The AL Central Is Uncommonly Bad

The other day, Jay Jaffe wrote an article titled, “Does Any Team Want to Win the AL Central?” At that writing, the Indians were in first place, with a record of 17-18. The Indians subsequently won, which helped appearances somewhat, but still, the AL Central is a division with five teams, and right now not one of them is playing over .500. Four of them are playing under it. Every other division in baseball has more total wins than losses. The AL Central is there to pick up the slack. Or do whatever the opposite of picking up the slack is.

I can say this doesn’t come as the biggest surprise. The AL Central was projected to be lousy, with quite possibly the three worst teams in the American League. Now, the Indians, in the early going, have been a disappointment, but they’ll probably get it together. They’re supposed to be the juggernaut. The Twins are in there as a fringe contender, a team boosted by the realities of the unbalanced schedule. Anyway, one point: We assumed it would be bad. Another point: It’s looking really bad. There could be some kind of divisional history in the making.

I know that no one actually cares about divisions themselves. No one out there is a specific fan of the NL East. You probably pay more attention to one division than you do to all the others, since that’s where your favorite team plays, but what really matters is where one team is relative to the other teams nearby in the standings. You want your team to win first place, or you want it to win a wild card. There’s no trophy for the strongest division, and there’s no asterisk for a playoff team that comes from the weakest.

Still, it can be useful to have a certain understanding. And it’s fun when you get to compare to baseball’s past. So what I’ve done is examine the entire six-division era, stretching back to 1994. For every division in every year, I figured out the total record, and then I calculated divisional winning percentage. With six divisions and 25 years — this current one included — the sample of divisions numbers 150. Here are the worst ten.

10 Worst Divisions, 1994 – 2018
Season Division W L Games Win%
2018 ALC 69 105 174 0.397
1994 ALW 199 256 455 0.437
2002 ALC 366 442 808 0.453
2003 ALC 370 440 810 0.457
1999 ALC 368 437 805 0.457
2005 NLW 372 438 810 0.459
1994 NLW 213 250 463 0.460
2015 NLE 374 436 810 0.462
2008 NLW 375 435 810 0.463
1998 ALC 376 433 809 0.465
2018 season, of course, still has a long way to go. 1994 season ended prematurely due to work stoppage.

This year’s AL Central, combined, has won just under 40% of its games. The next-worst division won just under 44% of its games. The worst full-season division won just over 45% of its games. When the 1994 season ended early, the AL West was led by the 52-62 Rangers. As far as the 2002 AL Central is concerned, the Twins won 94 games, but two teams lost 100 or more. Obviously, it’s not fair to compare 2018’s partial season to all these other full ones. There’s regression to look forward to, along with a bunch more intra-divisional games that always pull the division toward .500. But the purpose of the table is to establish some context. Yes, there’s a lot of baseball to play. But if something like this performance were to keep up, then the AL Central would be historically bad.

In this next table, you can find some additional information, on all of this year’s six divisions. You see actual winning percentage. You see estimated winning percentage, based on runs scored and runs allowed. You see estimated winning percentage, based on expected runs scored and runs allowed. And then, at the end, you see the projected final winning percentage. That might be the most important column.

2018 Divisional Landscape
Division Actual Pythag BaseRuns Projected
ALW 0.532 0.528 0.512 0.520
ALE 0.531 0.531 0.521 0.522
NLE 0.517 0.517 0.510 0.494
NLW 0.511 0.480 0.504 0.502
NLC 0.508 0.518 0.502 0.504
ALC 0.397 0.430 0.463 0.458

To the AL Central’s credit — if you want to call it that — the overall winning percentage is very bad, but it looks like there’s been a spot of bad luck. The Pythagorean record is better, and the BaseRuns record is even better than that. But the AL Central is still the worst division of the six in every category, and by a fair margin. Now, focus on that .458. That’s the projected final winning percentage, taking the start of the season into account. Try to fit that .458 into the previous table. The AL Central would come out as the worst division since 2003. That’s quite a while, although at least the 2015 NL East is around to provide some recent company.

With more than three-quarters of the season to play, the AL Central could collectively over-achieve, just as it could under-achieve. I don’t think it would surprise many people, for example, if the Indians were to suddenly catch fire. Even with the start they’ve had, I don’t think anyone is writing them off as a serious World Series contender. If they have midseason problems, they’re positioned to acquire an upgrade or two. The Twins might also be right there in the hunt. Maybe they’ll get better midseason as well. There’s always that pressure to make it to the playoffs.

But the Tigers? The Tigers know what they are. If anything, they’ll subtract. The Royals also know what they are. If anything, they’ll subtract. And the White Sox certainly know what they are. If anything, they’ll subtract. Prospects will gradually trickle in, replacing veterans, and some of those prospects will have exciting debuts. Other prospects will struggle. Valuable short-term players will be dealt elsewhere in June and July. Our projected standings don’t attempt to factor in future transactions. That would be impossible. The AL Central is likely to be long on sellers and short on buyers.

At the end of the day, this doesn’t really matter. The rebuilding teams don’t much care about the context within which they rebuild. The Indians should be good enough that they’d make the playoffs in any division. It’s the Twins who most stand to benefit, but even that advantage is kind of small, and they still have to seize it. The AL Central could matter, when it comes to determining who makes the wild-card game. Otherwise, all this is is hilarious trivia.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Joe Joemember
5 years ago

As a advocate for chaos when it doesn’t affect my team negatively, I would so enjoy a rebuilding team like the Tigers to somehow get on a hot streak until the trade deadline.