The Last Interesting AL Race

Fans of National League baseball will find joy this September. The largest gap between first and second place is six games, and the Cardinals are certainly good enough to make up some ground and turn the Central back into a competitive race. Philadelphia sits just a half game behind Atlanta in the East and 1.5 games ahead of San Francisco in the Wild Card. Colorado and St. Louis also sit within five games of the Wild Card. Seven teams vying for four spots tends to create some interesting baseball. Unfortunately for AL fans, the races aren’t nearly as compelling.

The AL East and AL Wild Card races are all but over. True, the White Sox are six back of the Wild Card, while the Red Sox are just a half-game behind that pace. The difference between the AL Wild Card and the NL Central, of course, is the quality of the teams involved. At 83-54 Tampa Bay owns the league’s second-best record. It would be much more difficult for Chicago or Boston to overtake a team that strong than it would be for St. Louis to overtake a Cincinnati team that is not without flaw. That leaves just one race, the AL Central, up for grabs.

The White Sox are within 3.5 games of the Twins, and it looks like they’ll need more than just a hot streak to close the gap. They have, in fact, been on quite the streak, rattling off seven straight victories. But in that span they’ve gained just one game on the Twins, thanks to the Twins winning 9 of their last 11. If both teams remain hot their seasons could be determined during their three-game set starting September 14th. Outside of that, neither team plays a particularly tough schedule the rest of the way.

The Twins clearly have the advantage here — not just for their 3.5 game lead, but also for the way they’ve played since early July. Exactly three months ago Justin Morneau suffered a concussion and hasn’t played a game since. Minnesota lost that game, dropping them to 45-39, third place in the Central by 1.5 games. Since then they’ve played .667 ball, going 36-18. That has made it quite difficult for the White Sox to keep pace. They’re a good team for sure, and as they showed earlier this year they can go on a monstrous tear. But it seems like every White Sox streak is overshadowed by Minnesota’s excellent play.

The rest of the way it appears as though Minnesota has a slight schedule advantage. Before the series with Chicago they play two against Kansas City and then three in Cleveland. After that they face Oakland, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, and finally Toronto, meaning they play one team with an above-.500 record and two teams with records around the break-even mark. Chicago has three more against Detroit and three in KC before the Twins series, and then Detroit, Oakland, Anaheim, Boston, and finally Cleveland. That makes for also one team above .500, but a team faring slightly better than the Jays. Chicago’s disadvantage comes from their six remaining games with Detroit.

September can prove a wacky month in the world of baseball. Last year we saw the Twins lose Morneau and subsequently get hot and win the AL Central in a one-game playoff. In 2008, Minnesota was down 2.5 with six games to play. They swept the White Sox to take first place, but then dropped two of three to Kansas City, forcing a playoff which they lost. Minnesota might hold the advantage right now, but we’ve seen how quickly things can turn. Baseball fans might find more consistent enjoyment with the NL races, but keep your eyes on the Central. This could be the third straight year with a crazy finish.




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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.


36 Responses to “The Last Interesting AL Race”

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  1. Matt says:

    The AL East race is over? It’s only a 2.5 game lead for the Yankees over the Rays.

    Or do you mean that it doesn’t really matter all that much since both are almost certainly going to make the playoffs?

    Or was that supposed to say AL West?

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  2. NotDave says:

    Minnesota has the third best record in major league baseball, despite not having Nathan for the entire year, and losing Morneau for the past 2 (not 3) months. That’s a damn good baseball team.

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    • adohaj says:

      For the first time in a while the twins are without a lineup that contains 3 “placeholders” at 3B, SS, and 2B

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    • dickey simpkins says:

      Signing Jim Thome sure helped out there (shakes fist at Kenny Williams). And the ease with which Jon Rauch, then Matt Capps replaced Joe Nathan just shows how overrated the closer position is.

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  3. Jason461 says:

    I know this isn’t explicitly the topic of this post, but I am getting tired of hearing about how the Cardinals might turn it into a race. Look at the Reds’ remaining schedule. It’s almost exclusively cake, and six games is a ton with so little time left in the season. Also, the Reds have a pretty decent run differential (as in, they are a pretty good team), and the Cardinals, aside from two people we all know, can’t hit their way out of a wet paper sack. It would be borderline historic for the Cardinals to come back. Their season is almost certainly over.

