With the Royals rolling, the Tigers lurking, the Twins surprising, and the White Sox and Tribe rebounding, picking a winner in the Central is no easy task.
When we last checked in on the AL Central race, Detroit and Kansas City had already jumped out to an early lead while Chicago and Cleveland were mired in abysmal starts to the season. The Minnesota Twins barely even warranted a mention. Six weeks later, the Tigers and Royals are still fighting for the division crown but the Twins are inexplicably tied for the lead. It’s shaping up to be MLB’s best postseason race.
Can Minnesota maintain their stellar 28-19 record (heading into Saturday’s action)? Regression is certainly the key factor here, as the Twins face a massive talent deficit when compared to the rest of the division. Fortunately for Minnesota, they haven’t been particularly “lucky” thus far. With a +21 run differential, their pythagorean win-loss is a solid 25-21. Detroit’s record by this method would be just 25-24, although Kansas City comes in at their actual record of 28-18.
The Twins haven’t had any insane hitting performances due to fall apart. In fact, they’re 10th in on-base percentage in the American League and 11th in slugging. They somehow might be even worse at pitching: the Twins pitching staff is 10th in ERA and last in the AL in batting average against (BAA) at a brutal .270. Importantly, they’ve walked the fewest batters by far. Regardless, nothing about their team, or even individual, performance suggest a division winner.
Kansas City looks the part. Their pitching has been elite, sitting second in the league in both ERA and BAA. The bullpen trio of Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland have been unhittable once again.
It’s hitting where the Royals have taken a big leap. Mike Moustakas, Kendrys Morales, Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer all have offensive wins above replacement (WAR) between 1.1 and 1.7 thus far. Cain and Moustakas are 4th and 5th in total WAR for the AL. Their talented young hitters are evolving into extremely tough outs at the perfect time for the Royals. They seem the sure division favorite.
Detroit really isn’t far behind, though (just two and a half games after Friday’s action). Miguel Cabrera is turning in another elite offensive season and David Price is an innings-eating ace. Fully filling a hole like Max Scherzer (likely MLB’s best pitcher this season) is impossible. Maligned free agent pick-up Alfredo Simon has been excellent and the typically atrocious bullpen has actually been quite good. Getting back an effective Justin Verlander would go a long way.
That brings us to Chicago and Cleveland, the unexpected doormats of the division. Both teams have struggled to fully put their nightmare starts behind them, sitting seven and seven and half games back, respectively. But lately, it’s been a tale of two far different teams.
The Tribe are perhaps finally regaining their groove. They’ve won seven of 10 and boast an even run differential now, having both scored and allowed 215 on the season. Most importantly, Corey Kluber once again looks like the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner.
Over his last four starts, Kluber’s allowed just five runs over 32 innings. He’s struck out an absurd 50 batters over that stretch and walked only two. On May 13th against the St. Louis Cardinals, he pitched the best game of the MLB season: eight innings, 18 strikeouts, zero runs, zero walks. Many fans were upset the Klubot didn’t get a chance to break the record of 20 Ks.
A return to true dominance for Kluber, plus a much-needed bounce back from Jason Kipnis, have helped Cleveland look like the team most expected to see in April. At 22-26, they still have plenty of work to do.
That leaves Chicago as perhaps the division’s true cellar-dweller. The Sox have lost six of 10 in increasingly depressing fashion and sport an ugly -45 run differential. They’re the only team getting outscored in baseball’s best division. Chicago has the AL’s worst hitting by most metrics and there’s few reasons to forecast a massive turnaround on the horizon. Even a resurgence from what should be a solid rotation won’t be enough this season.
It’s nearly impossible to tell who will ultimately come out of this division on top, as you could argue any of the five teams in it could do so. The Tigers have the veteran presence and know how to win. The Royals are probably the most complete team in division and have been on fire for more than a year now. The Twins are surprising everyone, and even Cleveland and Chicago have a lot of pieces in place to make a run. The only thing that is certain: the American League Central is going to be a lot of fun.