AL Central Roundup: A 3-Team Race

The Twins surge but the now healthy White Sox keep pace.

The AL Central wasn’t supposed to be this close. About a month into the season, the new-look Cleveland Guardians are making a case that hovering around .500 can be greatly beneficial for this wide-open division. Below we will look into what each AL Central team has done so far.

 

AL Central Standings – 5/10/2022

 

Twins

 

 The Minnesota Twins have enjoyed early success to begin the 2022 season. They are 7-3 in their last 10 games, and have won 14 of their last 17 games, pushing them to the front of the AL Central. Offseason additions like Carlos Correa have facilitated this hot streak. Before his injury he was beginning to provide his elite offense, slashing .379/.419/.552 in his last 7 games.

 

Their pitching has also been contributing to their early success. Their team ERA is currently 4th in the majors, with a 3.11. Newfound talent like bullpen arm Jhoan Duran has precipitated this stat. Duran has been a revelation in the late innings, striking out opponents 42% of the time. But of course, late-inning leads are only possible because of the superstars contributing.

 

The Twins and baseball fans alike have finally been blessed with a healthy Byron Buxton and it has not been wasted. Buxton has been providing elite offense and defense. He currently sits atop the home run leaderboard with 9 home runs, and if distance and theatrics mattered, no one would even be close to him. Buxton has hit home runs towering 469 feet. He has provided fans an exciting start to a season that almost never came.

Biggest Surprise: Much has been made about not making trades with the Tampa Bay Rays, as they will often get the better end of it. Yet, Joe Ryan is proving to be the one that got away from the Rays. Ryan currently possesses a 1.63 ERA and is holding opponents to a paltry .167 batting average.

Biggest Disappointment: When the Twins made the trade to acquire Chris Paddack, they likely hoped a change of scenery would benefit him. Paddack’s name had been mentioned in trade talks seemingly all offseason, which typically doesn’t bode well for a player’s mental health. Unfortunately for the Twins, the different weather and change of scenery have yet to change Paddack’s pitching ability. He is currently pitching to a 4.03 ERA, and a 1.32 WHIP. Additionally, his WHIP is not the result of a lack of control. Paddack only has 2 walks in his 22 innings pitched. His poor WHIP is a result of his inability to avoid bats since he has given up 25 hits in just 22.1 innings pitched.

Injuries: Carlos Correa was placed on the 10-day injured list with a contusion after being hit by a pitch. Byron Buxton is currently considered day to day with a mild hip strain, and the Twins say the injury will not sideline him for long.

Chris Paddack left Sunday’s start early with right elbow inflammation and is considered day to day. Bailey Ober remains on the 10-day injured list while he recovers from a groin injury. Ober threw an 18 pitch bullpen session Saturday.

 

Guardians

 

While the Twins were expected to compete for a playoff spot, the Cleveland Guardians have been a pleasant surprise at the beginning of the season. The Guardians have had a tumultuous start to the season. Their record has ranged from losing 7 games in a row to then winning 8 out of their next 10 games. Despite the rollercoaster ride, they have been providing fans with a lot of hope and promise.

Perhaps no game will even top their most recent feat that came on Monday, May 9. On Monday, they rallied for 6 runs in the top of the 9th to force the game into extras and then scored 3 runs in the 11th to steal a game from the Chicago White Sox.

The Guardians are putting together magical runs while not even hitting the ball that hard. Rather, they rank as the third lowest hard-hitting team, at a rate of 34.6% — just barely edging out the New York Mets. Of course, the two other teams hitting the ball even less hard than them, the Mets and the Cardinals, are confusing hard hit percentage enthusiasts.

Regardless, the Guardians are beating the odds. Additionally, the Guardians are second in the majors with a team batting average of .257, and fifth in the league in on-base percentage. They are also not striking out that much. This is probably because when they do so, Steven Kwan cries. All kidding aside, Kwan has been an exciting addition to the major leagues this year.

Kwan famously went 116 pitches without a swing and miss, and to this point, only has 9 strikeouts in 81 at-bats. He is slashing .309/.402/.444 to begin his rookie season. He is making a case for one of the best contact hitters currently in the game. Of course, while Kwan famously burst onto the scene, it is hard to dismiss what the now officially-permanent Guardians fixture, José Ramírez, is doing.

