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October 5, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

ALDS Game 1: Tigers 3, A's 2

by Sam Miller

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Sometimes you just need to be with family. Nothing against your friends--who, most of the time, are more fun to be around--and nothing against a night alone watching The Shield (sometimes you need that, too), but family is different. Family knew you when you were 4 years old, and when you’re around people who knew you when you were 4 years old there’s really no point acting like you’re more sophisticated or impressive than you are. You’re still the kid who wet his pants because he didn’t know how to unlatch his overalls quickly. There’s something freeing about being able to be that kid, not the adult you dumbly aspire to be.

This isn’t a metaphor. That’s what I did last night, and that’s what I did when I was 4 and I couldn’t get my overalls unlatched. So I didn’t watch Game 1 of the ALDS between the Tigers and the Athletics. But I did make four predictions, I did seal them in an envelope three days in advance, and I did mail them to myself. Let’s open them up and see how I did.

1. Miguel Cabrera will go 5 for 5 with two homers, or he will go 0 for 4 with three strikeouts.
The thing about narratives isn’t just that they shape data any way they want to tell a story, but that they tend to move ever closer to the extremes. Miguel Cabrera can only emerge from this postseason series as one of two things: the half-God superhero who hits clutch home runs without a functioning lower body, because his team needs it and he is a team player; or a rusted jalopy that lost its engine and is now no more than a heavy paperweight in the Tigers’ lineup.

Cabrera actually went… 1 for 4, with an RBI. The game-winning RBI! (In the first inning with nobody out.) It was a solid single that showed excellent plate coverage, and he followed that with a wonderful line drive to center field that was right at Coco Crisp for an out. Then a fly out to right and a groundout to third, bobbled just enough to let us see Cabrera struggle down the line. So a mixed batting line, but the announcers were down on him throughout, questioning his ability to get any power, questioning his ability to get to the inside pitch, questioning this funny-looking, armsy swing at an outside pitch:

“I think they need to pitch Cabrera in just to see if he can turn something,” Buck Martinez said after the second at-bat. “If he's having trouble with his hips and legs he's going to have a hard time opening up those hips."

The A’s threw him 17 pitches and only five were on the inner half or inside. I’d trust their advance scouts and their own coaches and catchers more than I’d trust Martinez (don’t take it personally, Buck) so it’ll be interesting to see whether the A’s adjust to go in on him more. Only pitch in the first two at-bats (out of seven total) was inside, and four of the next 10 were, so maybe that adjustment has already happened.

2. Max Scherzer will be exceptional, and it will have very little (at least, on the surface) to do with his curveball.
As noted in the series preview, Scherzer has credited his breakout this year to the development of his curveball that gives him a plus weapon against lefties. He kept repeating that idea this week:

But, also noted in the series preview, Scherzer has improved as much against righties as against lefties this year. “The pitch has certainly been successful—batters are hitting .205 against the curve this year with a .333 slugging percentage—but his evolution on the mound goes deeper than the addition of a single pitch,” Doug Thorburn wrote yesterday. “The right-hander goes to the changeup much more often with a lefty at the plate (30 percent frequency versus 8 percent against right-handed bats), and his numbers have greatly improved over last season when the cambio comes to the plate (more K's, weaker contact). Scherzer's fastball has also been tougher to hit than in years past, and the whole package points to a pitcher who has refined his delivery and honed his pitch command to become a more effective pitcher overall.”

The A’s had seven lefties or switch-hitters in the lineup against Scherzer. He threw 94 total pitches to left-handed batters. That curveball? Seven appearances. He threw 30 changeups, got 70 percent strikes, got eight whiffs. That right there is an 11-word novel about a pitch that overcomes all obstacles to seize tremendous power for himself and his people. The curveball didn’t get a whiff, though it stole him a couple strikes and a couple Ball In Play (No Out)s.

Anyway, Scherzer was exceptional: 20 swinging strikes is his second-highest game total this year, and it came against a lefty-stacked lineup that tied for the league's second-best OPS+.

3. Jhonny Peralta, left fielder, will it into make a GIF.
Peralta appeared only as a pinch-hitter, suggesting that his three games in left field to conclude the season were more about getting him game action and getting the Tigers a look at him out there, and not a foreshadowing of Jim Leyland’s lineup decisions. Andy Dirks got the start against the right-handed starter, and the Tigers will only see right-handed starters, so unless Leyland changes his mind he’ll take the defense and the platoon advantage instead of the more famous player. The platoon advantage is probably overrated, considering Dirks doesn’t hit at all:

  • Dirks, 2013: .260/.327/.371 against righties
  • Peralta, 2013: .282/.338/.412 against righties

Peralta gives the Tigers right-handed power off the bench, which they really don’t otherwise have (Ramon Santiago and Hernan Perez being the other two options, and both sub-.100 isolated power guys). But those pinch-hitting appearances will come at a cost, as it did Friday, when Leyland essentially had to use two substitutes (Peralta hitting, the Don Kelly replacing him in the field) for one switch.

4. The MLB.com headline will be Scher Shot, and the deck headline will be “Tigers ace gives Max effort as Detroit jumps ahead.”

The sentiment was correct, but I forgot that MLB.com headlines like to squeeze in as many words as possible. Better luck tomorrow, me.

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

Related Content:  Oakland Athletics,  Playoffs,  Detroit Tigers,  Alds

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