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The American League Central is killing me

The dreadfulness of the Indians closest foes is muddling everything.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Chicago White Sox Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

I’m getting a little sick of the American League Central.

The Indians are in first place right now, which is nice even if it was assumed when the season began, but the whole division is utter garbage. It’s a little embarrassing to look at other divisional leaders sitting fifteen or twenty games above .500. It can get kind of intimidating. The Indians are still a good team. They have at least three All- Stars in the lineup, a bunch of above average hitters, four great pitchers and also have pitchers in the bullpen who are classified as Major Leaguers. But at this point, it’s getting a little hard to know what’s real.

This past week was a microcosm of that. The Tribe spent four days in Chicago. They split with the White Sox, which is a bummer because the White Sox are especially bad in a terrible division. But it wasn’t the pitching’s fault, at least most of the games. In games not started by Adam Plutko, the Cleveland starters struck out 34 in 21.2 innings, allowing five runs, only four of those earned. They allowed 14 total baserunners on those three games. These are plainly incredible numbers. In 61 total innings against the White Sox this year, Indians pitching holds a 2.80 ERA with 78 strikeouts and only allowing 61 total baserunners. They’ve annihilated the White Sox.

Heck, they’ve annihilated the Central, at least the pitching staff has. They’re holding the Central to a .280 wOBA, eight points below the last-in-baseball Marlins overall number. They hold a 2.95 ERA against the Central, basically the same mark the Astros historically great staff are at right now when facing baseball as a whole. The Indians are a very good staff. The rotation, at least. But between whoever the fifth starter is and the state of the bullpen, I know because I’ve seen it - and the actual numbers they’ve posted – as a whole they aren’t THAT good. The offense isn’t quite that dominant in-division, though the team-wide 109 wRC+ would be third best in baseball and both Jose Ramirez (176 wRC+) and Francisco LIndor(169) are putting up Troutian numbers. These damn horrible teams are skewing everything.

Which isn’t to say the Indians pitching didn’t do some amazing things against the Sox this week, or that Ramirez and Lindor and Brantley aren’t generally very good. Mike Clevinger threw a pitch 96 mph or greater 10 times in his Thursday start, a display of velocity quite unlike him. Since 2016 he’s broken 96 a grand total of 31 times. And there must be something about those Southsiders that brings out the best in him, because fully 22 of those 31 have been against them. Admittedly it could just be that the gun at Comiskey is calibrated wrong so everyone throws hard, but it’s two separate games, two years apart. You’d think a calibration would have happenedby now. He could just really be infuriated by the starkness that is black and white. Considering those shoes he got yelled at for wearing, maybe that’s just the case.

Like, it’s impressive what he and Carrasco and Bauer did, so crushing those lineups even if one of them did end up taking the loss. Some of those guys are good hitters. But as with the bullpen struggles and the expectation that they’re going to coast into the playoffs, it’s hard to get too excited about it. Some of those pitches Clevinger threw to get strikeouts, they just felt too meaty, the kind of pitches big time hitters like Carlos Correa or Mike Trout or Didi Gregorious would deposit in the second deck.

But it’s like when I wrote about Carrasco’s two-faced season. You can’t help the teams you face. Eventually it all evens out. If Corey Kluber wins another Cy Young nobody is going to parse his starts down to individual opponents. The Indians have performed okay against winning teams. Not amazing, 12-16 the record, but that series in Houston was nip and tuck, and outside of a hideously pitched game by Josh Tomlin in Anaheim they looked pretty good. And they’re 1-5 in extra innings. A lot of that can be laid at the feet of a bullpen we all expect to revert to something resembling previous forms.

It’s just hard to know how good they really are because they aren’t challenged for half the season. It’s stupid and foolish to complain about what is obviously a blessing. You know the Yankees or Astros or Dodgers would love to have nothing between them and October. And maybe my real problem is just with tanking and uncompetitive teams in general. This season feels a bit like a slog though. Having to suffer through fifty-ish games against the worst teams in the league is the worst thing possible – it’s boring. When the Indians lose it’s only disappointing. When they win it’s merely the acceptable outcome. It’d be nice to have a challenge, if only for more enjoyable viewing.

That could be the wrong tact to take though. As R.L. Stine once wrote, be careful what you wish for.