We have been hearing for years that the Central is a terrible division, and the if the Tigers struggle to win it then they must not be that great. If your frame of reference is the American League East, the point has always been valid: the competition in that division is awfully tough – even in what some consider a down year this season four teams are above .500 overall and the only team under (Toronto) is still over .500 in games outside the division. The second wild card spot was probably added in order to give a helping hand to the third-best team in the AL East – but this year it’s entirely possible that only one team from that division will make the playoffs, though the rest could finish over .500 with the 6th, 7th and 8th best records in the AL.
To clarify – that the AL was better than the rest and remains better than the rest is and was true. There is no disputing that. If you look at record outside of their division (since any division has to have a .500 record in division games) the AL east as a whole as a .560 winning percentage, making the whole AL East a 91 win team. That’s good. What we Tigers fans should dispute is the claim that the Tigers have an unfair advantage that makes any playoff appearance “cheap” and casts doubt on any accomplishments. It has been mentioned here that the worst divisions in baseball this year look like the NL East (with only one team above .500) and the NL West (where, prior to the Dodgers hot streak, no team looked better than mediocre). That may be true, but it matters little when we’re talking about who has an advantage in AL playoff races.
What I think is worth pointing out is that this year, the American League Central is no longer “objectively” the worst division in the American League, it has moved into second place behind the mighty East. Outside of their division the AL Central has a .495 winning percentage, which would make the AL Central an 80 win team. That’s significantly better than the AL West this year, whose .457 winning percentage would make them only a 74 win team. (The whole AL is a bit over .500 in interleague play, which factors in here as well.) Supporters of the West would point the finger squarely at the Houston Astros. The Astros are, most likely the worst team in the major leagues this season and this IS the first season that they have spent in the AL West. They do, indeed, drag down the quality level of the division as a whole. They also make it easy for the others to win division games, which gives them an UNFAIR advantage in the wild card race – non-Astros teams in the West have won 54.4% of games within their division, much higher than the Rays or the Orioles. If we ignore the Astros and look only at the combined record of the Angels, Mariners, Rangers and A’s in out-of-division games they have won 48.9%. That’s the equivalent of a 79 win team, that would finish the season a game behind the AL Central.
To set the record straight, if we do include those NL divisions then the NL East and NL West do finish behind the AL Central as well – though the NL West is very close (because the Dodgers are playing very well and the worst teams in the division aren’t really that bad). The AL West finishes slightly behind the NL East for the current title of “worst division in baseball”, though things can certainly change over the seasons last 6 weeks or so. The NL Central joins the AL East as the second better-than-.500 division winning 53.4% of their games outside the division. The NL Central is also a near-mortal lock to send three teams into the playoffs. In the end the AL Central isn’t the worst division, they’re the 2nd best in the AL and the 3rd best in the majors. The Tigers aren’t the team that is coasting towards the playoffs solely by virtue of beating up on a weak division, that honor goes to the Texas Rangers who lead the AL West despite a 33-37 record against non-divisional opponents.