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October 9, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

ALDS Game Three Preview: Tigers at Athletics

by Daniel Rathman

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A seesaw Game Two ended in disappointment for Oakland, as the team’s three best relievers failed to hold two separate late leads, letting the Tigers walk off with a 5-4 victory in the bottom of the ninth. Will the A’s, who finished the regular season on a six-game winning streak, bow out with three consecutive postseason losses to Detroit? Here are the PECOTA odds and projected starting lineups for Game Three:

Tigers (Anibal Sanchez) at Athletics (Brett Anderson) – 9:00 p.m. ET

PECOTA Odds of Winning: Athletics 58.1 percent, Tigers 41.9 percent

Projected Starting Lineups:

Tigers vs. Anderson (L)

Athletics vs. Sanchez (R)

Austin Jackson (R)

Coco Crisp (S)

Omar Infante (R)

Stephen Drew (L)

Miguel Cabrera (R)

Yoenis Cespedes (R)

Prince Fielder (L)

Brandon Moss (L)

Delmon Young (R)

Josh Reddick (L)

Jhonny Peralta (R)

Josh Donaldson (R)

Andy Dirks (L)

Seth Smith (L)

Avisail Garcia (R)

Derek Norris (R)

Gerald Laird (R)

Cliff Pennington (S)

With the series moving to the Coliseum and the home team fielding a higher-upside starter, PECOTA expects Bob Melvin’s squad to live at least another day. After favoring the Tigers in both contests at Comerica Park, the model is 2-for-2 in this Division Series, and this is the first time it has placed its chips on the A’s.

Both Game Three starters pitched in the late-season series between the A’s and Tigers at Comerica Park, and the results were not pretty for either of them. In Anderson’s defense: his strained oblique contributed to a costly fielding bungle and may have been responsible for his unusual control woes. In Sanchez’s: he did strike out eight Oakland batters, despite coughing up six runs (five earned) in 5 2/3 innings.

Anderson was outstanding in his first four starts after returning from Tommy John surgery on Aug. 21, though he did his best work against four feeble offensive teams: the Twins, Indians, Red Sox, and Mariners. More promising is that Anderson blanked baseball’s best offense, the Angels’, for six innings in a duel with Jered Weaver on Sept. 13, before falling apart in the seventh, perhaps due to fatigue.

The 24-year-old lefty is blessed with a world-class arsenal, including a low-to-mid-90s fastball and two power breaking balls, which enables him to contain right-handed batters as well as he does his fellow southpaws. Anderson has faced 103 righties through six starts, and he has struck out 22 of them, holding the lot to a .227/.272/.291 triple-slash along the way. If he had been able to maintain it over a full season, that 563 OPS against would have ranked second among left-handed starters, trailing only his former teammate, Gio Gonzalez.

That’s good news for the A’s, Anderson’s mid-September dud notwithstanding, because—as shown by the projected starting lineups—Tigers manager Jim Leyland has a plethora of right-handed bats at his disposal. Cabrera drew a pair of free passes (one intentional) in his final plate appearances against Anderson in their regular-season showdown, and he went 3-for-7 in their previous meetings, so the approach Anderson takes when the Triple Crown winner steps in tonight bears watching.

The Matchup of the Game, though, comes on the other side, pitting Smith versus Sanchez. The A’s designated hitter and the Tigers’ starter spent most of their careers in the National League before coming over to the junior circuit in trades within the past year, and they have squared off a fair amount, with Smith regularly gaining the upper hand. He is 6-for-13 with a double and two home runs against the 28-year-old Sanchez, a notable exception to the northpaw’s reverse platoon split, which has persisted both in 2012 and over the course of his career.

Though Smith’s swing has holes that prevent him from becoming an everyday player, he has earned his stripes by punishing right-handed pitchers’ mistakes—a lesson Sanchez learned firsthand on Aug. 16, 2011 and earlier this year. Both of Smith’s homers came on changeups in his happy zone, letter-high and over the middle of the plate, including this first-pitch blast three weeks ago. Smith may have been sitting on the pitch after rolling over it in his previous at-bat, and Sanchez fell into the trap by leaving it up.

Oddly enough, while Smith has been unfazed by Sanchez’s changeups, curveballs, and sinkers, he has gone just 1-for-6 in at-bats ending with a fastball, including both of his head-to-head strikeouts. Expect Sanchez to establish the hard stuff early on and return to it if he needs a punchout with Smith at the plate.

As a team, the A’s are just 13-for-64 with 23 strikeouts through the first two games of this series, partly owing to Justin Verlander’s dominance in Game One, but also because of their hitters’ aggressive, swing-for-the-fences approach. If Sanchez can limit his mistakes—something he failed to do in Detroit on Sept. 20—the Tigers could thwart the odds and complete the sweep. 

Update (3:34 p.m. ET): Derek Norris will catch and bat eighth for the A's tonight, not George Kottaras.  The lineup above is now updated to reflect that change, which resulted in an 0.4 percent increase in Oakland's odds of winning.

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

Related Content:  Playoffs,  Athletics,  Tigers

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