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    • Piccamo says:

      Colby Rasmus and John Jay?

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      • Jason461 says:

        I stand corrected, I’ll give you Jay, though he looks like he’s been regressing the last month or so. Rasmus is in LaRussa’s dog house, though, and not playing nearly as much as he should be. In any case, my initial point is still valid, the Cardinal lineup is weak overall and it would take a small miracle for them to catch Reds. People who pretend otherwise are starting to aggravate me.

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      • oh dear says:

        but it wouldn’t take any sort of miracle for the reds to revert to their old ways.

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      • Jason461 says:

        What are their “old ways?” They’ve been a solid team all year. Even in the preseason they were talked about as a team that could turn it around this year. They’ve had some career years, certainly, but most of those have come from young players who are supposed to get better. As a Reds fan, I’m really getting tired of the condescension from everyone. Are they the Yankees? No. But they are a good team and, at this point in the season, we have enough data to tell us that they are probably at least as good as the Cardinals.

        But all that aside, in order to believe the Cardinals have any kind of reasonable shot, you have to believe that their true talent level is at least 20 games better than that of the Reds over a full season, which is totally ridiculous.

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    • Bill says:

      Reds are young team that may be playing over their heads a bit. The Cardinals won the division last year with largely the same team. I think the Reds are legit and will maintain their level of play, but they are more likely to fall apart like the Padres than is a more proven team. The proven team has a longer track record of success; it’s easier to see if they are playing over the heads or if they are under performing.

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  4. James says:

    As a White Sox fan, I think this race is over until proven otherwise (for example, by either sweeping the Twins next week or winning 2 of 3 and pulling into a tie for first). The White Sox can’t be on more of a roll than they are right now, and they aren’t gaining any ground. The 3 games the White Sox gave away to the Twins (July 16, July 18, and August 17) are going to be hard to make up.

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    • BB says:

      This is how I feel. Love the Sox, love the fact they’re making another run for first after a horrific start and a bad August. But the Twins are just playing flawless baseball. I’d love to be surprised, but I don’t think they can overcome Minnesota.

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      • John says:

        I think this comes more from a pessimistic attitude towards your team than reality. I love where the Twins are at right now (as a Twins fan), Chicago is an underdog, but they are a live dog. The Twins starting pitching is suspect behind Liriano and is more than capable of throwing out some stinkers to tighten up the race. Add in the fact that the bullpen has been overused as of late and the Twins dropping a few games in a row is very possible.

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  5. scottz says:

    It really is a very good race, although I disagree with the notion that Minnesota’s schedule is easier. From here on out, the Sox have 16 games at home and 9 on the road while the Twins go 12-12. Baseball Prospectus might indicate that as well, as with both teams winning yesterday, the Twins chances of making the playoffs decreased by 0.16% while the Sox increased their chances by 1.86%. I know that the Sox increase has more to do with the Rays losing, so they picked up possibilities in the wild card race, but the Twins losing ground after both teams win might indicate that the longer this stays close, the Sox’s schedule gives them an advantage.

    Further, the standings on August 30 had the Twins at a 4 game lead (75-56 vs 71-60). Now here we are on September 7 with the lead hardly changed at 3.5 games (81-57 vs 77-60) as the Twins went 6-1 versus the Sox 6-0 in that time. Baseball Prospectus’ 7 day change for the 6-1 Twins? Minus 4.23%.

    The series between the Twins and the Sox on September 14-16 should be fun. The Twins get an extra day off on the 9th, which could be pretty big for them, given how they are taxing their bullpen lately. Maybe it sounds silly that an off day is big…and maybe it is…but have 2 days off out of 5 before the Sox series at this time of year seems relevant.

    Good times, baseball.

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  6. Mike says:

    While I agree with you that the Red Sox are more or less done for the year, I think you are over rating the Rays. They may have the second best record in baseball, but they do have flaws. They have trouble scoring runs at times. James Shields and Jeff Nieman are not looking that good as of late. The Rays are still a flawed team, and are beatable. I think the issue with the Rays and the Red Sox is the fact that the Red Sox are not the team that they should be. John Beckett is not himself, Pedroia and Youkilis are out for the rest of the year, John Lackey has been a bust.