Ramírez is currently leading the league in RBI, is top-10 in slugging percentage, and top-5 in OPS. His willingness to sign an extension for much less than what many thought he would has made 29 other fanbases envious of what the Guardians have: a franchise talent, on the highway to the hall of fame, all for a bargain.

Biggest Surprise: Josh Naylor has been supplying some of the early season heroics. In Monday’s game, he had 8 RBI, with 2 home runs. On the season he has 4 home runs and 21 RBI. This could be hinting at greater successes to come for Naylor. Last year, he had a total of 7 homers and 21 RBI. Naylor doesn’t seem to be affected by a historically low offensive year in MLB.

Biggest Disappointments: While the offense for the Guardians has provided for some great victories, the once steady rotation for the Guardians needs some improvement. Both Shane Bieber and Aaron Civale have yet to find their grooves, as each holds an ERA over 4.

Bieber has allowed 15 earned runs in 30 innings. Further, hitters are not being fooled by either Bieber or Civale, as they are hitting .242 against Bieber, and .326 against Civale.

Injuries: James Karinchak continues to recover from a right shoulder strain and remains on the 10-day IL. The Guardians are being conservative with his return, and have delayed his bullpen session until further notice.

 

White Sox

 

For everything going right in the Guardians’ and Twins’ season, the same is going wrong for the Chicago White Sox. Currently, they sit in third place, with a record of 14-14, but it’s how they have been losing that has instilled panic in Chicago fans. On Monday, their bullpen blew a stellar start from Michael Kopech and allowed 6 earned runs over 5 innings.

Worse, their defense has become a concerning issue, as they currently have a team .974 fielding percentage, the second worst in MLB, behind only the Pittsburgh Pirates. They lead the league with 26 errors, with shortstop Tim Anderson leading the league with 9. 

Additionally, their roster has yet to be fully healthy this season, with stars like Luis Robert, Eloy Jiménez, Lance Lynn, Yoán Moncada, Lucas Giolito, and Andrew Vaughn all battling injuries that have cost them time away from the field. Now, with a healthy Robert, Giolito, and Moncada, the White Sox hope to make some headway in their division. In a division like the AL Central this is easily doable, as sitting at .500 only has the White Sox 3.5 games out of first.

For all of their injuries, the players that have contributed have been doing so in a hard-hitting and impactful way. The White Sox are third in the majors in hard hit percentage and have been getting consistent performances from both Anderson and Robert.

Tim Anderson is overcoming his defensive woes by contributing at a high clip offensively. Currently, he is slashing .330/.363/.515. Always contending for a batting title, these numbers illustrate he is unaffected by the conspiracy of a deadened ball, as he continues to provide offensively. Lastly, the White Sox are benefitting from a fully healthy Robert, as he is providing both speed and power to their lineup, with 5 steals and 4 home runs.

Yet despite their offense performing, it is their starting pitching that should be garnering attention. Their 3 starters of Dylan Cease, Lucas Giolitoand Michael Kopech are pitching to a combined 2.08 ERA, as they have allowed just 19 earned runs in 82.2 innings pitched.

Biggest Surprise: For this, it is perhaps not a player but the fact they have been able to continue to be relevant in a division that has seen some great successes from other teams. Sitting in third place only 3.5 games back despite leading the league in errors and injuries is a surprise many White Sox fans will be happy with.

Biggest Disappointment: José Abreu seems to be missing something at the plate in the early goings of the season. At only .304, his on-base percentage is the lowest it has been in his entire career. His slugging percentage is equally concerning at .363. While still early in the season, if the White Sox are to make up for their defense and injuries, they will need their former AL MVP to return to form. Abreu got off to a similarly slow start last season, so this is likely not permanent.

Injuries: Lance Lynn is expected to return from his knee injury in June. Stars like Eloy Jiménez will require longer to recover from a hamstring injury. Andrew Vaughn received an injection in his wrist on May 6 and remains on the 10-day injured list.

 

Royals

 

Not much was expected of the Kansas City Royals for their 2022 season. The Royals are continuing to rebuild, and many pundits predicted the Royals to finish below .500. Baseball Prospectus projected a 67-95 record. So, it is not that much of a disappointment that they currently sit in fourth place, at 9 wins and 17 losses. 

They currently only have 7 hitters that qualify for statistic analyses as MLB requires a player to have 3.1 plate appearances per game to qualify for leaderboards. So, of those 7 hitters, one stands out, and that is former first-rounder Andrew BenintendiHe is currently slashing .330/.375/.404. While these numbers are likely due for a regression, Benintendi seems to be changing his approach at the plate. He has become more aggressive and has lowered his walk rate.

