Tigers and Royals different (but equal?)

Tonight in Kansas City, the Royals and Tigers open a series that might determine the championship of the American League Central.

The Royals can lose it this weekend, but probably can’t win it. They’re effectively a game behind the Tigers — if we include a suspended game they’re probably going to lose — so if they get swept, they’ll be four games behind with only six to play. But if the Royals sweep, they’ll be just two games ahead.

What’s most likely, of course, is something other than a sweep. And anything other than a sweep leaves the division title still quite an open question. 

We’ve gone through the whole season assuming the Tigers were the better club. But at this late stage, it’s fair to wonder about that. Their records are virtually the same. And while the Tigers have the edge in run differential — +52 vs. +23 — the difference isn’t so large that we should consider it remotely significant over the course of a single series, or these next 10 days. For a meaningful difference, we have to travel back to 2013 … when the rosters were different and various players seemed significantly more or less talented than today.

I don’t mean to suggest that the Royals are just as good as the Tigers. Most of the available evidence suggests they’re not. I do mean to suggest the difference doesn’t tell us much about their relative chances this weekend.

Perhaps what’s most interesting about the Royals and Tigers is how they got here. 

Pitching-wise, they’ve been almost exactly the same: 18 Wins Above Replacement for the Tigers, 18 for the Royals. Granted, they’ve gotten there differently. The Royals’ bullpen has been a strength, while the Tigers’ has not. The Tigers’ rotation is deeper than the Royals’. Overall, though, both staffs have been among the very best in the American League.

Hitting-, fielding-, and baserunning-wise, though, it’s been a completely different story. The Tigers’ position players have combined 22 WAR, the Royals’ for 21.

The same!

Except not the same at all. The Royals lead the American League in baserunning runs and fielding runs, but rank just 12th in wOBA. Meanwhile, the Tigers, even without Miguel Cabrera at his best, lead the American League in wOBA … but rank 10th in baserunning and 12th in fielding.

If we could watch these teams play each other for a month or two, it would be a fascinating argument about how to win baseball games. Alas, anything might happen in three games. In three games, the Royals might out-homer the Tigers, the Tigers might out-steal the Royals. It’s a funny game.

(hat tip: Wendy Thurm)