    I feel like a lot of people tend to overrate the Rays, and I am not really sure why. They can run, but they have issues scoring, and I think their pitching has been playing over it’s head all year(minus David Price, I think he is actually THAT good)

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  7. Scott K. says:

    As a White Sox fan, the piranhas are killing me.

    Killing me.

    Hey Texas, thanks for showing up this weekend.

    Your pal,

    Scott K.

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    • John says:

      Really don’t have piranhas anymore. The only speed guy on the team, Span probably makes more mental mistakes than any player in the game. Between getting picked off and baserunning errors, he has had a negative impact on the bases despite being 20/24 on SB attempts.

      Add into the fact that the Twins might have the worst defensive OF in the majors w/ Young, Span and Kubel/Cuddyer and this really isn’t the Twins of old.

      Luckily the Twins IF defense is solid, but sadly the staff leans towards fly ball pitchers.

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      • Cidron says:

        naa, Give the “Worst Defensive OF” to the SF Giants. Burrell, Rowand, Guillen, or toss in a Huff, Ross, Torres into the mix. Not sure most of them know what to do with a glove, other than take food out of the oven.

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  8. phoenix says:

    the rays pitching staff is as questionable as the yankees. they are actually quite similar. they both have their ace (price vs cc) and then after that its question marks. nieman has been as bad as burnett and shields is looking like javy vasquez. garza has potential but looks tired and is struggling just like hughes. pettite is no sure thing right off the DL either. both teams have a great bullpen/closer. i think the difference in the teams is that the rays can run a lot more than the yankees (especially without damon to steal 2 bases in one try) and the yankees have more power potential. still, if neither team can fix some of the question marks in their rotations, they won’t get very far. pitching wins the postseason.

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  9. Matt says:

    John, the Twins pitching staff doesn’t actually lean on fly ball pitchers all that strongly: Liriano, Pavano, Duensing and Blackburn all have groundball rates of over 50%. Baker and Slowey are fly ball pitchers however.

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    • John says:

      You are right, the Twins are about in the middle in terms of inducing ground balls/surrendering fly balls. I suppose there is some balance w/ Liriano being among the leagues best and Slowey among the leagues worst at inducing GBs. But that being said, the Twins have a reputation of consistently being a very good defensive team that does all the little things right and that simply hasn’t been the case the last few years. I don’t think the Twins have rated in the top 10 of UZR since like 2006 and were negative the last couple of years. This year there defense has rebounded a bit, but they aren’t an elite defensive team.

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      • Not David says:

        But, but, but, don’t they lead the league in fewest errors!?

        [/every commentator in existence]

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      • Erik says:

        Having a middle infield of Hardy and Hudson has most certainly helped the team’s UZR so far in 2010.

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      • NotDave says:

        The whole ‘errors mean nothing’ meme that permeates the internet says a whole lot more about the posters on these sites than it does about errors as a measure. And not in a good way. Teams that do not play consistently good infield defense–making the plays they should make, plus a few more here and there–have a hard time winning. You can live with slow outfielders, you can live with Jeter’s range at SS. What you cannot live with is infielders turning outs into not-outs. I’d much rather have a team that commits few errors than a team that leads in UZR but can’t be counted on to turn a routine grounder into a DP in the 9th inning.

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      • Bill says:

        UZR has its problems. Mostly due to sample size. But, it accounts for errors. Regardless, an out is an out. If a shortstop makes three plays that no other shortstop could have made and then boots one easy play, he has still made two more outs than any other shortstop. There is going to be more routine plays than exceptional plays, so if a player consistently Knoblauchs the easy plays, he will have a low UZR.

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      • Luke in MN says:

        “I don’t think the Twins have rated in the top 10 of UZR since like 2006 and were negative the last couple of years. This year there defense has rebounded a bit, but they aren’t an elite defensive team.”

        They’re 7th in baseball this year in UZR and 3rd in the AL. DRS tells a similar story. I think it’s a pretty good refutation of the popular (on this site) idea that the Twins would die because of bad corner outfielders (compounded by flyballz pitchers!!1!). In the grand scheme of things, bad corner outfielders just don’t matter that much.

