Chicago White Sox’s Rise Has Turned AL Central into Best Race in MLB

Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Lucas Giolito, facing camera, and teammates celebrate his no-hitter in a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

Matt Marton/Associated Press

One of the downsides of Major League Baseball’s expanded playoffs for 2020 is that there’s now less at stake in the six divisional races.

But if anyone’s looking for a good one anyway, there’s some outstanding theater happening in the American League Central.

The Minnesota Twins and Cleveland were the class of the division in 2019, winning 101 and 93 games, respectively. So far in 2020, both are back at it. The Twins hold first place at 20-12, while Cleveland is hot on their heels with an 19-12 mark.

Crashing the party, meanwhile, are the Chicago White Sox.

They’re following a sluggish yet promising 89-loss campaign in 2019 with a 19-12 mark of their own so far in 2020. They’ve also recently been dominating headlines by way of Jose Abreu’s home run prowess and Lucas Giolito’s brilliant 13-strikeout, one-walk no-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday.

As of Friday morning, Minnesota, Cleveland and Chicago are separated by just a half-game in the race for first in the AL Central. Elsewhere around MLB, a four-game separation between the top three teams in a division is as good as it gets.

Of course, there is still the aforementioned issue regarding stakes.

In a normal season, only one club from the AL Central could claim first place and advance to a best-of-five in the American League Division Series. In 2020, playoff spots are guaranteed to the top two teams in each division, plus two wild cards. Furthermore, every team that makes the playoffs advances directly to a best-of-three series.

The only question, then, is whether any of the AL Central’s three leading contenders will hit a wall and fall completely out of the race. And from looking at what they have going for them, such a grim fate wouldn’t appear to be in the cards for any of them.

Morry Gash/Associated Press

For starters, the Twins are an elite team even though they’re still waiting to fully come together.

Though the Twins obviously weren’t going to repeat last year’s record-setting 307 home runs in a 60-game season, they had every reason to expect yet another offensive onslaught in 2020. Instead, their offense ranks in the middle of the pack in OPS+ and runs per game.

But despite what their competition may be hoping, the Twins’ offensive regression is a bit too extreme to be true. Ageless slugger Nelson Cruz doesn’t seem interested in declining as an offensive force. Plus, the Twins are bound to get more out of stragglers like Jorge Polanco, Luis Arraez and Marwin Gonzalez, as well as a boost from 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson when he returns from a calf injury.

There’s also hope for even more from a pitching staff that already ranks third in the AL with a 3.56 ERA. Jose Berrios is better than a guy with a 4.75 ERA, and the Twins will soon have Michael Pineda (suspension) and Jake Odorizzi (chest injury) back.

Though this is admittedly an odd thing to say about a staff with an AL-best 2.86 ERA, Cleveland’s own pitching also has further potential.

With a 1.35 ERA and a 75-to-nine strikeout-to-walk ratio through seven starts, Shane Bieber is the best pitcher in baseball right now. Aaron Civale and Carlos Carrasco have also pitched well with a combined 3.73 ERA.

While both are hypothetically trade bait, Cleveland could just as easily hold on to Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac—both of whom were optioned after breaking quarantine protocols—for the stretch run. If so, Cleveland would stand to gain more of the pitching goodness (i.e., a 2.15 ERA) that they put up through their first six starts. As it is, Clevinger has already returned and pitched six two-run innings against Minnesota on Wednesday.

In that case, Terry Francona’s squad might claim first place if it got more out of an offense that has so far managed only four runs per game. A trade could fix that. Or, Cleveland could wait for Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana and Jose Ramirez to boost an aggregate OPS that’s fallen over 100 points from 2019.

Alternatively, the White Sox could move into first place simply by continuing to do what they’ve been doing.

Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

The White Sox have been playing well for a while now, winning 18 of 26 since starting out at 1-4. But they’ve really taken off with 11 wins in their last 14 games, largely because of their intimidating offensive attack.

Chicago leads the majors in slugging and OPS since August 11, and the explanation for that is simple. Their guys have been hitting the ball really, really hard:

  • Exit Velocity: 91.3 mph (1st in MLB)
  • Hard-Hit Rate: 46.8 percent (1st)

  • Barrels: 50 (1st)

The bulk of the credit is owed to Abreu, Tim Anderson, Eloy Jimenez and super-rookie Luis Robert, who’ve combined for a .978 OPS and 35 long balls. Now all the White Sox need is more from Yoan Moncada, Yasmani Grandal and Edwin Encarnacion, who are too talented to only be working on a .738 OPS.

If the White Sox’s offense continues to carry them, then they won’t need any more than what they’re already getting out of their pitchers. But as long as we’re dishing out credit, it should be said that this particular staff is good enough as is.

It was perhaps inevitable that Giolito would author a performance like the one he had against Pittsburgh. He’s a different pitcher now than the guy who posted a 6.13 ERA in 2018. He throws more strikes and has more trust in a changeup that, as everyone saw Tuesday, turns professional hitters into Little Leaguers:

Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

Lucas Giolito, Unfair 3 Pitch Sequence (all changeups).

A debatting…and sword. ⚔️

Nice call @jasonbenetti https://t.co/jMEIZhtziZ

All told, Giolito now bears a 3.35 ERA and a rate of 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings since the start of 2019. Those are the numbers of an ace.

Though they’ve done so with less frequent strikeouts, 2015 AL Cy Young Award Winner Dallas Keuchel and hard-throwing right-hander Dylan Cease have also pitched well to the tune of a 2.88 ERA. Chicago’s Alex Colome-led bullpen has also been sneaky-good with a 3.66 ERA.

As of this moment, FanGraphs gives the Twins the best odds of claiming first in the AL Central at 40.7 percent. But there shouldn’t be much (if any) doubt in the possibility of either Cleveland (30.8 percent) or Chicago (28.4 percent) overcoming their relatively long odds of snagging first.

Otherwise, the odds that any of the three will miss out on October are basically nil. Their chances of making the postseason all stand above 98 percent. Further, none of the three has less than a 12 percent chance of making it to the World Series.

What’s happpening in the AL Central would be far more interesting if finishing in first place actually meant something. But at a time when all of the other division races are somewhere between “meh” and “blah,” there’s surely nothing wrong with appreciating the majors’ only good one.

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, and are current as of Wednesday, August 26.