clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

MLB Divisions Don’t Get Worse Than the AL Central

The 2018 Indians have both underwhelmed and emerged as virtual playoff locks. How? Cleveland is feasting on an abysmal division—one that could go down as the weakest in baseball history.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Tuesday night in St. Louis, the Cardinals clobbered Corey Kluber and the Indians 11-2, as the two-time Cy Young winner received the quickest hook of his career. Despite that defeat, Cleveland’s AL Central lead stayed steady at 7.5 games—more than twice as large as any other first-place team’s. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Indians’ odds of winning their division are the highest in baseball. Based solely on that information, one would conclude that Cleveland has played like one of MLB’s truly elite teams.

Based on the other data at our disposal, though, the Indians don’t seem nearly as formidable. Although the Indians have baseball’s biggest division lead, every other first-place team has a higher winning percentage. Various actual and expected team-performance metrics place Cleveland’s showing thus far in “good, but not great” territory: The Indians have baseball’s sixth-best BaseRuns record, seventh-best run differential, and ninth-best PythagenPat record and actual winning percentage.

Even those rankings may make the Indians appear better than they’ve been. Most retrospective stats about Cleveland ignore a large lurking variable: The division that the team has won in back-to-back seasons and is leading today—and, by extension, the competition that it’s faced. Thanks to baseball’s unbalanced schedule, the Indians have played 38 of their 78 games against other AL Central teams. In those intra-division matchups, they’ve gone 25-13, compared to just 18-22 against teams outside the division. The Indians have more wins against the Central’s three worst teams—the Royals, White Sox, and Tigers—than they do against all other clubs combined. Whatever their own merits, the Indians are in the right place at the right time: The division they’re leading is not only the weakest of 2018, but also potentially the weakest of MLB’s divisional era, which started in 1969.

One historically consistent method for assessing the strength of a division is to quantify its collective performance in games outside that division, accounting for strength of schedule. Dan Hirsch, the founder of historical stats and analysis site The Baseball Gauge, sent me a measure of the strength of every division from the divisional era’s 50-season span, which he calculated using a method similar to the “Simple Rating System” presented at Sports Reference sites. (The full list is available here.) In the table below, “RDiff” represents a division’s collective average run differential against teams from outside its division, while “SoS” represents the average run differential of a division’s non-division opponents (in those opponents’ own non-divisional games, excluding games against the division that is listed). The right-most column simply sums the two to its left, producing an overall rating (rounded to two decimal places). Both the weakest and strongest divisions are concentrated in the years since 1994, when realignment split each league into three divisions and made it more likely that certain divisions would experience extreme results. The Central divisions, which don’t have to contend directly with baseball’s big-money markets on the coasts, are familiar with failure.

MLB’s Weakest Divisions, 1969-2018

Year Division RDiff SoS SRS
Year Division RDiff SoS SRS
2018 AL Central -1.21 0.16 -1.06
2005 NL West -1.1 0.1 -1
2002 AL Central -0.99 0.25 -0.75
2003 AL Central -0.76 0.13 -0.63
2006 NL Central -0.71 0.09 -0.62
1994 AL West -0.83 0.23 -0.61
2015 NL East -0.69 0.09 -0.6
2008 NL West -0.57 0 -0.57
2010 NL Central -0.66 0.1 -0.57
2007 NL Central -0.6 0.04 -0.57
1998 AL Central -0.72 0.22 -0.5
2009 NL Central -0.44 -0.03 -0.46
1999 AL Central -0.54 0.08 -0.45
2017 NL East -0.48 0.06 -0.42
2011 AL Central -0.55 0.13 -0.42
2012 AL Central -0.56 0.16 -0.4

As the 2018 season approaches its halfway point, this year’s AL Central stands atop (or maybe below) a terrible field, outstripping even the awful 2005 NL West, which went to the 82-80 Padres (because someone had to win) and has heretofore occupied a class of its own. No other 2018 division comes close. (The AL West, propped up by the odds-defying Mariners, currently ranks as one of the strongest divisions on record.) In addition to the Indians being blown out on Tuesday, the Royals and Tigers also lost games against non–AL Central opponents; the division’s only winning team was the White Sox, who topped the Twins in a game that guaranteed that the Central wouldn’t be swept on the night. The Indians’, Royals’, and Tigers’ defeats—by nine, four, and two runs, respectively—lowered the Central’s seasonal run differential to –1.21 runs per game, which would be by far the worst ever. Nor can the Central look forward to an easier slate in the months ahead: Its upcoming non-division opponents have posted a .181 average run differential in their own extra-division games against non-AL Central teams, better than the .156 mark managed by the Central’s opponents so far.

