2014 AL Central Preview
To win 90 games in a season, you should expect to outscore your opponents by roughly 100 runs. Sure, there are exceptions, and while generally rare they can also be very notable. Namely, the 2012 Baltimore Orioles won 93 games while scoring just 7 more runs than their opponents. Still, if you expect (and really, since these previews are always viewed through the lens of Las Vegas expectations, it’s the right viewpoint for this piece) to win 90 games you must have a plan in place where you will outscore your opponents by triple digits over the course of 162 games.
Sometimes, but not frequently, a team is constructed in such a way that outside of completely unexpected skill deterioration or catastrophic injuries, a team looks destined to win far more than 90 games to the point that winning fewer than 90 games becomes a left-sided tail result on a distribution curve. Early-century Yankees teams (and by early century, I mean this one; think Billy Wagner, not Honus Wagner) that were built to score 900 runs are a good example as was the 2011 Phillies team anchored by perhaps the best run-suppression staff we’ve seen in decades. Far more frequently however, for the 90+ win outcome to occur a lot has to go right, and sometimes that confluence of events falls under the heading of non-repeatable.
To that end, let’s take a look at the 93-win Detroit Tigers of 2013. The Tigers outscored their opponents by 170 runs, and to be honest, they were even a bit better than that. Were they to post exactly the same offensive and defensive results as last year, the Tigers should really expect to outscore their opponents by 200 runs and win 100 games. (In other words, they had negative cluster luck.) But can they expect to post those same results?
Roster changes make that doubtful, but before we even address that point, consider a couple of other factors. One of the most underrated aspects of success in any year is the health of a team’s starting rotation. Every year there is one team (and usually only one) whose five-man rotation stays intact the entire season. Generally, that team has a very good year, and assuming the runs allowed results are in line with the composite skills of the rotation, no one questions the sustainability of the results. On a rate-basis that’s true, but as a counting measure, it’s remarkably unsustainable.
The Tigers got 156 starts from, by far, the best rotation in baseball last year; of the six starts not taken by their starting five, one was a throw-away late-season game and another was during the second game of a doubleheader when the staff needed to be expanded to six pitchers. No other team in baseball came close to matching the Tigers starting five in terms of starts (156) or innings pitched (995.) And oh! what productive innings pitched they were as Verlander, Scherzer, Sanchez, Fister, and Porcello allowed just 401 total runs during their outings. Only the otherworldly Phillies staff of 2011 (360 total runs allowed in 1,064 innings pitched) has been better and only the 2010 Giants staff (in a far different home-field, run-scoring environment) have come close to matching the Tigers.
It’s not just that that level of excellence can’t reasonably to expected to be improved upon, it’s that it’s even less reasonable to expect that level of durability – and that’s a huge potential drop-off. Sixth, seventh, eighth etc. starters are usually the very definition of replacement-level players. They’re usually either minimum-salary middle relievers or triple-A ceiling guys. For some teams, there’s not a lot of difference between their fifth starter and replacement level but when you have a staff like the 2013 Tigers who only gave up slightly more than 3.5 runs every nine innings, it’s a drop-off of at least one run a game. Getting a still-above average 140 starts from their starting rotation could still result in a notable bump in runs allowed.
Then there are roster changes, and the Tigers jettisoned the extremely effective Doug Fister (3.68 ERA). His starts will be taken by Drew Smyly, a promising young pitcher, to be sure, but one relegated to the reliever’s LOOGY role last season. Even young and promising, no one should expect him to match Fister’s 2013 output.
On the run scoring front, roster changes threaten to gut a healthy portion of the nearly 800 runs the Tigers scored last year. In a highly notable off-season trade, first baseman Prince Fielder was swapped for the Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler. That threatens to cost the Tigers offensive output at two positions. Having Kinsler under cheaper team control for a few seasons might have been a defensible move and improved the team in the long run, but for the 2014 outlook we’re concerned with marginal changes from the year before. Kinsler, a lifetime .273/.359/.474 hitter in the AL’s best hitting park, will replace Omar Infante’s production at second base. Infante hit .318/.345/.450, numbers which look awfully similar to Kinsler’s lifetime mark. Once you normalize for the home field park factor and consider that Kinsler has been in decline since 2011, at best, the Tigers can expect a year-over-year wash in offensive production from second base.
