Whit Merrifield slide

Could the rest of the AL Central beat the Indians?

Outside of the Cleveland Indians, the American League Central sucks. I’m sorry if this is how you found out.

It’s rather historic, in many respects. The Indians are the only team above .500 and it’s not particularly close. The Twins are clearly the second-best team, only they’re doing it without Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, so their offensive ceiling would probably be a little low for a hobbit-house. The Tigers sold everything that wasn’t bolted down and/or overpriced, meaning they have an odd collection of has-beens, never-weres and Nicholas Castellanos. The White Sox can only beat the Royals, when Matt Davidson turns into 1941 Ted Williams.

The Royals, of course, regular readers of our humble little website are painfully, intimately familiar with.

It’s an odd little grouping, which has led to some strong takes. Historically bad. Uncommonly bad. Worst since 1994. Doesn’t get worse. I take exception with Ben Lindbergh’s take here because it is going to get so, so much worse when the four garbage teams trade as many of their assets as possible in the race to the bottom and spend August and September trotting out Triple-A caliber lineups.

But that’s for the future. For the present—and my present is roughly July 23 when I started the research for this, and I’m praying to crank it out before half the principals involved get traded—I wanted to focus on finding out one thing: are the combined talents of the other four AL Central clubs better than those of the Cleveland Indians? If they were to meet in a seven-game series, who would be expected to win?

The Lineups

Player TAv bWARP OPS+ WPA wRC+
C – Salvador Perez (Kansas City) 0.229 -0.7 78 -1.97 73
1B – Joe Mauer (Minnesota) 0.269 0.9 102 0.55 106
2B – Whit Merrifield (KC) 0.284 2.1 123 0.27 118
3B – Eduardo Escobar (MTN) 0.293 2.6 126 1.36 128
SS – Tim Anderson (Chicago) 0.254 2.3 95 -0.57 98
LF – Eddie Rosario (MTN) 0.301 3.8 138 1.33 134
CF – Leonys Martin (Detroit) 0.269 2.7 101 -0.14 103
RF – Nick Castellanos (DET) 0.315 2.6 131 2.38 133
DH – Jorge Soler (KC) 0.294 1.1 124 0.70 124

Some observations here:

  • I tried pick some numbers from a broad range of stats. There’s True Average and WARP, and also OPS+, weight Runs Created Plus and Win Probability Added. If you don’t see your stat of choice, run your own numbers.
  • Jorge Bonifacio’s numbers stack up, but I set the minimum plate appearance at 100.
  • Miguel Cabrera would be the first base or DH choice, but he’s out for the year. Joe Mauer and Jose Abreu had comparable numbers, but Abreu’s -1.11 WPA was well short of Mauer’s 0.55.
  • Catchers in this division are brutal. Only Chicago’s Omar Narvaez has an OPS+ above 100, and he leads the league in passed balls. Sal Perez was best of a bad lot.
  • Mike Moustakas got squeezed here; Escobar was the clear winner for the third base slot, while Moustakas’ edge in BWARP (2.5 to 1.0) over Soler did not give him an edge in a hitting-only proposition when you factor in Soler’s advantages in TAv, OPS+, wRC+ and WPA.
  • I endeavored to sit down and work out TAv for this lineup. My head hurt and my nose started to bleed; I handed it to my wife (who is a statistician, professionally, and the smartest person I know) and she pointed out how many of the variables I didn’t have at my disposal. So that’s out. But the 1-through-9 here had an average BWARP of 1.93, 113 OPS+, 113 wRC+ and 0.43 Win Probability Added. Projected over a full season, those numbers play out somewhere between average to slightly above.

This is pretty good lineup. Speed (Martin, Merrifield) and contact (Castellanos and Rosario) will give the top end of the lineup some flexibility, and outside of Anderson and Perez, the bottom end won’t embarrass itself. Picture something like this for an order:

  1. Martin, CF
  2. Merrifield, 2B
  3. Castellanos, RF
  4. Rosario, LF
  5. Escobar, 3B
  6. Soler, DH
  7. Mauer, 1B
  8. Perez, C
  9. Anderson, SS

That’s…not bad? Put some decent pitching with that and you can see a Wild Card team over the course of a full season.

