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October 12, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

ALCS Game One Preview: Tigers at Red Sox

by Paul Sporer

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Justin Verlander did Verlanderian things to push Detroit into the LCS against Boston, where history will be made as the two storied franchises meet for the first time ever in the postseason.

Tigers (Anibal Sanchez) at Red Sox (Jon Lester) 8:07 p.m. ET
PECOTA odds of winning: Tigers 43.4%, Red Sox 56.6%

Projected Starting Lineups:

Tigers vs. Lester (L)

Red Sox vs. Sanchez (R)

Austin Jackson (R) CF

Jacoby Ellsbury (L) CF

Torii Hunter (R) RF

Shane Victorino (S) RF

Miguel Cabrera (R) 3B

Dustin Pedroia (R) 2B

Prince Fielder (L) 1B

David Ortiz (L) DH

Victor Martinez (S) DH

Mike Napoli (R) 1B

Jhonny Peralta (R) LF

Daniel Nava (L) LF

Alex Avila (L) C

Jarrod Saltalamacchia (S) C

Omar Infante (R) 2B

Stephen Drew (L) SS

Jose Iglesias (R) SS

Will Middlebrooks (R) 3B

The Set-Up
This is a homecoming of sorts for Sanchez, who faces the Red Sox. While he never toed the slab for them in Fenway Park, he was signed into pro ball by Boston way back in 2001 before joining Hanley Ramirez as a principal piece in the Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell deal back in 2005. The Tigers’ rotation has been cited throughout the 2013 season as the reason to pick them in key series, and it will be tested early with Verlander and Max Scherzer being pushed to get them through the LDS. If the depth of the rotation is to play a factor, then Sanchez needs to bounce back from the trouncing he took at home against Oakland in Game Three.

The Sox were able to set up their rotation exactly as they wanted after handling the Rays in four during their LDS. That moves Lester to the fore as the de facto ace. He faced the Tigers in both series this season and pulled out a pair of wins despite just one quality effort. In late June he was knocked around for five runs in 5 2/3 innings in Motown, but he rebounded in September with seven strong, allowing just one run with nine strikeouts. One factor working against him: the Tigers are the second-toughest team in the league against lefties by OPS (the Indians edged them for the top spot, .766 to .764).

Focusing In
After allowing just nine home runs all season, Sanchez allowed three in one horrible afternoon against the A’s. While normally excellent at stifling homers, he gave baserunners free rein of the 90 feet between first and second, as well as second and third. The 25 bases stolen against him were tied with Cole Hamels for the third-most in baseball (John Lackey, 36). The Red Sox swiped 93 bases off of righties this year, fourth-most in baseball.

Most of the basestealing blame should be laid at the feet of pitchers, but catchers are hardly blameless. In fact, they take most of the heat in the media and during telecasts. Avila managed a meager 17 percent caught-stealing rate this year, ranking 82nd among the 116 catchers to suit up this season. Even if you pull out the small-sample types, he doesn’t look any better. It’s something of a chicken/egg situation, as four Tigers starters are among the top 50 in stolen bases allowed this year (that’s out of 679 pitchers who threw a pitch).

Are they that high because Avila doesn’t help, or is Avila that low because they don’t give him anything to work with when someone runs? Given that he had four years with an above-average CS rate prior to 2013, the latter seems like the right answer, as R.J. Anderson wrote recently. The Tigers must find a way to neutralize Ellsbury and Victorino atop the lineup, or else walks and singles could turn into doubles in a hurry after they advance the extra 90 feet.

We always need to be careful not to make too much of historical batter vs. pitcher matchups, since the samples are usually too small to carry much weight, but the nine hitters in Saturday’s lineup have a .381/.447/.582 line with five home runs against Lester in 150 plate appearances. Peralta and Hunter are at the high end with 32 PAs apiece. Obviously, some of that data is stale, but today’s Tiger batters still have a robust .403/.444/.552 line versus Lester in 72 PAs from 2012-2013.

Past success doesn’t guarantee performance on Saturday, but it could give the Tigers some slight advantage either in knowing a gameplan or carrying confidence to the dish. The desire to discount anything we can’t fully quantify is understandable, but it might be a mistake to completely dismiss this data. It’s not being used as a predictive measure – there isn’t enough of it to do so—but rather as a piece of the information pie that colors the matchup.

Matchups to Watch
We have an Occam’s Razor situation here, in that the most obvious answer is the right one: Cabrera vs. Lester. The A’s had a distinct plan against Cabrera: fastballs away. In fact, anything away, just as long as it was away, away, away! They threw him 68 pitches in the ALDS, and 45 were away, with 16 on the outer third of the strike zone and the other 29 in the zones surrounding that outer third.

The A’s threw just seven pitches on the inner third to Cabrera, but he sent one of them – a 94-mph heater from Sonny Gray – 372 feet over the fence for the series-winning home run. How might that alter Boston’s, and specifically Lester’s plan against him? Does the homer ensure that they will continue the steady diet of heaters away, or will they test his ability to turn on velocity inside from time to time, something he’s struggled with since acquiring his assortment of ailments?

The other matchup involves Cabrera, too. It’s his hobbled body against the speed of Ellsbury and Victorino. Will they test him by trying to bunt his way for a hit? Victorino was tied for fifth in baseball with eight bunt hits. Ellsbury had just one, but he’s had as many as 11 in past seasons, and Cabrera’s lack of mobility might encourage him to attempt some now, especially if the game is tight in the late innings.

My Prediction
Sanchez rebounds from his meltdown against the A’s, but it’s not enough as the Red Sox squeak by 4-2.

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

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