August 21, 2003

And down the stretch they come!

The American League Central division was born in 1994. That year ended prematurely because of the strike and, at the time, the White Sox held a 1 game lead over the Indians, with the Royals 4 games back. Had each team been allowed to play their final 50 or so games that season, who knows what may have happened. It was shaping up to have been a pretty interesting finish though.

Since then, there haven't been many interesting finishes in the AL Central.

For the 5 seasons following the 1994 strike, the Cleveland Indians dominated. They went 100-44 in the strike-shortened 1995 season and won the division by 30 games. They then won 99, 86, 89 and 97 games in 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999, winning 5 straight division titles by a total of 81 games, and never fewer than 6 games.

Then, in 2000, the White Sox ended Cleveland's run by going 95-67 to beat the Indians by 5 games, becoming the first non-Cleveland team to reach the playoffs out of the AL Central. Cleveland came back the next year and, after fighting off an early season push from the Minnesota Twins, won the Central by 6 games for their 6th division title in 7 seasons.

And just like that, the Cleveland Indians were done competing for division titles, at least in their present form. The Indians began rebuilding last season and finished the year 74-88, 20.5 games behind the Twins. Minnesota won the AL Central for the first time and won any division for the first time since 1991, going 94-67 to beat the White Sox by 13.5 games.

Now it is 2003 and, for the first time since that first year of the AL Central, when the strike put an end to the 1994 season, it looks like there is going to be a real race for the division championship that goes well into September. And not only just a race, but a 3-team race, and one without the Cleveland Indians and with the Kansas City Royals.

As a 20 year old baseball fan who has really only been a hardcore fan during this current divisional alignment, I'm not sure if it is more shocking to me that the Indians are not involved or that the Royals are.

As a Twins fan, I have long hated the Cleveland Indians. For years they dominated the division, like a scaled-down, midwestern version of the Yankees. They bashed teams into submission, they had a beautiful new ballpark, and they had players like Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton and Manny Ramirez and Roberto Alomar and Jim Thome.

Meanwhile, my team couldn't find .500 from the time I was 10 years old until the time I was 18, they played in one of the worst stadiums in baseball, and they had guys like Ron Coomer, Scott Stahoviak, Pat Meares and Marty Cordova.

While I was hating the Indians for being so good and so unlike the Twins, the Royals were essentially in the same boat as Minnesota. After going 64-51 in the abbreviated 1994 season, they never reached .500 again, lost 90+ games 4 times in 8 years and lost 100 games last season. I really didn't have any feelings about the Royals. They were a team just like the Twins, simply games on the schedule for the Indians of the world for many years. If anything, I saw them as allies, with the possibility of them starting to win again being the next best thing to the Twins doing so.

In 20 years, if I am asked to describe the first 5 months of the 2003 AL Central race, I think I would do it like this...

The Royals jumped out way ahead early, while the defending champion Twins struggled from the very beginning. For months, the Twins kept making up ground on Kansas City, only to lose it when they went into another one of their many tailspins. The entire time, everyone kept waiting for the Royals to falter, but they just kept on winning. And, as they did, the White Sox lurked in the background, flying under the radar for months at a time, before finally emerging as perhaps the division favorites at the end of August.

While that is an accurate description of the division race, or at least an accurate desciption of how it has felt for me, it is also a description that makes it sound a whole lot more exciting than it actually has been. The truth is that all three of these teams are incredibly flawed and none of them have played particularly good baseball for any extended length of time at any point this season.

But here we are, nearing the end of August, and the standings in this morning's paper look like this:

AL Central

W L Win% GB
Chicago 67 61 .523 --
Minnesota 66 61 .520 0.5
Kansas City 65 61 .516 1.0

Sure, if these three teams were racing for 100 wins instead of 85 wins, it would probably be a lot more exciting. On the other hand, if they were better teams, this would stop being a true pennant-race, because the teams that lost out on the division title would still have a chance at the Wild Card.

For good or for bad, there will be no Wild Card winner from this division. If one of these teams wants to make the playoffs, they are going to have to beat the other two. Personally, I love that, although it would be nice if it didn't have to be a division with lousy, non Wild Card-contending teams for a true pennant-race to take place.

So, who's going to win this thing? I'm really not sure what to think and, even if I was sure, I probably wouldn't be the best guy to ask. Prior to the season, I predicted the Twins would win 90 games, narrowly defeating the White Sox, who I said would win 88. No one here is going to win 90 games and I think it's pretty safe to say 88 wins is probably out of the question as well.

Of course, I also predicted that the Royals would finish fourth and, even while they were in first-place for months at a time, I kept telling everyone who would listen that they weren't for real and that, come the end of the season, the cream would rise to the top and the Royals would fall to the bottom. Well, it turns out there isn't a whole lot of cream in this group, and it also turns out that the Royals have as much business trying to win this division as Minnesota and Chicago.

I think a key factor - perhaps the key factor - for deciding who comes away with the division title is going to be the remaining schedules for the three teams.

