Pre-Spring Divisional Outlook: AL Central

Throughout the early stages of the calendar year, I’ve been taking a pre-spring training look at each of the six MLB divisions from a slightly different perspective. Utilizing batted ball data, we’re going back over the 2014 season, attempting to calculate each club’s true talent level. Making adjustments for teams’ offensive and defensive K and BB rates and team defense, each team’s true talent 2014 won-lost record is calculated. Then, we’ll take a look at the current Steamer projections for 2015, evaluate key player comings and goings, and determine whether clubs are constructed to be able to handle the inevitable pitfalls along the way that could render such projections irrelevant. Today’s last installment of this series features the AL Central.

Player movement-wise, the AL Central may well have been the quietest of the six divisions during the offseason. The Indians and Twins, in particular, were largely content to press forward with the bulk of their respective 2014 nuclei intact, with just a couple of strategic additions. The White Sox were likely the busiest club, buttressing their offense with Adam LaRoche, and remaking their pitching staff with the addition of Jeff Samardzija to the rotation and David Robertson and Zach Duke to the bullpen. On the surface, the AL Central appears to be, along with the AL East, the most competitive division in the majors from top to bottom.

Before we get too focused on 2015, though, let’s take a look back at last year and attempt to hone in on the true-talent level of each club. The true-talent records calculated here actually are pretty much in agreement with the actual marks of four of the five AL Central clubs, with the principal disagreement surrounding the club that came within one game of winning the World Series last fall.

Let’s start things off with a table that will serve as the backbone of our analysis:

DET 0.337 0.534 0.317 0.469 18.4% 7.1% 20.1% 7.5% 104.0
KC 0.306 0.438 0.312 0.475 16.3% 6.3% 19.1% 7.2% 96.8
CLE 0.321 0.486 0.320 0.493 19.1% 8.1% 23.4% 7.5% 108.4
CWS 0.313 0.465 0.314 0.465 22.4% 6.9% 18.4% 8.9% 99.4
MIN 0.309 0.471 0.325 0.504 21.3% 8.7% 16.6% 6.6% 97.3
MLB AVG 0.318 0.489 0.318 0.489 20.4% 7.6% 20.4% 7.6% 100.0

The first four columns indicate the resulting team AVG and SLG on all of each club’s balls in play (BIP) hit and allowed if they were hit in a neutral environment. The major league average AVG and SLG on all BIP in 2014 were .318 and .489, respectively. Clubs performing above that level offensively and yielding production below that level defensively were above average performers. The next four columns list each club’s offensive and defensive K and BB rates. The MLB averages in those categories were 20.4% and 7.6%, respectively, in 2014.

The last column represents each club’s Defensive Multiplier. Again utilizing granular batted ball data, I have established a method to evaluate team defense, from a big-picture macro perspective, rather than the play-by-play micro perspective that methods such as DRS and UZR utilize. Simply compare each team’s offensive and defensive actual and projected AVG and SLG – what each team “should” have hit/allowed based on the speed/exit angle mix of all balls in play (excluding home runs), and convert those actual and projected events to run values. You are basically comparing each team’s defense to that of their opponents over 162 games. If a team’s defense was exactly as good as their opponents’ over 162 games, their team Defensive Multiplier would be 100. Better than average defenses have scores under 100, below average team defenses have scores over 100.

Next, let’s convert all of the data in the first table into run values, and then do same Pythagorean magic, and come up with a series of projected win-loss records. 1) On only each club’s BIP hit/allowed, 2) adjusted for K and BB for/against, and 3) further adjusted for team’s Defensive Multiplier. This third projection represents the club’s true talent W-L record for 2014. For comparative purposes, each club’s 2014 actual and Pythagorean records are listed.

DET 96-66 97-65 94-68 90-72 86-76
KC 73-89 78-84 80-82 89-73 84-78
CLE 80-82 90-72 83-79 85-77 83-79
CWS 81-81 69-93 70-92 73-89 71-91
MIN 72-90 68-94 70-92 70-92 75-87

Let’s dig a bit deeper into the above tables to get a better feel for each club’s 2014 true-talent level.

