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 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|
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|
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|
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.
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.
|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.
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.
Last season The Winning Run attempted to predict the outcome of the 2014 Major League Baseball season. We were not highly successful in our first attempt. Not to be deterred by our lack of success, we are back to try again. Once again, let us apologize in advance for jinxing everyone’s favorite team, whether it is by dooming your team before it had a chance to do much better or by sending it spiraling down in flames as it does much worse than expected. Either way in which we have ruined the chances of your team this season, we are sorry.
Let us begin with the Senior Circuit.
|1||Washington Nationals||Division Winner/ 1st Seed|
|3||New York Mets|
The National League East could be one of the weakest Divisions in all of baseball. Beyond the Nationals, the rest of the division could struggle. The Marlins and Mets could threaten for a Wild Card spot, but each have deficiencies that could prevent it from reaching the playoffs. The Braves could surprise people if the bats and pitchers keep up with one another and hover around .500. The Phillies will be the worst team in all of baseball. A successful season would be to avoid 100 games, but even this could be out of reach in Philadelphia.
|1||St. Louis Cardinals||Division Winner/ 3rd Seed|
|2||Pittsburgh Pirates||Wild Card|
Every team in the National League Central could win the Division or finish last. The Cardinals should continue to be the class of the Central, as they have the pitching and the bats to match up against any team in baseball. The Pirates could pace with the Cardinals all season, but they may fall a few games short of the division based upon a few miscues throughout the season. The Cubs are dramatically improved, but playing in the Central will keep them out of the playoffs in addition to their young stars not all fully rising to their potential this season. The Brewers are dependent upon their lineup supplying the offense that the pitchers need, but there are too many chances for the bats to go quiet throughout the season. The Reds are recovering from losing several keys pitchers from last season. The Reds could rise out of the cellar, but only if Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, and Brandon Phillips all have productive and healthy seasons.
|1||Los Angeles Dodgers||Division Winner/ 2nd Seed|
|2||San Francisco Giants||Wild Card|
|3||San Diego Padres|
The Dodgers are the clear class of the National League West; they have the arms and bats to compete with any team in baseball. Ultimately, the Dodgers will chase the Nationals for the best record in the National League. The Giants will recover from their October success last season, breaking the cycle of boom and bust that they have experienced the last four seasons. They will make the playoffs as a Wild Card, but they will not win another World Series this season. The Padres like the Marlins and Cubs are greatly improved, but will not be able to put it together this season to reach the playoffs in the first season of their new reality. The Rockies will continue to be successful offensively, but their pitching staff is not ready to take the team to the next level and compete for a playoff spot. The Diamondbacks are in full rebuild, and will be searching for answers in every phase of the game. The trade of Trevor Cahill was the clearest sign of Arizona looking to the future beyond the 2015 season.
Now let us examine the Junior Circuit.
|1||Toronto Blue Jays||Division Winner/ 3rd Seed|
|3||Boston Red Sox|
|4||New York Yankees|
|5||Tampa Bay Rays|
The Blue Jays finally have all the players they need to win the American League East. Even with the loss of Marcus Stroman for the season, Toronto has the arms and bats to win the Division. The Orioles will return with another strong team. If Chris Davis or Manny Machado can return to half of their 2013 form Baltimore will stay in the hunt for the playoffs into the final days of the season, but could ultimately fall short. The Red Sox are better than last season, but their pitching leaves too many questions for the bats to make up. Boston should finish above .500, but they will not play in October. The Yankees are a mixture of old talent and youthful ignorance. New York may face more injury worries as the season progresses, which could derail any dreams of reaching the playoffs, or even .500. The Rays are in full rebuild mode. Tampa has to rediscover the magic of over performing if it hopes to avoid finishing last in the East.
