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Last night, the Tigers bounced back from two late-game, one-run losses to take the third game of their series with the White Sox, enabling them to hold on to first place in the AL Central for at least a few more days. After two nail-biters, last night’s 6-2 win, courtesy of four runs in the sixth off of Jon Garland, was a comparative laugher.

What I took from the three games was an appreciation for just how similar the two teams are. Actually, the better comparison is between this year’s Tigers and the 2005 White Sox. Both teams had terrific defenses that drove excellent run prevention, both teams were very reliant on the home run to score, and both teams had righty-heavy, OBP-shy lineups. The Tigers don’t have the “smartball” backstory the Sox did, nor do they have a manager who might say anything at any time.

We spent a lot of last season talking about the percentage of runs teams scored on homers, making the point that the nominally small-ball White Sox were actually an Earl Weaver team with better PR people. The 2005 White Sox scored 42.4% of their runs on homers. This season, they’ve moved from fourth in that category to first. No team in baseball scores as many of its runs on the longball as the White Sox do, a whopping 44.6%. In sixth place in that category are the Tigers at 42.7%, nearly identical to last year’s Sox.

The Sox were tenth in the AL in OBP last year. The Tigers are eighth this year, but that may be deceptive; they were at .344 in April thanks to a .286 team BA. They’re at .320 since then, and like last year’s Sox, they almost never walk: 12th in the AL with 158 free passes, comparable to the Sox’ #11 ranking last year. On the other hand, they’re second in homers, fifth in slugging and third in isolated power.

Consider the three games in this series. Of the 22 runs that scored, 16 came around on a blast. That’s more than 70% of the runs being scored on homers, the kind of figure we associate with a Red Sox/Yankees series.

One reason the two teams are so reliant on the long ball against each other is that their defenses are so good. Last year’s White Sox defense was, adjusting for park, one of the best ever, at least for the seasons we have records for. This year’s Tigers’ defense is tops in the AL with a .728 DER. Last year’s White Sox were sixth in walks allowed and fourth in strikeout-to-walk ratio. The 206 Tigers rank sixth and eighth, respectively. These Tigers, however, do a much better job of keeping the ball in the park: 12th in the AL in homers allowed, while last year’s Sox were eighth. Some of that gap, though not all of it, can be explained by the difference between Comerica Park and U.S. Cellular Field.

Over the last three nights, the two pitching staffs combined for 16 walks and 42 strikeouts in 52 innings. Those figures are a combination of strike throwers on the mound and lineups that simply don’t draw walks. But when you combine the lack of walks with the good defenses, you get to where the only way to score is to hit the ball over the fence. The combined batting average on balls in play for the series was .262, meaning the defenses were converting 73.8% of the balls in play into outs, a figure that would lead MLB.

You might think that the Tigers’ similarity to the 2005 White Sox bodes well for them, given that those Sox are the reigning champions. I think the strong defense, the staff’s HR rate and the lineup’s power are all positive indicators, but the differences between the teams–the Tigers have virtually no speed and their pitchers don’t command the strike zone as well–are significant enough to make me pessimistic about their chances.

More importantly, these Tigers aren’t competing with last year’s Sox. They’re competing with an improved version, and for all the attention the Detroiters have gotten in the early going this year, I don’t think they’re as good a story as these White Sox. Coming off of a title, Kenny Williams made a couple of bold moves that addressed the problems with last year’s team and made this version a better one. It’s a different team–these Sox are fourth in runs, sixth in OBP and fifth in walks drawn, while slipping to sixth in steals, fifth in attempts and fourth in sacrifice bunts. They still play very good defense–second to Detroit in the AL with a .716 DER–and make you hit the ball to get on: 13th in walks allowed with 160. A spike in home-run rate has them allowing a few more runs than they did a year ago, but their +48 run differential is almost a dead ringer for their +56 mark through the same number of games in 2005, thanks to a vastly improved offense.

The 2006 White Sox have more balance and more depth than their 2005 counterparts did. That they’re toiling in relative obscurity is mostly because of their 9-8 record in one-run games, as opposed to the 19-7 mark last year’s team did at this point in the schedule. That’s the difference between being the headliner and the opening act; ask the Mets (17-7) about that.

Over 162 games, this Sox team should rise to the top of the Central. The Tigers’ OBP issues, their non-strikeout staff and the injury history of their players will all chip away at them over the course of the summer. This may be for the best; the Tigers are building a terrific team–and added to that this week by stealing Andrew Miller at #6 in the draft–but their success in 2006 is a bit ahead of schedule. They shouldn’t allow two good months to shift their focus to the short term. Winning this year would be nice–and it should be noted that Clay Davenport’s Playoff Odds Report gives them a 78.6% chance of advancing into October–but not if it hinders the chance at a five- or six-year run at being the best team in the division.

What the success of the White Sox and Tigers, and in the recent past the Indians and Twins, show us is that the AL Central is no longer a baseball backwater. There are some excellent baseball teams here, and it’s not hard to see a time when this could be the best division in baseball, even carrying MLB’s version of Timmy Lupus in its lineup. The AL is no longer just about the big boys in the Northeast; maybe that’s the biggest story of all this week.

On the field, anyway…

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