The Tigers’ chief strength remains quite apparent. Led by Miguel Cabrera and the Martinezes, they crush the baseball, as evidenced by their offensive BIP authority figures in the first table above. They not only ranked first in their division in this metric, by a mile, they finished first in the majors, narrowly ahead of the Angels. Their pitching staff held their opponents to less than MLB average BIP authority, finishing third in the Central, narrowly behind the White Sox and Royals. On BIP authority alone, the Tigers were a 96-66 club, the best in baseball.

The Tigers add one more win to their true-talent record once K’s and BB’s are added into the equation. This is largely due to their low offensive K rate, second lowest in the division to the Royals. One can identify many reasons for their success over recent seasons, but I would submit that their ability to crush the baseball while minimizing strikeouts is foremost among them. On the other hand, team defense has been a consistent sore point for the Tigers in recent years. Their team defensive multiplier of 104.0 was better than only their divisional mates from Cleveland in all of MLB, and was attributable to shortcomings in both the infield and outfield. They are thus docked four wins, down to 94-68, four games better than their actual record, and eight games better than their Pythagorean mark.

Oh, those extremely interesting and exciting Kansas City Royals. Offensively, they impacted the baseball with less authority than any major league club, “led” by since-departed paddler Norichika Aoki. Their pitching staff did yield lesser than average authority, the second lowest in the division behind the White Sox. Based on BIP authority alone, the Royals were a 73-89 club.

Like the Tigers, the 2014 Royals were helped by a very low offensive K rate. Of course, the Royals sacrificed authority for contact, while the Tigers had their cake and ate it too. The departure of Aoki will help their BIP authority going forward, but will cause their K rate to increase. Overall, the Royals’ K/BB proficiency in 2014 adds five games to their projection, up to 78-84. The Royals’ defensive multiplier of 96.8 was the best in the division, and was derived from strong work in both the infield and outfield. This adds two more games to their projection, up to 80-82, a full nine games short of their actual record, and four games short of the Pythagorean mark. While their ability to do the “little things” suggests they may well have been better than .500 true-talent club, it doesn’t account for a nine-game difference. The near World Series champs were very fortunate to even participate in postseason play.

Talk about a team with obvious strengths and glaring weaknesses; your 2014 Cleveland Indians. With regard to BIP authority, they were actually pretty vanilla, finishing third in the division on offense at almost exactly MLB average, and fourth in the division on the mound, just worse than MLB average. On BIP authority alone, the Indians were an 80-82 club.

This leads us to the Indians’ chief strength; their ability to strike out opposing hitters. Their pitching staff’s 23.4% K rate was way above MLB average, and that was with big K guys like Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer only spending part of the season in the rotation alongside Corey Kluber. Their offensive K and BB rates were also solid, and all told, their K/BB proficiency adds 10 wins to their true-talent record, up to 90-72. Unfortunately, we then need to take team defense into account. The Indians had a historically horrible 108.4 defensive multiplier, as both their infield and outfield play was hideous. This docks them seven games, down to 83-79, matching their Pythagorean record and lagging two games behind their actual mark.

Offensively, the White Sox’ BIP authority, despite the presence of rookie slugger Jose Abreu, was well below MLB average, in a virtual dead heat with the Twins for third in the division. The club’s chief strength was their pitching staff’s ability to limit contact authority; the Sox, thanks in large part to Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, finished first in all of baseball in this metric. Based on BIP authority alone, the White Sox were a .500 club at 81-81.

As much as the Indians were helped by their K and BB rates, the White Sox were hurt even more. They were considerably worse than MLB average in all four K and BB metrics. On offense, they were the antithesis of the Tigers; a relatively powerless team that whiffed an awful lot. The good news is that Alejandro De Aza, Adam Dunn and Dayan Viciedo, who struck out 354 times while barely slugging .400 among themselves, are gone, and Tyler Flowers and his 159 K’s and .396 SLG is under pressure for playing time. Giving Scott Carroll 129 innings on the pitching side hurt as well, but those innings will go to Jeff Samardzija in 2015. All in all, poor K and BB rates cost the Sox 12 games in 2014, reducing their projection to 69-93. Their defense was a touch above average, with a 99.4 multiplier, nudging their projection a game higher to 70-92, one game behind their Pythagorean record and three behind their actual mark.

