Shortstop Alexei Ramirez of the Chicago White Sox throws to first base after forcing out Austin Jackson of the Detroit Tigers on a ground ball hit by Brennan Boesch at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Brian Kersey/Getty Images)
The numbers say the White Sox have a significant edge over the Tigers, as they begin their four-game series tonight with first place on the line. But the numbers can change in a hurry.
Because that's what the numbers say.
Ah, but which numbers? These numbers. According to Baseball Prospectus's Playoff Odds Report, the Chicago White Sox have a 63-percent chance of winning the American League Central, the Tigers a 37-percent chance.
Now, if you've looked at the actual standings recently, that difference in their estimated chances might seem overly large, considering that -- as the clubs begin a four-game series Monday night, on the South Side of Chicago -- the White Sox have a slim two-game lead in the standings.
So why is that gap so large?
Well, let's start with this four-game series. The most likely outcome is a split, which would leave the White Sox with a two-game lead with only 19 games left ... 12 of which against the Twins, Royals, and Indians. The Sox also have three games in Anaheim and four against the Rays, in Chicago; none of those figure to be easy.
That said, the Tigers have an easier schedule after this week's series. They also have 19 more games, 16 of which are against the Twins, Royals, and Indians. Except for a three-game series against the A's, the rest of Detroit's schedule features losing teams. And those A's games are in Detroit.
So really, it comes down to just two things: the White Sox' current two-game lead and this week's four-game series. The math just isn't on the Tigers' side. The most likely outcome of this series is a split. The second-most likely outcome, because these games are in Chicago, is the White Sox taking three of four. And because each game in a series like this represents a two-game swing (if you think about it), the Tigers really can't lose three games, because if they lose three games they're down by four games with 19 to play, which is obviously big trouble.
If you're a Tigers fan, you might say -- actually, if you're a fan you should say -- something like this ... "But it's almost as likely that we'll win three out of four, and if we win three of four we're all tied up, and if we're all tied up we should be the favorites to win the division, since we've got the easier schedule the rest of the way."
True, all. But again, we're concerned for the moment with mere likelihood.
What's funny, though, is how quickly likelihood can change at this time of the year. How capricious it can be, turning as it might on a single run, a single play, a single pitch. Forty-eight hours from now, the Tigers might easily be four games behind the White Sox; almost as easily, they might be zero games behind.
Leaving aside the percentages, according to that very same Playoff Odds Report, simulating the season a few gazillion times results in these average records ...
Yeah. One game apart. And if the Tigers beat the White Sox Monday night, that one game disappears, utterly, into the ether.
Which is another of saying, tell your statistics to shut up and just watch the stupid baseball game. Which is exactly what we'll do. Monday night, anyway.