October 4, 2013
ALDS Preview: Tigers at Athletics
For months, our daily Playoff Odds have given the Tigers the best chance—by a pretty wide margin—of winning the World Series. For most of the season, that was because they were the team with the easiest path to the postseason, but even now they stand above the rest. The reason is simple: The Tigers have won a lot of games, but should have won even more, according to run differential; and their run differential should be even higher than it is, according to third-order metrics. They’ve been a top-tier offense while having undoubtedly the league’s best pitching. Four of the top nine FIPs in the AL are in their rotation. Playing in a traditionally soft division hasn’t kept them from pushing to get better, and the investments they’ve made in recent years—massive extensions for Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, big contracts for free agents Prince Fielder and Anibal Sanchez, and relatively heavy expenditures on bullpen help—have all worked out, so far.
The Athletics, meanwhile, have been the league’s best team over the past two years. That includes, remember, a terrible first half of 2012; since July 1 of that year, they’ve played at a 101-win pace. Unlike the Tigers, they don’t have anybody your Aunt Margaret has heard of (unless your Aunt Margaret is a fantasy junkie with a team named Cespedes for the Rest of Us). They rely on depth, platoons, flexibility, bullpen reclamations, and young starting pitchers who all seem to throw strikes from the word go. If the Tigers are a bold-faced stars-and-scrubs roster, the Athletics are a team that uses the entire page, margins and all, to squeeze in as much as possible. With a few exceptions—notably, the A’s don’t have the chemistry Gods Brandon Inge and Jonny Gomes this year—this is a faithful replay of last year’s ALDS, which Detroit won in five.
The top six offenses in the American League (which includes the A’s and the Tigers) were separated by just three points of True Average, and each could almost certainly find some statistical boundaries to make the case that they were truly the league’s best collection. The Tigers, though, had to scrap for runs in September, scoring just 3.7 runs per game while producing 54 fewer points of OPS than in their second-worst month of the season. Streaks disappear about the time you notice them, but this might be no mere streak. Miguel Cabrera, excelling through pain for much of the season, did see his production plummet late. In the Tigers’ 27 games (six of which Cabrera sat out), he hit .278/.395/.333. Despite a heavy right-handed tilt, the Tigers were actually better against righties than lefties this year, with Hunter, Jackson, and Infante all showing minimal or reverse platoon splits. Cabrera, meanwhile, has been better against righties for some time now, and has baseball’s best OPS against righties over the past half-decade. Alex Avila, a notable disappointment, hit .303/.376/.500 in a rebound second half. Victor Martinez, another notable disappointment, hit .361/.413/.500 in a rebound second half. Peralta is back in the lineup but, without the chance to play rehab games, will have to prove he’s back at game speed; if he looks late, Andy Dirks might start against an all-RHP Oakland rotation, which would benefit the defense but, given Dirks’ performance against righties, perhaps not the offense. The Tigers are the worst baserunning team by a mile.
Get a good look at the lineup above: it’s probably the first and only time you’ll see it, as the A’s start a different nine almost every day, with Derek Norris, Seth Smith, and Eric Sogard all starting some days and the batting order determined by a decision tree that you or I or the world’s most powerful computers could never crack. Despite playing in an offense-crushing park, the A’s had the league’s second-best walk rate and third-best isolated power. (On the road, they’re the league’s best slugging team.) They were particularly powerful in the second half, scoring an extra half run per game while making modest upgrades at second base (with Alberto Callaspo) and catcher (with Stephen Vogt) and riding Brandon Moss’ hot streak. Moss has the game’s 10th-best OPS+ since joining the A’s. He’ll play first, an outfield corner, or DH depending on the day. The A’s drop from a top offense to the middle of the pack when they’re facing power pitchers; the Tigers threw the eighth-hardest average fastball. The platoon advantage—all four Tigers starters, along with their presumed long man, are right-handed—isn’t as large as you’d think looking at the A’s lopsided lineup, as Lowrie is slightly better and Callaspo significantly better against left-handed pitching.
The Tigers don’t have a lefty threat off the bench—Dirks and Kelly are both lousy against right-handers—so the A’s will be able to hold Doolittle for Prince Fielder and righty-mashing Victor Martinez without worrying about the next danger down the line. One of these Tigers will likely be a designated defensive replacement for Peralta, who never played a professional game in the outfield before last week. Tuiasosopo hit .152/.239/.190 in the second half, which might not change his true talent level but will certainly affect Jim Leyland’s willingness to go to him. Pena is likely to start a game or two, though Avila’s reputation for handling pitchers bolsters his strong second half. The A’s have the four best bench players in this series.