Lastly, we have the Twins. They were below average in both offensive and defensive BIP authority, ranking in a dead heat for third in the division in the former, and by far dead last in the latter. Not only did the Twins allow more contact than anyone, a great deal of it was hard contact. On BIP authority alone, the Twins were a 72-90 club.

About that pitching staff K rate…..this sure has become the hallmark of the recent-vintage Twins. Even Phil Hughes‘ breakout season couldn’t get the Twins out of the AL basement in K’s. Giving regular turns to Kevin Correia and gobs of relief innings to Anthony Swarzak will do that to you. The good news for Twins’ fans is that neither of those two are back in 2015. The news was much better with regard to walks, on both the offensive and defensive side, so their K/BB “penalty” is only four games, down to 68-94. The Twins’ defensive multiplier was a solid 97.3, behind only the Royals in the division, thanks in large part to solid work in the infield. This pumps up their projection by two games to 70-92, matching their actual record, and five games shy of their Pythagorean mark.

Let’s now look forward. Below are the current 2015 Steamer projections, as of Monday afternoon:

CLE 85-77
DET 84-78
KC 80-82
CWS 78-84
MIN 75-87

How ’bout that? According to Steamer, the Tigers are no longer on top, albeit by the smallest margin possible. Let’s briefly label and discuss each club below. One note; I haven’t materially delved into the clubs’ respective bullpens, as year-to-year club performance in that area tends to fluctuate wildly.

1 – CLEVELAND INDIANS – The “Their Defense Can’t Be That Bad, Again….Can It?” Club
The Indians certainly are banking on some positive regression of their defensive performance, as they’re largely running out the same crew once again. Yes, Asdrubal Cabrera has moved on, and either Jose Ramirez or Francisco Lindor should represent an improvement with the glove, but their principal offseason addition, Brandon Moss, certainly wasn’t brought aboard for his defensive prowess. The Tribe’s most indispensable position players are Yan Gomes, Michael Brantley and, believe it or not, Lonnie Chisenhall, as there really is no other viable third base option. The addition of Moss drops David Murphy into a much more palatable fourth outfielder role. Their starting pitching upside and depth is quite exceptional. T.J. House, Josh Tomlin and Zach McAllister are all viable MLB starters, and are currently sitting in the #6-8 slots. If their defense even approaches MLB average, this club should win the Central.

2 – DETROIT TIGERS – The “Tick, Tick, Tick, Boom” Team
It’s been a nice run for the Tigers. Their roster, littered with superstars, they have been front and center for quite a few Octobers now. Time, alas, is growing short. None of the superstars are quite as good as they once were, and they are a bit more prone to injury. Their once fearsome rotation has shed both Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, who are being replaced by…….Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene. The acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes does drop Rajai Davis down into the fourth outfielder role to which he is better accustomed, but giving Anthony Gose regular work in center is an offensive hole waiting to happen. The loss of Victor Martinez at the season’s outset is a blow; losing him or Cabrera for any length of time makes the offense much more ordinary. There are no ready backups for Ian Kinsler or Nick Castellanos at second or third base. Starting rotation depth is poor; Buck Farmer is first man up should someone go down. This club evokes the 1980 Phillies; this might be their last shot at a ring, and one more postseason run before David Price hits free agency could be in order. By 2017, they could be the 2015 Phils.

3 – KANSAS CITY ROYALS – The “Well, 2014 Sure Was Fun” Club
Last year’s Royals showed everyone how important those incremental wins between 85 and 90 actually are. Get in the playoffs, and you have a chance. The club’s chief asset is their young, improving nucleus, featuring Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez and Alcides Escobar in the lineup, and Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy in the rotation. Plus that killer pen. The bad news is their relative lack of depth; the loss of most any one of those position players plus Mike Moustakas would be a real problem, and oft-injured starter Kris Medlen represents the bulk of their insurance behind their top five starting pitchers. The Royals were a historically healthy club in 2014, and even though they are young and athletic, should expect to need to utilize Plans B and C a bit more this season. In addition, I just can’t get too amped up about their top offseason additions, Alex Rios, Kendrys Morales and Edinson Volquez. Regression will not be the Royals friend in 2015.

