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October 6, 2012
Athletics-Tigers Division Series Preview
It’s difficult to say which is more surprising: that Oakland made the playoffs at all, or that Detroit did so only because Robin Ventura dragged a rotting White Sox carcass across the finish line with just four wins over their final 15 games. Despite being predicted by all but one BP writer to finish the season atop the AL Central, Detroit enters the playoffs with the worst record of the bunch—a full five wins below both AL wild cards. Oakland, on the other hand, was predicted to finish in the basement of the AL West, below even the Mariners. After winning their final six games, however, they secured the number-two seed in the playoffs. We’re sure to see this matchup billed as youth versus experience, with Oakland’s young rotation and breakout hitters pitted against the veteran wiles of Miggy, Fielder, and Verlander.
The star power clearly resides in the middle of the Detroit order, but Oakland has kept up with the Tigers all year overall, accumulating a .266 TAv to Detroit’s .268. Yoenis Cespedes has proven to be a shrewd offseason signing, showcasing better plate discipline than most expected while bringing exactly the power and speed we knew he’d display. The biggest story, however, may be Josh Reddick—who emerged as a veritable middle-of-the-order threat with 31 home runs—or Brandon Moss, who blasted 21 homers in just under 300 PA and will start every game against the all-righty Detroit staff. Late-season additions Drew and Donaldson help round out what figures to be a formidable Oakland offense.
Detroit’s offense hasn’t been as quite as explosive as many expected (sixth in TAv, 11th in runs scored), but that can’t be blamed on Prince Fielder, who has formed one of the league’s most imposing three-four duos with Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera. Unheralded in this offense have been Andy Dirks and Quintin Berry, neither of whom began as starters (or even in Detroit, in the case of Berry). They provide solid production in flanking Austin Jackson (who’s in the midst of a career year himself) in the outfield, and mid-season acquisition Omar Infante has filled the team’s gaping hole at second base and rounded out the order nicely.
Carter and Norris start versus lefties for Oakland, but with no lefties on tap this series, they’ll ride the pine and come in to pinch-hit in the appropriate matchups. *UPDATE* Norris, surprisingly, is starting Game One. Gomes is a formidable threat at the plate himself and should see some at-bats this series.
Despite struggling this season—Leyland recently called his poor performance “puzzling”—Boesch is the team’s best bat off the bench, offers some power upside, and could earn a start in the series. *UPDATE* Boesch, surprisingly, been left off the roster. Leyland called the decision "a tough one, but I think it makes sense because we went for some versatility and pinch-runnability and things of that nature." Santiago is a capable defender at second, third, and short and could be used as a late-inning defensive replacement. Kelly has played everywhere but shortstop and catcher this season and offers the team defensive versatility off the bench. Garcia has a bit of speed and could be used to pinch-run.
Starting Pitchers (IP, ERA, FIP)
As exciting as Oakland’s young rotation is, it’s not as good as Detroit’s. The Tigers hold the trump card in the rotation battle, trotting out last year’s MVP and this year’s (likely) Cy Young award winner Justin Verlander for the first game and (potentially) the deciding fifth game. Doug Fister proved last year was no fluke, continuing to generate groundballs while maintaining an elite 5.5 percent walk rate. Though Anibal Sanchez struggled when he came over from Miami in July, he’s adjusted well to the American League, posting a 2.27 ERA and 7.6 K/BB over his final seven starts. Not many teams can offer a pitcher of Scherzer’s quality as their number four. Jason Collette recently discussed Scherzer’s historic season, and he seems on the cusp of becoming a true ace.
Bullpen (IP, ERA, FIP)
The A’s boast the best bullpen ERA of any AL playoff team, and it’s easy to see why: Balfour, Cook, and Doolittle have been phenomenal. Plus, they’re workhorses: Balfour and Cook pitched the final five games of the season, and Doolittle the final four. If Oakland’s starters can go six innings with a lead, Detroit will have a hard time battling back. After a successful season spent mostly as a starter, Travis Blackley will serve as a longman in case any of the starters get in trouble.
Detroit simply cannot match Oakland in a game that comes down to their bullpens. The Tigers have the worst bullpen ERA of any AL playoff team, though there are certainly some bright spots. Alburquerque is a terrific reliever but only just returned from the DL and hasn’t had a chance to factor much into the team ERA. Octavio Dotel and Joaquin Benoit are quality high-leverage options, and as heart attack-inducing as Papa Grande can be, he’s still a solid stopper.
Defense is not the Tigers’ strong suit; they were the league’s fourth-worst team in defensive efficiency, both raw and park-adjusted. That said, Miguel Cabrera has not been nearly as bad as expected at third base, and the mid-season addition of Infante isn’t fully factored into those numbers. Still, don’t expect Detroit’s pitchers to get much help.
Leyland too is known first and foremost as a leader, but BP2012 says that he rests “comfortably in the upper tier of major league managers,” noting his willingness to adapt his tactics to match the personnel he’s given. Some of his lineup decisions in last year’s playoffs were head-scratching (batting Don Kelly second?), but the order he’s been running with lately is solid enough. As long as he doesn’t try to get too clever, Detroit will be in good shape.