The second half of the season is just hours from (finally) getting underway. Here are the AL Central standings:
I don't think there's any argument that Minnesota and Chicago are out if it, and I think Kansas City needs to move its focus to 2014 too. Any team that is 8 games out at this point, with a negative run differential, has only a minute chance of getting into the playoffs, especially if the team they're eight games behind is arguably the biggest under-achiever in the league (more on that in a bit). So, in looking at what's to come between now and the end of the season, the AL Central really comes down to just two teams.
The Tribe has played about as well as I think was fair to expect. Vinnie Pestano is just about the only player having a much worse season than hoped for, and a 51-44 record. When you look at run differential and other underlying factors, the Indians actual record isn't much out of line in either direction, which is to say there's no strong evidence the team should have many more wins or losses than they actually do (they 'ought' to have 1 or 2 fewer wins, if you want to be more specific). As presently constructed, the team should be expected to win 86 games or so, give or take a few for fluctuations in health and luck. Would 86 wins put them in the playoffs? No. Would the 89 or 90 wins they could get with the right breaks be enough? Maybe.
There are two ways to get into the playoffs: a division crown and a wildcard berth.
All season I've felt like a wildcard spot was more likely, because I think it'll take fewer wins to land one of those than it will to win the Central. The counterpoint to that though, is that you have to beat out many more teams in order to take a wildcard spot than you do to win your division (at least in the AL Central, that's true). There are four teams still in contention in the East, and whichever three of them don't win the division will be in the WC race, along with whichever teams in the West (between Oakland and Texas) losses out.
For a couple weeks, I've been saying the AL East will either separate, or beat itself up. The latter option could mean the runner ups there finish with 86-88 wins, allowing Cleveland to sneak into the playoffs with 89 or so. More and more though, I think the division will separate, with Boston and Tampa Bay winning 92+ games, and the rest of the division clustered much closer to .500. Hoping that Oakland or Texas falls off might be the better bet.
The Indians are only 1.5 games behind Detroit though, leaving the division wide open and there for the taking. Make no mistake though, the Tigers are underperforming, and if you expect the Indians to pass them, you're betting on that underperformance to continue. Many baseball fans are familiar with Pythagorean records, which take teams' runs scored and allowed to determine what their record should be. The actual wins and losses that are already happened aren't going anywhere, but the Pythagorean record does a much better job of predicting what will happen over the remainder of the season than actual wins and losses do. Going by the Pythagorean standings, the Tigers should be 6.5 games ahead of the Tribe, not 1.5.
Going a step further, there are what are known as "third-order" standings, which fewer fans are familiar with. Third-order standings go a step further, and instead of looking at how many runs have been scored and allowed, look at how many runs should have been scored and allowed, based on underlying factors such as on-base percentage, strikeout rates, BABIP, etc. Going by the third-order standings, the Tigers should be 12.5 games ahead of the Tribe, not 1.5.
That isn't because the Indians have been lucky, its because Detroit has been unlucky. Their actual record is 9 games worse than their third-order record suggests it ought to be. No other team in the American League is more than 3 games behind their third-order record. The Tigers have given up a BABIP of .312, tied for the highest in all of baseball. There's a lot more to it than just looking at BABIP, but that one example hopefully gives you some idea of what we're talking about.
The Indians, of course, aren't 12.5 games back, or even 6.5 games back. The wins and losses of the first half are already banked, and the Indians are right in the thick of it (just temper your expectations if you were considering the AL Central to be a coin flip). The Tigers might continue to underperform, and/or suffer injuries. The Indians might get a boost from the return of Zach McAllister (possibly as soon as Tuesday), and/or over-perform as a team in the second half. There's also the possibility that they improve the roster by trading for an impact player (though Detroit is just as likely to make a meaningful upgrade via trade, if not more so).
If you want some good news from the third-order standings, they place the Tribe just 2 games back of Texas for the second wildcard spot (compared to 3 games in the actual standings). Beating Detroit should absolutely be the primary goal of the next two and a half months, but don't sleep on the wildcard as a backup plan. Once you look beyond pure wins and losses, the numbers say a wildcard berth is more likely.
This Indians team is good, the best its been since 2007. Last year the team lost 53 games after the All-Star break. Have no fear, that won't happen this time around. They ought to remain in contention right into September, and while it will take some breaks to make the playoffs, but not ridiculous, implausible ones.