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October 4, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

ALDS Game One Preview: Tigers vs. Athletics

by Paul Sporer

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Tigers (Max Scherzer) at Athletics (Bartolo Colon) 9:37 p.m. ET
PECOTA odds of winning: Tigers 62.9%, Athletics 37.1%

Projected Starting Lineups:

Tigers vs. Colon (R)

Athletics vs. Scherzer (R)

Austin Jackson (R) CF

Coco Crisp (S) CF

Torii Hunter (R) RF

Josh Donaldson (R) 3B

Miguel Cabrera (R) 3B

Jed Lowrie (S) SS

Prince Fielder (L) 1B

Brandon Moss (L) LF

Victor Martinez (S) DH

Yoenis Cespedes (R) DH

Andy Dirks (L) LF

Josh Reddick (R) RF

Omar Infante (R) 2B

Alberto Callaspo (S) 2B

Alex Avila (L) C

Daric Barton (L) 1B

Jose Iglesias (R) SS

Stephen Vogt (L) C

The Set-Up:

This 2012 LDS rematch features the same two teams, but the composition of both is markedly different. The A’s who seemingly to had claw and scratch for every run a year ago en route to a 4.4 runs per game average (15th in MLB) are now something of an offensive powerhouse checking in third in the American League and fourth overall with a 4.73 runs per game average. This despite some sharp regression last year’s offensive standout, Yoenis Cespedes.

The A’s remain formidable on the mound as they slid only slightly from last year’s 3.79 runs per game allowed average to 3.86 this year. Only seven starters took a turn for them as most of the year saw their rotation being led by the venerable game one starter, Bartolo Colon, who was flanked by a quartet of mid-twenty-somethings. While his counterpart drew the headlines all season long, Colon actually bested Max Scherzer in ERA 2.65 to 2.90, though Scherzer’s 24 inning edge helps close the gap.

Colon was strong in a pair of no decisions against the Tigers this year yielding a 3.00 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in 12 innings with six strikeouts and zero walks. Strikeouts aren’t a part of Colon’s game which is good because he will have to succeed without them against this Tigers team: their 16.1 percent strikeout rate is baseball’s lowest against right-handed pitchers. Colon was at 15.2 percent in his 190 1/3 innings of work.

Focusing In:

You might be inclined to give the Tigers an advantage in talent, but the disparity is likely much smaller than you would think once you line the teams up. Like the Tigers, Oakland’s offense is centered around their third baseman as Josh Donaldson put together no worse than a down-ballot MVP season with the upshot being a plausible case for the top spot.

Oakland’s second-best offensive threat is also their first baseman, just as it is for Detroit, with Brandon Moss following up his surprise 2012 with an even better effort in 2013. Sure his OPS dropped by 95 points, but he showed he could do it for a full season by adding 209 plate appearances to his ledger in his first full season. Moss will likely to shift into the outfield initially while Cespedes gets well, but he played 111 games at first.

It’s time to stop perpetuating the notion of this team being pieced together by string and duct tape, they are a force and they earned their way into that second by not only pummeling the bottom feeders, but also netting a 40-34 record against .500 or better teams including a 4-3 series win over the Tigers.

Quick, where did Detroit’s offense finish last year in runs per game?

Nope, not that high. Sure they had a Triple Crown and MVP winner to go with the shiny new addition of Fielder and an electric Austin Jackson atop the lineup, but their 4.48 runs per game finished just 11th in baseball. How about this year? Don’t forget, Fielder struggled a bit.

Aw, you’re too sharp for my tricks. Yes, they were better, but did you guess that they jumped up to 4.91 runs per game – good for second – trailing only the Boston Red Sox? Only two regulars were below league average with Cabrera’s improvement more than canceling out the Andy Dirks backslide and the rest of the improvements easily covering Alex Avila’s subpar season and Fielder’s jump down from superstar to “merely” star. However, a very different Cabrera enters the ALDS.

He gutted out 21 of their 26 September games essentially walking his way to a 729 OPS which was buoyed by a .395 OBP. He hit just one homer in the month, a career first for a full month. He hit just one homer in his first ever month as a major leaguer, but he only played 10 games in June of 2003. He is still threat who can some damage at the dish even at something well less than 100 percent, but how much will hurt in the field? They can’t hide him at designated hitter and he’s already challenged as a fielder when it comes to range. That will be a primary storyline throughout this series.

Despite September surge from de facto ace Justin Verlander, Scherzer drew the game one nod on the heels of a career year that has a great chance of ending with a Cy Young Award. The 28-year old righty showed impeccable command without sacrificing his strikeout capability. He fanned 11 A’s in Oakland back on April 12th in six strong innings, but they roughed him up in Detroit on August 29th with five earned in five innings. Only a magical ninth inning comeback kept Scherzer from being tagged with the loss.

The Tigers bullpen was seen as significant deficiency at the beginning of the season, but the ironing out of roles plus the acquisition of Jose Veras has greatly improved the unit and now the team doesn’t have to rely on their excellent starters to go seven or more innings every time out. Joaquin Benoit has slid brilliantly into the closer’s role after the ill-fated Jose Valverde 2.0 experiment that looked a lot more like Windows 3.1 than anything else.

The true star has been Drew Smyly, who threw a team-high 76 innings out of the pen and nearly forced a Rick Porcello trade this spring so they could fit Smyly into the rotation. The pair may now relieve one another at some point in the season as the incredibly deep rotation gets trimmed to four sending the 24-year old righty into relief duty, a role that should suit him well as he usually starts breaking down in 50-80 pitch region on the nights when he isn’t at his absolute best.

My Prediction:

PECOTA gives the Tigers a significant edge in this series opener, but it doesn’t fully factor in Cabrera’s health or the magic voodoo locked into Colon’s belly that affords him the ability to spot the ball in the zone anywhere he wants seemingly 100 percent of the time. There may be a tick of hyperbole in there, but don’t discount the A’s in this battle of Star Power v. Who’s That Guy Again?

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

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