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October 10, 2006

Playoff Prospectus

ALCS Preview

by Christina Kahrl

INTRO

Okay, so it's Cinderella with some serious mojo versus the Moneyball-Meets-John Jaha Memorial Edition A's, and everyone's fascinated because it's another delightfully Yankee- and Red Sox-free American League Championship Series involving real ballclubs and stories more interesting than who gets Connecticut.

For both the Tigers and the A's, this is particularly sweet--both teams were counted out before the seasons began, the A's because they weren't really expected to be able to finish well ahead of the Angels, and the Tigers because they weren't really expected to finish higher than fourth in the AL Central. Each team won their seasons with big kicks at different parts of the season, the Tigers by racking up a big first half, the A's with another torrid stretch drive. I'll never figure out why the A's get labeled as a team that comes up short when they keep coming down the stretch as well as they do--it would seem to me that's the quality of a money team, something that even the most blinkered Moneyball critic should notice. But I digress. The Tigers have similarly managed to upset expectated storylines by turning a blind eye to their stretch drive meltdown and getting down to business in dismantling a distracted and mismanaged Yankee ballclub.

Both teams feature young talent who should be central to their future success, and veteran stalwarts looking for the last best shot at a ring. Both teams feature solid blends of offense, pitching, and defense. The question now is which club will have to settle for subsequent stories about just being happy to have been here, and which one is going to get a shot at the brass ring. I don't know if we're really moving back into the salad days of competitive balance--the Eighties--but with the East not making it to the ALCS in either of the last two years, it's clearly no longer the dull repetition of the the recent past.

Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA/VORP)

Athletics

C-R Jason Kendall (.295/.367/.342/.260/12.1)
CF-L Mark Kotsay (.275/.332/.386/.256/8.9)
RF-B Milton Bradley (.276/.370/.447/.289/17.2)
DH-R Frank Thomas (.270/.381/.545/.313/40.3)
3B-L Eric Chavez (.241/.351/.435/.278/11.9)
LF-R Jay Payton (.296/.325/.418/.259/9.7)
1B-B Nick Swisher (.254/.372/.493/.297/26.9)
SS-R Marco Scutaro (.266/.350/.397/.269/13.9)
2B-B D'Angelo Jimenez* (.264/.349/.378/.260/NA)

*Career rates, including 2006

Tigers

CF-L Curtis Granderson (.260/.335/.438/.269/23.4)
2B-R Placido Polanco (.295/.329/.364/.245/8.4)
1B-L Sean Casey (.272/.336/.388/.256/-2.0)
RF-R Magglio Ordonez (.298/.350/.477/.282/28.4)
SS-B Carlos Guillen (.320/.400/.519/.314/67.0)
C-R Ivan Rodriguez (.300/.332/.437/.267/22.7)
LF-R Craig Monroe (.255/.301/.482/.265/9.2)
DH-R Marcus Thames (.256/.333/.549/.292/20.1)
3B-R Brandon Inge (.253/.313/.463/.266/10.1)

This will not be a matchup between teams given to getting cute about their in-game tactics. Neither team runs all that often, and the Tigers don't run well, and neither team has much help to call upon from the bench, so it might seem that a lot of what Jim Leyland and Ken Macha contribute will be limited, beyond turning in their lineup cards and letting their nines get their best rips at the opposing starting pitchers.

Despite the shared objective of scoring runs, and without much in the way of small ball tactics, the two lineups nevertheless boast very different strengths. Consider this spread between the teams in traditional triple crown rate stats, Equivalent Average (EqA), Isolated Power (ISO) and Walk Rate:

Team      AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA      EqA Rank  ISO (Rank)   BB Rate (Rank)
Detroit   .274/.329/.449/.268  (16)      174  (9)     6.9%     (28)
Oakland   .260/.340/.412/.267  (19)      152  (25)    10.4%    (2)

The teams are closely matched if you limit yourself to gross-scale considerations, like seasonal EqA, and you'd similarly find a closer match suggested by their estimated runs scored for the season--the Tigers ought to have scored 787, the A's 770. Those stats neglect what's very different about these lineups: the Tigers have a lineup that hits the ball often and hard, which helps generate more runs than you'd expect, while the A's get on base better than almost anyone, and expect to cash in on the age-old expectation that baserunners equal runs.

Tactically, that means that the A's are going to be much more dependent on generating a few walks and getting a big hit or two, at least in the games that Frank Thomas and the pitching staff don't conspire to win by themselves. That's an easier proposition against a Twins team with a rotation in flux; it's a far less easy sequence to conjure up against the Tigers' superb rotation early, or against Zumaya later on. Since I don't think we'll be seeing Scooter hit a double per day at the office from here on out, it gets harder still.