4 – CHICAGO WHITE SOX – The “Keep An Eye On This Bunch” Club
In a comparatively subtle, understated way, the White Sox just may have done the best job of any club at recognizing who they were, and accordingly making the appropriate adjustments during the offseason. You play your home games in a hitter-friendly, fly ball-oriented park? Add Adam LaRoche, at reasonable years and dollars. Need to cut down that offensive team K rate? Give 650 plate appearances to Melky Cabrera. Got a real problem with your pitching staff’s K rate? Substitute Jeff Samardzija for Scott Carroll, and maybe Carlos Rodon for Hector Noesi. Toss David Robertson and Zach Duke into the pen. The addition of Emilio Bonifacio gives them a viable layer of protection at almost any position, though playing him in the outfield for any length of time would cost them punch-wise. Catcher and second base are potential offensive holes. There are a wide array of potential outcomes here, but if Plan A holds together, the White Sox could make a real run this season in an up-for-grabs division.

5 – MINNESOTA TWINS – The “Kids Are Hopefully Alright This Time” Club
The Twins are still traversing the uncomfortable transition period preceding what they hope will be their next window of contention. It had been hoped that mega-prospects Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano would be in place by now, but major injuries intervened. Their development, and the continued evolution of strong complementary types such as Oswaldo Arcia and Brian Dozier, could make this an interesting lineup before long. Current outfield depth is subpar; the primary options behind Arcia and Torii Hunter on the corners aren’t likely to provide thump. Shortstop and center field are potential short-term offensive holes; Danny Santana hit way over his head in 2014, and Aaron Hicks is running out of chances. Starting pitching depth is better than in recent years, with Mike Pelfrey, Alex Meyer and Tim Stauffer backing up the starting five that now includes Ervin Santana. It’s not a cost-effective rotation, but it will whiff a few more batters than in the recent past. The cellar looks like a pretty safe bet this season, but better times are likely around the corner.

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8 years ago

Just a little off on the Tigers. For starters, they actually replaced Scherzer with Price and dropped Smyley and Porcello for Hughes and Simon. While the starters will not be at the same level, it’s not as big of a drop off as indicated. However, the biggest difference to be seen between 2014 and 2015 will be on the defensive side:

1) Replace the awful fielding of RF Hunter with Cepsedes
1A) Replace the group of minor league talent at SS with Iglesias
2) Replace aging CF Jackson with Gose
3)Castellanos’ second year in the bigs. He will be much improved

These changes will make the Tigers much better defensively. they will go from the 2nd worst to above average. That will be a huge improvement.

8 years ago
Reply to  Brad

As a Jays fan, I advise you to do yourself a favour and not count on Gose to help much. You will be missing an “aging” AJax by May.

Buck Farmer
8 years ago
Reply to  exxrox

Platooning with Rajai will help. If Gose ends up failing then we’ll just be in the same position we were at the end of last year with Rajai starting. Not great, but not terrible.

8 years ago
Reply to  Brad

I think you meant Greene and Simon.

8 years ago
Reply to  CrazyPants

Correct. My mistake.

8 years ago
Reply to  Brad

Ah yes, old man Austin Jackson. He retired, didn’t he? Or is he pulling a Jamie Moyer?

8 years ago
Reply to  Brad

I don’t understand the logic that Price replaces Scherzer when both Scherzer and Price were in the rotation at the same time for 2 full months. If you compare the rotations from the end of last year to the start of this year, the Tigers lost Scherzer and Porcello and replaced them with Greene and Simon.

8 years ago
Reply to  Logic

Price started only 11 games for the Tigers. that is only 1/3 of the season (Scherzer had 33 starts) and Price will get those start. The starts of Porcello and Smyley (49 GS) are the ones being replaced by Greene and Simon.

8 years ago
Reply to  Logic

It’s called the “spin the loss to make it sound better than it really is” tactic, one that only the Tigers and their fans are buying.

Rational Fan
8 years ago
Reply to  Brad

They don’t really replace Scherzer with Price though… they had Price and Scherzer down the stretch last year so Scherzer is a loss.

Also, Austin Jackson is 28 years old so he’s in the heart of his prime. So not sure the “old man” comment is all that warranted. You know who is old though? Victor.

I think they will regret the Smyly move – especially after Price leaves this off-season. Smyly is going to be Tampa’s second best starter (In my opinion).

8 years ago
Reply to  Brad

They didn’t get any starter named Hughes.