When David Pauley drilled Kosuke Fukudome in the tricep with a fastball last night, it pushed the White Sox to four games behind Detroit in the AL Central. That's doable, right?
In any other division, Minnesota would've been eliminated from contention a long time ago. Instead, the Twins -- who have a worse run differential than Kansas City -- were five games out of first place on July 20.
It's taken a six-game losing streak and a 1-9 record in their last 10 to finally appear to bury the Twins, but if they were in pretty much any other division, Michael Cuddyer would be wearing a different uniform right now.
And for the White Sox, the mediocrity of the Midwest has kept a wholly mediocre team just close enough to first place that giving up on the team would be foolish.
Unfortunately for the Sox, they only have six more head-to-head matchups with Detroit. After going 1-5 against the Tigers in their first six meetings, the Sox have taken the last two series to push their record against Detroit to 5-7.
But if the Sox are concerned with their standing in the division, it's going to mean a lot of scoreboard watching. So here's what to look for in frequently checking Detroit's box scores from here on out:
1. Runs. Detroit's offense ranks fifth in baseball by wOBA, and five regulars have a wOBA over .340. Tiger hitters are well ahead of the other AL Central contenders, with the Indians (.311) and White Sox (.310) falling short offensively. Miguel Cabrera is Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez is Victor Martinez, but Jhonny Peralta is...good? The former Indian is second on Detroit in wOBA and has been essentially as good as Cabrera all-around this year. Alex Avila hasn't regressed since the All-Star Game, and Brennan Boesch has put together a fine year as well. This team can and will score runs with that powerful core.
2. Pitching, on the other hand...Justin Verlander could end up winning the Cy Young this year. That much we know. But, as a staff, Tiger pitchers have 12.1 WAR, about six and a half fewer than the White Sox. That's a misleading number, though, as adding Doug Fister's 3 WAR with Seattle cuts the gap in half. Max Scherzer hasn't been as good as advertised this season, and Rick Porcello, while improving, has been worth about as much as Scherzer. Verlander-Fister-Scherzer-Porcello-Penny is a good enough rotation to hold on to a division, although Detroit's bullpen is liable to blow a few leads if Jose Valverde isn't on the mound.
3. Not great with the glove. Single-season UZR and DRS aren't super reliable, but hey, they're better than citing fielding percentage. The two metrics disagree on how bad Detroit is, with UZR rating the Tigers' defense at -9.5 runs and DRS at -28 runs. Boesch, Cabrera, Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez are all pretty bad fielders, while Austin Jackson and outfield Ryan Raburn are generally pluses. Overall, the Sox have a better defense, but it's the difference between bad and average.
But don't pitching and defense win championships? The Sox have an advantage in both of those categories over Detroit, yes. But this breakdown can pretty fairly explain why the Sox are where they are in the standings:
Allowed 4 runs: 8-12
Alllowed 3 runs: 11-7
Allowed 2 runs: 15-5
Allowed 1 run: 8-2
Four runs is pushing it in terms of offensive support, but that's still pretty bad. And to lose 14 games in which the pitching staff allowed three or fewer runs is crippling. For all the good pitching, for all the not-bad defense the Sox have played this year, the offense hasn't been able to provide the necessary support. And that's why the Sox are still under .500 and four games back of Detroit.