Central “Champions”

This MLB offseason has unexpectedly been boring. Despite a marquee free agent class and a number of teams looking to make trades, since December it has followed last year’s offseason of inactivity, at least until Manny Machado and Bryce Harper sign. But as we countdown the days to Spring Training, this period of quiet affords us a perfect time to discuss another smoldering issue: the American League Central was garbage in 2018. While the division’s awfulness is apparent from a quick glance at the final 2018 standings — one team with a winning record, two hundred loss teams, and one 98 loss team — the level of stink went much deeper.

We’ll begin with Cleveland, the Central “Champions.” A cursory look seems to indicate Cleveland had a solid season. They put together 91 wins while finishing 3rd in the American League in runs scored, 2nd in batting average, 6th in OBP and SLG, and 4th in OPS. Their pitching staff was the only one to feature 4 starters putting up 200+ strikeouts en route to the 9th best ERA, 7th fewest runs allowed, and a collective 7.7 WAR, good for 6th best in the league. With the 5th best run differential in the league, Cleveland appeared to be a solid playoff team in 2018.

Francisco Lindor.jpg
Francisco Lindor and Cleveland were not the World Series contenders their record said they were. (Ron Schwane/ Getty Images)

But this impression starts to fall apart when you take a deeper look into their stats, particularly when focusing on Cleveland’s splits again divisional and non-divisional opponents. In 2018, Cleveland put together a 49-27 (.645) record against their division and a 42-44 (.488) record against non-divisional opponents which included a 22-31 (.415) record against teams above .500. While their divisional record is to be expected given the sorry state of their opponents, the non-divisional record isn’t the result of bad luck, they were awful against better quality opponents.  

Against non-divisional opponents, Cleveland was a sub-.500 team with a pedestrian +3 run differential. This is partly the result of a decline in pitching performance, as their staff’s ERA and RA/G against non-divisional opponents increased by over a run, falling below the league averages of 4.14 and 4.45, respectively.

2018 Cleveland Pitching Stats
ERA Runs Allowed RA/G SO SO/9 WHIP RDIFF
Division 2.92 240 3.16 748 9.89 1.09 167
Non-Division 4.53 408 4.74 796 9.25 1.31 3

 

They fared better offensively against non-divisional opponents, putting up a batting line that was above the league average in all categories but markedly below their overall numbers as a top offense.

2018 Cleveland Batting Stats
Win-Loss (%) Runs Scored R/G Avg. OBP SLG OPS
Division 49-27 (.645) 407 5.36 0.269 0.343 0.450 0.793
Non-Division 42-44 (.488) 411 4.78 0.249 0.321 0.421 0.742

 

This split in performance was an outlier among the AL playoff teams. The other AL playoff teams, with the exception of Oakland, performed well against teams both inside and outside their division. The run differentials are against divisional and non-divisional opponents for each playoff team are broken out below with Tampa Bay added in to show how Cleveland compares with the best non-playoff team (Seattle was left out due to their improbable record in close games in 2018).  

2018 American League Playoff Team and Tampa Bay Run Differentials
Team Overall Against Division Against Non-Division Against AL Central
Houston 263 94 169 102
Boston 229 98 131 47
Yankees 182 95 87 49
Oakland 139 13 126 67
Tampa Bay 70 10 60 31
Cleveland 170 167 3

 

With the exception of Oakland having a similar split in the opposite direction, no other playoff team was even close to the type of split that Cleveland put up, despite the AL East teams having the privilege of playing Baltimore more often. Houston may have even performed better against the AL Central than Cleveland, putting up a 102 rdiff against the division in 44 fewer games. That Cleveland played so poorly against opponents outside its division while the rest of the playoff teams did not, is not just the result of Cleveland being a weak playoff team but the division winner from one of the historically worst divisions in baseball since the beginning of the divisional era in 1969.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Detroit Tigers
Corey Kluber may leave Cleveland if the team is going to become a real contender.  (www.mlb.com)

In June 2018, The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh wrote an article detailing the strength of each division since 1969 using an analysis supplied by Dan Hirsch of The Baseball Gauge. The method is similar to the “Simple Rating System” at Sports Reference Sites and adds the average RDiff of a division against teams from outside its division (“RDiff”) to the average run differential of the division’s opponents in their own non-divisional games, excluding games against the division listed (“SoS”) to produce an overall rating (“SRS”). You can find the full list here, noting the AL Central results are from June 2018.

At the time, the AL Central was on track to beat the awful 2005 NL West (which the Padres won with a 82-80 record) for weakest division. Using stats from Baseball Reference to calculate the AL Central’s final 2018 SRS shows they managed to avoid the embarrassing mark of worst division by finishing as the second worst division since 1969.

Division Rdiff SoS SRS
2005 NL West -1.014 0.099 -1.005
2018 Al Central -0.977 0.092 -0.885

 

While this may seem as another historical curiosity produced by baseball, under MLB’s current schedule and playoff structure, having a division that performs far below the others could add to the trend of teams committing to lengthy rebuilds instead of improving to make a playoff push.

A good example of this is Seattle. The Mariners finished 2018 with 89 wins, good for 7th best in the AL, but 8 games behind Oakland. This offseason, Seattle has decided to undergo a full rebuild, seemingly concluding that they can’t make the necessary improvement to catch up to Oakland or Houston. But that calculus might have been different under a playoff system that sent the top-5 teams in each league to the playoffs instead of the division winners and 2 wild cards. Catching up to Houston and Oakland would still be out of reach in 2019 under such a system, but Seattle making enough smaller improvements to compete with Cleveland, Minnesota, or Tampa Bay for the 5th playoff spot seems attainable.

Terry Francona.jpg
Cleveland has to point the finger at themselves and take a hard look at their team if they want to win in the Post Season. (John Kuntz/ http://www.cleveland.com)

Instead, none of those teams just mentioned are doing much to improve their rosters. Seattle is rebuilding, Minnesota has made a couple of tweaks (claiming C.J. Cron and signing Jonathan Schoop and Nelson Cruz) but hasn’t improved their pitching, Tampa is pursuing its usual strategy, and Cleveland is shedding payroll and looking to trade Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer.

Maybe a Kluber or Bauer trade will bring back current players to improve their outfield and bullpen, it appears that Cleveland may focus on the future and seek prospects and young players. A prospects orientated trade would make Cleveland worse in 2019, yet they likely would still be favorites to repeat as AL Central champs.  This is made possible because the AL Central is crud and, at a time when MLB revenues are rising, AL Central teams aren’t spending money to improve (all of its team’s 2018 payrolls were in the bottom half of MLB). This removes a playoff spot from being truly competitive, and may add to the growing list of teams undergoing rebuilds and results in less meaningful and interesting games for fans.

KB

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