And now, the exciting conclusion.
Sky Kalkman (Beyond the Box Score): What surprising story lines from the first half of the season have shaped the standings the most?
Jay Levin (LetsGoTribe): Pardon our self-absorption, but if all you're looking at is the standings, the Indians stand out as the only surprising team. PECOTA and the sharper pundits predicted a rather mediocre and rather tight division with the Indians and Tigers at the top, but not by much. To date, the Tigers have won a few games more than expected, and the Indians have won 10-12 games fewer. Other than that, everyone is right around where they were expected to be -- although of course, even when a team has an expected record, they often didn't get there the way they expected to. I would imagine the two biggest surprises within rosters have to be the total collapse of every single one of Cleveland's late-inning relievers and the great performance of the Detroit pitching staff. I'm sure others will point to big surprises on their own rosters, but out of seven relievers who opened the season with the Indians, six have been major disappointments, and the seventh is on the DL. A great FanPost at our site went through 12 grueling losses that should have been wins ó and this is not just the usual sour grapes all losing teams have. Based on any concept of Win Expectancy, we should have won nine or ten of those 12 losses. That certainly has shaped the standings a great deal.
Will McDonald (Royals Review): The Twins and Royals are the great constants of this division, with the other three teams being seemingly completely random, year to year. That being said, I'm most surprised by the success of the Tigers thus far. As for the Indians, yea, they're way behind their pythag, but they still have the pythag of a fourth or fifth place team. Oh, and the Royals have been worse than many expected. Not in a major way, but certainly they've been bad enough that people might actually lose their jobs/get fired.
Jay: Who said anything about the Indians' pythag? I just meant the Tigers have won more than they were expected to at the start of the season, and the Indians many fewer. You make an interesting point about the Twins and Royals being constant. We know what causes the Royals' consistency, but what causes the Twins'? You would think that a team generally composed of speedy slap-hitters that relies on an overly slick playing field would have wildly variant seasons. Could it be (gasp) pitching and defense?
Will: Hmm, minor mistake on my part, I guess I was reading in more of a macro/aggregate sense what you said about Win Expectancy. The annoying thing about the Twins is that they keep winning -- to an extent -- with their depth of generic #4 starters, and yet when you watch a Twins game, all you ever hear about are their (counter-productive) offensive strategies.
Jesse Lund (Twinkie Town): The Twins have straddled the line between great and awful this season, and it's represented in their lineup. They're split into stars and scrubs, and the team record is representative of the average talent level: average. It's frustrating, but at least we're still in it. The biggest story lines in regards to the standings, like Jay says, are the Tigers and the Indians. Cleveland under-performed last year too, surging too late to make up the necessary ground, but I'm not sure if they're capable of that this year. Detroit's pitched really well in the first half, which has been one of the (if not THE biggest) reasons for their success. With the Twins mired in mediocrity, I have to believe that right now they're exactly where they deserve to be.
Will: The good news for the Twins is that they have the best record in the division against other Central teams (17-12) AND they have the most AL Central games left of any team. You can learn a lot about the AL Central at any given time just by looking to see who has already played their allotment of AL East games.
Ian Casselberry (Bless You Boys): I have to agree with Jay. The Indians have been the biggest surprise, based on how bad they've been. I think they were considered the favorite in the AL Central for most of the winter, until people began to look at their starting pitching and had doubts. Right now, it's like they're the team everyone else in the division wants to play. The Royals were also a chic pick in the spring, and that fell apart so fast. Looking at the Tigers, it's a surprise that they're in first place despite getting no positive contributions from the likes of Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen, or Jeremy Bonderman, and a whole bunch of inconsistency from the fourth and fifth spots in their starting rotation.
Jay: Even very good teams tend not to have consistency at the bottom of their rotation, or their bullpen, or their lineup. The Tigers rotation obviously has outperformed expectations all things considered.
Sky: Which of those surprises are most likely to continue throughout the rest of the season? I.e. which are flukes and which are for real?
Will: I don't see the Indians turning it around.
