The AL Central has a shot at making history — and not in a good way

Detroit Free Press

With the Minnesota Twins 7-6 win over the Cleveland Guardians on Thursday night, the American League Central-leading Twins climbed to 30-27 — still just 2½ games ahead of the Detroit Tigers (who are themselves two games under .500) and 4½ ahead of the Guardians.

It was only a small step in fending off ignominy for a division that has quickly gained a reputation as one of the worst in MLB’s divisional era (dating back to 1969).

The Twins are on pace for 85 wins, which would be tied for the seventh-fewest by a division champ over a 162-game season in MLB history. The division is even worse at the bottom: The Kansas City Royals are on pace for 49 wins, which would be the fourth-fewest in a 162-game season in the divisional era (behind only the 2019 Tigers’ 47, the 2018 Baltimore Orioles’ 47 and, of course, the 2003 Tigers’ 43).

MLB has only had one team reach the postseason with a losing record, by the way: The 1981 Royals, who were 50-53 overall during the strike-shortened season but went 30-23 following the strike to earn a AL West division series berth against the first-half-winning A’s. (They were swept in the best-of-five series.)

In all, the division features a combined 121-160 record — or a combined .431 win percentage. That’s not that far off its expected win percentage (calculated from runs scored and allowed) or .440, though the Tigers — of all teams — are actually outplaying their expected record of 21-33 by five games. (For comparison’s sake, the AL East’s combined record is 167-117, for a .588 win percentage, and the AL West is 138-143, a .484 win percentage, despite featuring the epically bad 12-46 Oakland Athletics.)

Here’s how the 2023 AL Central stacks up with some of baseball’s worst divisions over the past 54 seasons:

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1973 NL East: 470-500 (.485)

The champ: New York Mets, 82-79 (.509).

The chump: Philadelphia Phillies, 71-91 (.438).

The buzz: After three straight seasons with 83 wins apiece and no playoff berths, Yogi Berra’s squad got to 82 — thanks to nine wins in their final 11 — and took the division. The universe seemed stacked against them early on, though, with seven games in April and May rescheduled due to weather, plus two more rainouts in September that pushed their finale to Oct. 1. The Amazins went from fourth place, four games under .500 and 3½ games back of the Pittsburgh Pirates (and two back of fifth-year squad Montreal) on Sept. 16 to winning the division by 1½ games over the Cardinals, who had the best expected record of the group, at 86-76, but finished just 81-81. (The Mets’ expected record: 83-78.)

The playoffs: So, of course, the Mets stunned the West-champion Cincinnati Reds — who went 99-63 in the regular season — in five games, taking Games 2, 3 and 5 by a combined 21-4 score (with 2-1 losses in the other two games). The Mets went the distance in the World Series, too, grabbing a 3-1 lead over the defending champion Oakland Athletics. But the A’s came back at home with two straight wins, capped by a pair of two-run homers by Bert Campaneris and Reggie Jackson in the third inning of Game 7.

1984 AL West: 540-593 (.477)

The champ: Kansas City Royals, 84-78 (.519).

The chump: Texas Rangers, 69-92 (.429).

The buzz: While the Tigers had the AL East virtually wrapped up with their 35-5 start, the West was chaotic well into September. The Royals went from five games back of the Minnesota Twins on Aug. 25 to tied for the division just 11 days later, while only going from two games under .500 to one game over. The Royals and Twins jostled for the top spot throughout September; K.C.’s 8-6 record wasn’t especially impressive, but the baby Twins — their position players were nearly 1½ years younger than the next youngest team — collapsed down the stretch, with six losses to end the year.

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The playoffs: Game 1 delivered the expected blowout by the Tigers, who won 20 games more than the Royals, but Games 2 and 3 were nail biters — for Detroit, which prevailed in 11 innings in Game 2 and in a 1-0 squeaker (thanks to eight innings of two-hit ball from Milt Wilcox) in Game 3 for the ALCS sweep.

1997 NL Central: 380-430 (.469)

The champ: Houston Astros, 84-78 (.519).

The chump: Chicago Cubs, 68-94 (.420).

The buzz: After finishing second in the first three seasons of the NL Central’s existence, the Astros seemed destined for a title; they had at least a share of the lead for 154 days, never trailed by more than 1½ games and held at least a share of the lead every day from July 16 on. Still, their offense — led by future Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio (and, uh, future Tigers manager Brad Ausmus) — was spotty, and Houston lost nine of 11 games from Aug. 28-Sept. 7. Even as late as Sept. 17, the Astros were still just one game above .500 — though they still had a 3½ game lead in the then-five-team division. But seven wins in nine games against their division rivals got the Astros comfortably above .500, albeit nowhere close to their expected record of 93-69 (.574). Still, five of the 10 other teams in the NL finished with a better record than the Astros.

