Central Processing: Framing April in the Big Picture

If you look at the AL Central standings this morning it is the exact inverse of what I predicted for the 2011 season. I remain shocked and astounded as I write this, but it’s the Cleveland Indians who are perched on top of the division with a healthy 4.5 game lead over the 2nd place Kansas City Royals. Not only is Cleveland the top team in our division, at 19-8 they have the best record in all of baseball.

What they’ve done in the last month has conjured up a slew of mixed memories for me. In 2003 the Kansas City Royals got off to a scorching hot start and stood in first place with a 17-7 record on May 1st. It was, to put it mildly, very unexpected. It also didn’t last. When the 2003 regular season ended, it was the Twins and not the Royals who would lay claim to the AL Central title. Minnesota finished the year 90-72 and the White Sox also moved past Kansas City to finish in second  with a record of 86-76. At 83-79, the Royals wound up in third place a full 7.0 games back of the division champion.

As we all know, the major league baseball season is a marathon and surprise teams – like the ’03 Royals – generally wilt in the summer months. Will Cleveland remain the toast of MLB, or will they be dead, buried, and forgotten come September? I lean toward the latter, but thinking about the 2011 Indians and the 2003 Royals led me to wonder how often late-March/April success in the AL Central leads to a division title.

Since the AL Central came into existence prior to the 1994 season, we have 17 years worth of historical data to potentially dig through. That’s more than enough of a sample to analyze and draw some conclusions from, but 1994 and 1995 were strike shortened so it seems prudent to omit those. Further to keep things apples to apples with the current AL Central teams we have to omit 1996 and 1997 from this study since the Detroit Tigers didn’t join the division until the 1998 season when Milwaukee flipped to the NL. After those cuts we still have 13 seasons to work which still seems like an ample sample size.

For the record, I went into the research with very few preconceived notions and with very little idea of conclusions the data would lead me to.

1998: The Cleveland Indians had the best April by going 14-12. They were the only team to finish above 0.500 in the season’s first month and wound up winning the division with a 89-73 record. Everyone else finished below 0.500 on the year.

1999: Cleveland again paced the Central with the best April record, though this time they were far more impressive going 16-6. Once again they parlayed that into a division title and a stellar 97-65 regular season record. No other Central squad finished above 0.500. The second place White Sox wound up 75-86 and a ridiculous 21.5 games back. Minnesota, Kansas City and Detroit all won less than 70 games.

2000: For the third straight season the Indians came out of the gate strong with a 13-8 record, but this time someone else won more games than they lost. That team was the Chicago White Sox who went 17-8 and wound up winning the division with a 95-67 record. Cleveland parlayed their strong start into a 90-72 record and second place finish.

2001: Yet again, Cleveland got off to a good start going 14-9 but as with 2000 another team was even better. That team was the Minnesota Twins who went 18-6 after finishing dead last (69-93) the season before. At 91-71 The Indians wound up winning the division again, but the Twins rode their strong start to a 85-77 record and second place. I’ll have a bit more on Minnesota’s 18-6 start later on, but for now let’s move on.

2002: After four straight seasons, the Indians finally started to show some cracks and went just 13-13 in the season’s opening month. That left the door open and two teams stepped through. The Twins started out 16-11 and the White Sox did a half game better by going 16-10. Minnesota would wind up winning the Central with a 94-67 record and reach the ALCS where they lost 4 games to 1 against the Anaheim Angels. The White Sox would finish the year 81-81 thanks in part to consecutive 12-16 months in May and June.

2003: Finally we come to the Royals magical 17-7 start I mentioned at the beginning of this column. You already know the Twins won the division and the White Sox came in second while the Royals placed third. What you don’t know is that the White Sox finished the month of April 14-13. Meanwhile, the Twins did something we haven’t seen up to this point in our timeline. They won the division after starting the season with a losing record after the first month. The Twins were just 12-14 on May 1st, but then ripped off a 19-9 record in May. They followed that with a losing record in June (12-15) and July (10-16) before going 37-18 over the final two months. 2003 was unique for another reason as it is “home” to the worst April start by any AL Central team between 1998 and 2011. That “honor” belongs to the Detroit Tigers who went 3-21 and we well on their way to their 43-119 record.

2004: Riding their strong finish in 2003, the Twins got of to the best start with a 15-7 record and won the division by 9 games. They finished the year with 92 wins and 70 losses. The White Sox and Tigers would also finish April with records above 0.500 and finished 2nd and 4th respectively.

2005: For the second straight year the Twins opened this season with 15 wins (15-8 to be exact) by the end of April. However Chicago at 17-7 was even better and rode their hot start to a 99-63 record and a World Series sweep of the Houston Astros. Minnesota wound up 83-79 which was good for third. Cleveland recovered from a 9-14 start to go 93-69 and finished second.

