Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 5/15/12
MINNEAPOLIS Numbers are betraying Manny Acta in the best possible way.This is a man of spreadsheets, of analytics. The Cleveland Indians' manager has moved beyond spray charts to something more complex, to infield shifts and defensive adjustments. Acta plays the odds "If a guy hits 80 percent of balls to one side of the infield, you've got to go that way," he said. "Why not go against the 20 (percent)?" and counts on them to work in his team's favor.So far this season, they are. The Indians are 20-16 through 36 games, in sole possession of first place in the AL Central. They have a two-game lead on the favored Detroit Tigers, but they're not quite savoring it not this early in the season.And they shouldn't, because another set of numbers says none of this should be happening. Acta and his staff are working on the micro level, at-bat by at-bat, hitter by hitter, picking apart the game to their benefit. But baseball is bigger than that, and everything macro says that really, this is all wrong. There's another set of numbers that were supposed to be reality, numbers whose predictive powers the Indians' methods are trumping, and they should be the specter behind Cleveland's back as it clings to control of baseball's worst division.There's a lot that's working right now for the Indians: their record, leads, even a negative run differential that hasn't been enough to keep them out of first place. The analysis is doing what it's supposed to, and there's no avoiding the fact the Indians, the same Indians that FOX ranked 20th in its preseason power rankings, are perched atop their division. But there are reasons Cleveland was placed where it was on that hierarchy, 19 spaces below the team that's nipping at its heels in the Central.Those reasons, those numbers Acta must hate them. There's no way to avoid their truth. The Indians can only hope to prove them wrong.The lineup that Cleveland posted on Monday batted a collective .266 last season; Detroit's Monday hitters logged a significantly better .285. In addition, the Indians' 2012 pitching rotation boasted a 4.29 ERA in the majors last season, shades worse than the Tigers' 3.52. On paper, the Tigers are better. In person, they're not.In person, Jim Leyland's team is underperforming. Prince Fielder has battled a slump. So has Miguel Cabrera. Justin Verlander is playing like the star he is, but if the AL's anointed team doesn't shake off its funk, 2012 might go down as the year when two clubs (the Tigers and Angels) blew a collective 464 million on two players and still weren't able to win.Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though. It's only May, and Detroit has a long time to live up to a lofty set of expectations. And really, why shouldn't it? This is the AL Central, a division that has no teams with a positive run differential. The White Sox flirted with a positive mark after Monday's game, when they carried a plus-1 differential into a 10-8 loss against Detroit. But the numbers get progressively worse, from Detroit's minus-6 differential to Cleveland's minus-10, all the way to Minnesota's minus-72 mark. The five teams in the division have a collective 44-65 record against the East and West, with only the Indians possessing a winning record outside of the Central. So far this season, the Indians have played 47 percent of their games against divisional opponents. The Twins -- whom Cleveland defeated, 5-0, on Tuesday -- have played only 11 percent against divisional foes. Cleveland's mark is the second-highest in the division; only the White Sox have played a greater percentage of their games against the Central's teams. There's a certain padding involved, then, in the Indians' record (as well as in those of the White Sox and Royals, teams that have played 54 and 46 percent of their games within the division, respectively), accounting for the relative weakness of their opponents. And when you look at it that way, this race to eclipse mediocrity might be something approaching wide-open."I just actually saw the standings, and for us to have the worst record in baseball, we're only nine games out," Twins third baseman Jamey Carroll said before Tuesday's game. "I think that says a lot."Put the Twins in the West, and they'd have been 12.5 out before Tuesday's games. In that same division, the Indians would have been in second place, 3.5 back and a game out of third. It's a scary world out there for the AL Central, but within the division's confines, it might be even more terrifying.As of Tuesday, the Tigers have just two fewer wins than the Indians, and the White Sox are just three victories behind after Cleveland lost three out of four to the slumping Red Sox over the weekend. In Detroit, Fielder is likely to get better, as is Cabrera. The White Sox are hanging around, lurking as improbably as Cleveland. The Indians, meanwhile, are waiting for improvement from Johnny Damon, a player whose numbers are declining and who saw fit to wear a ripped tee advertising his arms as guns before Tuesday's game. They're hoping Asdrubal Cabrera can maintain the power of a season ago, when he hit home runs at the best pace of his career. They're praying that reality doesn't set in, at least not until they can build more of a cushion between themselves at the teams behind them."I still think the Tigers are the favorite," Indians designated hitter Travis Hafner said. "They've got a lot of talent over there, but I think it is pretty wide-open This division historically over the years, it's just whoever gets hot or takes off. It seems like every year they predict it wrong."It's early enough that analysis still borders on prediction. With more than 120 games remaining on every team's schedule, these first thirty-something contests could be a distant memory by late September. Remember when the Indians were leading the division? Remember when the Tigers clung to .500? Remember when the Twins were buried in the standings?They could all be legitimate questions, laughable memories of seasons that fell off or righted themselves. They could just as well be indicators, paths from which teams never deviated. Likely reality will lie somewhere in between, and with such tight standings, the jockeying for position will continue in a division that looks unlikely to shake its early overall struggles.On Monday night, for the first time all season, the Central's best team faced off against its worst. Minnesota grabbed an early lead before Cleveland pulled ahead, 4-1, in the fifth. Three eighth-inning runs for the Twins tied it, and it looked to be anyone's game before Twins closer Matt Capps gave up an RBI single to Shin-Soo Choo in the ninth. The best: 5; the worst: 4. That's how it all shook out, and the parity that Carroll and Hafner described seemed all too real.Fast-forward 17 hours, and the two-game series was over. Cleveland's Chad Lowe had wrapped up a complete game, 5-0 shutout, blanking the Twins without striking out a single batter. The tiny margin of Monday night was all but forgotten, and the Indians owned their first-place position.Maybe it's anyone's division, and maybe the Twins aren't the threat Cleveland is worried about. Ignore all that, though, for one second, and admit that it sure looks like this is the Indians' race to lose.Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter
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