One of the A's lineup guesses is that Payton gets the ball in play with men on, helping drive them in, and as far as that goes, he's not just not Magglio Ordonez, he's not even as good as the now-absent Mark Ellis, or anyone likely to start an A's playoff game for that matter. A key for the A's will be working the count early against Robertson, Verlander, and Bonderman, in the hope of either getting one of the favorable platoon matchups all three are susceptible to, or facing a non-Zumaya reliever pitching in a high-leverage situation before the seventh.

Macha's best tactical gambit would be a possible surprise in the games against Robertson and Rogers, plugging Bobby Kielty into the lineup in Kotsay's slot as the left fielder (Payton would move over into center), because Kielty's platoon numbers are pretty sweet against southpaws (.325/.358/.607). Additionally, Kielty homered off of Robertson earlier this season, and had a big game against Rogers in July. But beyond that sort of lineup decision, Macha's not going to get overly clever, unless it's with Jimenez. Between Kendall's glacier-slow break from the box and Jimenez's relative newness to being a regular A, it wouldn't be surprising to see the A's break from their dislike of little ball tactics and have Jimenez bunt Scooter over in the sixth inning or later in tight games.

For the Tigers, Leyland might repeat his Randy Johnson lineup juggling against Barry Zito, dropping Casey and Granderson down to the lineup's bottom third, and pushing Monroe and Thames behind Polanco (and in front of Ordonez). Tigers fans looking for a bit of that Sparky Anderson vibe might remember that he used to drop Lou Whitaker from leadoff against RHPs to the nine hole against lefties. It's a sensible gambit to minimize a platoon problem, keep a player's defense in the lineup, and keep your normal leadoff man slotted in front of your power sources later on in a game. Credit Leyland for remembering this particular smart play.

Unfortunately, there's the question of letting Casey bat third against the right-handed people who pitch, and while it's a stathead mantra that lineup order doesn't matter, I'm not buying it. Casey hasn't hit, hasn't hit for power, and he's not a particularly patient hitter, so putting him in the third slot on the basis of what sort of hitter he was a couple of years ago seems pretty foolhardy, and without Chris Shelton around, he's there to be exploited by Joe Kennedy. What Casey does do better than most slow white men in the third slot is avoid hitting into the doubleplay: his hitting into a deuce 12.8% of the time (combined, between his Pirates and Tigers stats) might not be as incredible as Thames hitting into none in 65 opportunities, but it's around average.

Kvetching about Casey aside, as mentioned before, what the Tigers lineup has going for it is power pretty much wherever Polanco isn't, and a collection of hitters who can make contact with power frequently enough to make the most of their opportunities--the Tigers ranked second only to the Braves in runs scored above their expected season total, even though they don't get on base all that well. Guillen's easily the best hitter of the lot, which was enough to elicit ten intentional passes, but characteristic of the Tigers' chief offensive asset--balls in play hit with authority--Rodriguez makes contact frequently enough to discourage Macha from getting overly clever. Granderson and Polanco atop the order don't give Leyland a ton of base-running and hit-and-run mayhem possibilities, but that isn't to say he won't threaten either tactic. Where Leyland will get involved is with the sacrifice; the Tigers finished second in the AL in sac bunts, behind only the Royals. The Game Two sac in the ALDS, with Inge moving the lead run from second to third in the seventh inning, is a good indicator of Leyland's willingness to get that extra base in a tight game. He's also likely to try and avoid the doubleplay by having Guillen run ahead of Rodriguez and Monroe.

Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA/VORP)

Athletics

OF-B Bobby Kielty (.270/.329/.441/.268/4.8)
1B-L Dan Johnson (.234/.323/.381/.252/-6.0)
C-B Adam Melhuse (.219/.273/.375/.223/-4.5)
OF-R Hiram Bocachica* (.218/.274/.360/.227/NA)
and INF-R Mark Kiger** (.238/.318/.323/.234/NA)

* Career rates, including 2006
** Translated minor league career rates, including 2006

Tigers

INF-R Omar Infante (.277/.325/.415/.259/5.8)
C-R Vance Wilson (.283/.304/.441/.249/1.9)
INF-B Neifi Perez (.243/.260/.316/.198/-13.2)
OF-L Alexis Gomez (.272/.318/.388/.255/1.0)
INF-R Ramon Santiago (.225/.244/.262/.182/-5.0)

