd Frazier, Tommy Kahnle, Jose Quintana, David Robertson and last summer. The Tigers held out longer, finally dealing away J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton and Justin Verlander in July and August and then Ian Kinsler in December. The Royals (12-23) didn’t quite go whole hog into rebuild mode. They lost Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, and Jason Vargas to free agency; retained Mike Moustakas and, for some reason, Alcides Escobar; and didn’t trade Danny Duffy.

The perplexing team in the division is the Twins (15-17), who last year became the first team to rebound from a 100-loss season to claim a playoff spot; they were the second AL Wild Card via their 85-77 record. They were generally hailed for the job they did bargain-shopping this winter, adding Zach Duke, Lance Lynn, Logan Morrison, Michael Pineda, Addison Reed, and Fernando Rodney — all without committing more than two years or $16.75 million to any of them. But things haven’t panned out so far: their -16 run differential is worse than that of the Tigers (-7) and better than just four AL teams: the Orioles (-80), White Sox (-55), Rangers (-53), and Royals (-50). And then there are the Indians, who are at least in the black (+4) as far as run differential is concerned.

One reason why the AL Central is such an outlier is because its teams have played fewer intradivisional games than any other division. By producing both a win and a loss (190 of each over the course of a season), those games draw the division’s aggregate record towards the center. Here’s another look at the above standings, this time with the intradivision records stripped out:

Aggregated 2018 Standings, Interdivisional Games Only
Division Inter% W L Win%
AL West 53.0% 48 37 .565
AL East 48.3% 50 40 .556
NL East 46.9% 50 43 .538
NL West 62.6% 36 31 .537
NL Central 52.6% 42 41 .506
AL Central 40.0% 34 68 .333
Through close of play on Tuesday, May 8

Yowzah. Keep in mind that each teams plays about 53% of its games outside the division (and thus 47% within it). The AL Central is 13 percentage points below that first number, while the NL West is about 13 points above. It will all even out in the end, of course, but for the moment it’s a substantial spread. And whoa, does the AL Central look bad in this light, winning one game out of every three against non-division opponents.

The Indians, who last year had the AL’s best overall record (102-60, .630) and tied with the Red Sox for the best interdivisional record (52-34, .604), are just 10-16 against teams outside the AL Central, with the Mariners (against whom they’re 2-5) and Yankees (0-3, a sweep this past weekend in the Bronx) doing a disproportionate share of the damage. They’re 7-2 within their division — 4-0 against The Tigers, 2-1 against the Royals, and 1-1 against the Twins — which is to say that they’ve got some fattening up on weaker teams to do; for one thing, they have yet to play the White Sox.

When I first sat down to examine the Indians about two weeks ago, before something else caught my attention, they were 12-9, with their run prevention (3.10 per game, third in the AL) doing a whole lot to offset a lagging offense (13th in the AL at 3.48 runs per game, 14th at 78 wRC+). Since then, they’ve played a lot of high-scoring games, plating at least 10 runs three times and yielding at least 10 three times as well (a 13-11 loss to the Blue Jays in the opener of their May 3 doubleheader was the only game with both). With their bats finally coming to life, they entered Wednesday seventh in scoring (4.51 runs per game) but still just 12th in wRC+ (95), and on the other side of the ball, they’ve slipped to sixth in run prevention (4.40 runs per game).

With the exception of first base, where free-agent addition Yonder Alonso has taken over for the departed Carlos Santana, and right field, where Brandon Guyer and Tyler Naquin have split time in the absence of the injured Lonnie Chisnehall and the departed Jay Bruce, the Indians are playing with the same lineup of regulars as last year but getting different results. Peeking under the hood:

Indians’ 2017-2018 Offensive Comparison
Year BB% (AL Rk) K% (AL Rk) ISO (AL Rk) BABIP (AL Rk)
2017 9.7% (2nd) 18.5% (2nd) .186 (3rd) .295 (10th)
2018 7.8% (8th) 23.1% (10th) .178 (4th) .283 (13th)

Well, that’s not good. The Indians’ offense has moved backwards in all of those measures. (To be clear, the strikeout rate is ranked by lowest,) They’re walking less and striking out more; their K/BB ratio has gone from 1.9 to 3.0. They’re also hitting for slightly less power and getting some particularly lousy results on balls in play, though the last two areas have improved significantly in recent weeks.

