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AL Central Division Review: Twins, Royals join Tigers atop the division

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The Royals are for real, while the Twins are crashing the party.

Torii Hunter rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run during the fifth inning against the Cleveland Indians on May 8, 2015
Torii Hunter rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run during the fifth inning against the Cleveland Indians on May 8, 2015
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is entertainment, a distraction, a pastime. Baseball also teaches humility. Before the season, many analysts forecast mediocrity for the Royals. We are through 20 percent of the season, and Kansas City looks every bit the World Series team that surprised everyone last year.

Some pundits said never write off Detroit, while others predicted a Philadelphia-like collapse due to age. But the Tigers continue to delay their day of reckoning.

Chicago added Jeff Samardzija and Melky Cabrera to Chris Sale and Jose Abreu, pursuing relevance in the division.

Cleveland was the darling of the prognosticators, having assembled an appealing pitching staff. The Indians could soon be trailing the Royals by double digits.

The Twins? Well, they were the one exception in a division that shaped up to be the toughest in baseball. Minnesota was supposed to wait for prospects to mature before competing. They have failed to comply with expectations, too, and enter this week's series in Detroit only one game behind the Tigers.

We are tuned to Kansas City after watching the Tigers split six games in 10 days. The Royals pitching has been about average. Edinson Volquez has replaced James Shields, pitching to a 2.65 ERA in six starts. A BABIP of .236 suggests luck has played a role and he will drift to mediocrity. Danny Duffy is also pitching over his head, as last night's start against the Texas Rangers may have demonstrated. Starters Yordano Ventura , Jason Vargas (currently on the disabled list), and Jeremy Guthrie complete a rotation that whets opponents' appetites -- other than the Tigers' when Chris Young takes the mound -- but the relievers continue to dominate. Wade Davis leads the way having not allowed an earned run in 14 innings.

Where Kansas City has shined is hitting and defense, driving the largest run differential in the league. By at least one measure, the defense is the best in the game. The hitters have provided a .290/.343/.435 line. Their walk rate is the lowest in the league, so it is all done with contact. Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, and Alex Gordon are not too surprising as excellent bats. The left side of the infield has greatly exceeded expectations as Alcides Escobar has continued his breakout performance of 2014, and Mike Moustakas is completely transformed. Salvador Perez's .322 wOBA will suffer unless he gets some rest and learns some patience, having walked only twice all season. Replacing Billy Butler with Kendrys Morales would seem risky on paper, with Morales having stunk up Minnesota and Seattle in 2014, but he has resumed hitting with a .304/.360/.480 line.

The Twins have a similar profile to the Royals. The pitching has been even more mediocre, ranking 22nd out of 30 teams in WAR. Their 5.31 strikeouts per nine innings is by far the lowest rate in the game, though the Tigers' 5.95 strikeouts per nine innings is surprisingly next-to-last. Trevor May has pitched well, a 5.40 ERA notwithstanding, Glenn Perkins has dominated in relief, and everyone else is struggling.

The Twins have somehow scored the sixth-most runs in baseball. Trevor Plouffe leads the way, hitting .269/.358/.454. Outfield Shane Robinson is hitting .315/.362/.333 after a .150/.227/.200 season in St. Louis last year. Second baseman Brian Dozier is not a fluke with a .244/.326/.439 profile, having homered in Sunday's loss to the Indians. Torii Hunter refuses to age by hitting .287 with five home runs, and eight walks show some return of his younger patience. The folks at Twinkie Town love his energizing presence.  Joe Mauer is the 23rd-most valuable first baseman according to FanGraphs, just ahead of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, yet the Twins keep scoring.

Lousy pitching and good hitting may sound like a recipe for mediocrity. Their fans are having trouble believing their performance real. You don't compare the season to "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", Ambrose Bierce's brilliant short story with a depressing ending, if you believe in your team.

But the Twins have outscored their opponents by half a run a game, and the Tigers only two-tenths of a run a game. Joakim Soria has allowed the Tigers to outperform their run differential by two games.

It may be that the Twins have been lucky to bunch their hits, scoring more runs than expected. They may be ready to turn into a pumpkin. Their pitching should allow the Tigers' bats to wake up. It is only May, yet we can enjoy meaningful games between contending teams.