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October 24, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

World Series Preview: Tigers vs. Giants

by Derek Carty

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I bet most teams wish they could sandwich a good-but-not-great year in between two World Series appearances, as the Giants have now done over the past three seasons. What’s most incredible about that three-year stretch, however, is the roster turnover that has taken place. Their lineup is almost completely different, and their non-Cain rotation is now made up of Ryan Vogelsong, a mature Madison Bumgarner, and a how-did-he-manage-to-weasel-his-way-back-into-relevance version of Barry Zito—oh, and one fewer Lincecum. Yes, that was the sound of 2010’s jaw dropping.

Detroit returns to the World Series for the first time since 2006, having failed to actually win a main event since 1984. Despite San Francisco’s recent postseason dominance, however, Detroit figures to be the favorite in this series. Their four-game sweep of the Yankees gives them a fresh rotation that also happens to be filled with superior pitchers to San Fran’s offerings, and if that rotation can pitch anything close to the 1.02-ERA tune it has to this point in the playoffs, this could be an open-and-shut series.

Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv)
Tigers

CF-R Austin Jackson (.300/.377/.479/.307)
LF-L Quintin Berry (.258/.330/.354/.253)
3B-R Miguel Cabrera (.330/.393/.606/.332)
1B-L Prince Fielder (.313/.412/.528/.326)
DH-R Delmon Young (.267/.296/.411/.252)
RF-L Andy Dirks (.322/.370/.487/.302)
SS-R Jhonny Peralta (.239/.305/.384/.244)
C-L Alex Avila (.243/.352/.384/.260)
2B-R Omar Infante (.274/.300/.419/.255)

Giants
CF-S Angel Pagan (.288/.338/.440/.290)
2B-R Marco Scutaro (.362/.385/.473/.313)
3B-S Pablo Sandoval (.283/.342/.447/.294)
C-R Buster Posey (.336/.408/.549/.350)
RF-R Hunter Pence (.219/.287/.384/.260)
1B-L Brandon Belt (.275/.360/.421/.304)
LF-L Gregor Blanco (.244/.333/.344/.266)
SS-L Brandon Crawford (.248/.304/.349/.248)
DH-S Hector Sanchez (.280/.295/.390/.247)

Just one year separates this year’s Giants from 2010’s World Series club, but you’d never know it looking at this lineup. Just one player was in the series-winning Game Five lineup in 2010: Buster Posey (though Sandoval was also on the roster). For all the flak Brian Sabean sometimes takes in sabermetric circles, he’s done a great job rebuilding a lineup that ranked second in TAv this season. Pagan’s numbers look downright silly compared to those of 2011 leadoff man Andres Torres (.230/.327/.337/.251), whom he was acquired for in the offseason, and Marco Scutaro has been an absolute beast since joining the Giants in July, including a .354/.404/.438 triple-slash this postseason.

As Sam mentioned in his NLCS preview, the Giants don’t hit many home runs (fewest in the NL), but “avoid strikeouts, and hit plenty of gaps, with the most triples in the league and the second-most non-homer extra-base hits.” That skill set should continue to play well in the two pitcher havens this series will take place in—AT&T and Comerica—and the ability to avoid the strikeout should come in handy against a Tigers rotation that has accrued a 9.6 K/9 this postseason. The club will, however, be at a disadvantage when they play in Detroit; they lack any sort of reasonable DH candidate, and it seems as though they will carry an extra catcher in order to let Sanchez DH. Yucky.

After being shut down by Oakland’s pitching in the ALDS, Detroit’s offense finally came to life against New York, scoring 4.75 runs per game, including six- and eight-run efforts. While this is an offense heavily reliant upon Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera, it was the rest of the lineup that really came through against the Yankees, in particular Delmon Young, who went 6-for-17 with a home run and six RBI. Cabrera had a good series after a rough start to the postseason, but Fielder continued to struggle (.211/.268/.289 this postseason). Naturally, it’s going to be important for Fielder to contribute more than that if the Tigers hope to hoist the hardware next week. Somewhat paradoxically, while San Francisco’s offense is more balanced and less reliant on star power, Detroit’s lineup doesn’t have a dead spot the likes of Crawford or Sanchez. When the team plays in San Francisco, unless Jim Leyland’s Quintin Berry fixation proves stronger than anticipated, expect Young to play left field with Dirks or Infante moving up to the second spot in the order.

Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv)
Tigers

C-R Gerald Laird (.282/.337/.374/.251)
IF-S Ramon Santiago (.206/.283/.272/.199)
IF-R Danny Worth (.216/.330/.257/..232 in 90 plate appearances)
OF-R Avisail Garcia (.319/.373/.319/.245 in 51 plate appearances)
UT-L Don Kelly (.186/.276/.248/.201)

Giants
LF/RF-R Xavier Nady (.240/.333/.400/.245)
SS/3B-R Joaquin Arias (.270/.304/.389/.250)
1B/OF-L Aubrey Huff (.192/.326/.282/.250)
INF-R Ryan Theriot (.270/.316/.321/.241)
C-R Eli Whiteside (.091/.214/.182/.190 in 14 plate appearances)

Despite accruing just 51 plate appearances this season—all part of a September call-up—Avisail Garcia has been the key cog off the bench for the Tigers this postseason. He’ll start and bat eighth versus lefties Zito and Bumgarner—slated for Games One and Two—and will pinch-hit for Berry late in games versus lefty relievers. He’s triple-slashed .333/.368/.389 this postseason to go with good speed, so he figures to play the most prominent bench role once again. Without a DH in San Francisco, Jim Leyland will have his work cut out for him deciding whom to send to the plate for his pitchers, akin to trying to pick out the best pumpkin at the patch the day after Halloween. The team could add Brennan Boesch to the roster for this purpose, but they’ve been pretty committed to leaving him off this postseason, so that might not be the most likely scenario. One scenario that seems all but certain to play out at least once or twice is a Quintin Berry pinch-bunt. You’ve been warned.

San Francisco is rumored to be adding Eli Whiteside to the roster so that they can play Hector Sanchez at DH, but he’ll merely be injury insurance. Nady and Huff may not quite qualify as big boppers, but they are certainly better pinch-hitting options than most of what Detroit can offer, and Bruce Bochy will at least let them swing away when they get up to the plate. Theriot will continue to serve as a pinch-runner despite his speed declining in recent years.

Starting Pitchers (IP, ERA, FIP)
Tigers

RHP Justin Verlander (238.1, 2.64, 2.90)
RHP Doug Fister (161.2, 3.45, 3.37)
RHP Anibal Sanchez (74.2, 3.74, 3.64)
RHP Max Scherzer (187.2, 3.74, 3.22)

Giants
LHP Barry Zito (184.1, 4.15, 4.53)
LHP Madison Bumgarner (208.1, 3.37, 3.54)
RHP Ryan Vogelsong (189.2, 3.37, 3.74)
RHP Matt Cain (219.1, 2.79, 3.44)
RHP Tim Lincecum (186, 5.18, 4.22)

The full five-game NLCS forced the Giants to pitch Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain for the final two contests, meaning they can’t be used until later in the series—though I guess they can’t really complain since they wouldn’t be in the World Series were in not for those games. Still, that means that in Game One, San Fran will once again send Barry Zito to the mound with bated breath. Zito was dominant in Game Three of the NLCS, but Giants fans should hardly be excited to press their luck.

Detroit, meanwhile, has a fully-rested rotation that will be headed up by Justin Verlander in Game One. If you’ve never heard of baseball before, first, well, you’re probably a five-year-old girl, and second, I suppose you could compare a Verlander/Zito matchup to a race between Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy.

The Giants have announced Madison Bumgarner as their Game Two starter. While Bumgarner seems fast on the track to ace status, he really struggled down the stretch and into the postseason. Following a 3 2/3-inning, six-earned-run disaster in Game One, he failed to make another start the rest of the series. He figures to receive another short leash, although he has said that the mechanical issues that plagued him down the stretch are behind him. Still, he could be in trouble facing Doug Fister. Fister uses a two-seamer 44 percent of the time to generate plenty of ground balls, but he keeps hitters off balance by mixing in four other pitches—a changeup, cutter, and curve, plus a four-seamer to play them off of—and generates his fair share of strikeouts as well.

I’m still not sure why the Tigers are starting Anibal Sanchez in Game Three—lining him up for a second start in Game Seven—and Max Scherzer in Game Four—limiting him to just a single start. Sanchez is a quality pitcher, but Scherzer is an ace; he’s just not widely recognized as one yet.

Perhaps more egregious, however, is Bruce Bochy’s decision to give Vogelsong two starts instead of Cain. While both will have had enough rest to start Game Three (and then would, in turn, have enough rest to pitch Game Seven), Bochy said, “(Vogelsong) is throwing the ball as well as anybody on the staff, so we just kept it in order. If Vogelsong gets (Game Seven), we have no problem with that. I know Matt has worked hard. He's got a lot of innings. I didn't think we needed to flip-flop the two, to be honest, the way Vogey is throwing.” Cain is not only the best pitcher on the Giants, but he is one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. With the Giants at a large pitching disadvantage to begin with, this move could prove fatal if the series goes seven games.

Tim Lincecum is not certain to make a start this series, and his doing so will be contingent upon several things, the first of which is how many games the series goes. Additionally, If Zito manages to twirl another unforeseeable gem, Bochy will likely be tempted to give him another start this series. If Bumgarner proves his mechanical issues are behind him, he, too, could get a second start. Then there’s the issue of how heavily Lincecum himself is used out of the bullpen.

