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July 6, 2010

Expanded Horizons

AL Central Pitching

by Tommy Bennett

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Despite the fact that we’re still a week away from the All-Star Game, we have already reached the halfway point in the major-league season. This is approximately the time when the kinds of baseball watchers who shout “small sample size” at the radio can take solace that at least some of the numbers we are seeing are to be believed. It’s also approximately the time when division races heat up. With three months to go, it’s just starting to become fair to talk about games behind, if not magic numbers. This year there is at least a possibility there will be an exciting race in every division. Certainly, some may be better than others—you can count me among those titillated by the prospect of a division race between the three best teams in baseball—but as last year’s 163rd game demonstrated, even less successful divisions can provide exciting, down-to-the-wire drama.

In March, I wrote a cheeky column in which I compared the race for the American League Central flag to the Japanese action/horror masterpiece Battle Royale. I gave each of the Tigers, Twins, and White Sox a killing implement for their rotation and let the rest work itself out naturally. With only a game separating the teams at the top, the AL Central is a near dead-heat between the three teams previewed in March. It seems that none of the teams has yet been able to slay the others. What has happened to provide us all with the possibility of yet another Midwestern barnburner?

Sometimes teams end up in contention at the halfway mark because they have gotten a little luck or caught lightning on a bottle. But it’s instructive to note that on this date last year, the eventual first-place team in each division was no worse than two games back, and every first-place team except Detroit and Texas went on to make the playoffs. That being said, the three teams vying for the AL Central crown are not created equally. So far, our adjusted standings report shows that the Twins have been better than their record indicates. Their third-order wins and losses add on an extra two wins, and they have faced tougher than average opponents. The adjusted standings also show that the White Sox have outperformed expectations—they pulled their runs scored ahead of their runs allowed with a 9-2 drubbing of the Angels on Monday night—but the kinetic energy from Matt Thornton’s fastball is creating some interference with our sensor readings.

There are definitely going to be stories written by the hitters and bullpens in this division, don’t get me wrong, but this division is going to be made or broken by the starting rotations. Let’s review what they’ve done so far.

Chicago White Sox

The White Sox traded for Jake Peavy last year so he could help them win this year. He was bad in April, but since the beginning of May, Peavy has a 3.52 ERA and a 69/13 K/BB ratio in 72 2/3 innings. His SIERA for the season is 3.83, and he’s looking more every day like the pitcher the White Sox thought they were acquiring. John Danks sports the shiny ERA of the staff (3.58), but SIERA casts his season in a less flattering light (4.16) as a result of his .275 BABIP. Gavin Floyd has been unfortunate so far and can expect better results going forward: His 3.73 SIERA is actually the best in the rotation. Mark Buehrle has struggled this season, but he’s got intangible winning qualities something fierce, so somehow I never worry about him.

The Pale Hose have only used five starters this season, a remarkable feat considering that both Peavy and prodigal son Freddy Garcia were pegged as injury risks heading into the season. The team might need a bump if any other those pitchers go down, but right now they have a relatively steady staff. The big problem is the lack of a truly dominant ace (a mantle Peavy can no longer quite bear), and without that the White Sox don’t have a great path to the postseason.

Detroit Tigers

The Tigers' rotation is top-heavier than a weighty dreidel, particularly now that Max Scherzer has rediscovered his form and strikeout rate. The race for best strikeout percentage among Tiger starters is a hearty measure of fun to watch; so far, Justin Verlander (22.8 percent) is just ahead of Scherzer (22.3 percent). As Scherzer’s BABIP continues to fall (and his unseemly 4.88 ERA with it), the Tigers top two should only improve.

But the rest of the rotation has been something of a question mark. Jeremy Bonderman has done about as well as anyone could have expected, but he has been the staff’s third-best starter. Between the two of them, 28-year-olds Dontrelle Willis and Armando Galarraga have one perfect game and one SIERA under five, but neither has both. Willis was also traded to the Diamondbacks last month then designated for assignment over the weekend. Rick Porcello was demoted after a very disappointing sophomore campaign, and predicting what first-year professional Andrew Oliver will do is, by its very nature, difficult. The Tigers need not only top-flight performances from their big two, but also some timely help from the back of the rotation, and at the moment that does not seem especially plausible.

Minnesota Twins

Without looking, how many Twins starters would you think have strikeout-to-walk ratios over 3.5? The answer is four. That’s truly remarkable, even if they are unlikely to finish the season that way. It’s telling that Nick Blackburn—a guy with a reputation for throwing strikes—has the highest walk rate of any Twins starter this year. Twins pitchers overall have just a 5.3 percent walk rate, which is the best in baseball. It’s been feast or famine for the balls they’ve put in the zone, as Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano have friendly hit rates while Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, and Blackburn have gotten peppered.

The only real weakness in the rotation has been Blackburn, who strikes out so few batters (just 33 in 93 innings this year) that it is hard to imagine him being a big contributor down the stretch. If the Twins could add just one more pitcher—I think Cliff Lee would do very nicely—they could put a division title on order and occupy the nightmares of their ultimate playoff foes. Imagine facing Lee and Liriano twice in a short series and don’t let the bedbugs bite.

Question of the Day

Which rotation has the best chance of helping their team in the second half? Which team could best use the boost of an extra starter?

13 comments have been left for this article.

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