MLB: Kansas City Royals at Cleveland Indians

Around the AL Central: Everyone is mediocre but we kinda knew that already

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One of the fun things about the American League as we entered the 2016 season was the belief, for the most part, that no team was great.

Over in the National League, you could find the almighty Cubs, destroyers of all those who come within arms reach of their tempestuous might. The Mets employ cannons who are regularly sent to the mound to explode fastballs past hitters. The Dodgers have money—lots and lots of money—and a pitcher who is the greatest thing since peak Pedro. The Nationals have the scariest hitter this planet has seen since Barry Bonds, the Pirates can mash, and the Cardinals have Devil Magic.

Over in the American League, well…

The Yankees don’t really spend like the Yankees anymore. The Red Sox still spend, but they do all of their shopping on QVC. The Blue Jays have the bats, but the pitching staff is a mess. The Astros have a lot of fun, young players who are performing like they’re young but not so much like they’re fun. The Indians are the projection darlings who don’t play like it, and the Royals are the anti-Indians except maybe this year the projections are actually right about them.

At the beginning of April, you could have probably made a legitimate argument for any team in the American League to at least contend for a playoff spot. Sure, you probably would’ve had to stretch a bit for teams like the Twins or Athletics, picking and choosing points that benefited your argument — what if Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton REALLY break out; have you seen that Oakland bullpen?! — but it wasn’t impossible to see it happening.

The National League, on the other hand, had at least three teams and maybe more — Atlanta, Milwaukee and Cincinnati for sure, and maybe even San Diego and Philadelphia — that didn’t seem to have any interest in trying to compete before a regular season pitch had even been thrown.  And who knows what Colorado is trying to do but it’s a very safe bet that it isn’t going to work in 2016.

In sum, the National League is top and bottom heavy. The American League is riddled with mediocrity.

OK, so what the hell does this have to do with our weekly roundup of the AL Central?

Well, a month into the season the three teams that still pose a threat to the White Sox, to varying degrees, are all looking increasingly mediocre. The Sox themselves, of course, are only a little bit of regression away from being right there themselves — their 3rd Order Winning Pct. has them at .624, slightly worse than their actual .688 — while the Indians, Tigers and Royals have all been hovering around an actual winning percentage of .500.

Assuming the White Sox are playing at or close to their true talent level (this is not the post to answer that question), the question becomes which of those three teams poses the biggest threat to rise above the doldrums of American League mediocrity and join the Sox at Contenders Corner, the spot behind the school where all the cool kids hang out.

Cleveland Indians
Actual Record: 15-13 (.536)
Third Order: 16.1-11.9 (.576)
Last Week: 5-1 (3-0 vs. Detroit; 2-1 vs. Kansas City)

The Indians are probably the answer. I feel like I’m dropping the big reveal too soon, but in reality I’ve already taken 500 words to get to this point. Cleveland is underperforming its peripherals by about a full win at the moment, is the only other AL Central team with a positive run differential, and just completed a week where it thoroughly whacked the other two teams its competing with for this imaginary title I made up.

This shouldn’t be incredibly surprising. PECOTA loved the Indians prior to the season, pegging them for 90 wins, well clear of the next AL Central club. At the moment, despite being five games behind the White Sox in the AL Central standings, the Tribe still have a 72.8 percent chance of making the playoffs (the White Sox, by comparison, are at 78.8), and their World Series winning percentage (10.1) is higher than the Sox’ (7.7) and actually the highest in the American League.

The reason the Indians still get the “maybe they’re just kinda mediocre” label despite all of their preseason plaudits, however, is that they still need to prove it, if you’ll forgive a bit of unscientific analysis.  This is the second year in a row the Tribe have been generally considered the best team in the division, and it’s also the second year in a row they’ve been, for the most part, underwhelming. Numbers-wise, PECOTA sees them as an elite defensive squad, and Cleveland’s personnel may let PECOTA down there. Still, they’re the team the Sox likely need to most worry about, and 16 more games against each other should clear a lot up.

Kansas City Royals
Actual Record: 15-15 (.500)
Third Order: 12.9-17.1 (.430)
Last Week: 2-4 (1-2 vs. Washington; 1-2 @Cleveland)

As mentioned earlier, the Royals are the anti-Indians. Every year (at least for the past two years), the projections predict the Royals will be bad and each time they defied expectations and made it all the way to the World Series.

The fact that Kansas City is two whole wins better than their Third Order Pct. shouldn’t be a shock. They routinely performed better than their peripherals in 2015, it’s just that then, they were playing like a great team instead of merely a good one, while this time around, they’re playing like an average team instead of a lousy one.

And now their depth is being tested after Mike Moustakas fractured his thumb. The Royals already rank among the worst offensive teams in the American League — Eric Hosmer is the only regular really hitting at the moment — and now they lost their biggest power threat and replaced him with something called Cheslor Cuthbert. Things aren’t looking great in Kansas City. Maybe the devil magic that has floated around the state of Missouri has finally dissipated. Or maybe a bad team is just bad.

Detroit Tigers
Actual Record: 14-16 (.467)
Third Order: 13.5-16.5 (.450)
Last Week: 0-6 (0-3 @Cleveland; 0-3 @Texas)

Finally, a team playing right in line with their peripherals! Sure, it took an 0-6 week to get there, but the Tigers are the only team in the division playing essentially right on par with their true talent level.

And that’s a good thing as far as the White Sox are concerned. The Tigers seem to have one above-average starting pitcher in Jordan Zimmermann, and even when a struggling Justin Verlander puts together arguably his best start of the season, as he did on Sunday, he leaves winning 2-0 in a game the Tigers ultimately lost 8-3 thanks to a bullpen implosion.

That’s only one game, of course. But it seems a microcosm of the Tigers’ season. When something is going right, something else is going wrong. The Tigers’ next week includes three games at Washington and four at Baltimore. If their next hot streak isn’t on the horizon, things could get ugly in a hurry.

The three teams chasing the White Sox for AL Central supremacy (I’ve excluded the Twins for obvious reasons) are all certainly capable of performing at a high enough level to win the division. One month certainly isn’t enough to say the White Sox have separated themselves from the mediocrity that encompasses the division and league as a whole. But the wins the White Sox have banked during their early hot stretch are increasingly important as the flaws of would-be contenders make it difficult for them to sustain productivity. Knowing rough stretches will surely come during the season means getting as much of an early leg up on the competition as possible could make a world of difference by the end of the year.

Lead Photo Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

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