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      • NotDave says:

        “In the grand scheme of things, bad corner outfielders just don’t matter that much.”

        Couldn’t agree more.

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  10. Sox27 says:

    There’s a big part of me that wants to believe the Twins battered bullpen will be a factor down the stretch. Allow me to say I hate the Twins with every fiber of my being, and the idea that the Twins bullpen/starter issues (outside of Liriano and Pavano) provide me a glimmer of hope. While it is certainly a tall mountain to climb, I for some reason think it could happen. I don’t think it’s unreasonable that the Twins could falter down the stretch (although they usually don’t give me reason to believe so). They did drop 2 of 3 to the Royals their last homestand of 2008 to allow the Blackout to take place, so there is precedent for it. With that being said I still expect the Twins to go 9-2 in their remaining 11 against KC/CLE. So I’m essentially left to hope for a Sox sweep of the hated team from Canada South next week to preserve hope of October baseball at 35th and Shields.

    It should be nice to see attention focused away from the AL East down the stretch for once.

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    • Chris K says:

      Attention focused away from the AL East? You dream. Right now Sportscenter is running a segment on C.C.’s game against the 0-162 Baltimore Orioles because he might tack on arbitrary statistic #20. No mention of The Sox, on their 7 game streak, or the Twins, even with Thome’s climactic bomb last night.

      The best baseball this past week has been played at the top of the AL Central, and national announcers still put all their attention elsewhere. I don’t know if you watched the TBS broadcast of the 3rd Sox-Sox game the other day (I was out of market, and thus sadly didn’t hear the phrase daggubbit or hangwoofum even once), but the entire time Smoltz and crew were talking about how Boston – Boston! – could use the game to spark a wild card chase. BP had their playoff chances at the time at less than 2%. Nevermind that the Pale Hose haven’t lost since they acquired one of the top-5 hitters of the past two decades.

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    • Anthony says:

      As a Twins fan I can tell you that, for as great as the Twins are playing baseball, if any team realizes that big things can happen in a short amount of time, it is Minnesota. Labor Day, 2009. Seven games behind Detroit. Enough said.

      A sweep in Chicago would be awfully surprising at this point. I think both teams will stay relatively close until that series, but I’m expecting the Twins take at least one, if not win the series. The head-to-head record between these teams is pretty one sided. The Twins are 10-5 against the White Sox this year even with a battered line-up. The White Sox may have better pitching overall, but the difference in offense is a wide enough gap that the Twins are just flat-out the better team right now.

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      • BB says:

        The sad thing about all of this is the Sox record against the Central as a whole is what will cost them the division. Outside of Detroit, they have a below .500 record against the AL-C. White hot doesn’t come close to describing how they have to play the next 20 someodd days.

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      • Luke in MN says:

        “The White Sox may have better pitching overall”

        You have trouble finding a stat that showed this. The Twins have a really balanced attack this year, and their run prevention has been every bit as good as their offense.

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      • Anthony says:

        I should have been more clear on the better pitching comment because I meant to refer to starting pitching. Although overall the White Sox pitching staff still beats the Twins pitching staff in WAR. Looking at adjusted ERA values and FIP for the team pitching overall, the stats for the Twins are going to look inflated because they have a better bullpen.

        I was talking with a friend today who also pointed out an interesting thing that I hadn’t considered before (And for all I know, he may be wrong). But he said that the park adjustments being used to calculate all of these stats (Both on here and other sites that use them) are using averages over the last so many years. If that’s true, all the park-adjusted stats are using adjustments for the Metrodome, which compared to Target Field is much more of a hitter’s park (From qualitative observation of every game played there this year alone, which is hardly mathematically sound after one year, but the best we can do).

        The short of what that would mean, if Target Field is a pitcher’s park: Twins pitching looks better than it really is and Twins hitting looks worse than it really is. I’d be curious to see years down the line after we have a more solid idea of how Target Field plays (One year can’t tell us too much) and a decent park factor how the 2010 Twins season looks when a retroactive adjustment is made to the stats.

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  11. Erik says:

    Don’t you guys know this? There are no organized sports played west of the Mississippi.

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