keyboard_arrow_uptop

Is This Really Happening?

Chicago White Sox    53-29  --
Cleveland Indians    41-39  11

Are you kidding me?

The Indians, the only champion the American League Central has ever known,
are closer to the cellar in the division than to its peak. The Chicago
White Sox, who haven’t been in a divisional race since the strike season,
have the best record in baseball. Exactly how did this happen?

For starters, the White Sox are a young team. Their position players are by
and large in the part of their careers in which they are improving or at
their peak. Only Frank Thomas is in his thirties, and Thomas is
actually having his best year since 1997. The Indians, on the other hand,
have just a couple of players in their twenties and a lineup built around
guys who have already seen their best seasons.

Young teams are the ones with the potential for dramatic improvement, and
that’s one of the things we’re seeing here, combined with the natural
decline of an older team. This is happening in other places–the other two
AL divisions, to cite one example–but the occurrence is highlighted in the
AL Central.

A season like this requires a fair amount of luck, and the White Sox have
had theirs. Both James Baldwin and Cal Eldred have been
surprisingly effective, providing above-average innings in support of an
offense that has been among the best in the league. Both pitchers have far
outperformed expectations. That, too, is an ingredient that surprise teams
need: pitchers who overachieve.

Behind the two right-handers, the Sox have gotten good years from Jim
Parque
and Mike Sirotka. In fact, only Kip Wells has been
ineffective. A stable rotation providing quality outings has fed into a
bullpen that has bounced from good to dominant, led by Keith Foulke,
Bobby Howry and Kelly Wunsch.

Finally, the White Sox have been healthy, suffering only one minor
injury–to catcher Brook Fordyce–all season. That health may be the
biggest difference between the two teams.

Where Chicago has had a stable rotation and an effective bullpen, the Tribe
has suffered a number of pitcher injuries. Ace Bartolo Colon missed
a few starts, but more damaging have been the losses of Charles Nagy
and Jaret Wright. Wright’s injury is particularly galling, as
Charlie Manuel may have overused him in a couple of early-season starts. In
the pen, Paul Shuey‘s month-long absence created a problem, but the
injuries to Ricky Rincon and Tom Martin have been just as
important.

The Indians have also suffered injuries to their starting lineup. Sandy
Alomar
‘s ill health hasn’t been a surprise, but losing Manny
Ramirez
for six weeks opened a gaping hole in the lineup. Travis
Fryman
and Roberto Alomar have been dinged up, the latter’s
hurts having an impact on his performance. And while the comeback of
Kenny Lofton garnered positive publicity, his efforts to make
Opening Day may have hurt his production in 2000.

There’s no magic bullet here. The White Sox have outplayed the Indians by
11 games for a variety of reasons; they’ve been better, sure, but they’ve
also been luckier. The relative team ages have been a factor, but that
doesn’t explain the seasons of Baldwin and Eldred or the injury to Ramirez.

The more important question: is this race over? To outplay a team by 11
games over the course of half a season is a daunting task. The Indians are
better than a .500 team, and it’s unlikely that the Sox will keep playing
at a .640 clip. The teams should move closer to each other. But for
Cleveland to actually catch Chicago is going to require some breaks. The
Indians will have to get the top of their lineup healthy and on base, and
hope that the Sox pitching returns to earth a bit. The Indians also must
have Manny Ramirez back, and probably need to upgrade the back of their
rotation with at least one pitcher.

I don’t think this race is over, not by a long shot, but I also believe
that the Sox, given their 11-game cushion, have more than enough to stay
ahead of the Indians. Cleveland will make them sweat, but in the end,
they’re playing for a wild-card berth.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.