What to Expect in the AL Central

The 2011 baseball season is almost one quarter finished, and the AL Central standings still look upside down. The Twins have won six of the past nine division titles, ran away with last year’s crown, and brought back essentially the same (mostly) young team this year, only to start 2011 12-23, with the worst pitching in the majors (.2 team WAR) and the third worst hitting (1.1 WAR). The White Sox finished second last year, picked up slugger Adam Dunn, and are currently 15-23, worse than any team in baseball except the Twins and Astros.

Meanwhile, the Indians, who lost 190 games over the last two seasons and whose only notable offeason acquisition was 36-year-old Orlando Cabrera, have the best record in the American League and had built a ten-game lead on both preseason favorites by May 1 (they’re still nine ahead of Chicago and 10.5 up on Minnesota). Perhaps more surprisingly, the Royals, who have finished in or within one game of last place seven years in a row and traded Zack Greinke in the offseason, just beat the Yankees in New York on back-to-back nights for their 20th win in 37 games. They remain a half game ahead of the Tigers, who sit in third place, right where we expected them.

We know more about these teams now than we did in March, but it’s probably still safe to assume that preseason projections are a better predictor of the remaining 4 1/2 months of this season than results from the first six weeks. Let’s take Diamond Mind projections (eerily provided by Replacement Level Yankees Weblog)- which aggregate projections from Bill James, CAIRO, Marcel, Oliver, and PECOTA, all objective systems of various levels of sophistication that use past results and trends to project future results- prorate them to the remaining schedule, and add the first six weeks of results for a baseline projection.

Here are the current standings:
Indians, 23-13
Royals, 20-17
Tigers, 20-18
White Sox, 15-23
Twins, 12-23

Diamond Mind sees (or saw) the teams’ true talent like this:
Tigers, 84.6-77.4
Twins, 84.4-77.6
White Sox, 82.8-79.2
Indians, 74.3-87.7
Royals, 68.4-93.6

which, over the teams’ remaining schedules, prorates to this:
Tigers, 65-59
Twins, 66-61
White Sox, 63-61
Indians, 58-68
Royals, 53-72

Add current standings to prorated projections, and we get this:
Tigers, 85-77
Indians, 81-81
White Sox, 78-84
Twins, 78-84
Royals, 73-89

So what do we know now that we (or Diamond Mind) didn’t know in March?

First, the Tigers are a little schizophrenic. They’ve already put together winning streaks of three, four, four, and five games, sandwiched around a seven-game losing streak as the calendar turned to May. Justin Verlander is the ace we knew he would be, and Max Scherzer has been excellent, but the rest of the rotation is shaky. Rick Porcello started cold and heated up, while Phil Coke started hot and lost his magic. Brad Penny has been consistently underwhelming with the exception of one flirtation with a no-hitter. The offense is league-average or slightly better, and is likely to stay there, as Austin Jackson’s sophomore slump and Alex Avila’s hot start will probably regress until they meet in the middle. The projections said they would win 84 to 85 games and possibly the division. I don’t see any reason to amend that.

The Indians, of course, are somewhat better than the 74-win team they were supposed to be, but how much better? Grady Sizemore (.282/.333/.641) and Travis Hafner (.333/.400/.500) are defying projections by staying healthy and productive, and both have track records suggesting they may be able to keep up their hot starts. Asdrubal Cabrera and Jack Hannahan may regress, but we can possibly expect more out of Carlos Santana and certainly expect more out of Shin-Soo Choo, whose off-field problems may be impacting his play (.221/.302/.336). The offense will be fine. Cleveland’s pitching, on the other hand, is way over its head. Josh Tomlin and Justin Masterson are far outperforming their FIP (Tomlin by two runs), and with so much youth in the rotation, it’s hard to imagine the Indians getting quality starts night after night in August and September, as they have in April and May. With the division lead they hold now, they’ll likely contend throughout the season, and may finish above .500, but when you line up their pitching with Detroit’s, it’s easy to see the Tigers making up their 2.5-game deficit by June.

The White Sox have been enigmatic to this point, their record more indicative of their bullpen’s ineffectiveness than their team’s shortcomings. Sure, they’ve been outscored by 20 runs, but that’s 54 runs better than the Twins, who sit just a game and a half behind them. If Sergio Santos (0 ERA) continues to emerge as a relief ace (whether that means closer or not), and Matt Thornton and Chris Sale get back on track, they’re going to have the opportunity to preserve a lot of leads handed to them by Gavin Floyd, Mark Buehrle, and John Danks, whose 2.5 K/BB ratio belies his 0-6 record. Jake Peavy doesn’t even have to return healthy and effective if the Sox keep getting the contributions they’ve gotten from Philip Humber. Offensively, the White Sox are a little thinner, but if Paul Konerko (.319/.391/.543) and Carlos Quentin (.270/.355/.555) keep mashing and Gordon Beckham (.268 OBP) and Adam Dunn (1 home run) come around, they can hit enough to contend. It’s a long climb to .500, but the White Sox have 124 games to get there and perhaps beyond.

While the White Sox are underachieving, the Twins might just be bad. The Twins lack a true ace (Scott Baker leads the team with a 67 Season Score, 24th in the AL), and while Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano were better last year than the sub-replacement-level pitchers they’ve been this year, it’s hard to imagine anyone on this staff running off a string of quality starts or eating enough innings to give the bullpen a break every five days. Speaking of the bullpen, Joe Nathan is either done as an effective pitcher or in need of a long DL stint to fully recover from last season’s injury, and new closer Matt Capps has pitched below replacement level himself. The offense relies too heavily on Joe Mauer, who can’t seem to stay healthy enough as a catcher, and Justin Morneau (.214/.279/.313), who’s struggling to find the swing that made him a leading MVP candidate before a concussion knocked him out last ssummer. Morneau and Michael Cuddyer will start hitting at some point, but that may be accompanied by a regression from Jason Kubel (.355/.414/.532). This team has the look and feel of a 75-win team playing like a 55-win team. It’s hard to imagine my preseason World Series pick being a seller at the trade deadline, but this might be the year.

The Royals have somehow won 54% of their games with a AAA pitching staff. No starter has a FIP below 4 or more than 6.5 strikeouts per nine innings. Even the bullpen has been bad (Joakim Soria has been worth 0 WAR, blowing two of his eight save opportunities). The offense, on the other hand, is probably overperforming their true ability more than the Indians’ pitching is. Billy Butler (.298/.404/.443) is for real, and Mike Aviles (.510 slugging percentage) might be breaking out, but the rest of these guys have a long way to fall. Jeff Francoeur has nothing in his track record suggesting he can keep hitting .303/.350/.563, and there’s no way Wilson Betemit and Alex Gordon keep hitting .408 and .348, respectively, on balls in play. What the Royals do have in their corner, however, are reserves to insure for that inevitable regression. Eric Hosmer was called up last week and is hitting .333/.500/.533 in nine games, and he’s just one prize in a stable of prospects Keith Law considers the best in the game. If he can find a place to play, Kila Ka’aihue will hit better than .195 and Mitch Maier has shown some promise in a limited role. If everything breaks right for the Royals, they may be willing to go all-in this season, choosing to develop players like Mike Moustakas and Michael Montgomery at the major league level, rather than in the minors. I’d put the Royals’ chances of winning the division somewhere south of 10%, but even 5% is 5% higher than they should have expected before the season began.

Factoring in the above trends, my adjusted projections for the AL Central as of May 13:
Tigers, 84-78
Indians, 82-80
White Sox, 82-80
Royals, 75-87
Twins, 74-88

Let’s check back in six weeks, and see if I’m just as wrong then.

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