2006: If Cleveland’s 2005 recovery gives Twins fans a glimmer of hope in 2011, then this is the year that allows the sunlight to flood the room. The White Sox would again get off to the best start in the division and would again boast a 17-7 record but their hot start would only carry them to a 3rd place finish and 90-72 record. The Detroit Tigers would go 16-9 in April, win the wild card with a 95-67 record and reach the World Series. But it was the 2006 Twins themselves that would give the 2011 Twins some hope. Minnesota struggled to start the year and stood at just 9-15 on May 1st, but they recovered quickly and wound up winning the division by 1 game with a 96-66 record.

2007: This is where things start to get a little jumbled as 3 teams won 14 games by the end of April. The Tigers and Twins both finished the month 14-11, but it was the Cleveland Indians at 14-8 who had the best start. Detroit finished the year 88-74, the Twins finished at 79-83 and the Indians won the division for the first time since 2001 thanks to their 96-66 record. Interestingly enough, the Chicago White Sox (12-11) also finished the month above 0.500 though they would wind up 72-90 on the year.

2008: Jumbled year part two saw all 5 teams win between 12 and 14 games to start the season though only the White Sox would finish above 0.500 at 14-13. Minnesota went 13-14, Cleveland and Detroit went 13-15 and even the Royals were in the race after one month at 12-15. Based on the start it seems fitting that it took a 163rd game to decide things as the White Sox (89-74) defeated the Twins (88-75). The division was tight top to bottom as the Tigers and Royals won 74 and 75 games respectively and Cleveland was “even-Steven” at 81-81. Just 14.5 games separated 1st and 5th place.

2009: Jumbled year part three featured the Kansas City Royals at 12-10 and in first place on May 1st. The White Sox and Tigers were both just a half game back at 11-10 while the Twins were also in the mix at 11-11. Once again, it would take a 163rd game to break the deadlock. This time it was between the Twins (87-76) and Tigers (86-77). The Royals would collapse and finish 65-97 in a last pace tie with the Indians who started the year 8-14.

2010: The magical year for all in Twins Territory, at least until the playoffs started, Minnesota got off to the best start at 15-8 and, after a brief hiccup in the middle of the season, finished in first place at 94-68. They sat in first place for 144 days of the season. Detroit also started well going 14-10 in April, while Cleveland, Chicago and Kansas City each won only 9 games.

While there is a lot of baseball left to be played in 2011, the month of April (and 1 day of March) is already in the books so it seems fitting to include it here.

2011: Obviously Cleveland finished last month with the best record in the division. They also had the best record in MLB by going 18-8. No team during this span (1998-2011) has managed to reach 19 wins by May 1st. This year’s Indians matched the 2001 Twins with 18 wins, but Minnesota had a better winning percentage thanks to the fact that they only lost 6 games that month.

Speaking of the Twins, they finished this April at 9-17. It was their worst start to the season in all the years included here (1998-2011). They managed only 9 victories by May 1st in 1999 and 2006 as well, but lost 14 and 15 games in those years respectively. Again the separator is win percentage.

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So where does this leave the Twins, who have struggled, and also the Indians who are obviously flying high?

Based on the last 13 seasons, things are looking good for the Cleveland Indians. They may not win the division but the past suggests that they will, at worst, finish around 0.500 and finish no lower than 3rd in the division.

That’s because the team that has gotten off to the best April start in the AL Central has wound up winning the division 8 times in 13 seasons. Of the remaining 5 years, the team out of the gate the quickest has finished 2nd twice, 3rd twice, and tied for last, or 4th place if you prefer, once. The Kansas City Royals account for one of the 3rd place finishes (2003) and the last place finish (2009). The latter example is clearly an outlier in the data because the 2009 Royals were just 12-10 on May 1st and 3 other teams were within a game of 1st place, so they were hardly impressive or dominant. The 2003 Royals more closely resemble the 2011 Indians and would remain the cautionary tale. Still 2003 remains the only year Kansas City has finished above 0.500 since the strike hit back in 1994. I have to imagine that most fans of the Tribe would take a 0.500 record at season’s end based on what they’ve endured the last several years.

I still remain very skeptical of the Indians chances to win the AL Central this season, but the above has convinced me that Cleveland will probably stick around for much or most of the year.

But what about the Minnesota Twins?

To that question, 2003 and 2006 offer a bit of hope. Those are the only 2 years that a team with a losing record in April recovered to finish first in the division. Want more optimism? In both cases it was the Twins who pulled it off. If there is an organization that can scrap and claw it’s way out of such a deep hole, Minnesota is the one I’d put my money on.

But, there is one more season that suggests the Twins shouldn’t be dismissed just yet. Back in 2005 the Cleveland Indians started out 9-14 but wound up winning 93 games. They didn’t win the Central but only because the White Sox won 99. No matter what you think of the Royals, Twins, Tigers, White Sox or Indians right now after just over a month of baseball, it almost impossible to fathom that any of these teams can win in excess of 95 games. As a result of that, I think the ’05 Indians give us a viable third example.

The odds are certainly long and Minnesota has a lot of ground to make up. History shows us that it’s not an impossible climb, but the Twins better get to work.

Tags: AL Central Chicago White Sox Cleveland Indians Detroit Tigers Kansas City Royals Minnesota Twins

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