Leyland ignored his bench in four games against the Yankees, and will almost certainly try to do the same here. Beyond blowout duties and spot work for injuries in-game, the only Tigers he might find reason to use would be Infante or Wilson. Infante might get a spot start at third base if Inge continues to struggle, but that's pretty minor, and any chance of Infante's starting at second ahead of Polanco has probably been scotched by Polanco's nifty ALDS against the Yankees. Leyland didn't use his bench for much tactically this season; you might see Gomez pinch-run for Magglio Ordonez late in a game. While it might make sense for Leyland to use Gomez or Santiago to pinch-run for Pudge in the bottom of the seventh at home or top of the eighth on the road, there's the legend of Pudge's postseason greatness to confront in making such a move, and I doubt Leyland's willing to do that, regardless of his having the quality backup backstop in this series.

Beyond the alread-discussed Kielty gambit, the A's bench is almost as easily ignored as the Tigers', even before Ellis' injury. Spotting Johnson for Payton against Verlander (.279/.342/.462 versus lefties) or Bonderman (.284/.350/.472) might make some sense (with Swisher moving out to left field), but Johnson's struggles before and after his demotion don't make it an easy call, and Comerica's wide open spaces might further discourage Macha from taking Payton's glove off the field. Bocachica might get called upon to pinch-run, but other than for Thomas in the ninth inning or perhaps for Jimenez at some point, it's more likely that the right situation to use him might never arise.

As far as replacing Ellis, Kiger's not a prospect at 26; you may remember him from such drafts as the much-ballyhoo'd 2002 Moneyball Rule 4 extravaganza, when he was the fifth-round pick out of the University of Florida. A college shortstop who has grown up to become organizational infield filler, Kiger's glovework at any position is best described as workmanlike. Offensively, he's the organization-standard patient hitter, walking in 12% of his PAs this season; if there's anything else worth mentioning, it's that he slugged .531 against lefties between Midland and Sacramento. Don't expect to see much of Kiger, though there's always a chance Macha could gets as frustrated with Jimenez in a week as most teams seem to get to in about a half-season.

Rotations (ERA/IP/SNLVAR)

Athletics

LHP Barry Zito (3.83, 221.0, 6.1)
RHP Esteban Loaiza (4.89, 154.2, 2.2)
RHP Dan Haren (4.12, 223.0, 5.3)
RHP Rich Harden (4.24, 46.2, 1.4)

Tigers

LHP Nate Robertson (3.84, 208.2, 5.7)
RHP Justin Verlander (3.63, 186.0, 6.1)
LHP Kenny Rogers (3.84, 204.0, 5.5)
RHP Jeremy Bonderman (4.08, 214.0, 5.3)

Cheating with stats is one of the things that make people chary about their utility. You could, for instance, note that Robertson failed to log a quality start in either of his games against the A's this season, but the first of those games saw him make an Earl Weaver Special-sized mistake to Jay Payton in the sixth, and the second saw him blow the quality start in the seventh once the game was already won. I wouldn't suggest either game has greater predictive value than his logging nine quality starts in his last eleven before his playoff shellacking by the Yankees--and the A's aren't the Yankees when it comes to offensive juggernaut status.

Robertson is merely the first of three power pitchers the Tigers can plug in against the A's, with Verlander and Bonderman belching flames from the right side to match Robertson's southpaw heat. If Macha plays both Kotsay and Chavez against Robertson, as he was willing to risk against Johan Santana, that bodes ill for the A's chances of scoring much; Robertson held his fellow lefties to .181/.221/.269. Verlander and Robertson might have their problems against the A's lefty-tilting lineups, but if both keep the Big Hurt quiet in three at-bats in their starts, they'll have short-circuited a lot of Oakland's ability to put up crooked numbers.

Preseason concerns that Leyland would overwork Verlander and Bonderman were overstated, as he's been relatively cautious with each of them down the stretch. However, both were far from consistent in the second half. Verlander did rise to the occasion with three great stretch starts against the White Sox, Angels, and Twins, but his other seven starts since August 1 weren't good. Against the A's, he had a bad day in April, allowing Swisher to go yard twice, but he followed up with an excellent pair of July starts against them. If he's got his curve working as well as the fastball, he shouldn't struggle nearly as much as he did against the Yankees. Bonderman struggled down the stretch, giving up 85 hits in 68.2 innings, and 5.5 runs per nine, but a 60-23 K-BB ratio suggests he was perhaps unlucky more than tired, and his outstanding work against the Yankees makes it look like he still has something in the tank.