Now Cleveland.

Player TAv bWARP OPS+ WPA wRC+
C – Yan Gomes 0.262 1.8 92 -0.35 94
1B – Yonder Alonso 0.268 0.9 105 -0.42 109
2B – Jason Kipnis 0.241 0.2 79 -1.70 84
3B – Jose Ramirez 0.346 5.5 172 3.23 176
SS – Francisco Lindor 0.314 4.6 143 1.97 148
LF – Michael Brantley 0.281 1.1 120 1.34 125
CF – Rajai Davis 0.232 -0.1 64 -0.99 67
RF – Tyler Naquin 0.243 0.6 75 -0.60 75
DH – Edwin Encarnacion 0.272 0.8 108 -0.02 112

Hoo boy.

  • Positionally, the Indians are better—significantly—at catcher, first, third and short. Left field and DH are slight advantages to the field, Second, center and right see the rest of the Central as the clear favorites in a pure head-to-head scenario.
  • The averages for Cleveland: BWARP (1.71), OPS+ (106), 0.27 (WPA) and 110 (wRC+). Close… but slightly worse than the combined powers of the Central.
  • One of the reasons I didn’t include defense here is because it *should* be in Cleveland’s favor to have played together, which would make communication and trust and everything that goes into quality defense an advantage for them by default. However, even in a vacuum Cleveland has five top-30 players in Fangraphs’ Defensive Runs Above Average (Lindor, Ramirez, Kipnis, Gomes, Davis), compared to three Centralers (Perez, Martin, Anderson).

So just looking from a lineup standpoint, you’d feel like the Central at-large would have a slight advantage over the Indians. More lineup consistency, even if Cleveland would clearly have a power advantage with Ramirez, Lindor, Encarnacion, etc. and could probably slug their way to a win or two in a series.

The Pitchers

Player pWARP DRA xFIP WPA
SP1 – Kyle Gibson (MTN) 2.2 3.70 3.87 1.78
SP2 – Jose Berrios (MTN) 2.0 3.93 3.75 1.67
SP3 – Jordan Zimmermann (DET) 1.4 3.41 4.00 0.34
SP4 – James Shields (CWS) 2.2 3.82 5.06 -0.25
RP1 – Ryan Pressly (MTN) 1.6 1.85 2.86 -0.19
RP2 – Joe Jimenez (DET) 1.1 2.67 3.84 0.66
RP3 – Joakim Soria (CWS) 1.3 2.00 3.35 0.19
RP4 – Taylor Rogers (MTN) 0.5 3.91 3.04 0.45
RP5 – Shane Greene (DET) 0.8 3.23 3.70 0.02

Sweet gracious God.

  • Kyle Gibson as the No. 1 starter. Good Lord. And if not him, Jose Berrios and as a proud Jose Berrios fantasy owner, I can confirm that the entire delightful experience is a roller coaster.
  • It was between James Shields, Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris for the last starting spot. There were no winners there.
  • Not one Royal. I did some digging into the numbers for Danny Duffy, Jakob Junis and Wily Peralta. It just didn’t stack up.
  • The Royals best Deserved Run Averages belong to Kelvin Herrera and Scott Barlow, neither of whom are currently Royals.
  • The bullpen is decent. Pressly is having an extremely underrated season. Jimenez was an All-Star (someone had to be). Shane Greene is quite good.
  • I was not aware of Jordan Zimmermann’s mini-resurgence. Good for him?
  • The cume averages for pWARP (1.46) and WPA (0.52) will not look good compared to Cleveland’s juggernaut.

The Royals would kill to have this pitching staff, but the Royals are not an accurate representation of pitching. No top-30 in pWARP, only Pressly, Jimenez and Soria in the top-100 of DRA. And this is the pick of the litter.

