The Royals lead the American League Central by one game over the Tigers after Detroit defeated the Indians Thursday night, 11-4 in 11 innings. The teams are even in wins with 77; the Tigers have two additional losses. The Royals are 19-19 in blowout games and 20-22 in one run games. For the Tigers, those numbers are 23-18 (blowouts) and 20-18 (one run games). Both teams have a higher winning percentage on the road and both have dominated in interleague games.
This morning, FanGraphs’ playoff odds gave the Tigers a 54.5% chance of taking the division. The Royals’ odds are at 44.4%. No other division race features such closely-divided odds. Even in the National League West race between the Dodgers and Giants — which the Dodgers lead by two games with 22 to play — FanGraphs gives LA an 83.3% chance of winning the division.
If you believe the projections, the AL Central race is as close as it can get between the Royals and the Tigers. And yet the teams have reached this point in completely different ways.
Let’s start with the basics and go from there. Heading into Thursday’s action, here are the Royals’ and Tigers’ overall numbers on offense, base running and defense.
Look at the last column first. The Royals’ position players have produced just .6 Wins Above Replacement more than the Tigers’ position players. That’s a small difference when you consider the range among teams in the American League: the Orioles’ position players are first at 24.4 WAR and the Rangers’ are last at 6.9 WAR.
Now look how the Royals position players got there: Not by taking walks. Kansas City has the lowest walk rate in the league. Not by hitting home runs. They’ve hit only 88, fewest in the majors. The Royals don’t strike out much, only 15,7% of their at bats, but when they do put the ball in play, they don’t get on base any more than the average American League team. Over the summer, Diane Firstman dubbed the Royals the anti-three true outcome offense in a post over at The Hardball Times. She’s right. And yet the Royals have scored 564 runs, only 20 fewer than the AL average.
What the Royals do exceedingly well is make the most of their offensive opportunities. Their 130 stolen bases is the best in the AL, as is their collective 9.8 BsR score. With runners in scoring position, their team wRC+ jumps to 103, compared to just 93 wRC+ for all plate appearances. Get ’em on, at first usually. Get ’em over. Get ’em in.
The Tigers’ offense couldn’t be more different. They walk more than the Royals. They strike out more than the Royals. They hit significantly more home runs than the Royals. Their .427 slugging percentage is the best in the American League, as is their .331 wOBA and 109 wRC+. After Thursday night’s blowout of the Indians, Detroit leads the AL with 660 runs scored.
But the Tigers don’t take advantage with men on base the way the Royals do. Their collective -2.6 BsR isn’t worst in the league — that distinction goes to the White Sox — but it’s a far cry from what the Royals do. The Tigers also hit worse with runners in scoring position than they do overall — just a 102 wRC+ with a man on second or third. This also shows up in our Clutch metric. While it is a descriptive more than predictive stat, we can again see the chasm between the two teams — Kansas City is second in the AL with a Clutch score that qualifies as excellent at 2.85, while Detroit is dead last with a at -3.87 score that easily fits in the awful bin.
On offense, it’s advantage Tigers, but it should be by a larger margin.
It’s another story entirely on defense. The Royals are simply superb with the glove. We’ve written about Alex Gordon’s defense quite a bit recently (here and here in particular) but Gordon’s teammates are no defensive slouches. In addition to Gordon, four other Royals rank in the top 50 American League players in by our Defense metric (which is fielding runs above average with a positional adjustment added in): catcher Salvador Perez, shortstop Alcides Escobar, second baseman Omar Infante and right fielder Norichika Aoki.
The Tigers have one player on that list: second baseman Ian Kinsler.
The Royals excel at making the plays that are rated as nearly impossible to very difficult by Inside Edge — the plays with a 1%-10% of being made; 10%-40% chance; and 40%-60% chance . As you can see on the below chart, they significantly outplay the Tigers in those circumstances.
|Team||# 0%||# 1-10%||1-10%||# 10-40%||10-40%||# 40-60%||40-60%||# 60-90%||60-90%||# 90-100%||90-100%|
The eye-popper stat on defense is Defensive Runs Saved. The Royals have accumulated +33 DRS. The Tigers are at -62.
On defense, it’s advantage Royals. And it’s not close.
The Tigers lead the American League in starters’ WAR but the Royals starters’ have been nearly as good or better in several ways. The biggest difference is in strikeouts and home runs allowed — the Tigers’ rotation has the edge in both.
Let’s take a look.
The teams significantly diverge in the bullpen — a glaring weakness for the Tigers and a pillar of strength for the Royals. Only the White Sox have a less valuable bullpen than the Tigers among American League teams.
Here are the key stats for each team’s relief corps.
For pitching, it’s advantage Royals — a startling turn of events in light of the dominance expected of the Tigers’ rotation, before and after they traded for David Price.
Two teams, separated by two losses, vying for one division title with fewer than 25 games left in the season. And they could hardly be more different.