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First Quarter Reporting: AL Central

AL Central First Quarter Report

Detroit Tigers

Original Projection: 86 – 76, Current Pace: 77 – 85

Take a look at these 2012 pitching results from two different teams:

                        K%      BB%   FB%    GB%   LD%   PopUp%

Team A:           21.5     9.1%    26.6     46.1     18.5       8.8    

Team B:           22.0     8.0%    26.7     46.1     17.7       9.5

The above table tells the story of every at-bat against a team’s pitching staff through the first forty games of the season.  Which team has given up more runs?

Let’s tackle this logically, one category at a time.  Team B has recorded more strikeouts, therefore fewer opposing batters hit balls into the field of play.  Edge to the pitching staff of Team B.  Team B walks fewer people, and by a material amount.  Players that don’t walk can’t score on subsequent hits.  Edge to Team B.  Of the balls that were hit into play, exactly the same percentage were hit on the ground and for all intents and purposes the same percentage of fly balls were hit to the outfield.  However the line drive and pop up rates are different.  Line drives fall for hits more often than any other type of hit while pop ups are always caught (Mets fielders excepted.)  Due to fewer line drives allowed and more pop ups induced, a final, significant edge goes to Team B’s pitching staff.  Therefore Team A must have allowed more runs to score.

Team A, the Los Angeles Dodgers allowed 133 runs in its first 40 games and Team B, the Detroit Tigers allowed 182.

How is that even possible?  The answer is defense.  Even though Detroit pitchers retired more batters via strikeout before any balls were even hit into the field of play, and even though the balls hit into the field of play were either identical type hits or easier balls to field, Detroit gave up far more hits than Los Angeles did.  The Dodgers allowed balls hit into the field of play to fall for hits at a .268 clip; against the Tigers it was .311.

The difference in the two team’s defenses can’t explain the entire gap in runs allowed of 49 because Detroit and Los Angeles don’t play in the same stadiums.  Tiger pitchers had 12 more fly balls turn into home runs than the Dodgers did and that very well may be due to park effects.  However, all things being equal, the Tigers should have given up fewer runs because its pitchers strike out more batters and walk fewer of them, so it’s certainly not absurd to assign a 40-run value to the difference in each team’s defense.  And that’s over just 40 games!

I ask you, has Prince Fielder ever had a 40-game stretch where he created 40 more runs than a player who could replace him at a massively lower cost? (Possibly, but it’s unlikely.  Josh Hamilton, hitting .379 with 18 home runs, has created roughly 30 excess runs to lead the majors so far in 2012.)

This isn’t 20/20 hindsight/second-guessing on my part.  I started my 30 Teams in 30 Days, 2012 Preview with the Detroit Tigers because I had done a significant amount of work over the winter on the predictive nature of a team’s defensive performance.  I was absolutely convinced the Tigers were going to struggle to win the AL Central far more than expected due to poor defense. (Full team essay here:

Despite that prediction coming true and despite the fact that the Tigers are currently in 3rd place in the division, I’m more convinced today that Detroit will win the AL Central than I was before the season started.  Why?  Because the Tigers pitching staff has been, by far, the best staff in the American League in 2012.    Justin Verlander has been every bit as dominant a pitcher as he was during his Cy Young/MVP campaign of 2011, Max Scherzer has displayed a truly elite strikeout-to-walk ratio and is one of the most underrated pitchers in the majors, Rick Porcello is in early stages of making “the leap” and although no one knows it, thanks to a significantly lower walk rate Drew Smyly, it can be argued, has outpitched the far more heralded “rookie” Yu Darvish.  No casual observer can tell these things though because the ERA and won-loss records of all of them, except for Verlander, are marred by the horrendous quality of defensive support each pitcher has gotten.

The defense won’t get worse and during an uptick in performance it’s probable Detroit will rip off a couple of 8-2 stretches this summer and put some distance between themselves and the White Sox and Indians.  It didn’t have to be this way however – the Tigers staff is young and talented and shows signs of dominating opponents.  Management should have supported it by upgrading the defense over the winter rather than panicking in the aftermath of Victor Martinez’ injury and committing an enormous amount of the team’s financial resources to Prince Fielder.

Cleveland Indians

Original Projection: 82 – 80, Current Pace: 93 – 69

Despite winning six more games than they lost over the first quarter of the season, the Cleveland Indians were actually outscored by two runs.  Looking at the components of both its runs scored and runs allowed reveals no insights.  Cleveland is performing essentially exactly as projected.  The Indians appear unlikely to have the offensive firepower or dominant capabilities on the mound to launch a sustained winning streak. 

Indians fans shouldn’t despair.  Not many projection had the Indians playing .500 ball and the Tigers have already frittered away 25% of the season.  The longer the Tigers struggle to get above .500, the higher the Indians chances are of remaining in the playoff picture. 

Chicago White Sox

Original Projection: 82 – 80, Current Pace: 77 – 85

Honestly, you could cut and paste my comments on the Indians and drop them in this space as well.  Before the season started, I saw the Indians and White Sox as identical looking teams that both figured to play slightly better than .500 baseball surpassing conventional (and Las Vegas) expectations but falling short of catching the Tigers.  At the time, I thought the White Sox had a slightly higher ceiling than the Indians and I still do mainly due to a stronger pitching staff.  Reeling off say, 8 straight wins means winning some close games and I’m always scared if I have a financial interest in an Indians game when Chris Perez comes out to pitch the 9th inning.  The White Sox have better starters and a bullpen with mildly better skill sets.

Kansas City Royals

Original Projection: 70 – 92, Current Pace: 65 – 97

Given that they lost 12 straight games shortly after the season began, with a record of 16-24 after 40 games, the Royals weren’t actually in that bad a situation.  The Royals have a lot of young talent on the offensive side of the ledger so no one should be surprised to see periods of inconsistency.  Preseason hype was excessive because many overlooked some obvious holes in the Royals story.  The trio of players sent out to replace the traded Melky Cabrera in centerfield haven’t come close to matching his production at the plate or in the field.  Alex Gordon and Jeff Francoeur have regressed significantly from their career years in 2011, and the starting pitching is just as weak as the 2011 unit’s – only this year they haven’t gotten the extraordinary amount of outfield assists to mask some of that weakness like the 2011 unit received. 

The Royals still have plenty of pieces in place to contend in 2013 but 2012 will continue to feature growing pains

Minnesota Twins

Original Projection: 78 – 84, Current Pace: 57 – 105

The Twins are a bad team and while they might not be a 100-loss bad team by the time the season ends, it’s hard to find much in its performance that contradicts the poor results.  Their pitchers only strikeout 14.4% of the batters they face, by far the lowest in the league and a full 5% below the league average.  There hasn’t been a staff which struck out less than 15% of hitters since 2009.  Facing more balls in play, therefore, than any team puts pressure on the defense and Minnesota is merely average on that account.  As a result of that lack of strikeouts Minnesota gave up the most runs in the American League over the first 40 games.  Sadly for Twins fans, strikeout rates are among the quickest statistics to stabilize at the beginning of the season so it’s fair to conclude the Twins staff cannot make batters swing and miss.

The offense has once again been sabotaged by an injury to former MVP Justin Morneau and at this point, it’s foolish to project any meaningful contribution from him going forward.  Happily Joe Mauer is enjoying somewhat of a bounce back year.  The problem for the Twins is that he is playing less than half his games at catcher.  As a first baseman or designated hitter his bat is still an asset, but he’s not nearly as valuable as if he were posting that production from the catcher’s spot in the line up.


Mop Up Duty:

Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball*  (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.

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