Justin Verlander won the MVP and the Cy Young Award in the same season in 2011. Miguel Cabrera won the first Triple Crown in 45 years in 2012. In 2013, Max Scherzer began the season 13-0 for Detroit, and the team is on pace to shatter the all-time record for strikeout rate by pitchers–albeit a record set just last season.

In one reading of those facts, and of the standings (here at the All-Star break) that say the Tigers are headed for their third straight division title, it’s clear that this is a miniature dynasty. At the very least, they have won an AL pennant, and have between two and five future Hall of Famers on their roster. They appear poised to tear through the second half, and could cement the legacy of being the preeminent current powerhouse by playing well into October.

Call me crazy, but I’m not buying.

Look, Verlander, Cabrera, Scherzer, Prince Fielder and others are very good players. I don’t mean to demean any of what they have done.

However, I think we need to more carefully account for the level of competition teams and players face before declaring them great, or poor, or anything, really. Baseball continues to cling to an unbalanced seasonal schedule whereby teams play roughly 44 percent of their games within their division, and the Tigers, since the start of 2011, have played in the worst division (outside of themselves) in many years, maybe ever.
Since the beginning of 2011, the collective record of AL Central teams not named the Tigers is 754-913, a .452 winning percentage. During that time, the Tigers are 113-64 against those four teams, and 121-119 against everyone else. In both 2011 and 2012, they were exactly 45-45 against all non-divisional opponents. Although they look like juggernauts, outside their division, the Tigers have been a .500 team.

Miguel Cabrera hit 20 of his 44 home runs in 2012 in the 72 intradivisional games. He hit .347 in those contests, .315 in others. In 2011, Verlander had a 5.32 strikeout-to-walk ratio within the division, and a 3.80 ratio outside it.

The Twins simply collapsed in on themselves in 2011. A team ostensibly built to win, the defending AL Central champions, suffered injuries and poor performances with which they couldn’t begin to cope. The same thing is happening now to the 2013 White Sox. The Indians and Royals, meanwhile, have spent all three seasons riding waves, seeming competitive in stretches (the Indians are 51-44 right now, propping up a competition set that would otherwise look as bad as in either of the previous years), but never for a full season, trying to win at all times but without a clear or coherent strategy for doing so.

It isn’t that the Tigers are playing Triple-A baseball here. The numbers above, while compelling, don’t paint a picture of a division worthy of relegation. They are, however, an illustration of the fact that Detroit plays an incrementally weaker schedule than any other team in baseball, a distinct advantage for them not only in accumulating wins to ensure themselves a playoff spot, but in building statistical profiles like those of Cabrera and Verlander, lines that look out of place for anything short of the greatest players ever. I think those two are among the greatest players active in the big leagues, but when weighing the honest merits of both the team and the individuals that make it up, it’s time to acknowledge just how good the Tigers have it right now.

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