The confrontation that will really bear watching is Game Three, when the Gambling Man toes the rubber against the A's. Unlike the youngsters he's surrounded by, he's not generally troubled by facing opposite-handers, except for Frank Thomas, who has always had Rogers' number: on his career, Thomas has pulped Rogers at a .345/.403/.724 clip, and struck out only four times in 64 at-bats plus walks. Will Leyland have Rogers pitch around Thomas? Will he risk complete confidence in his veteran ace? Will Macha put Chavez (.204/.306/.296 career versus Rogers) in the fifth slot behind Thomas?

The A's feature the same sort of mix--three relatively young hard throwers, and one well-seasoned vet. The difference is that while we can speculate about whether or not the Tigers' kids might be unreliable, there's no way to know what the A's are going to get from Harden in Game Four, and there's reasonable fear about what they might get out of Loaiza any given day. If they're lucky, the Tigers will be as impatient as the Twins were, so the handicaps of not knowing what they'll get out of Loaiza--crafty veteran dealing strikes, or three frames of chuck-and-duck? Harden's health, ability to throw consistent strikes, and ability to go even five innings into a pokey-paced playoff game are all open to question. That's not all bad news, but a lot is riding on Macha's ability to identify when to take either pitcher out of games before things get ugly, instead of after.

For the A's, a lot depends on what they get out of Zito and Haren. If both again provide winnable ballgames, the A's are in this series. The Tigers are impatient enough to be diced up by Zito's various flavors of bending junk and Haren's more basic power assortment. Zito only faced the Tigers once in the teams' three regular season series, back in April, and pitched well enough to win. Haren can be gotten to early, but if he gets past some of the problems he seems to have the second time through a lineup, he's usually cruised from that point. It's a dangerous thing for the A's, because if the Tigers KO him early in Game Three, the road trip to Detroit could be a season-ender, because with Loaiza and Harden both on short leashes, Games Two and Four may end up placing an already-heavy burden on the pen. Ideally, this is where either Joe Blanton or Kirk Saarloos will help out in a long relief role, eating innings as needed to preserve the pen for late-game work.

Bullpens (IP, ERA, WXRL)

Athletics

RHP Huston Street (3.31, 70.2, 3.3)
RHP Justin Duchscherer (2.91, 55.2, 3.6)
LHP Joe Kennedy (2.31, 35.0, 1.9)
RHP Kiko Calero (3.41, 58.0, 2.4)
RHP Chad Gaudin (3.09, 64.0, 1.6)
RHP Joe Blanton (4.82, 194.1, 0.0; 2.9 SNLVAR)
RHP Kirk Saarloos (4.75, 121.1, 0.0; 1.7 SNLVAR)

Tigers

RHP Todd Jones (3.94, 64.0, 2.3)
RHP Joel Zumaya (1.94, 83.1, 5.0)
RHP Fernando Rodney (3.52, 71.2, 2.2)
LHP Jamie Walker (2.81, 48.0, 0.7)
LHP Wil Ledezma (3.58, 60.1, 0.1)
RHP Jason Grilli (4.21, 62.0, 0.1)
RHP Zach Miner (4.84, 93.0, 0.0)

Both bullpens had the benefit of rotations that could pitch lots of innings, as the A's finished fourth in starter innings pitched, the Tigers seventh (in all of baseball). As a result, neither pen is creaking from overuse, and both are pretty good outfits, some cosmetic considerations aside.

By now, we already know that Todd Jones is nobody's perfect idea of a closer, and that Zumaya is. Beyond that big-name duo, the Tigers also have a second pair of pretty solid weapons available in Walker and Rodney. Walker's a functional situational lefty who seems likely to draw a sixth- or seventh-inning matchup with Eric Chavez in almost every game of the series, but Chavez has beaten Walker in the past (3-for-10 with a homer), and an early failure to get the A's third baseman might radically change the dynamics of Leyland's pen usage patterns. Rodney had a great start and a solid finish to his season, but a rough July (12 runs allowed in 6.2 innings) seems to have helped some people overlook him; he'd be a top-shelf setup man or a solid closer on a lot of clubs.

The question remains whether or not Jones is really somebody you want to give a particularly tough save opportunity to. It's already pretty obvious he doesn't fool people or overpower them--he's just here to log saves. Will that be enough against an A's team that works counts and might push him past ten or fifteen pitches? The Tigers would be better off piling on as much as possible before the ninth, and avoid having to find out.

