The AL Central is Historically Bad

Mike Moustakas is probably the Royals’ best player, which partly explains why they’re playing .300 baseball this season. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

The middle part of our country has a hard time of it. Call up the clichés: Rust Belt. Flyover country. Forgotten Americans.

The coasts have Hollywood and the City by the Bay and Mike Trout, Broadway and the Smithsonian and Aaron Judge. What’s in between has the American League Central Division.

Pity the AL Central. Its five unglamorous cities house five unglamorous teams that, collectively, are on pace for a historically bad season.

As of June 25, FanGraphs’ projected standings show the Central teams will wind up, in total, losing 88 games more than they win, with only Cleveland, as the worst of the six division winners, over .500. Since Major League Baseball split itself six ways in 1994, no division has had a worse season by that measure.

Alas, it’s nothing new. Blame it on small markets, blame it on these teams’ inability to attract the very best free agents, blame it on unwise or tightfisted ownership; heck, blame it on Midwest weather. There’s a history of this. Thirteen times in the 24 years we’re looking at, the AL Central or its National League middle-of-the-continent cousin has been the worst division in baseball. This looks like 14.

Now, far be it from me to disparage the Midwest. I was born there and educated there, left and then returned of my own free will at one point. I have no bias against the cities that form the woebegone AL Central. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, home of the Central Division’s White Sox, the esteemed University of Chicago, and an unfortunate reputation. I lived 10 years in Detroit, nine more winters than anybody ought to spend in Michigan. “Cleveland without the glitter,” Time magazine once called it. But we had fun there.

Cleveland, for its part, has plenty of elbow room, since it, like Detroit, has lost two-thirds of its population in my lifetime. And it has the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, which does not discriminate on the basis of substances ingested. Kansas City has famous barbecue and fountains, so good for it. Minneapolis, the only major league city I’ve never set foot in, reportedly has very nice people and is not as cold as Nome, Alaska.

So these are swell places. They deserve better baseball teams. But, as a whole, they don’t get them.

This year, Cleveland was expected to be the class of the division, but that was when pitchers Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar and Andrew Miller weren’t injured. And if star outfielder Michael Brantley makes it through the season, it’ll be his first summer without injuries since he started riding a two-wheeler.

The Twins keep being right on the edge of being good, everyone says, with perpetual can’t-miss prospects Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. Sano, striking out 40 percent of the time, got sent to A-ball recently, and Buxton has been on the disabled list with an OPS holding steady at .383.

Which is, to be fair, considerably higher than the winning percentage of the Kansas City Royals, who will be paying Alex Gordon, who once hit .300 for a season, $20 million a year for approximately the rest of his life.

That transitions to the shocking news that young Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers is out for the rest of the year, which is really going to hurt his chances for a big payday when his contract runs out in 2023. When he’s 40. Now Detroit must rely on Victor Martinez for youthful enthusiasm.

That leaves my hometown White Sox. Like their city-mates the Cubs of a few years ago, they are reputed to have a fine crop growing on the farm, but they see no reason to harvest it in a lost season.

The dubious standard these 2018 teams are chasing was established in 2002, when five teams in one division combined to lose 76 more games than they won. The division was…the AL Central!  Who’d have imagined it?

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. In that 2002 season, only Minnesota was over .500. The Tigers and Royals both lost 100-plus. Steve Sparks got to pitch 189 innings with a 5.52 earned run average for a Detroit team that scored the fewest runs in the majors. Kansas City trotted out Neifi Perez and his .564 OPS 145 times. Jim Thome’s 1.122 OPS went to waste in Cleveland, while Victor Martinez provided youthful enthusiasm. The White Sox (Magglio Ordonez, Frank Thomas, Paul Konerko, etc.) hit lots of home runs.