Bullpen (IP, ERA, FIP)
Tigers

RHP Jose Valverde (69, 3.78, 3.57)
RHP Joaquin Benoit (71, 3.68, 4.22)
RHP Octavio Dotel (58, 3.26, 2.25)
RHP Al Alburquerque (13.1, 0.68, 2.15)
LHP Phil Coke (54, 4.00, 3.42)
RHP Rick Porcello (176.1, 4.59, 3.86)
LHP Drew Smyly (99.1, 3.81, 3.78)

Giants
RHP Sergio Romo (55.1, 1.79, 2.74)
LHP Jeremy Affeldt (63.1, 2.70, 2.77)
RHP Santiago Casilla (63.1, 2.84, 4.18)
LHP Javier Lopez (36, 2.50, 3.11)
RHP George Kontos (43.2, 2.47, 2.84)
LHP Jose Mijares (17.2, 2.55, 2.23)
RHP Tim Lincecum (186, 5.18, 4.22)

While Detroit has a few quality pieces in their bullpen, you can bet they’re hoping their starters can go as deep as possible into games this series. They can piece together a couple innings at the end of games well enough, but more than that and they risk being exposed. Closer Jose Valverde has been toeing a dangerous line for a while, and he has been an absolute mess this postseason, most recently allowing four runs to send Game One of the ALCS into extra innings. Phil Coke was an interesting choice to close out Games Two and Three given the presence of Benoit, Dotel, and Alburquerque, and he was likely given the nod due to the lefty-heavy middle of the Yankees order. This series, it seems likely we’ll see Coke again against the lefty-heavy bottom of San Francisco’s order, at the very least, and maybe Benoit against the top or middle of the order.

While the Giants’ bullpen ERA of 3.56 ranked them squarely in the middle of Major League Baseball at 15th this season, their World Series bullpen sets up very interestingly. Though his stuff has looked flat at times this postseason, Sergio Romo is one of the best relievers in all of baseball when he’s right. The Giants also feature what is likely the best lefty trio in all of baseball (not many teams carry three lefties, but still; these guys are good). George Kontos emerged to post ridiculous peripherals this season, earning some high-leverage work late in the year, and Timmy Lincecum will round out the group. Bochy stated his intention to use Lincecum out of the bullpen, saying, “We just think he's better-served helping us out of the bullpen. He gives us another weapon there. He's resilient. I can use him back-to-back days. I can use him three or four innings if necessary.” That doesn’t rule out Lincecum starting if something happens, but having a pitcher of his quality in the bullpen is a great ace in the hole—even if it comes at the expense of not using him in the rotation to begin with, which would have been preferable to, say, lining Barry Zito up for two starts.

Defense
We’ve done this drill for two other series already, and the defensive abilities of these teams haven’t changed in that time. San Francisco is very strong up the middle but leaves a little to be desired in the corners of both the infield and outfield. Detroit is kind of a mess everywhere, though their athletic outfielders are their biggest defensive strength.

Managers
I’ve noted before that Leyland is known as a clubhouse leader first and a tactician second, and those who followed my ALDS recaps know the disdain I had for all of his sacrifice bunt calls. He managed to keep that in check in a short ALCS series with the Yankees, though, sacrificing just once. The pitcher spot will test his resolve this series. To his credit, Leyland has trotted out a very consistent lineup throughout the postseason, unlike his 2011 habit of changing it up and trying to be too clever, and he figures to be plenty capable of guiding a superior Tigers squad to a World Series title.

Resident Giants fan Sam Miller has already given two good summations of what Bochy brings to the table, so I’ll let him take this one: “Bochy features the best mustache in the series, but he’ll probably go unnoticed beyond his lip sweater. He bunts more than the average; he intentionally walks roughly the league average; he will let his starters go a fourth time through the lineup, with the Giants ranking second in that measure and the Reds third this year. That last one will occasionally get him into trouble. Bochy’s success, however, could mostly be attributed to his ability to get better-than-expected performances out of veterans, a skill that won him a World Series (Juan Uribe, Cody Ross) and that helped the Giants down the stretch this year (Scutaro). He might not manage by The Book as much as a stathead would like, but he pays attention to the details, and he’ll rarely make an outright mistake. He’s unlikely to be the reason the Giants lose a game or a series.” I also wanted to say that I give Bochy a lot of credit for sticking with Brandon Belt this postseason, resisting the urge to bench him during his cold spells.

Prediction
The Tigers have a big starting pitching advantage and a small offensive advantage. As long as their starters can go deep enough that the holes in their bullpen aren’t overexposed, they should win this one.

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