Who has the best chance to win the AL Central?


(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

The most exciting race in baseball is in the AL Central Division, where all five teams have 30 wins or more and are separated by just four games top to bottom.

The Detroit Tigers are 34-28 but are 3-7 in their last 10 games, unlike Kansas City, which is on a heater over its last 10 games (7-3) has won four straight. The Royals, however, are the only team in the division with a losing record (8-15) against other AL Central opponents. The White Sox are riding left-handed ace Chris Sale (5-1, 1.97 ERA) and rookie slugger Jose Abreu (19 home runs and 50 RBI) into contention while Cleveland and Minnesota are trying to keep their wild-card hopes alive.

So who has the best chance to win this dog fight?

According to Fangraphs’ 2014 projected standings, it should be Detroit by a country mile. The Tigers are projected to win 89 games and coast to a seven-game lead on both Cleveland and Kansas City.

Detroit’s bats have been hot: The Tigers are second in the American League in slugging percentage (.429) and tied for second in weighted on-base average (.329), which combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value. And their starting pitching has been great, too.

Max Scherzer just tossed the first complete game of his career and is 8-2 on the year with a 3.05 ERA and 3.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Justin Verlander is 6-6 with 67 strikeouts in 91.2 innings pitched, an off year compared with his Cy Young-caliber seasons of a few years ago but solid nonetheless. The starting rotation as a whole has the second lowest FIP (3.60), or Fielding Independent Pitching, in the American League. FIP measures what a team’s ERA should have looked like over a given time period, assuming that performance on balls in play and timing were league average, and it is in line with Detroit’s current overall ERA of 3.74. meaning. We shouldn’t expect any sever corrections for the better or worse the rest of the season.

The bullpen, on the other hand, is a completely different story. Closer Joe Nathan has not pitched well by any means and an argument could be made he should be relieved of his closer duties.

But don’t count out the Indians just yet. They have not had a ton of luck hitting, their batting average on balls in play (.297) is right at the league average, but they don’t chase many pitches out of the zone (28 percent) and on the ones they do swing at they make a decent amount of contact with (68.3 percent).

The Indians ‘ pitching staff, however, has seen some bad luck in their BABIP (0.326 against starters). This despite great command (2.85 strikeout-to-walk ratio) and 46.4 percent of balls in play resulting in grounders. With an ERA of 4.58 and a FIP of 3.72, we could see Cleveland’s starting rotation fuel a late-season run down the stretch.

Kansas City could, too. They make a ton of contact on pitches in (90.4 percent) and out of the strike zone (74.7 percent) but haven’t seen many balls in play leave the yard (5.2 percent of fly balls have been home runs).

Plus the Royals and Indians are helped in the wild-card race by an unbalanced schedule.

Through Saturday, the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays had the third, fourth and 10th most difficult schedules based on the records of their opponents, according to STATS LLC. The Royals ranked 11th, the Indians 17th and the Rangers 26th.

So, the unbalanced schedule allows the Indians and Royals to play nearly one-fourth of their games against two of the three worst teams in the AL, and the Rangers to play nearly one-fourth against the worst and fourth-worst clubs.

The AL Central Division is up for grabs, and while Detroit should coast to a division victory, don’t be surprised if the Tigers end up with a second- or third-place finish.

Neil Greenberg analyzes advanced sports statistics for the Fancy Stats blog and prefers to be called a geek rather than a nerd.
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