Next worst was the same division the next year, 2003, when the same five franchises combined to lose 70 more games than they won. The Tigers contributed mightily, at 43-113. Detroit’s ERA and FIP starting pitcher leader, 23-year old Nate Cornejo, walked more batters than he struck out. He would win one more major league game after that season. Brandon Inge’s .203 batting average was best among the team’s catchers, though A.J. Hinch managed a mighty 64 wRC+ in part-time work. The White Sox, Indians and Tigers left more men on base than any other team in the majors.

Then there was a 1999 division, at minus 69. Which one? I’ll keep you guessing. Hint: Only Cleveland among the five teams had a winning record. The White Sox lost 11 games more than they won and still finished second. LaTroy Hawkins and Mike Lincoln were members of last-place Minnesota’s starting rotation despite ERAs north of six and a half. Ron Coomer hit 16 home runs for a Twins team that had the fewest in baseball. Stars-to-be-elsewhere Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye notwithstanding, the Royals were just one win better than the Twins. The 23-games-under .500 Tigers featured future managers Gabe Kapler and Brad Ausmus and future players association head Tony Clark.

The rest of the bottom 10:

  • The 2005 National League West (minus 66), with the 82-80 Padres far ahead of everyone else.The 2006 NL Central (minus 65). The Cardinals took the division with 83 wins.
  • The 2002 NL Central (minus 63). That year was the epitome of the Central problem, what with the AL Central setting the record for futility and its National League counterpart burdened by Milwaukee’s 56-106 record.
  • The 2015 NL East (minus 62). The Mets won 90 games; three teams lost more than that.
  • The 2008 NL West (minus 60). Arizona won 82 games and still finished just two behind the Dodgers.
  • The 2010 National League Central (minus 58). As on the high seas, the Pirates were the villains, losing 105 games.
  • The 1998 AL Central (minus 57). Detroit replaced Milwaukee in the division that year and lost 97 games. (This is a good place to acknowledge that baseball’s divisions have shifted a bit over the years with expansion and a couple of teams changing leagues. But, as Kipling wrote, east is east and west is west and never the Twins shall …)

I’ll spare you any more, except to state the obvious: People aren’t turning out in large numbers to watch these teams. This season, each AL Central team is in the majors’ bottom third in per-game attendance. Only Minnesota hasn’t dropped significantly from last year (when the division was no great shakes either).

As for the flip side, the best division in the majors so far this season is the AL West, whose teams are projected to win 56 more games than they lose. Only the Rangers are on pace for a below-.500 record. That division only twice has had a bottom-of-the heap season: 2013 (remember when the Astros stunk?) and the strike-demolished 1994. Same for the NL East, both recently — 2015 and 2017, with the rebuilding Phillies and Braves and the woebegone Marlins.

References and Resources

Joe Distelheim is a retired newspaper editor whose career included stints as sports editor of The Charlotte Observer and Detroit Free Press. He co-authored Cubs: From Tinker to Banks to Sandberg to Today.
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5 years ago

If we sort of standardize everything and use winning percentage instead (because having 5 or 6 teams in a division would be an “advantage” over 4) then the strike shortened 1994 AL West is worse than the 2002 AL Central where the first place Rangers were a whopping 10 games under 0.500. The AL West that year played 0.437 while the 2002 AL Central played 0.453. [I didn’t check any other years].

Amazingly, the 2018 AL Central so far are playing 0.423. However their projected standings would put them at 0.447, above the strike shortened 1994 AL West.

I really enjoyed the article and so I hope I’m not coming off the wrong way. I merely wanted to add to the info and in no way am suggesting their is a right or wrong way to look at t his.

5 years ago

Had the 1994 strike been settled just in time for a playoff, the AL West leader would have been the only sub .500 team in MLB playoff history. Kind of amazing that they weren’t just a bit under, but 10 games under. That might not have been a realistic expectation if the strike never happened. I haven’t checked the remaining schedule but if the AL west teams would have played most of September against each other than one of them would have had to improve somewhat in the standings.