Last October, Jonny Gomes didn’t get into a single game until a charity at-bat in the last inning of a blowout. The A’s are once again playing against a righty-heavy Tigers staff, but Chris Young, playing a Gomes-like role, figures to get more work, pinch-hitting for Barton or Reddick. Young suffered through a brutal season, but it’s worth pointing out that, over two games in mid-August, he missed hitting back-to-back walk-off homers by a combined total of perhaps three inches. Tack those homers onto his stat line and he would have slugged .403 in a pitcher’s park. He provides power and the ability to play center field in the late innings. Lefty-masher Nate Freiman is trying to return from an abdominal strain but is unlikely to be ready in time for this series. The A’s have had Norris fielding grounders at first, though mostly for insurance—“it’s not like we’re looking for Derek to play first base.” Suzuki has, in an extremely unconvincing sample, had an .888 OPS with Oakland—if nothing else, 8 is considered an auspicious number in much of the world. Sogard lost playing time down the stretch, but he’s a versatile defender and a contact hitter who can provide the little-ball skills that announcers would otherwise point out the A’s lack.
The Tigers’ rotation is even better than the one that carried them to the World Series last year—even though it’s the same four guys. Sanchez added a mile per hour to his fastball and saw whiff rates on all his pitches spike this year; he led the AL in ERA and FIP. Scherzer (fifth in ERA, third in FIP) credits his breakout to a curveball that he throws against lefties, but his performance against righties improved by about the same margin this year. It might be ungenerous to say the difference is BABIP luck (about 75 points lower this year than in 2012) and HR/FB luck (a 35 percent drop), but Scherzer was a dynamite pitcher last year, too; he deserved some of the luck he’s had this year. Verlander (ninth in FIP) was vintage in September, striking out 48, walking 10, and compiling a 2.26 ERA in 40 innings. Weak opponents helped, but so does a 94.8 mph average fastball, up from 93.1 in April and May. Doug Fister (eighth in FIP) is the forgotten man, but his strengths (throwing strikes, getting grounders) will play well against a team that derives its offense from ball fours and big flies.
The A’s rotation is both a strength—from a team-building standpoint, it has been where the front office has funneled the most surplus value—and the most underwhelming part of the roster. Colon’s fastball—almost the only pitch he throws—continues to lose heat, but he throws it for strikes more than any pitcher in the game and rarely pays. The ballpark helps: at home, 20 percent of his extra-base hits were four-baggers; on the road, 45 percent were. Colon’s mid-August injury is in the past, but it arguably benefited the A’s postseason rotation by clearing space for Sonny Gray to make his starting debut. He has dazzled since, relying mostly on a low-mid-90s four-seamer and a swing-and-miss curve. The 5’ 11” right-hander has thrown 182 innings this year, a 30-inning increase from 2012, so fatigue would be a possibility, but it hasn’t shown yet. Parker has a 3.38 ERA since his terrible April, but he has a .238 BABIP since then, too. A.J. Griffin won’t be available because of elbow tendinitis. Excepting starts against Houston, Dan Straily had a 4.24 ERA and a FIP around 4.4.
Relief Pitchers (ERA, Innings, FIP)
One nice thing about starting pitching depth is that, when you don’t need it, you still get to use it: Smyly was one of the most suppressive lefty relievers in baseball this year, holding same-side hitters to a .189/.225/.246 line. He also struck out four right-handers for every walk, so he could be in line for some crucial two-inning stretches. Benoit has settled down the Tigers’ closer controversy. Alburquerque makes things tense but can get a strikeout and handles lefties. Phil Coke is likely unavailable, which is a big break for Downs. Unlike Smyly, he’s a true LOOGY; right-handers collectively went Edwin Encarnacion off him.
While the Tigers have Rick Porcello—an eminently qualified starter—as a longman, the A’s, sans Griffin, don’t have a great option if a starter gets in trouble (or hurt) early. Anderson still has great stuff and worked as a multi-inning reliever late in the season, but (in a small sample) was wild out of the pen and allowed 10 runs in six innings. Doolittle had an awful stretch in mid-August, leading some observers of the team to speculate that teams had adjusted to his all-strikes approach. Nope, just a hiccup; he allowed one run the rest of the season. Dan Otero was the A’s big find—that ERA, incidentally, comes with a .336 BABIP, so don’t blame that—but he’s still used mostly in low leverage. The A’s bullpen has been much better this year than the Tiges’—third in baseball in reliever FRA, to the Tigers’ 20th.