For the most part, we’ve rolled our eyes at the prospect of the Detroit Tigers advancing very far in the MLB playoffs because their entry in the postseason is tainted by being the best of the American League Central. Their status in their division is somewhat akin to being the tallest midget, or (hitting a bit too close to home) the coolest sabermetric baseball blogger.
Mid-way through the summer, with the Tigers in first place, we’d be right in our shallow minded assumption. As Baseball Nation’s Marc Normandin points out:
From opening day through July 21, the Tigers had scored 438 runs and allowed 449 to score, a run differential of -11. With that difference, you would expect a team to be at or around .500, and Detroit was 52-46, not too far off from that pace.
However, from there things got a little bit different.
Since then, though, the Tigers have scored 268 runs while allowing just 201 to score, meaning the entirety of their now +56 run differential has come since July 22.
Even more recently, the Tigers extended their winning streak to ten games yesterday in Chicago. While the White Sox have certainly had their share of struggles this season, it’s not as though Detroit’s record this season is based solely on beating up the weaker opponents within their division. The Tigers have a .590 winning percentage against teams with a .500 winning percentage or greater. That’s the best in baseball.
While Detroit goes unappreciated in the AL Central, the counter parts in the National League, the Central Division leading Milwaukee Brewers are considered serious playoff contenders despite their one eye status in the land of the blind.
Contrasting with the Tigers, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Tom Haudricourt finds that:
The Brewers do not have a winning record against any team currently above .500. They are 23-32 against winning teams, including a 1-5 mark in their last two series against St. Louis and 1-3 in their just-concluded home series against Philadelphia.
On the flip side, the Brewers are 63-30 against teams with losing records, including a 31-9 mark against the three bottom teams in their division, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Houston. While in theory it’s tougher to rise to the top of a six-team division, the Brewers have benefited from playing more series against the Cubs, Houston and Pittsburgh.
Taking it a step further, we see that among all the teams in baseball, only three others, including the lowly Astros (who share more in common with a Triple A team than a contender in the AL East) have fewer wins than Milwaukee against clubs with a .500 winning percentage or greater.
Similarly, if we look back to last season, we see that the Cincinatti Reds won the NL Central on the back of their record against below .500 teams. In fact, the Reds had the fewest amount of wins in the all of baseball against teams with a .500 winning percentage or better. Does anyone remember how Cincinnati fared against the Philadelphia Phillies in the first round of the playoffs? It was over with so quickly, you can be forgiven if you don’t.
Despite this similarity, the Brewers are not the 2010 Reds. If we take a simple look at the individual components of the club, we find that Milwaukee ranks third in the National League in team weighted on base average, fourth in team FIP and pitching wins above replacement, and despite a reputation for shoddy defense, fourth in total DRS and third in UZR. Overall, the Brewers’ everyday players rank fourth in the NL in total wins above replacement.
While these numbers certainly benefit from the Brewers schedule, it should be remembered that there are only six winning teams, including Milwaukee, among the 16 in the National League.
However, I don’t think regular season records are going to matter much at all if the Brewers end up facing the Phillies in the Division Series, a distinct possibility considering that whoever has a worst record between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Milwaukee Brewers will end up opening the playoffs in Philadelphia. The two teams have identical records right now, with the D’backs holding the tie breaker, not surprisingly having a better head to head record.
Fans have been quick to dismiss the Tigers’ chances in the postseason because of the level of competition, but if the regular season is anything to go by, they stand a much better chance than their counterpart in the National League Central Division who have largely escaped criticism based on the same reasoning.