MLB Thoughts: Sept. 23

On Opening Day, the Detroit Tigers boasted the 5th highest payroll in the majors. Kansas City, meanwhile, stood at #19. Despite a payroll delta of over $70 million, the Tigers and Royals are locked in a final-week battle for the AL Central crown.

Everyone expected Detroit to end up here. For 3 years running, this division has been theirs. The 2014 iteration has succeeded in large part thanks to a dynamic offense that ranks 3rd in the majors in runs scored, 2nd in OBP, SLG, BA, and OPS+SLG. Miguel Cabrera has been his usually prolific self, but Victor Martinez has actually been better. If it weren’t for Mike Trout, Martinez would be the AL MVP. When he caught fire after his late spring call-up, it was easy to dismiss J.D. Martinez as lightning in a bottle. But with 8 9th-inning HR to his credit this season, Martinez has become an integral part to the deepest offense in the league.

Which is good, because the pitching has been a real disappointment for the Tigers this year. Justin Verlander has allowed the most earned runs in the league this year. With a 4.68ERA and diminishing velocity on his fastball, Verlander’s days as a premium starter seem a distant memory. Heck, at this point, he’s not even league average. Thankfully Max Scherzer has been nearly as dominant as he was in 2013. Although he’s allowed more hits, the rest of his peripherals are nearly a carbon copy of his Cy Young campaign from last season. David Price hasn’t been lights out since coming over from Tampa, but he and Scherzer give the Tigers as formidable a 1-2 combo as you’re going to see in this year’s postseason. Rick Porcello and Anibal Sanchez also have the potential to match any given starter throughout October. Which brings us to the bullpen. Maybe the only Tiger that’s been worse than Verlander this year is Joe Nathan. For some reason, Brad Ausmus continues to trot the veteran out there with the game on the line late. I can’t see that this is a recipe for success come October.

As of this writing, the Royals are a game behind the Tigers for the division lead and two up on Seattle for the second wild-card. Kansas City’s “small ball” approach contrasts sharply with Detroit’s: the Royals rank dead last in the majors in home runs and among AL teams, only Tampa Bay and Boston have team slugging percentages worse than KC’s .375 mark. But the Royals strike out less than any team in baseball. (Ironically, they also walk fewer than any team in the majors.) This “put it in play” attack relies heavily on one surplus asset: speed. The Royals lead the majors in stolen bases by a large margin. In a platoon role (256 at bats), Jarrod Dyson leads the team with 36 steals; SS Alcides Escobar has 31; CF Lorenzo Cain has 27. And according to some, September call-up Terrance Gore may be the fastest man in the majors. All of this is a good thing, because the rest of the Royals regulars look fairly punchless compared to the rest of the lineups in the AL.

But the Royals also boast the best defense in the majors for the second year in a row, particularly in the OF. Cain and fellow OF mate Alex Gordon help a so-so pitching staff look much better because of the number of fly balls they’re able to get to — perhaps another function of such incredible speed. Coupled with a dominant back end of the bullpen — Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland — the Royals have found a formula that works.

Here’s hoping it’ll be a formula that will take them deep into the October hunt.

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