Trying to Make Sense of the American League Central

The American League Central has been one of the strangest divisions in baseball this season; who will finish on top?

Seriously, what is up with the American League Central?

The division seemed interesting enough before the season, given the presence of a strong Tigers team, the defending AL champion Royals, potential sleepers in the Indians, and a White Sox team that had a big offseason. The Twins were there too.

It would have been impossible to foresee what has followed, though.

The Twins jumped out to a hot start and were in a tie for the American League’s best record as late as June 7, despite the fact they were not particularly good at hitting or pitching.

Minnesota has gone 2-7 since, ceding first place to Kansas City, and unlike last season, the Royals have actually looked like a good team statistically in 2015.

Detroit, meanwhile, is in danger of finishing out of first for the first time since 2010 and is now hovering around .500.

Cleveland has been disappointing and the White Sox have been downright awful.

By taking a closer look at each team’s numbers, we can see why they are where they are and how they could finish (Thursday’s games not included).

Kansas City Royals

Record: 37-25
Pythagorean Record: 38-24
nF Division odds: 52.7%

The Royals went 89-73 in 2014 en route to the World Series, overshadowing the fact they were a roughly average team that overperformed thanks to unsustainably strong performances in clutch situations.

There has been no such disparity between actual and expected performance this season, as Kansas City’s 37 wins are right in line with what would be would expect based on their run differential and BaseRuns (BaseRuns estimate how many runs a team should have scored based on its underlying statistics).

The Royals are ninth in baseball in park-adjusted offense and third in park-adjusted ERA. The latter accomplishment is due in large part to what has been arguably baseball’s best defense, as while the pitching staff has been roughly average in terms of FIP-, Kansas City leads the Majors by a comfortable margin in both UZR and defensive runs saved, according to FanGraphs.

According to our efficiency ratings, the Royals have been the sixth-best team in baseball, and while we project them to go 49-51 the rest of the way, by virtue of their strong start, we give them a 66.6% chance to make the playoffs.

Minnesota Twins

Record: 35-30
Pythagorean Record: 33-32
nF Division Odds: 10.6%

Minnesota’s strong start has been a nice and unexpected story, but it is admittedly hard to take both baseball stats and the 2015 Twins seriously at the same time.

Their record is shiny, but they have scored only three more runs than they have allowed this season, and their run differential would be worse if it were not for some fortuitous sequencing.

Channeling their inner 2014 Royals, Minnesota is 24th in the Majors in overall OPS (.681) but eighth in OPS in high-leverage situations (.753).

The Twins also have the second biggest gap between their offensive win probability added (WPA) and context-neutral WPA (WPA/LI), according to FanGraphs (the difference can be termed “clutch hitting”).

Minnesota’s offense is 26th in wRC+, while its defense is 17th in ERA- (100) and its pitchers are tied for 23rd in FIP- (107).

It makes sense then, that in terms of BaseRuns, the Twins are 26th in baseball with an expected 27-38 record.

The numbers strongly imply the Twins’ early success is not sustainable, and our model does not see it continuing, projecting the Twins to go 45-52 for the rest of the season.

Detroit Tigers

Record: 34-32
Pythagorean Record: 33-33
nF Division Odds: 28.2%

Could this be the end of the Tigers’ run atop the division?

Sluggish offense would seem to be part of the problem, but in reality, sequencing has been a bigger culprit.

While timely hitting has inflated the Twins’ offensive output, the opposite has been true for the Tigers. Detroit is third in baseball in both wOBA (.324) and OPS (.745) but 15th in runs scored per game (4.18).

Detroit is 17th in OPS in high leverage situations and 26th in “clutch hitting” (WPA/LI - WPA).

Clutch hitting has not been found to be a repeatable skill, so we should expect Detroit’s hitting in “big” spots to start matching its overall output.

The Tigers’ pitching has been middle of the road, with a 96 ERA- and 101 FIP-.

As you could probably guess, based on how “cluster luck” has negatively impacted its run scoring, Detroit’s BaseRuns-implied record (36-30) is six wins better than its actual record.

Our projections do not foresee this underlying level of performance continuing though, as we have the Tigers going 49-47 the rest of the way. Given they are already five games behind the Royals, we give them only a 28.2% chance to win the Central and a 43.8% chance to make the playoffs.

Cleveland Indians

Record: 30-34
Pythagorean Record: 30-34
nF Division Odds: 7.9%

The Indians have not been playing great to start the year, and the results have been even worse thanks to the run sequencing extremes running rampant in the division.

Despite the 10th best wOBA in baseball, the Indians are 17th in runs scored per game, and while they are tied for eighth in FIP-, they are 23rd in runs allowed per game.

The offensive difference is due to (yup) poor cluster luck, as Cleveland ranks 26th in OPS in high leverage spots (.643).

As for the pitching, the Indians hurlers have largely been done in by the men behind them, as Cleveland is 27th in UZR.

If that was not enough, the Cleveland hitters had some leftover sequencing misfortune for their defense, as the Indians have the fourth-lowest left on base rate in the Majors and are 25th in “clutch” pitching.

Despite the bad fortune, regression to its underlying level of performance probably won't be enough for Cleveland to be relevant going forward. We only have the Indians going 49-49 from now until the end of the season, with a 15.3% chance to make the playoffs.

Chicago White Sox

Record: 28-36
Pythagorean Record: 24-40
nF Division Odds: 0.6%

The White Sox have been one of the worst teams in baseball this season. Their minus-1.1 average scoring margin is worst in the American League and 28th in the Majors, and that is honestly just scratching the surface.

Their position players do not hit (29th in MLB with a 75 wRC+) and do not play defense (ranking last in DRS and 28th in UZR). Their collective struggles are verging on record-level futility, as they have been worth minus-3.3 fWAR; only six teams since 1900 have seen their hitters finish a season worth three wins below replacement or worse.

Per our algorithm, there is a 98.7% chance they miss the playoffs (insert “Dumb and Dumber” meme here).