There will be no wash offensively replacing Fielder with third baseman Nick Castellanos while Miguel Cabrera moves to first base, even with Fielder coming off the least productive year of his career. Finally there is the curious case of shortstop production – on both sides of the ledger. Jhonny Peralta (.303/.358/.457) gave the Tigers superior offensive output for 2/3 of the season before his PED-related suspension. Based on his full minor league resume, there is no way Jose Iglesias can ever hope to replicate that hitting line over the course of a full campaign. Tigers fans will tell you they don’t care because, of course, Igelsias is a far superior fielder. That view is plain to anyone who watches his super-smooth command of the area between second and third base. And yet – here we are back in the ‘your eyes lie’ territory – can he actually improve on Peralta’s output in the field last year? Your eyes say yes and every Defensive Runs Saved projection say so, but I disagree.
Here’s why: All any fielder can do to prevent runs is turn batted balls into outs via an assist or putout and for shortstops, obviously, assists are the most important part of the equation. Here’s a look at the defensive production of Detroit’s shortstops last year:
IP Assists A per 9 IP
Peralta 936 294 2.83
Iglesias 332 103 2.79
Santiago 193 49 2.28
Look at that – Jhonny Peralta got to more ground balls per inning played than Jose Iglesias. Remember, all of the things which can make assists-per-inning tough to compare (strikeout rate of pitching staff, quality of other defenders, number of right-handed batters faced, stadium differences, etc) are held constant here. I am not for one second saying Peralta is as talented as Iglesias in the field; I’m positively saying I think Iglesias will have a hard time improving on Peralta’s 2013 figures which means the supposed defensive gains Iglesias provides to offset the offensive fallout, comparing 2013 to 2014, look specious to me.
Coming back to the theme that opened this piece, expecting to win more than 90 games in a season usually requires a whole bunch of things to go right and while I think the Tigers are headed back to the postseason donning their fourth straight division crown, I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as everyone expects.
Owing to less division strength than the Rays, Athletics, Red Sox, Rangers, etc. face, the Tigers have been installed as the AL favorite to go to the World Series and prohibitive favorites to win the AL Central. I don’t think it’s going to be that easy this year and I’ll continue my zig-zag tendencies with Detroit since I started publishing these previews before the 2012 season: Under in 2012, over in 2013, and for this year, under the posted win total of 90 ½.
(This was written before it was disclosed Iglesias will miss time, possibly a significant amount, with leg injuries. You can probably comfortably lop another win off this projection.)
87-75 – First in AL Central
720 Runs Scored 668 Runs Allowed
I’m still basking in my very out-of-consensus call last year that not only was Cleveland my favorite over on the board but that they would ride a much better-than-expected season into the playoffs. Therefore, you certainly aren’t going to see me turn on the Indians this year. Oddsmakers have made that default setting rather easy projecting the Indians to win just 82 games this year, off of their 92-win campaign last year. Now, the Indians weren’t 92-wins good last year and not even they would pretend they were just one game short of the Tigers last year despite what the final standings read. (They finished 15-2 including 8-0 vs. the Astros and Twins and were still 6 out with 7 left to play when Detroit shut things down for the playoffs.)
Still, this isn’t the aforementioned Orioles. This year’s starting rotation looks arguably stronger than the core that left Spring Training last year, even with the loss of a very rejuvenated Ubaldo Jimenez. Danny Salazar is going way too late in the fantasy drafts I’ve witnessed and while the loss of Jimenez is notable, the departures of Scott Kazmir and Chris Perez may be additions by subtraction despite their serviceable performances in 2013.
At a market of 82 wins, the Indians are a candidate as an Over for the final Opening Day releases.
84-78 – Second in AL Central
704 Runs Scored 675 Runs Allowed
Kansas City Royals
By far, the most bizarre baseball-related news to surface this winter was that Lorde, she of the nine-straight-weeks-at-number 1, teen dissatisfaction anthem, Royals, titled her song after paging through a 1980s-era magazine featuring George Brett in uniform. My guess would have been a Bo Jackson-inspired video game sighting, but there you have it.
The Royals are the most obvious candidate to be this year’s Pittsburgh Pirates. I missed on the Pirates last year and I hope I miss on the Royals this year. I’d like to see them playing baseball in October. However, my dispassionate model thinks the bullpen performance (2.55 ERA, second to only Atlanta’s 2.46 and easily the best in the AL) is bound to regress, and the staff will sorely miss Ervin Santana. They should give up a lot more than the 601 runs they allowed last year.
