The American League Central, halfway through this truncated 60-game Major League Baseball season, has been everything that was advertised.
The Twins, at 20-11, are leading the division after starting the year as presumptive front-runners following last season’s 101-win effort. Cleveland is right behind them at 18-12, relying heavily on pitching to stay in contention. The White Sox, who looked much-improved on paper coming into the season, are also 18-12 — using a combination of power and star pitching to achieve that mark.
(And yes, the Royals and Tigers are still very bad).
In a normal season, we might have been setting up for a months-long division race full of tension, twists and turns. Tuesday would have been one of those nights to circle in retrospect, with Cleveland rallying to defeat the Twins 4-2 while Lucas Giolito threw the season’s first no-hitter in a White Sox victory.
It still had a little bit of that special feeling, but unfortunately like so much in recent months its edge has been dulled significantly by the constraints necessitated by playing through a pandemic.
There’s basically just a month left of this regular season, and there will still be some theater to absorb as the Twins play Cleveland four more times (including Wednesday night) and the White Sox seven more times.
But when the dust settles, all three teams are very likely to make it into the expanded playoffs in which eight teams from each league are granted entry.
Baseball Reference gives the Twins a 99.8% chance of making it; Cleveland sits at 99.0% and Chicago at 94.4%. There look to be seven very good teams in the AL right now, and three of them are in the Central. The eighth team might make the postseason with a record around .500.
The postseason seeding is a true 1-8, with the three division winners and best second-place team getting the top four seeds. All that gets you this year, though, is home field advantage for all three games of a best-of-three opening round — probably in a stadium filled with cardboard cutouts and little else.
Sure, there’s some value there. But if the conventional wisdom was that a 60-game season would make every game matter more the playoff format could have the opposite effect down the stretch. Would it be more valuable for the Twins to grind through the final month and try to win every game possible … or would there be more value in rest, recovery and the sorting out of the pitching staff knowing that a playoff berth is all but certain?
Maybe after last year’s tension-filled August and September a coast to the finish wouldn’t feel so bad on the nerves of Twins fans. There is some comfort in the math essentially telling us that 998 out of 1,000 times, given present circumstances and the future schedule, the Twins will be making a return trip to the postseason.
But if you’re a baseball fan who lives for the drama, you’re probably going to have to wait for the playoffs to start.