As we approach the halfway mark of the season, four-game slumps are much less dramatic and the long-term trends begin to unfold across the league. A team’s ultimate success lies in being able to identify strengths and weaknesses, and learning to manipulate each, and the American League Central is no different.
Here are our takes on what’s hot — and what’s not — so far in the division:
Playing up (or down) to the level of competition
We’re more than a third of the way through the season, and the Indians have created a distinct trend of playing at the same level of their competition. Against teams with winning records, Cleveland has gone 16-11. But against teams with a sub-.500 record, the Indians have gone 16-15 (.516 winning percentage, which trails the White Sox, Royals and Tigers in the division). Cleveland is scheduled to face just one current winning team (Cubs) for the rest of the May, and the remaining matchups will be against teams with losing records (Mariners, Orioles, Pirates, Twins and Tigers).
— Mandy Bell
The Royals’ bullpen is a strength of the club, and manager Mike Matheny isn’t afraid to use his relievers whenever there’s a high-leverage situation, even if that means the fifth or sixth inning. But the bullpen’s workload has continued to increase, and that’s not always sustainable for a 162-game season, especially when the ‘pen has dealt with injuries — Josh Staumont and Kyle Zimmer have both missed time, and Jesse Hahn is still out with a right shoulder impingement — and other relievers needing to step up to fill their spots at times. The starting pitching is going to have to go deeper in games.
Entering Wednesday, the Royals’ rotation has pitched 286 innings, which ranks 25th in the Majors. Its 4.91 ERA ranks 26th. The relievers have collectively pitched 225 2/3 innings, 12th in baseball, with a 3.95 ERA, ranked 15th in baseball. Kansas City has seen flashes, especially early in the season, of its starters putting together six quality innings and the bullpen getting the job done in the final three innings. That’s a trend the Royals need to get back to and sustain.
— Anne Rogers
The Tigers cut their strikeout rate from 30.6 percent of their plate appearances in April, to 25.9 percent in May. The rate rose a tick through the first week of games in June to 27.1 percent, but still well off the swings and misses they were racking up at the height of their struggles in the first month of the season.
At the same time, Detroit’s batting average on balls put in play rose from .260 in April to an MLB-best .327 in May and .280 through the first week in June. Not surprisingly, Detroit raised its batting average 49 points from April (.199) to May (.248) to June (.241) and bumped its OPS from .602 to .695 to .772. The numbers reflect the transition of the Tigers’ offense from a feast-or-famine, high-strikeout offense at season’s start to a team better focused on situational hitting and small ball as the season wears on, testing defenses by putting balls in play. Rule 5 Draft pick Akil Baddoo’s rapid maturation in plate discipline played a role, as has Jonathan Schoop’s escape from an early-season slump.
— Jason Beck
Inherited runners scoring against the bullpen
The single-season record for inherited runners allowed to score by a team’s bullpen is 52.8 percent, set by the Mariners in a shortened 2020 season. Over a full season, the 2003 Royals hold that unenviable record, having allowed 48.7 percent of inherited runners to cross home plate. Either way, at 63 percent, the 2021 Twins are on pace to blow past those numbers.
Tyler Duffey, once Minnesota’s go-to reliever in messy situations, has allowed nine of 11 inherited runners to score, Caleb Thielbar has allowed 10 of 13 to score and Taylor Rogers has done the same with five of his 10 inherited runners. Wherever the Twins turn, they’ve been unable to find a solution to these woes — resulting in a win probability added as a group that ranks 26th of 30 teams in MLB this season. It’s been a rough season for the bullpen as a whole due to struggles from Alex Colomé and Cody Stashak in particular, and their struggles aren’t even fully reflected by the collective 4.56 ERA, third worst in the American League.
— Do-Hyoung Park
The power-packed White Sox offense has taken three direct-injury hits, leaving left fielder Eloy Jiménez (ruptured left pectoral tendon) out since the end of Spring Training, center fielder Luis Robert (right hip flexor tear) gone since May 2 and outfielder Adam Engel (right hamstring strain) just returning this past weekend after being absent since the start of the season. So how does a team not only survive but thrive atop the AL Central? For the White Sox, it starts with the rotation.
Entering play Wednesday, Chicago’s starting pitchers led the AL with a 3.02 ERA and were tied with Boston with 26 wins. The rotation has allowed two runs or fewer in 39 of 60 games (13 of the games were shutouts), tied with Tampa Bay for the most in the AL. Lance Lynn ranks second in the Majors behind the Mets’ Jacob deGrom (0.62) with a 1.23 ERA, and Carlos Rodón ranks seventh at 1.96 with a minimum of 50 innings pitched. The 2020 White Sox had two steady hurlers in Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel, with talented but uncertain youth behind them, whereas the ’21 rotation goes five strong; six, with Michael Kopech involved.
— Scott Merkin