The playoffs: Houston’s first postseason series in more than a decade didn’t last long, as the Astros were swept in the best-of-three NLDS by the Atlanta Braves by a combined score of 17-5. A future Hall of Famer got the win in each game, with Greg Maddux prevailing in Game 1, Tom Glavine in Game 2 and John Smoltz in Game 3.

2006 NL Central: 453-518 (.467)

The champ: St. Louis Cardinals, 83-78 (.516).

The chump: Chicago Cubs, 66-96 (.407).

The buzz: The Cards jumped to a 42-26 record, building a 5½-game lead in mid-June, but lost nine of their final 10 games of that month to swoon back to a virtual tie with the Reds. Even so, St. Louis recovered and led the Central by seven games on Sept. 20 — and then dropped seven straight to plummet to half a game up, this time on the Astros, with three (or four) games to play. But the Cards took two of three from Milwaukee, while the ’Stros dropped two of three in Atlanta, to lock up the division without needing a 162nd game — or a Game 163.

The playoffs: Oh, what might have been for the Tigers with a couple more Cardinals losses. St. Louis held San Diego (which won five more games in the regular season) to just six runs in four NLDS games, the edged the 97-65 Mets in seven NLCS games, capped by a go-ahead Yadier Molina homer in the top of the ninth and a Carlos Beltrán strikeout with the bases loaded to end the game. The Tigers, meanwhile, had swept the ALCS and had to wait eight days to face the Cards in the World Series; St. Louis stormed past Detroit (literally, with a rainout pushing Game 4 back a day) in just five games. Detroit’s only win came in Game 2 behind a masterful — and controversial, thanks to a smudged hand — performance from Tigers lefty Kenny Rogers.

2008 NL West: 375-435 (.463)

The champ: Los Angeles Dodgers, 84-78 (.519).

The chump: San Diego Padres, 69-99 (.389).

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The buzz: Few teams have so clearly benefitted from their division (which had a .468 expected win percentage) as these Dodgers (with an expected win percentage of .537). Not only did they go 40-32 against their rivals and just 44-56 against the rest of the majors, but their eight-game losing streak in late August — four vs. the Phillies, three vs. the Nationals (who lost 102 games in 2008) and one to the Diamondbacks — to drop them to five games under .500 with 37 to play was immediately canceled out by an eight-game win streak vs. the West (part of a 14-2 run). That left the Dodgers seven games above .500 and 3½ games up on the D’backs with nine games left.

The playoffs: The Dodgers went 2-5 against the NL Central-champion Cubs during the regular season, then swept them in the best-of-three NLDS by a combined score of 20-6. BASEBALL! Sanity prevailed in the NLCS, however, as the Phillies needed just five games to wipe out the Dodgers in the best-of-seven series.

2005 NL West: 372-438 (.459)

The champ: San Diego Padres, 82-80 (.506).

The chump: Colorado Rockies, 67-95 (.414).

The buzz: The Pads had an outside shot at becoming MLB’s first division champ with a losing record, as their clincher put them right at .500 (79-79). But they closed the season with three wins in their final four — while scoring all of eight runs — to finish with a slight cushion. San Diego was even worse than that, however, as its expected record (based off runs scored and allowed) was 77-85. Still, that was three wins better than any other division rival’s expected record; the division was outscored as a whole en route to a .442 expected winning percentage.

The playoffs: Despite its division crown, San Diego had to play the squad with the NL’s best record — the St. Louis Cardinals — in the first round, as wild-card Houston (which won seven more games than the Padres, anyway) came from the Cards’ division, and MLB blocked first-round divisional rematches back then. Fittingly, the Padres were swept by the 100-game-winning Cards in the best-of-five series by a combined score of 21-11.

1994 AL West: 199-256 (.437)*

The champ*: Texas Rangers, 52-62 (.456).

The chump*: California Angels, 47-68 (.409).

*Season ended on Aug. 11 due to players’ strike.

The buzz: There weren’t many pluses from the 1994 strike, which wiped out the final 50 or so games of the season, but at least MLB avoided someone winning the “AL Worst” with the cancellation of the playoffs this season. How bad was it? Each of the 10 other AL teams had a better record at the time of the strike than the Rangers, who dropped their final six games. Texas was actually a little lucky, considering its expected record of 50-64, but the division as a whole underplayed its expected winning percentage of .444. On the other end of the division, the third-place Seattle Mariners were the hottest team in baseball, with nine wins in 10 August games to get within two games of first. Then again, the M’s would have faced a unique challenge the rest of the way; their finale on Aug. 11 was the 20th consecutive road game for the franchise after four concrete ceiling tiles fell from the Kingdome roof on July 19. (The stadium didn’t reopen until Nov. 4 for a Seattle Seahawks game.)

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