Jesse: I don't see the Indians turning it around, either. Although now that two of us have said it we've jinxed it, and Cleveland will win 55 games from here on out.
Ian: I'd like to pile on the Indians too, but the Royals don't seem ready for a turnaround either. But unless the Tigers make a move to bolster their offense, I think they're largely the team we've already seen: Pretty good to great starting pitching will help them win several games, but inconsistent production from the lineup will prevent them from sustaining any long winning streaks. On far too many nights, Detroit can make mediocre starting pitchers look good. And that makes them extremely vulnerable.
Jay: I'm surprised the Indians "turning it around" is seen as plausible enough even to bring it up. They're not merely 14 games back, they're 10+ games behind three different teams. Even if they played .700 ball -- which they most certainly will not! -- they'd still end up with only 85 wins, and I'll betcha at least two other teams top that. They are three weeks past dead. I do think the Twins are better than a .500 team, and I think the White Sox are worse. I won't be surprised to see the Twins and Tigers battling it out at the end, 2006-style.
Sky: Which big local stories aren't getting as much attention from the national media? Should they be?
Jay: What jumps to mind is the incredibly inept trade the Royals just made with the Mariners.
Will: Things have changed in Kansas City in the last two weeks. Prior to that point, I might have said that Dayton Moore was the proverbial naked emperor. Not anymore. Now the only naked emperor is Mark Shapiro.
Ian: Maybe I haven't stepped outside my Tigers bubble that much, but does the national media realize just how well Edwin Jackson has pitched this year? (The All-Star nod may have taken care of that.) I also think the Tigers have pretty much trashed the idea that the economy in Detroit is so bad that the team will have no choice but to shed payroll. Attendance will increase in the second half of the season now that people realize that the Tigers should be taken seriously.
Jesse: Can we get any more play over how awesome Joe Mauer is?
Will: No. We don't acknowledge Mauer until somebody takes back Morneau's MVP award.
Jay: [high-fives Will]
Sky: What story lines will we see in the second half of the season that most people aren't expecting?
Jesse: At some point by January 1, I expect the Twins to sign Mauer to a big contract. They really don't have much of a choice in the matter, unless they like the idea of organizational genocide. Still, I'm not sure how many people believe it will happen. But then that's less "second half of the season" and more "second half of the year".
Will: There has to be something underreported about the Tigers, but I'm not sure what it is, other than improved starting pitching. At some point, the saber-friendly community, of which I consider myself a member, is going to have to come to terms with what's going on in Cleveland. The Indians are behind the Royals for goodness sakes. The Royals! Mark Shapiro ripped off Omar Minaya, who was borderline operating in bad faith in a horrible situation in Montreal that will likely never be repeated in major American sports, and a legend was born. Years later, the Indians appear to be good at gaming guys' arb-clocks and ... employing Eric Wedge.
Jay: I think the saber community will avoid confronting the failure of the Indians as long as possible, because it's such an uncomfortable topic. And then they'll do what I did, which is just to assume that the Indians have terrible scouting.
Ian: The nagging storyline will probably be what to do about Magglio Ordonez. Do the Tigers release him or sit him down if he gets too close to reaching the plate appearances that would trigger an $18 million option for next season? But one thing to keep an eye on is Placido Polanco's status with the team. He's in the last year of his contract, hitting .256, and the Tigers have a prospect who looks ready to take over at second base. I don't think they'd make that change this season. The Tigers seem really cognizant of maintaining good clubhouse chemistry (which is why I think Magglio Ordonez is still on the roster). But if Polanco stays in the .250 range, I wonder if they'd give Scott Sizemore a shot in September.
Sky: How about ending with one bold prediction we won't hold you accountable for if you're wrong, but we'll worship at your feet for if it comes true?
Jesse: The Royals win the World Series? I have nothing to lose.
Ian: The AL MVP will come from a Central division team.
Will: The AL Central playoff representative will not win a game.
Jay: Cliff Lee will win a playoff game, and C.C. Sabathia won't.