It’s no surprise that the Central has performed poorly. Three of its teams are in the early or intermediate stages of full-scale rebuilds: the Tigers and Royals after stretches of sustained competitiveness, and the White Sox after an undistinguished decade of mostly missing the playoffs. For that trio, the outlook for 2018 always seemed grim, and indeed, the White Sox and Royals (who are mired in a run—so to speak—of notable offensive ineptitude) own the game’s worst non-Orioles records. Not by complete coincidence, the AL Central is also the sport’s lowest-spending division, trailing the runner-up NL Central by more than $38 million in combined salary. The Indians, whose payroll ranks 15th overall, are the biggest spenders by AL Central standards; even if they were willing to spend more, their direct quasi-competitors haven’t put pressure on them to do so. Nor is it a coincidence that every AL Central team’s average per-game attendance has dropped compared to the same point last season, with the decreases ranging from 4 percent (Twins) to 26 percent (Tigers).

Combined Opening Day Payrolls by Division

Division Combined Contracts ($ Million)
Division Combined Contracts ($ Million)
AL East 785.9
NL West 749.3
AL West 684.1
NL East 644.5
NL Central 621.5
AL Central 583.3

While the Central is reaping what it sowed in salary, it typically takes some amount of underperformance to produce historically bad baseball, and that’s true of the 2018 AL Central, too. Of the Central’s five teams, only the 36-44 Tigers have outplayed their preseason FanGraphs projection. On the whole, the Central has fallen far short of its forecasted performance, in contrast to the other divisions, which are all right around or ahead of their expected paces (partly thanks to feasting on the Central).

Average Difference to Date From Projected W%

Division Difference
Division Difference
AL West 0.034
NL East 0.009
NL Central 0.008
NL West 0.006
AL East -0.003
AL Central -0.055

That’s good news for the Central’s bid to avoid ignominy, because even in June, preseason projections remain more meaningful than in-season records alone. Rest-of-season projections are more meaningful still, and as one would expect given the Central’s placement on the previous table, those projections suggest that the debilitated division is in line for the largest average winning-percentage improvement between today and the end of the season. That’s even after accounting for injuries (Miguel Cabrera had surgery to repair a ruptured biceps tendon and will miss the remainder of 2018) and trades that have already happened (Kelvin Herrera was recently dealt to the Nationals). As an added bonus, the Central has more of its season remaining than most other divisions; because its teams encountered more than their fair share of bad weather in April (a record month for postponements), the Central is tied with the NL East for fewest total games played.

Average Projected Rest-of-Season Difference From W% to Date

Division Difference
Division Difference
AL Central 0.054
AL East 0
NL East -0.002
NL Central -0.011
NL West -0.012
AL West -0.03

However, there’s another factor to consider that isn’t reflected in the figures above: Given how far from contention the Central’s non-Indians teams are, the division will likely dismantle itself further before next month’s non-waiver trade deadline. The Tigers could consider parting with any member of an expendable cohort that includes Nick Castellanos, Michael Fulmer, Leonys Martín, Mike Fiers, Jordan Zimmermann, Shane Greene, and José Iglesias. The Royals could move Mike Moustakas or Whit Merrifield, while the White Sox could find takers for relievers Joakim Soria and Luis Avilán or the last vestiges of their pre-rebuild roster, such as José Abreu, Avisaíl García, and Nate Jones. Depending on their play over the next few weeks, even the Twins might shed short-term contributors; Minnesota, which was both a buyer and (subsequently) a seller at last year’s deadline, has seen its playoff odds sink to single digits this season. The Indians adding bullpen pieces or bench bats might offset some of the rest of the division’s deadline diaspora, but the Central is likelier to lose talent than to add it.

That leaves Cleveland—which had won seven straight games, all against AL Central teams, prior to dropping the first two contests of its three-game set in St. Louis—with the majors’ clearest path to the division series, despite having the fuzziest true-talent level of the playoff locks. The Indians (who last year may have had the most effective pitching staff ever) probably boast the best non-Astros rotation of 2018, but their bullpen has been shaky and their offense ranks only ninth in the majors in non-pitcher hitting, even with the benefit of facing weaker opposing pitchers than any other team.

Those shortcomings may make the Indians vulnerable in October, but they’re all but impervious until the postseason starts. Although they have the game’s third-highest projected rest-of-season winning percentage, behind only the Astros and Yankees, they also have the easiest projected rest-of-season schedule—easier, even, than their schedule to this point, which ranks third-easiest behind (sad drumroll) two other AL Central teams. It’s good to be the big fish in what might be baseball’s bleakest-ever pond.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that “SoS” represents the combined winning percentage of a division’s non-division opponents; “SoS” represents the average run differential of a division’s non-division opponents.