AL Central: The Tigers are in control

On July 11, I wrote about the American League Central and cast my vote for the Detroit Tigers as the favorites in the division. Since then they’ve only improved their status, (especially after their sweep of Cleveland this weekend).

I also touched on the Twins, saying we should not sleep on them. Well, the Twins have themselves fallen fast asleep. They’ve gone 14-22 since and have been outscored by 52 runs over that period.

In the first half the Twins scored 3.90 runs per game. In the second half they’ve improved slightly, averaging 3.97. Unfortunately for them, their pitching has gone into the toilet, making their poor first half winning percentage of .461 seem decent compared to the dreadful .389 clip they’re limping at in the second half. Their ERA has skyrocketed to 4.94 in the summer’s heat and they’ve allowed a robust .818 OPS.

So the division remains a three-pony… light jog among the White Sox, Indians and Tigers while the Twins (13 games back) and Royals (17 back, as per their usual) are planning their offseason fishing trips. It’s business as usual for Dayton Moore’s Kansas City club, but it’s far from it for the Twinkies.

Similar to the National League’s Western division, the AL Central has been unimpressive. In fact, after pummeling Cleveland 10-1 on Saturday 10-1 behind a strong start from midseason acquisition Doug Fister, the Tigers needed a seven-run third inning on Sunday to (1) win and (2) get their run differential (which is now plus-one) back into the “green.”

It wasn’t a comfortable feeling for the Indians. Not only were they swept, opening up a 4.5 game lead for Leyland’s Tigers, but also those seven runs came against their big midseason acquisition, former Colorado Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez. In a season in which the Indians weren’t expected to do much of anything, they got off to a white-hot start, most certainly was helped by a soft schedule. That spurred their interest in going from passive rebuilders to deadline buyers and spending big, prospect-wise, for Jimenez.

In particular, it cost them their best prospect, left-handed starter Drew Pomeranz. Pomeranz was a first-rounder in 2010; he went fifth overall. He’s a big kid who can touch mid-90s. Keith Law (ESPN Insider) projects him as a “potential No. 2 starter.” Of course, Jimenez remains a good starting pitcher with great stuff and a team-friendly contract. But his worth won’t come near that of Pomeranz if the prospect touches his ceiling: An excellent or above average pre-arbitration player in the major leagues remains the best thing a general manager can hope to get his hands on.

Though Jimenez’ overall peripherals are holding strong and look that of a high quality starting pitcher, his velocity is down considerably and the results—in a results-first game—aren’t there. Still, it’s hard to blame the Indians for wanting to give their fans—and LeBron-less city—a shot at the postseason. They could use some excitement.

But like their close Ohio neighbors, the Cincinnati Reds, it’s looking more and more like the Indians’ season is going to end in disappointment. Justin Verlander, who continues to improve upon his already-impressive AL Cy Young credentials, is, at a minimum, as responsible as any other for crashing the Indians’ party.

He’s remained dominant since the ridiculous stretch he was in at the end of the first half. He’s been handed the ball seven times since and gone 6-1 with a 2.79 ERA and a 57:11 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Hitters have hit just .183/.228/.288 (average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) over those seven starts. It’s clear as day that the Tigers expect to win when the 6-foot-5 right hander is on the hill.

Verlander has probably been fortunate this season given his .234 BABiP (batting average on balls in play), but it’s extremely hard to argue that he’s not one of the toughest in the business to barrel up. He’s having a career year while striking out an excellent 9.06 batters per nine innings to a stingy 1.87 walks per nine (4.86 ratio). Because of his strikeout rate, his ability to avoid free passes, and his defense converting so many balls in play into outs, his WHIP (walks plus hits per nine innings) is an outrageous 0.88.

In terms of total value, FanGraphs has him already having racked up a 6.2 WAR (wins above replacement), just 0.1 off his entire 2010 season. He was worth 8.3 in 2009 and has a chance to match that this season with something like seven or eight starts to go. To say that he’s carried the pitching staff would be an understatement. Teammate Max Scherzer has been the Tigers’ next most valuable pitcher, and he’s not even in the same ballpark as Verlander at 2.2 WAR. As you can see, and though the conversation is without question premature, Verlander is on a Hall of Fame trajectory¹.

