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October 8, 2011

Playoff Prospectus

ALCS Preview

by Ben Lindbergh and Derek Carty

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Why the Tigers Will Win: Detroit boasts the best pitcher (Justin Verlander) and the best hitter (Miguel Cabrera) in the series. What’s that? Baseball is a team sport, you say? Okay, so cherry-picking players might not be the most honest means of handicapping a series, and Detroit is the underdog, the usual crapshoot caveats aside. However, you have to assume that Jose Valverde will guarantee victory at the first hint of a lead. So far he’s been almost infallible, except for the bit about the ALDS not going to Game Five.

Why the Rangers Will Win: Texas is the better team. Although the standings show the Rangers with just one more win than the Tigers, the underlying statistics tell a different tale. The Rangers’ third-order record of 104-58 was the best in baseball, while the Tigers’ 92-70 tally was just the fifth-best in the American League. Much of the Rangers’ underperformance stems from their 19-24 record in one-run games, which is often attributable either to poor timing or a porous pen (or a combination of the two). After adding Mike Adams, Koji Uehara, and Mike Gonzalez at midseason and moving Alexi Ogando back to the middle innings, the Rangers are less likely to lose a battle of the bullpens than they were early in the season, especially if Detroit’s relievers continue to look as shaky as they did in the last round.  Just keep in mind that Detroit’s Benoit (2.95 ERA, 2.96 FIP) and Alburquerque (1.87 ERA, 2.08 FIP) were the best pitchers in either bullpen this year, even if Texas has the better stop stopper and more depth.

Most Glaring Contrast Between These Teams: The Rangers and Tigers don’t differ greatly in performance on the mound or in the batter’s box, ranking within two places of each other on the major-league FRA and TAv leaderboards. However, their talent levels diverge dramatically once the ball is put into play. Texas has superior speed, which makes its impact felt both in the field and on the basepaths. The Rangers finished second to the Rays in defensive efficiency (.722) and were the fourth-best baserunning team in baseball (+10.0), while the Tigers placed 18th in the former category (.708) and sixth-worst in the latter (-7.2). In every aspect of on-field action beyond the batter-pitcher confrontation, the edge goes to Texas.

Game 1 Match-up: Justin Verlander vs. C.J. Wilson
If at any point during this series Verlander throws a pitch so hard that the ball takes his arm with it on its way to the plate, Wilson would inherit the title of Best Starter in the Series, but as long as all of the ace’s appendages remain attached, Detroit has the advantage whenever and wherever the soon-to-be-reigning Cy Young Award winner appears. Verlander is slated to start on full rest in game five, though one wonders whether Jim Leyland will be more willing to deploy him in desperation than he was in the ALDS if Detroit digs itself into an early hole.

What They Throw
Verlander dominates with two fastballs (a four-seamer and a two-seamer), both around 95-mph, but the four-seamer is his bread and butter.  He also throws two quality breaking balls—a slider that’s reserved for righties and a big-breaking 11-to-5 curve—and a great change-up.

Wilson has a much more varied arsenal than you’d expect from a former reliever.  Like Verlander, he throws a four- and two-seam fastball—mixing both in pretty evenly—but he also adds a third fastball: a cutter.  His go-to breaking ball is a slider that generates a lot of whiffs against both hands, also throwing in a generic, moderately effective 1-to-7 curve and a show-me change-up.  He only throws 90, but he keeps batters off balance with his varied arsenal.

Game 2 Match-up: Max Scherzer vs. Derek Holland
The Tigers have been slightly better against lefties at the plate this season, and between Wilson, Holland, Harrison, and a pair of southpaws in the pen, they’ll be seeing plenty of them this series. Holland has developed something of a reputation for being particularly good when he’s good and especially bad when he’s bad, most likely based on his career 1.99 ERA in wins and 9.49 ERA in losses. His four shutouts (tied for the league lead with James Shields, who finished nearly three times as many games) testify to the former tendency, and the good has overwhelmingly outweighed the bad for over a month now.

What They Throw
Scherzer throws a typical three-pitch set (fastball-slider-change), and they’re all effective.   He predominantly throws his 93 mph fastball, working the other two pitches off it depending on the batter’s hand.  Against righties, he’s throws roughly five parts sliders to one part change-ups, reversing it against lefties.  I’ve long been a fan of his change, which gets ridiculous tumbling action.  While Scherzer’s ERA rose this year, that was mostly bad luck, and he made some good strides with his control.

Holland’s 94-mph sees heavy usage, approaching 70 percent of the time.  His best off-speed pitch is a sweeping slider that he throws to both hands, working it in on righties and away to lefties.  Against righties, he also throws a change-up with close to 10 mph of separation from his fastball and a slow curve, mixing them in infrequently against lefties.