Here is how the schedules compare:

              MIN       CHI       KAN

Games 35 34 36

Home 17 18 17
Road 18 16 19

Win % .434 .508 .436

Home % .445 .518 .440
Road % .424 .496 .433

vs .500 10 25 11

Last 10 .312 .551 .439

(All team records and winning percentages through August 21st)

Before we get to the good stuff, some definitions...

Games = Total games remaining

Home = Total home games remaining

Road = Total road games remaining

Win % = Opponents' combined winning percentage

Home % = Home opponents' combined winning percentage

Road % = Road opponents' combined winning percentage

vs .500 = Games remaining against teams at or above .500

Last 10 = Final 10 opponents' combined winning percentage

Lots to discuss here...

First of all, the Twins and Royals have essentially the exact same schedule remaining.

In fact, if you get rid of identical opponents and the games the two teams play against each other, the only difference in the entire schedule is that the Royals have one extra game, an inter-league makeup game against the Arizona Diamondbacks on September 4th. Other than that, the Twins and Royals play the exact same teams, the exact same amount of times each. Even the home/road breakdown is the same (when you ignore the Arizona game), with both teams playing 17 home games and 18 road games.

Meanwhile, Chicago's remaining schedule is extremely difficult. The combined winning percentage of Chicago's 34 remaining opponents is .508, or more than 70 points higher than the winning percentages of Minnesota and Kansas City's remaining opponents. One reason for the big discrepancy is that Chicago still has to play 11 games against the Yankees and Red Sox, while both Minnesota and Kansas City are done against those two teams.

Of Chicago's 34 remaining games, 25 of them (73.5%) are against .500 or better teams. Kansas City has 11 games against .500+ teams, while Minnesota has just 10.

Where I think it gets really interesting is the differences in each team's final 10 games of the season. The combined winning percentage of Chicago's final 10 opponents is .551. Meanwhile, Kansas City's final 10 opponents have a combined .439 winning percentage and Minnesota's last 10 have an amazingly low .312 winning percentage.

In their last 10 games, Chicago gets 3 against the Yankees and 7 against the Royals, including the last 4 games of the year in Kansas City. The Royals finish the year with 7 of their final 10 games against the White Sox, but have a 3-game series with the Tigers in between.

While the Royals and White Sox are beating each other up 7 times in the season's final 10 games, the Twins finish their home schedule with back-to-back home series with the Tigers and Indians, and then end the year with a 4-game series in Detroit.

What the Twins are able to do against Detroit in those 7 games in late September is going to be extremely important. The Tigers have the worst record in the major leagues and are on pace to become one of the worst, if not the worst, teams in major league history. And, the Twins have dominated the them this season. The Twins are 11-1 against Detroit so far this year and they went 14-4 against them last season and 15-4 against them in 2001.

Of course, the Tigers will have some motivation for winning those games too, because they will be trying to avoid the all-time record for losses in a season. Still, you would think that a team that is 40-9 against the Tigers in the last 3 seasons and is fighting for a playoff spot should be able to dominate and take, at a minimum, 5 of the 7 games, with there being a definite possibility for a 7-game sweep.

If the Twins can win 7 or 8 of those final 9 games against Cleveland and Detroit, I really think they will win the division. In a race this close, one team reeling off a stretch like that to end the year while the two other teams battle each other will be, in my opinion, too much for Chicago and Kansas City to overcome.

In the end, I still think the division title will come down to the Twins and the White Sox. Unless the White Sox can completely dominate the Twins in their remaining 7 games against each other, Chicago's difficult schedule, particularly at the very end of the season, should allow Minnesota to overtake them in the final week. Of course, whether or not the Detroit Tigers lie down for the Twins is going to have a big impact and, if there's one thing I've learned this year, it's that you can never go wrong assuming the Tigers will lose.

And yes, that would be me counting out the Royals for about the 50th time this year. Don't get mad at me Royals fans, because you've been doing just fine all year with me counting your team out the entire time.

Here is my official prediction (otherwise known as a "Wild Ass Guess") of how the final AL Central standings will look:

AL Central

W L Win% GB
Minnesota 86 76 .531 --
Chicago 85 77 .525 1.0
Kansas City 83 79 .519 3.0

Whatever happens, the only things I am completely sure of is that one of these three teams is going to be playing in October and the next month of baseball is going to be interesting.

The 2003 American League Central: Okay, so maybe we're not that good, but at least we're all equally mediocre!

Thanks for stopping by today. If you missed any of the entries from earlier this week, make sure to check them out...

Monday: Reader Mail (Piling On Edition)

Tuesday: Let's make a deal!

Wednesday: Elderly Gentlemen

Thursday: The Ballad of Phil Rogers

This Week's Featured Links:

Monday: The Athletic Reporter

Tuesday: Only Baseball Matters

Wednesday: Redbird Nation

Thursday: The Red Sox Rag

Today's picks:

Chicago (Zambrano) +175 over Arizona (Schilling)

San Francisco (Ponson) -125 over Florida (Willis)

Total to date: + 2,105

W/L record: 212-212 (1-1 yesterday for +60.)

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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