The Tigers have had three main contributors offensively. They are Miguel Cabrera—and I’m guessing you might have guessed that—Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta. You may not have guessed those two would contribute so heavily coming into 2011. Each has accumulated 4.4 WAR for the Tigers with excellent seasons with the bat.

Cabrera remains a hitting machine and has a line of .322/.425/.548 for a .413 wOBA, but he’s penalized for being a below average base runner and first baseman. Still, he’s an absolute force in the lineup, hitting for a high average with lots and lots of thunder while walking more than over 15 percent of the time.

Avila (.390 wOBA) and Peralta (.373 wOBA) have hit a bunch while each playing premium defensive positions. The three have combined to hit 55 home runs, drive in 205 runs and score 180 times. Teammates Brennan Boesch and Victor Martinez have also had strong (while not great) seasons.

It’s hard to say whether the Indians or White Sox are bigger threats for the AL Central crown, but on just the player side of things, Adam Dunn remains as big a non-threat as one can be. While contributing zero value defensively as a full-time designated hitter, Dunn has “hit” .169/.297/.298 for a .276 wOBA. His transition to the AL has not been a good one, and the four-year, $56 million contract he was handed looks like an instant albatross. Had he simply put up numbers similar to those he had in the National League, it’s not inconceivable that the White Sox and Tigers would be neck and neck at this juncture. But he hasn’t, and they’re not.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

He does seem a good sport about it and it remains to be seen if a rebound of sorts is in his future. The Sox’ homer-friendly Cellular Field and Dunn seemed like a match made in heaven on paper, but angelic it hasn’t been. Rather, his season has been a complete nightmare. A strikeout rate of greater than 35 percent is unsightly, even for him, and it’s giving Mark Reynolds’ 2010 season a run for its money.

The White Sox and Indians do remain in the mix, sitting at five and four and a half games out respectively, but with few than 40 games to go, and with Verlander pitching every fifth day for the Tigers, Detroit remains the heavy favorite.

¹ Speaking of Hall of Fame trajectories and players on them, how about Matt Cain? Depends who you ask. I’ve mentioned the National League West and how it’s about as poor as the American League Central this season, so why not touch on Cain? Verlander has thrown 1,267 innings in his career with an ERA+ (league- and park-adjusted ERA) of 123, albeit in the tougher American League. Matt Cain has thrown 1,268.2 innings with an ERA+ of 126. Cain is 67-71, while Verlander is 101-57.

We here at Hardball Times seek to tell the truth (so to speak) about baseball using sabermetrics. Given that, I felt it my duty to point out how run support can drastically impact a pitcher’s win-loss record, and literally alter how his legacy in the game is perceived. Bert Blyleven, anyone? Pitching to the score and “learning how to win” remains a dirty fallacy in baseball journalism.

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12 years ago

Matt Cain, according to neutralized pitching on BB-Ref, should have a 78-56 career record vs. the 67-71 he does have. If you use the projected .582 winning %, and apply it to the number of decisions he has had, it would be an 80-58 record. If he has a long career, he could definitely be the next step in the Hall of Fame argument against wins.

12 years ago

Someone should tell B-R the tool is broken; the Giants’ offense has cost Cain > than 11 wins.

12 years ago

That is based on a neutralized environment. If you take the winning %, and apply to his decisions, it is actually 13 wins. If you do the difference like team standings, it is 11 wins and 15 losses difference (11+15=26/2=13), or the projected Cain would be 13 games ahead of the real life Cain. I think that is a reasonable assumption for what the team has cost him.

12 years ago

Michael, what do you get if you use the neutralized pitching for Verlander?

12 years ago

For Verlander, 73-60 .549 winning %. Translating the winning percentage to his number of decisions, you get 87-71. Still better than Cain, but no to such an extreme as the face value would have you believe.