A persistent meme is that the American League Central is a weak division, an easy place to win, a friendly environment to compete, etc. This point of view transcends the blogger/mainstream and stathead/traditional divides. On balance, however, the weakness of the AL Central is overstated. Our division isn't weak, she's average.
We frequently see evidence of the assumption that all you need to do is get to 85 wins (or less) in the AL Central and you're a contender. I'm quite guilty of this myself. However, this has only rarely been the case.
Here are the win totals first place AL Central teams in recent years:
- 2011: 95
- 2010: 94
- 2009: 86 (earned a one-game playoff)
- 2008: 88 (earned a one-game playoff)
- 2007: 96
- 2006: 96
Prior to this season, just like every other one in the AL Central's history, we all perceived it to be a weak division. And look, the Tigers took the division title with only 95 wins. Haha, what a joke!
Now granted, the AL Central has rarely had two very good or even great teams, competing for a title. But this is really only regularly the case in the AL East. The weird thing about that 2008-09 collapse is that it came just after one of the strongest periods in division history. In 2006, the Tigers (90 wins), White Sox (95 wins) and Twins (96 wins) were all strong teams.
2008 and 2009 happened, and to be sure, the division was relatively weak then. Was the AL West given the scarlet label of weak when the Rangers won the division with 90 wins in 2010? Now, to be fair, that was just one year. And, to be even more fair, I'd admit that the AL West is usually a tick better than the AL Central. But the West is much closer to the Central than the AL East. I'd also argue the AL Central is comparable, if not better, to the NL West and NL Central. Does it kill you to be in the AL Central? No. Is it a free ride to the playoffs? No. You usually need a win total in the mid-1990s. It is, broadly speaking, an average place to be.
I'm a big AL pride guy, and I enjoy making over-the-top NL-OMG-sucks jokes. Increasingly however, I think there's the AL East and then another set of five divisions, which are comparable.
Perhaps the perception of the division is tied to the idea that the AL Central should be easy. Nobody, whether it's stat heads or mainstream guys ever get excited about Detroit or Chicago, but both franchises have had some very strong seasons. The Tigers and White Sox have been two of the more unique teams in the game in the last decade, they're two of the last teams that seem to exist in a time warp, operating in a way that was once typical: they gamble big on free agents/waiver guys, have been reluctant to tear down (perhaps to the point that it has become a competitive advantage), and don't seem really concerned with what Baseball America says about them. No one ever is very excited about them, but they've both produced high win totals. Of course, they've also had some very mediocre seasons.
Then you have the Twins, who in a period of about a year have gone from being one of the most consistent teams of the 2000s, to a team with a weird roster and a huge range of possible outcomes. They're joined by the Indians, who briefly got very good, but randomly were also inconsistent (from 2005 to 2007) they went 93 wins-78 wins-96 wins for no apparent reason. And oh yea, the Royals were always bad, but you knew that.
Speaking of bad teams, an underrated factor here is that the bad teams in the division have been getting better. In the early part of the decade the Royals and Tigers and Indians put up some horrible records, and that was with them playing each other all the time. However, the Central hasn't had a 100-loss team since 2006. That matters.
Four teams have won the division in the last five years. But unpredictable doesn't equal bad.
And so now, as we head to 2012, the Royals are supposed to be primed to dominate, because the AL Central is weak. For the 6th consecutive year, the White Sox and Tigers are seemingly trending downward. No one knows about the Indians and no one is excited about the Twins. 85 wins should get this thing done. Totally.