As of Friday afternoon before game time, the American League Central Division has the fascinating distinction of including the two best teams in the American League (the Chicago White Sox, with a .629 record, and our Cleveland Indians just one game behind them).
For a division not generally regarded as a powerhouse in Major League Baseball, this is exciting stuff! (I know, truly, it’s only the middle of May. We should talk again in late July.)
But equally fascinating is the fact that the AL Central also possesses the two worst teams, not only in the American League but in Major League Baseball as a whole.
No one thought the Detroit Tigers (.351) would be very good this year, except maybe manager AJ Hinch given his perpetually high opinion of himself. Sorry, AJ - the whole Houston sign-stealing situation left a bitter taste in my mouth, and the fact that you’re now managing one of Cleveland’s biggest rivals only gives me a new reason to dislike you.
Most people, however, started the season expecting significantly more from the Minnesota Twins (.343).
The Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm (PECOTA), whose pre-season predictions are widely regarded as the most accurate, forecast the Twins to win the AL Central, with 61% odds of doing so. They are certainly not playing like a team that can live up to those expectations, at least right now.
PECOTA predicted the rest of the division as follows: Indians in second place (25% odds to win the division), White Sox in third (13% odds), Kansas City Royals in fourth (1% odds), and the Tigers in the basement (not a snowball's chance of taking the division title).
The Royals started out strong, but after losing a whopping 11 games in a row, look like they'll soon be contending with the Twins and Tigers for the basement. They're currently holding onto third place, but that’s the kind of losing streak that makes me actually feel sorry for their fans, division rivals or not.
And what of our Cleveland Indians? They’re a young club, but after a bit of a rough start (ending April with a .500 record), they’re starting to play some pretty scrappy baseball. Sure they need to clean up their defense. No one can argue the fact that Jose Ramirez has played some sloppy D, with seven errors already this season (startling, when you consider he only had 14 in the entire 2019 season, and we’re nowhere near the All-Star break).
The Indians have 24 errors this year as a team, which ties them for 8th most in baseball. It’s still fewer than the White Sox (28) or the unfortunate LA Angels who lead the MLB with 33.
But they’ve played error-free baseball the last two games. They have a six-game winning streak. Zach Plesac flirted with a no-hitter last night in a stellar outing against Seattle, and the bullpen has been terrific lately. The Indians walked off against the Chicago Cubs Wednesday in a two-game series sweep.
Given how many rowdy Cubs fans typically make their way to Progressive Field for games (I was there Tuesday night), it’s always nice when we don’t give them anything to cheer about, in the end.
The offense is, well, the offense. Whether one blames batting coach Ty Van Burkleo or not (and I tend to, because what is it about Cleveland that, regardless of who is on the team, they can’t seem to hit an offspeed pitch to save their lives?) we’re used to moments of brilliance and an awful lot of squandered bases-loaded scenarios.
I'd like to see Cleveland keep doing what they've been doing the past few games - manufacturing wins, putting pressure on the White Sox, not letting first place get too far out of their grasp.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. It’s difficult for a team to claw its way back from a 10-game deficit, but certainly not impossible this early in the season. There's a reason the Twins were predicted to win the division.
There's a lot of baseball still to be played this season. For now, I'll revel in the fact that Cleveland is one of the best teams in the American League.