In his years with the Red Sox, he was walking nearly 10% of the time, yet in his 2 years with the Royals, he has only walked 6% of the time. This approach has boded well for him because he has seen better power and contact numbers. Last year alone he hit 17 home runs, and slugged .442, arguably his best offensive production since 2018.

Bobby Witt Jr. also seems to be finding his footing in the major leagues. On May 3, he finally belted his first major league home run against the Cardinals.

Witt Jr. was the most touted prospect coming into the 2022 season, and despite his go ahead RBI heroics on Opening Day, he has had a humble beginning to his career. Royals fans should be excited for his current stretch where he is slashing .298/.333/.404 over his last 15 games.

Biggest Surprise: Brad Keller is off to a great start as he currently possesses a 1.74 ERA in his 5 starts. Keller has shown promise in year’s past. In the abbreviated 2020 season he pitched to a 2.47 ERA and only allowed 2 home runs. Though Keller seems like a veteran after being in the league for 4 seasons, he is still just 26 years old.

Perhaps this is the beginning of that change, as he has dominantly pitched against both the Guardians and White Sox to begin the 2022 season. Against both AL Central rivals he obtained 2 quality starts, pitching 6 innings of 2 hit ball against the Guardians, and only allowing 3 hits in 7 innings against the White Sox.

Biggest Disappointment: Salvador Perez already set himself up for failure after a historic 2021 season where he hit 48 home runs. No one expected him to repeat that performance, and all were in awe as it was happening. However, despite his historic 2021 campaign, he is off to a slow start to begin the 2022 year. He currently has 5 home runs, but is striking out more than ever before, nearly 30% of the time. He is also hitting for the lowest average in his career, at just .204. Of course, neither of these numbers are concerning in a league wide low offensive year. Still, however, his on base percentage could use a bit of improvement from its current .241 standing.

Injuries: Adalberto Mondesi suffered a torn ACL and is out for the remainder of the 2022 season. Carlos Santana was placed on the 10 day injured list with a right ankle injury on May 4. Edward Olivares will be out for 6 weeks after straining his right quad.

 

Tigers

 

Similar to their AL Central rivals, the Detroit Tigers also find themselves in a rebuild. Currently, the Tigers sit in the bottom-5 in hard hit percentage, barrel percentage, and batting average. This is likely not where they wanted to be as they began the season with new additions of Javier Báez, Spencer Torkelson, and Tucker Barnhart added to their roster.

For Torkelson, obviously there is no precedent to compare it to. However, it is doubtful the Tigers would have thought he was ready if they knew he would be hitting .160 with 32 strikeouts. For reference, that is 12 more strikeouts than swing-happy colleague Javier Baez. Torkelson may be flirting with an option to Triple A. In his last week he hasn’t provided much promise, where he has just 1 hit in his last 18 at bats.

Biggest Surprise: Tarik Skubal has finally arrived. Skubal made his MLB debut in the abbreviated 2020, and struggled with command early. He was walking 8.2% of batters faced, and followed it up with a slight improvement to 7.4% in 2021. Neither of these numbers were what the Tigers had hoped for when they touted him and Casey Mize as the solution to their pitching problems. Well, Skubal seems to have finally figured out his command. Currently, he is only walking 2% of batters faced, putting him in the 92nd percentile of walk percentage.

Biggest Disappointment: Javier Báez’s tenure in Detroit is not off to the torrid start many had hoped for. He currently only has 2 home runs in 81 at bats. But, no need to panic, as Báez is too good of a player to be concerned about less than 2 months into the season.

Báez has however recovered from a brief IL stint and is navigating the new change in geography and leagues. Having played in the National League his entire career there is always an arguable adjustment period to be made. Baez is likely to figure out his way, and he continues to be electric on the base paths.

Injuries: Young pitchers Matt Manning and Casey Mize continue to rehab in Triple A, as they recover from a shoulder and elbow injury respectively.

Riley Greene is not yet cleared for baseball activities, but no longer needs a walking boot. Manager AJ Hinch told the media to not expect a return in May for the highly touted outfield prospect.

 

Artwork by Michael Packard (@CollectingPack on Twitter)

Christa Lamia

Christa Lamia is a diehard baseball fan that loves the Mets. She is enjoying the new energy and hope that Steve Cohen has given her for the once doomed franchise.

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