The A's pen is deeper than the Tigers, even if Street is less than 100%. A good indication of how some closers have an automatic advantage over hitters is their limited exposure against individual hitters; no Tiger hitter has seen Street four times on his career, and the only Tiger hitter to get a hit off of the closer is Alexis Gomez. Between Duchscherer, Gaudin, and Calero, the Tigers haven't had much success against any of them, and for situational lefty chores, Kennedy might be a bit of overkill if Macha's looking to get Granderson out with runners on base.

Even with Zumaya's opportunity to generate some ridiculously impressive feats of strength on the mound, this is an area where the A's have a clear advantage here. They need it.

Defense

The Tigers ranked second in baseball in Defensive Efficiency, meaning that they were outstanding at turning balls in play into outs, and in a big barn like Comerica, that's a happy thing indeed when their pitchers aren't overpowering people at the plate. The A's weren't terrible as a defensive unit, ranking a decisively mediocre 15th, but it's clearly a point of distinction in the Tigers' favor. As far as infield defense, although neither shortstop is going to summon up visions of Ozzie Smith, both teams were good at converting doubleplays, with the Tigers turning the trick 14.5% of the time (fifth in MLB), and the A's 14.1% (eighth). That's going to come up a good bit, because the Tigers don't run well, and the A's really shouldn't put Pudge Rodriguez to the test after he gunned down just one more than half of the 51 potential thieves who gave base-swiping against him a shot.

As far as more minor tactical considerations, at the hot corner, both Chavez and Inge discourage attempts at bunts down the third base line. In the outfield, neither team has a problem player or an especially weak arm. Sure, Ordonez doesn't range around in right the way he used to, but he's not a liability, and he and Monroe both throw well from the corners. Granderson has shown much better range than was initially expected of him from scouts, but if it ever comes up, he can be run on; in contrast, Kotsay has a reputation for sound play and a better arm.

Managers

I've already touched on a lot of what either manager's been willing to do during the regular season, and what we might be able to anticipate. Leyland's probably underrated in sabermetric circles over ancient sins like getting bunt-happy with Jay Bell during the other Bush presidency... suffice to say that things have changed since then. His capacity to motivate was mocked by at least one chronicler of the 1997 Marlins, but it still seems to impress people inside of out and out of a clubhouse, and it's not something we should dismiss--we just can't say how much or whether it matters.

Macha gets pegged as an automaton, but that's shorthand for a press ready to apply labels to a Beane manager. Instead, Macha deserves a lot of credit for managing this team through some potentially debilitating injuries in the bullpen early, the lineup late, and the rotation all year, juggling a constantly-changing assemblage of talent while not riding some of his key players into the ground. With Chavez, Thomas, Harden, and Street all ambulatory and playing, you can credit the A's medical staff, and you can credit the players, but you should also give some credit to Macha for keeping them to workloads they could handle. Still, the nature of the specific platoon issues for three of the Tigers' four starters will force Macha to make an impact with his lineup cards, and until they're turned in, there's no way to know if he'll potentially compromise his defense to get Kielty in against Robertson, or risk what Johnson might be able to offer against Verlander or Bonderman. If he takes no risks, he'll be making life significantly easier for the Tigers' starters.

Predictions

I guess I can't shake the feeling that this series is really going to turn on what happens in Games Two and Four, because overall, the lineups are well-matched, the pens both have their virtues, and the top pairs of starters that each team will put on the mound in Games One and Three make for matchups that could go either way. While the Tigers have significant rotation matchup advantages in the second and fourth games, the A's have to hold onto the hope that their matchups with the Tigers pen in games they're trailing aren't that harmful to their chances--Walker may not be that much of a weapon against them, and any game in which they face Jones with a one-run lead isn't a lost cause. In contrast, if the A's can keep the Tigers' offense in check, they have the pen to close out a lead much more handily.

So it's a close series on the face of it, and in a close series, improbable and permanently depressing little things can come up and bite you. A's fans have learned to fear unlikely heroes on other people's teams, and I guess I look at the fact that Polanco's gone 19-for-37 against the four A's starters, and I just expect that he'll be enough of a pest to become an honorary Hatcher, joining Billy and Mickey in the history of East Bay villains. I'll make a guess that Polanco's going to become a household name, and spray singles all series. Expect one A's game-winning rally off of Jones and one blowout win, pitching gems from Zito and Bonderman, and a six-game Tiger series win when the A's can't dodge the Loaiza bullet once their pen gets worn down within the series.

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

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