|1||Detroit Tigers||Division Winner/ 1st Seed|
|2||Cleveland Indians||Wild Card|
|3||Kansas City Royals|
|4||Chicago White Sox|
The American League Central could be the best Division in all of baseball. The Tigers should be the class of the Division so long as David Price, Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, and Victor Martinez are able to stay healthy. The Indians will finally get over the hump and make the playoffs as a Wild Card. Corey Kluber needs another good season, not necessarily another Cy Young season, and young stars like Michael Brantley need to emerge to power Cleveland back to October. The Royals are still recovering from their World Series hangover. While they will be competitive until late in the season, they will not make a return trip to the playoffs, as the loss of James Shields and Billy Butler will be the difference this season. The White Sox should be much improved but in the Central, it could be difficult to crack the top three in the division even with the addition of Jeff Samardzija to the rotation and David Robertson to the bullpen. The Twins need their bats and arms to light up the box score this season. The continued worry about the health of Joe Mauer and the suspension of Ervin Santana could prevent Minnesota from reaching .500.
|1||Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim||Division Winner (won 1 game playoff)/ 2nd Seed|
|2||Oakland Athletics||Wild Card (lost 1 game playoff)|
The American League West has three potential Division winners. The Angels once again have a tremendous offense led by the best player in the game, Mike Trout, a star looking to rediscover his old form, Albert Pujols, and a declining star, Josh Hamilton. If the Angels pitchers can stay healthy, they could win the Division. The Athletics will once again work their magic and surprise everyone to finish the season tied with the Angels. Another star will emerge in Oakland, a player who another club gave up on and let go. The Athletics and Angels will have to play a one game playoff to determine who wins the Division and who is the Wild Card. Ultimately, the Angels will win the Division and send Oakland to the Wild Card. The Mariners will unfortunately fall just short once again and miss the playoffs. They need a bit more offense in Seattle if they are to reach to playoffs, but that will have to wait until 2016. The Astros are once again going to take a huge step forward. Houston should finish .500 or better thanks to the continued development of its young stars in Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Collin McHugh. The Rangers should be able to avoid the injury plague they suffered from last season; however, they still lack the pitching to compete, especially after losing Yu Darvish for the season due to Tommy John surgery.
October will once again give us some great moments to remember, beginning with the Wild Card games.
|American League||National League|
In the American League Wild Card game, the Athletics will have spent too much energy getting to the Wild Card game to overcome the Indians. Cleveland will continue on their excellent season into the Divisional Series. In the National League Wild Card game, the Pirates will finally give Pittsburgh the full playoff series it has been waiting for since 1992. The Giants will finally run out of gas after back-to-back seasons of hard-fought competition to reach October.
|Toronto Blue Jays|
|Los Angeles Dodgers|
In the American League Division Series, the Blue Jays will run through the Indians after Cleveland runs out of gas fighting through the Wild Card. Pitching should be fairly even, but offensively Toronto should have an advantage with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. The Angels will once again come up short due to a lack of pitching to match up against the rotation of the Tigers. Detroit has the best hitters in baseball in Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, who can make up for any problems the pitching staff encounters. In the National League Division Series, the Cardinals will fall to the arms of the Dodgers, as Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke finally translate their dominance to October. The Nationals will continue their dominance as they fight past the Pirates. While the series could be tight, Washington has the pitching staff to quiet the bats of Andrew McCutchen, Josh Harrison, and the rest of the Pirates.
The Championship Series will pair off great offenses in the American League as the power bats of the Blue Jays match up against the all-around hitting ability of the Tigers. The experience and rotation will be the difference for Detroit, even if Justin Verlander and David Price are not in vintage form. In the National League, the Championship Series will see the matchup of two great pitching staffs. Los Angeles will send Kershaw and Greinke to the mound to face off against Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez, and Stephen Strasburg. The Nationals will stop the Dodgers as Washington has a deeper roster and the ability to recover if any of its starters faulted.
The 2015 World Series will pit the Washington Nationals against the Detroit Tigers. Both have excellent pitching staffs and line-ups. Detroit has the better lineup, while Washington has the better pitching staff. The biggest advantage exists in the lineup for the Tigers, which will propel Detroit to another World Series victory in six games.
|Detroit Tigers||4 games|
These are our predictions for the 2015 Major League Baseball season. Love it? Hate it? Time will tell if we are right or wrong. We never claim to know what will happen, but this is what we are predicting to happen. Now it is time to watch how bad our predictions turn out to be once they meet reality, while enjoying another great season of baseball.
D, J, and B