Squeezing the Central

It’s official. This is as close as the Central Division has been by June 13th in it’s twenty year history. No other season since the creation of the Wild Card and three division league as seen such a tight pack. Not only is there no amazing team running away with things, there is also no team that is so terrible they have already moved on to 2015. Just 3.5 games separate the Tigers, Twins and everyone in between with each team sitting at or above .500 except the Twins at 31-33. Things have been close all season, but a three game losing streak from Detroit (2-8 in their last ten games) has tightened things up and rejuvenated the other four teams in the division.

Looking to the past, there have been close races for first, but never a full division in competition. Generally, there has been a team like the 2005 White Sox (who won 42 of their first 60 games) or the 2004 through 2009 Royals who made coming in last a tradition, to maintain a large difference between first and last. The only other year that compares to this at all was in 1997 before the Indians used a 15-6 stretch in July to pace themselves far above the Twins. For the first twenty years of the Central Division, the average distance between first and last was 13.2 games.

While part of this reason is a lack of a stand-out club (that White Sox club was the only Central Division champion to go on to win the World Series), it has much more to do with the lack of a terrible one. Both the Tigers and Indians made the play-offs in 2013 and have improved their squads one way or another for this season. The Royals made a run last fall for October, coming up short largely because of the Indians ten game winning streak to end the year. All three clubs knew they had a legitimate chance at the post-season in 2014 and came loaded for bear. The other two teams, the White Sox and Twins, really were awful in 2013, but also made improvements during the off-season, both internal and external.

The White Sox had the best off-season of any Central Division team, picking up Cuban slugger and probable Rookie of the Year, Jose Abreu while dropping some overvalued players like Addison Reed in an effort to make the team younger. While keeping Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn was questionable, the two have combined to become a decent DH platoon, smashing 14 home runs and knocking in 47 between them. Solid moves over the past decade as well as a great Cuban pipeline have lead to the Sox success this year and there is no reason to think it will not continue.

Chris Sale is one of the top three pitchers in the AL and is backed up by a solid rotation that includes Jose Quintana and the best John Danks we have seen in awhile, giving Chicago a significant left handed presence. While they will likely not remain among the top offensive clubs in the league (they currently are sixth in the Majors), they are definitely in the top half and their pitching is good enough to allow them to remain competitive. Offensively, Alexei Ramirez has been a big part of things, finally living up to his lofty expectations. He is a similar case to Lonnie Chisenhall of the Indians, as it is yet to be seen whether or not he has finally matured into the hitter he was expected to be or is just benefiting from some good luck.

The Twins are a slightly different situation and the most likely team to drop out of the race first. Of course, Terry Ryan and the Twins disagree, as they have just added the last free agent bat on the market, Kendrys Morales to their lineup. Unlike the White Sox and Indians, the Twins aren’t among the league’s best teams at the plate (Cleveland is fourth, Chicago is fifth in the AL) or on the mound (Chicago is second, Cleveland is third). Other than Brian Dozier (who is a superstar in the making), the Twins have little offense, depending on young players like Danny Santana and Oswaldo Arcia, who are unlikely to maintain their current levels for the entire season. The leaders of the past, Joe Mauer and Josh Willingham have been troubled by injuries and can’t be considered likely to produce at a high level at this point in their careers.

Likewise, the Twins have been depending on the pitching arm of the young Kyle Gibson and the resurgence Phil Hughes, both of whom have been pitching well, but can’t be expected to continue. While the other, more expensive starters, Kevin Correia, Ricky Nolasco and Mike Pelfrey, will likely improve closer to their career averages as the season goes on, it is hard to imagine them being good enough to keep pace with the leaders.

Going back to whether the division is close because all teams are equally great or equally bad, a glance at their records against opponents outside the division is in order. Against the perennially over rated AL East, the Central Division has been astounding, winning more than 60% of their games as a whole, with a record of 49-31. While the opposite is true against the West, that is mostly due to Oakland’s Central Division heavy schedule (16 games already, more than all but one other team in the West). It would appear at this point that the West is the top AL division, then the Central with the East coming up embarrassingly last.

That being said, everything could change in a week. Right now, every team in the Major Leagues is within reasonable striking distance of a Wild Card (with the possible exception of Tampa Bay, who is ten games back) and every team in the Central could win the division. A ten game winning or losing streak could break the division up, but that seems unlikely at this point. These teams are more closely matched then ever before in the history of the division and it could stay that way through September. Buckle in kids, it’s going to be a long and bumpy ride.

Year First Record Last Record Difference
2014 Tigers 33 – 28 Twins 31 – 33 3.5
1997 Indians 32 – 28 Twins 28 – 35 5.5
1994 White Sox 33 – 25 Brewers 27 – 34 7.5
2009 Tigers 34 – 27 Royals 26 – 34 7.5
2013 Tigers 36 – 28 White Sox 28 – 35 7.5
2012 White Sox 34 – 27 Twins 25 – 35 8.5
2011 Indians 34 – 29 Twins 26 – 39 9
2004 Twins 34 – 27 Royals 23 – 36 10
2010 Twins 36 – 26 Indians 25 – 36 10.5
2008 White Sox 37 – 30 Royals 26 – 41 11

The closest the Central has ever been on June 12th.

 

Joseph Coblitz

About Joseph Coblitz

Joseph is the primary writer and editor of BurningRiverBaseball.com and has been since it's inception in 2011. He is a graduate of the University of Akron and currently resides in Goodyear, Arizona the Spring Training home of the Cleveland Indians.

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