Now Cleveland.

Player pWARP DRA xFIP WPA
SP1 – Trevor Bauer 4.9 2.28 3.09 2.40
SP2 – Corey Kluber 4.0 2.74 3.17 2.23
SP3 – Mike Clevinger 2.5 3.60 3.97 1.29
SP4 – Carlos Carrasco 2.3 3.46 3.31 1.48
RP1 – Cody Allen 1.0 2.66 4.36 1.31
RP2 – Andrew Miller 0.4 2.23 3.60 0.41
RP3 – Brad Hand 1.0 2.98 2.93 0.46
RP4 – Neil Ramirez 0.4 3.25 4.05 0.30
RP5 – Oliver Perez 0.2 3.54 3.55 0.76

The worst of the four Cleveland starters is better than the best of the Central at-large.

  • Just think of Joe Buck cutting a “It’s Trevor Bauer against Kyle Gibson in Game One of this battle for AL Central supremacy, next on Fox!” promo. You wouldn’t feel great if your team was the one with Gibson, would you?
  • Just by themselves, Bauer and Kluber have more pWARP than the Centralers rotation.
  • Not a single negative WPA in the bunch.
  • Just ridiculous.
  • Good golly.
  • The averages: 1.86 pWARP, 1.18 WPA

The relievers might be a wash. Statistically, Pressly and Soria are having seasons every bit as good as Allen or Hand (with an incomplete to Miller, who has been hurt). But the starters? No contest. Cleveland all the way.

Conclusion

The unquantifiable variable here is the division itself. The Indians put up numbers that verge on incredible in many instances. Some of those numbers should not be possible in late July. Ten players across baseball have 4.0 pWARP or higher at this point in the season, and two of them are Indians.

But then you remember that those numbers are a byproduct of playing the garbage AL Central. In some cases, the ENTIRE REST OF THE DIVISION can’t find a player within shouting distance of being as good as a member of the Indians. Is getting 76 games (41 already down) against this bunch an actual indicator of whether you’re a four-win player or not?

Over the course of a hypothetical seven-game series, you’d see a number of things play out. The simply breathtaking talent in the rotation for Cleveland would be overwhelming. The bats for the Centralites might be better top-to-bottom (no Rajai Davis in that group), but the heart of Cleveland’s order would slug them to at least a couple of wins. And when you’re reliant on Jordan Zimmermann (gulp) and James Shields (bigger gulp) to dance toe-to-toe with Mike Clevinger and Carlos Carrasco, call me a pessimist but I think you come out on the wrong side of at least one of those matchups.

The Indians defensive prowess would be an advantage. Unless I’m completely off the mark, their bullpen would stay fresher—I can imagine a scenario where Gibson or Berrios is chased early, which is not something I can say about Bauer or Kluber.

(A variable I won’t include but would add an intriguing wrinkle: who coaches the Central All-Stars? As a manager, Rick Renteria has finished better than fourth twice in his entire managerial career, across all levels—third for the Lake Elsinore Storm in 2006 and first with the Kane County Cougars in 1999. Paul Molitor is on his way to a third second-place finish in four seasons in Minnesota. Ron Gardenhire has never won a single playoff series. Ned Yost has but is also Ned Yost. Are any of them about to parry wits with Terry Francona?)

And so—with superior starting pitching, a lineup that mashes in the middle and has an advantage in the field to boot, plus a bullpen that just added a much-needed third piece in an era where every contender can go to the bullpen for four or more innings at any time, I declare the Indians better than the combined talents of their divisional brethren.

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3 comments on “Could the rest of the AL Central beat the Indians?”

Dan

Interesting, if depressing, piece. I’d be curious to see how much different each of the Indians batters are performing vs division pitching as opposed to non-division.

Tim

No Brad Keller for the Central?
I assume because he didn’t hit the innings limit for either starters or releivers due to switching

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