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October 4, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

ALDS Preview: Tigers at Athletics

by Sam Miller


For months, our daily Playoff Odds have given the Tigers the best chance—by a pretty wide margin—of winning the World Series. For most of the season, that was because they were the team with the easiest path to the postseason, but even now they stand above the rest. The reason is simple: The Tigers have won a lot of games, but should have won even more, according to run differential; and their run differential should be even higher than it is, according to third-order metrics. They’ve been a top-tier offense while having undoubtedly the league’s best pitching. Four of the top nine FIPs in the AL are in their rotation. Playing in a traditionally soft division hasn’t kept them from pushing to get better, and the investments they’ve made in recent years—massive extensions for Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, big contracts for free agents Prince Fielder and Anibal Sanchez, and relatively heavy expenditures on bullpen help—have all worked out, so far.

The Athletics, meanwhile, have been the league’s best team over the past two years. That includes, remember, a terrible first half of 2012; since July 1 of that year, they’ve played at a 101-win pace. Unlike the Tigers, they don’t have anybody your Aunt Margaret has heard of (unless your Aunt Margaret is a fantasy junkie with a team named Cespedes for the Rest of Us). They rely on depth, platoons, flexibility, bullpen reclamations, and young starting pitchers who all seem to throw strikes from the word go. If the Tigers are a bold-faced stars-and-scrubs roster, the Athletics are a team that uses the entire page, margins and all, to squeeze in as much as possible. With a few exceptions—notably, the A’s don’t have the chemistry Gods Brandon Inge and Jonny Gomes this year—this is a faithful replay of last year’s ALDS, which Detroit won in five.

Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv)

Tigers
CF-R Austin Jackson (.272/.337/.417/.271)
RF-R Torii Hunter (.304/.334/.465/.285)
3B-R Miguel Cabrera (.348/.442/.636/.365)
1B-L Prince Fielder (.279/.362/.457/.290)
DH-S Victor Martinez (.301/.355/.430/.274)
LF-R Jhonny Peralta (.303/.358/.457/.286)
2B-R Omar Infante (.318/.345/.450/.277)
C-L Alex Avila (.227/.317/.376/.246)
SS-R Jose Iglesias (.259/.306/.348/.230)

Athletics
CF-S Coco Crisp (.261/.335/.444/.291)
3B-R Josh Donaldson (.301/.384/.499/.321)
SS-S Jed Lowrie (.290/.344/.446/.289)
LF-L Brandon Moss (.256/.337/.522/.325)
DH-R Yoenis Cespedes (.240/.294/.442/.275)
RF-L Josh Reddick (.226/.307/.379/.259)
2B-S Alberto Callaspo (.270/.350/.409/.283)
1B-L Daric Barton (.269/.350/.375/.297)
C-L Stephen Vogt (.252/.295/.400/.250)

The top six offenses in the American League (which includes the A’s and the Tigers) were separated by just three points of True Average, and each could almost certainly find some statistical boundaries to make the case that they were truly the league’s best collection. The Tigers, though, had to scrap for runs in September, scoring just 3.7 runs per game while producing 54 fewer points of OPS than in their second-worst month of the season. Streaks disappear about the time you notice them, but this might be no mere streak. Miguel Cabrera, excelling through pain for much of the season, did see his production plummet late. In the Tigers’ 27 games (six of which Cabrera sat out), he hit .278/.395/.333. Despite a heavy right-handed tilt, the Tigers were actually better against righties than lefties this year, with Hunter, Jackson, and Infante all showing minimal or reverse platoon splits. Cabrera, meanwhile, has been better against righties for some time now, and has baseball’s best OPS against righties over the past half-decade. Alex Avila, a notable disappointment, hit .303/.376/.500 in a rebound second half. Victor Martinez, another notable disappointment, hit .361/.413/.500 in a rebound second half. Peralta is back in the lineup but, without the chance to play rehab games, will have to prove he’s back at game speed; if he looks late, Andy Dirks might start against an all-RHP Oakland rotation, which would benefit the defense but, given Dirks’ performance against righties, perhaps not the offense. The Tigers are the worst baserunning team by a mile.

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