5 years ago
Reply to  Rallymonkey5

The AL was still using the balanced schedule in 1994, so each AL West team had a home and home series left against each of the other three teams that got wiped out by the strike. Not a lot of time for them to win off of each other. Had the six division era and the balanced schedule era coincided for longer than eight seasons (1994-2001), I’ll bet we’d have seen a finished season somewhere along the line with a division where all teams were under .500 (And likewise, one where all teams were over .500).

Johnnie T
5 years ago

The Central Divisions of both leagues will be at a perpetual disadvantage because their markets are behind and will probably fall further behind their coastal brothers. Market size is not destiny, but it certainly matters. Such inequalities are intrinsic to graphically-based divisions. But, on the good side of it, it also serves as kind of a handicap; the KCs and Milwaukees do not have to beat the coastal behemoths to make the playoffs, just each other.

5 years ago
Reply to  Johnnie T

True, but that also means that both Chicago teams (and to a lesser extent Detroit and St. Louis, the latter of which is only a small market in terms of population) enjoy a huge advantage over the other teams in their divisions.

Ernie Camachomember
5 years ago

The *rest* of the AL Central is terrible, but the casual implication that Cleveland is part of its terribleness is lazy nonsense. A correct reading of Fangraphs’ projected standings page as of June 26th thinks they are essentially tied with the Dodgers as the 4th best team in baseball, taking projected playing time (i.e., injuries and depth) into account.

5 years ago
Reply to  Ernie Camacho

Cleveland when not playing the AL Central is a poor 18-21. That’s adding to the AL Central’s defecit.

Oh and the reason why the Indians are projected to be the 4th best team in baseball by record isn’t because they’re the 4th best team. It’s because they have the worst SOS remaining of anyone in MLB. Only the Cubs, Twins, and Nationals are within .011 of them. Add in the Yankees, and no one else is within .015 of them.

Ernie Camachomember
5 years ago
Reply to  stever20

The “projected standings” page in Fangraphs has no SOS adjustment. It’s an estimate of a team’s true talent, based entirely on player projections and [projected] BaseRuns. Fangraphs does incorporate SOS in its playoff odds page, which projects Cleveland to have the third best rest of season winning percentage.

5 years ago

This might be time to suggest a caveat for post-season. No team with a below-.500 record – even if a division champ – shall be eligible. If a weak division should ever produce a below-.500 record champ, then that play-off spot should be vacated for the best team in the other divisions that wouldn’t have made the play-offs. So, for example, if the Indians were to win the Central at 80-82, I’d give their play-off spot to maybe the 3rd place AL West team – probably Angels or Mariners, who’ll probably be over .500.

Yehoshua Friedman
5 years ago
Reply to  Mikesfg

Yes, you bump the No. 1 Wild Card to DS (this year it would be the Yanks or Red Sox, say) and add the next strongest team in the league as Wild Card. It would be good for baseball to have a team like that in a full DS rather than one and done.

5 years ago

Those 2006 Cardinals did end up winning the World Series, so we’ll just have to wait and see how (presumably) the Indians fare in the playoffs before we can truly determine just how bad the division is.

Also, the rest of the Midwest teams may have ranged from decent to completely awful in 2002, but the Cardinals won 97 games and a trip to the NLCS that year.

Yehoshua Friedman
5 years ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

Another discussion is what makes small-market St. Louis such a good baseball town. Of course for years the Browns were a perpetual doormat. Question: Why, in this day and age, does Chicago rate two MLB franchises?

Yehoshua Friedman
5 years ago

This situation will not change. The reason is greedy ownership. The plutocrat fraternity has jiggered the system so that the tanking teams will still make money with media and swag revenues divided up. There is a star in fan excitement in the Midwest, but not in baseball. It is the community-owned Green Bay Packers. If more pro sports franchises were owned this way, the product on the field would be consistently better and more fans would come to games. Get fans massively involved and they will be happier and come to games even without a brother-in-law with corporate season tickets. But it won’t happen, and more’s the pity.