Basically, this team has a wide gulf between the players who are producing and those who aren’t. Jose Ramirez (152 wRC+), Francisco Lindor (139, after a very slow start), Michael Brantley (134) and Yan Gomes (105) have done the bulk of the heavy lifting, while Edwin Encarnacion (84, even after a three-homer game last week), Alonso (83), Bradley Zimmer (75), Guyer (69), Jason Kipnis (43), and Rajai Davis (41, filling in for Brantley and Zimmer) have been dead weight. Including last year, Kipnis has fallen off the map to such an extent that you’d think the Indians might consider reshuffling their infield to return Ramirez to second base, but Yandy Diaz has been battling an ankle injury at Triple-A, and Giovanny Urshela was just DFA’d. They’re getting so little production at the keystone and in the outfield (save for Brantley) that it’s not hard to see them focusing on those areas at the trade deadline barring significant improvement.

On the other side of the ball, the rotation has been pretty good, ranking fourth in ERA (3.55) but just seventh in FIP (4.31) and 11th in homer rate (1.5 per nine). Corey Kluber has pitched well, aside from a high home-run rate, and both Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger have pitched like frontliners, as well. Carlos Carrasco has merely been solid, but Josh Tomlin’s been a disaster, with an 8.06 ERA and — wait for it — a 9.85 FIP and a home-run rate of 4.6 per nine, as in 13 homers allowed in 25.2 innings. The loss of Danny Salazar to rotator-cuff inflammation has been a big blow; he just received a PRP injection to alleviate impingement, so he won’t be back anytime soon. Between Adam Plutko, who made a solid spot start against the Blue Jays on May 3, and Ryan Merritt, who embarked upon a rehab assignment last week after missing the season’s first five weeks due to arm fatigue, the team should have more options, but inexplicably, they don’t seem to be in a hurry to ditch Tomlin.

While the Indians have had one of the best bullpens in the game in recent years, the unit is currently 14th in the league in ERA (5.40) and 13th in FIP (4.67), and the news isn’t uniformly positive about even their best two relievers. While Andrew Miller has yet to allow a run, he’s been out since April 26 due to a hamstring strain, though he could be back as soon as this weekend. Cody Allen, who gave up a pair of walk-off hits to the Yankees, has allowed six runs of his own and four inherited runners (including the deciding run last Friday) in his last four innings of work. The other five pitchers with at least 10 innings of relief work have ERAs of 5.06 or worse, some with respectable FIPs (Tyler Olson’s 3.24 alongside a 6.75 ERA), and some not (both Nick Goody and Zach McAllister are above 6.90, with HR/9s above 2.9 as well).

Where the Indians were projected to win 96 games at the outset of the season, they’re down to an 89-win projection at this writing, which should still be more than enough to win the Central, though it would be the third-lowest win total of a division champion in the two-wild-card era (the 2012 Tigers and 2015 Rangers both won 88 games). Nonetheless, the fact that they’ve struggled to beat good teams — they’re 5-14 against those with .500 records or better — doesn’t bode terribly well, and if they don’t shape up, the race for the flag could be quite an eyesore.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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6 years ago

Indians fan here. Not too terribly worried about the ‘pen, provided Goody isn’t hurt for a significant period of time. If he is, that is another hole to plug. I totally agree with the analysis they need 2B/3B and OF help. It’s a source of contention among tribe fans, but I’m on the push the chips in on 2018 side of the ledger. All-world SP rotations like CLE’s don’t come around all that often. Time to capitalize while we have the back-end BP (Miller/Allen) to complement the SP.

Shirtless George Brett
6 years ago
Reply to  tribefan87

Royals fan here. I just realized that Gil Meche’s middle name is Allen. Which makes him GilAMeche. The fact that I just now put this together will forever be one of my greatest regrets.

What where we talking about?

6 years ago

Battle on the Big Bridge time?

6 years ago

I will now regret that no one realized that when he was pitching for the Mariners, and Sullivan was writing daily about them.

Shirtless George Brett
6 years ago
Reply to  Joser

Right!? The failure to nickname him “The Epic” is on all our heads.

Also, much respect to his parents.