On the other hand, the offense could explode to the upside. Norichika Aoki is an inspired trade acquisition for a team that traditionally has on-base issues. Aoki is a massive pick-up in that area having a lifetime OBP of .355, a huge improvement over the .304 rate Royals right fielders posted last year. Additionally, don’t quit on Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain yet; they’re still young with strong minor-league resumes. Royals fans should recall Eric Hosmer’s breakout last year and Alex Gordon’s a few years earlier in realizing there is still upside for their young roster.
I’ll be rooting for the breakout and the continued bullpen success. I just can’t project it or bet on it. The Royals current market is at 82, just like the Indians. I’d rather back Cleveland.
81-81 – Third in AL Central
690 Runs Scored 687 Runs Allowed
Chicago White Sox
Last week I appeared on Chad Millman’s Behind the Bets podcast alongside Paul Bessire, of PredictionMachine.com to discuss season win totals. We had some interesting, albeit minor differences of opinion – he’s a bit more bullish on the Tigers, Dodgers, and Rangers than I am – but I suppose maybe our biggest undiscussed difference concerns the White Sox. It’s not because I’m bearish, it’s that he is wildly bullish seeing more value on the White Sox than say, the Indians and Royals. One of underpinnings of his premise is that the White Sox really “weren’t who they were” last year, to change tense on Bill Parcell’s famous evaluation of one of his Cowboys team, because Chicago tanked in the last couple of months to ensure a favorable status when it came to protecting draft picks from free agent signings, a new development in the recently enacted CBA.
I took a look at my numbers and frankly, I don’t see it. I’ll be shocked if the White Sox get out of fourth place this year. On the other hand, I love to watch Chris Sale pitch and I’m very excited at how low in my league’s draft I got new lead-off hitter Adam Eaton for my fantasy team.
The White Sox have assembled a young enough roster to provide hope for their fans, and apparently, at least one model-based outlook. I can’t see it even squinting however, as I see a team that is going to have a lot of trouble turning batted balls into outs and a starting staff that is alarmingly bad whenever dark-horse Cy Young candidate Sale is in the dugout.
The young offense will certainly be better than the 2013 version which didn’t even score 600 runs last year. But I see real problems in the run suppression outlook and given the clear delineation of talent in the division above them and below, the White Sox look locked into fourth place to me and a win total right around their Vegas-based projection of 75 wins.
74-88 – Fourth in AL Central
678 Runs Scored 748 Runs Allowed
The Twins had by far the worst starting pitching in baseball last year. How bad was it? Well Minnesota’s starting pitchers had an ERA (5.26) more than a half-run worse than the 110-loss Houston Astros. One half-run per nine innings is a huge amount. Consider this: We all know how bad the Houston Astros were last year. Well the Astros were closer in starting pitcher effectiveness to the Phillies (with Lee and Hamels) the Giants (Bumgarner/Cain) Angels, and four other teams than the Twins were to the Astros.
For Twins fans, that, in a word, is horrendous. Sadly, it was also entirely predictable. As I pointed out in last year’s preview, in an era when pitchers are striking out more batters than ever, the Twins stocked their staff with below-average strikeout pitchers. And by below average, I mean below average for the 1970s. (The K-rate of Twins starters in 2013 was 12.4%. The MLB rate was 18.9% and hasn’t been as low as 12.4% for starters since 1976.)
The good news is management has finally recognized that flawed approach to roster construction and has started to make changes. Ricky Nolasco, and Philip Hughes now anchor the staff and while Mike Pelfrey and Vance Worley still represent a pitch-to-contact problem, they are at least in the back of the rotation now. This small step is helpful and represents the start of a new approach to rebuilding the one-time powers of the AL Central.
The results aren’t going to be seen this year and, in fact, I could see a bottoming out around 100 losses as a more likely result than a .500 record. Thanks to the on-air support of Twins broadcaster Kris Atteberry, Trading Bases sold well in the state of Minnesota. Like the Royals, I’ll be rooting for the Twins to over-achieve compared to their consensus win total of 71 games, but I just can’t bet on it.
70-92 – Fifth in AL Central
655 Runs Scored 759 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, A Story About Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) publication currently available wherever books are sold. Here are three on-line booksellers you can currently choose from:
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