There are a handful of games left in baseball’s regular season, and the division races are all but clarified. The Orioles hold a 9.5 game lead on the Yankees in the AL East. The Angels are seven games ahead of Oakland in the AL West. The Nats put the Braves in their rear-view mirror some time ago and are seven games ahead in the NL East. The Cardinals are 4.5 games up on the Pirates in the NL Central and the Dodgers hold a small lead on the Giants (three games) in the NL West. According to Fangraphs, none of those division leaders have less than a 87.7 percent chance at the division title.
And then there is the AL Central, where the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals are still in a dogfight for the title. The Royals are expected to finish with a 89.4-72.6 record, while the Tiger are close behind at 89.1-72.9. The fractional wins are a by-product of simulating the season 10,000 times and taking the average number of wins and losses. The probabilities for winning the division are 57.0 percent and 40.5 percent, respectively.
The Royals have a slightly more difficult road for the remainder of the season. Their opponents are projected to have a .506 winning percentage the rest of the way while the Tigers’ remaining slate is projected to have a winning percentage of .475. However, these two teams go head-to-head Friday, Sept. 19 through Sunday, Sept. 21, so the race could look a lot different by then. Here are two reasons to bet on the Royals as the eventual NL Central divisional leader.
Kansas City is great in the field. Three of their fielders rank in the top 12 for fielding runs above average after adjusting for position (Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez and Alcides Escobar) compared to just one for Detroit (Ian Kinsler).
The Royals also lead the league in Defensive Runs Saved (plus-31), whereas the Tigers are second to last (minus-67). That’s likely a by-product of making more plays classified as “remote” (less than 10 percent chance at success) or “unlikely” (10 to 40 percent chance).
The Royals bullpen has been worth 6.2 wins above replacement using runs allowed per nine innings while the Tigers have cost the team a small fraction of wins (minus-0.5). If we switch to WPA/LI, which measures how many wins a player contributes to his team with the leverage index aspect removed, we still see the Royals on top, plus-1.0 to the Tigers minus-0.9.
It’s going to be close, but if the old adage “defense wins championships” is true, the Royals should come out on top.