Game 3 Match-up: Doug Fister vs. Colby Lewis
The Rangers are rife with players who excel against pitchers of a particular side, but overall they have little platoon split to speak of, so Fister shouldn’t be at a great disadvantage here. His ALDS ERA wasn’t pretty, but the strikeouts and walks were, much as they have been ever since Fister failed to turn into a pumpkin after bidding Safeco goodbye. Lewis led the league in home runs allowed, so starting him away from Arlington should help keep his gopher-itis in check.

What They Throw
Fister gets by more on guile and command than stuff, but he does have enough stuff to strike out his fair share of batters.  He throws two fastballs just 89 mph, but his two-seamer gets a lot of sink and a lot of groundballs.  He adds a hard slider that comes in at 86 and a loopy 12-to-6 curve that he throws 75.  His change-up is reserved mostly for lefties—also getting a lot of sink coming in on the same plane as the two-seamer—but he mixes all of his other pitches in against both hands.

Lewis lost a mph off his fastball this year, but he was still quite effective sitting at 89 with good rise.  He mixes in a cutter and a terrific slider, which is particularly nasty when thrown to righties. Like his teammate Holland, he also throws a change-up and curve almost exclusively to opposite-handed batters.

Game 4 Match-up: Rick Porcello vs. Matt Harrison
Harrison tied a career-high by striking out nine Rays in his winning Game Four effort, but he won’t find the Tigers quite so willing to whiff. (Bonus stat: the Rangers were the toughest team in baseball to strike out this season, so Porcello’s ongoing pursuit of a 20-strikeout game may have to wait until the World Series or 2012). The Tigers may have the more favorable match-up in Games One and Five, but the Rangers can counter with competitive or superior arms in every other start.

What They Throw
Harrison throws 93 mph, but he doesn’t get the kind of strikeouts you’d expect from someone with that kind of heat—still below average in that department in what was a career year.  He did manage to limit his walks, however, which is crucial to his success.  Playing off his four-seam fastball is a two-seamer with good tail and a hard 87-mph pitch that's been referred to as either a slider or a cutter.  Against righties, he throws a change-up with good tail that gets 10-mph separation from the fastballs and which has been his best swing-and-miss pitch.  Against lefties, that distinction goes to his curve.

Porcello hasn’t put up the kind of strikeout numbers expected of him when drafted, but his excellent sinker generates a lot of groundballs.  He throws a passable four-seamer to go with a good slider with tilt and a show-me 11-to-5 curve. Against lefties he also throws a whiff-inducing change with a lot of sink.

Guess the Annoying Cliché the Announcers Will Harp On: While wondering what could have been had Chip Caray called a playoff series starring Doug Fister, prepare for the possibility of some topical rigmarole about what the Rangers’ aggressive approach at the plate means for Moneyball and the turn-of-the-century A’s (who, as you might be reminded, never advanced beyond the Division Series). The Rangers’ collection of hitters can succeed without walking, but it’s no coincidence that the two teams with better offenses in baseball this year also finished with two of the top three walk rates. What’s more, Elvis Andrus aside, we’re not dealing with a bunch of slap hitters here; the Rangers hit the ball as far as anyone but the Yankees and Red Sox. In addition, the Tigers and Rangers finished third and fifth in the AL, respectively, in sacrifice bunts, so expect to hear the usual pro-small-ball platitudes while Washington and Leyland kill their run expectancies softly.

This Probably Won’t Happen But Could: Ron Washington will look at his lineup card and think, “Man, Mike Napoli is nice and all, but I wish we had Frank Francisco back. Or failing that, Vernon Wells, Jeff Mathis, and a lot less money.”

A National Audience Will Learn This About Baseball: The importance of catcher framing. The Rangers’ Yorvit Torrealba and the Tigers’ Alex Avila placed fifth and sixth, respectively, among major-league catchers in Mike Fast’s accounting of runs saved on a rate basis due to framing. Armed with that knowledge, watch the corners carefully to see how many potential balls are turned into strikes by the beguiling backstops during the series.

Series Prediction: Rangers in seven. If the Phillies’ loss last night (or their NLCS loss last season, for that matter) proved anything, it’s that having three undisputed aces doesn’t guarantee victory in a short series, so Verlander alone isn’t enough to swing the edge in this series to Detroit. Then again, that NLDS upset also served as the latest evidence that being the best team and having home field advantage isn’t a sure route to success either. The moral of the story is that series predictions, however fun, are an exercise in futility. Just ask the idiot who picked the Phillies in four.

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

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