Thursday October 2nd, 2014

Tigers at Orioles

Start Time: 5:30 p.m. ET

TV: TBS

Starting Pitchers: Max Scherzer (18-5, 3.15 ERA) vs. Chris Tillman (13-6, 3.34 ERA)

At the outset of the season, nearly everyone — or at least five out of the SI staff's six "experts" — expected the Tigers to gain a berth in the Division Series. But nobody, at least on our staff, saw the Orioles coming, not even as a Wild Card team (though a certain scribe pointed to them as a potential surprise, ahem).

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While the heavily favored Rays and Red Sox slipped below .500, Buck Showalter's team ran away with the AL East, winning the division by 12 games and notching 96 victories, the franchise's highest total in 18 years and two shy of this year's major league lead. From the All-Star break onward, the Orioles went a league-best 44-24 (.647), while the Tigers slogged home with a 37-34 (.521) second half that prevented them from clinching the AL Central until the season's final day. Thus, Baltimore has home field advantage in the best-of-five series.

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The common thread between these two teams is that they're here in spite of less-than-peak performances from their top players. On Detroit's side, Miguel Cabrera couldn't match the numbers he put up during his two AL MVP-winning campaigns due to multiple nagging injuries, while Justin Verlander struggled amid flagging velocity and late-season shoulder woes, and Joe Nathan continued the Tigers' recent tradition of late-game failures. On Baltimore's side, Matt Wieters and Manny Machado were long ago lost to season-ending injuries, the latter amid a subpar season, and Chris Davis was suspended 25 games for using a banned stimulant.

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Those situations don't apply to the two Game 1 starters, however, who are both coming off strong seasons. Scherzer's won-loss record and ERA couldn't match those of his Cy Young-winning 2013 campaign (21-3, 2.90), but his home run and strikeout rates both improved (to 0.7 and 10.3 per nine, respectively); the latter ranked second in the league for the second straight year. Due in large part to an infield defense that was even shakier than last year despite Cabrera's move across the diamond and the arrival of Ian Kinsler, Scherzer's batting average on balls in play rose by a whopping 57 points (from .260 to .317), but his FIP increased just over one-tenth of a run (2.74 to 2.85). Overall, he was the fourth-most-valuable pitcher in the league via his 6.0 Wins Above Replacement.

Thanks to the Tigers' ubiquity in October, the 30-year-old righty already has 11 postseason appearances (nine starts) under his belt, posting a 3.42 ERA and an eye-opening 12.0 strikeouts per nine in 55 1/3 innings. Via BrooksBaseball.net, here's a look at what Scherzer throws:

In 2014, he has relied primarily on his Fourseam Fastball (94mph) and Change (85mph), also mixing in a Slider (86mph) and Curve (78mph). He also rarely throws a Sinker (92mph).

...His fourseam fastball has an obvious tail, generates more whiffs/swing compared to other pitchers' fourseamers, has some natural sinking action, has essentially average velo and results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers' fourseamers. His change dives down out of the zone and has slight armside fade. His slider generates more whiffs/swing compared to other pitchers' sliders, has primarily 12-6 movement and results in somewhat more groundballs compared to other pitchers' sliders. His curve results in more flyballs compared to other pitchers' curves and has little depth.

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As you'd expect, Scherzer handles righties (.232/.281/.348 in 2014) better than lefties (.242/.303/.382), which bodes well given that the Orioles' big hitters — Nelson Cruz, Adam Jones and Steve Pearce — are righties. Nick Markakis and leftfield options David Lough and Alejandro De Aza are lefties; additionally, postseason wizard Delmon Young is a righty, and so may not be in the lineup. For whatever it’s worth — i.e., not much — despite the lack of platoon advantage, Cruz (11-for-25, two homers) and Jones (9-for-18, one homer) have enjoyed small-sample success against him.

On the other side of the ledger, the 26-year-old Tillman put up a 3.34 ERA in 207 1/3 innings, significantly trimmed his home run rate relative to 2013 (from 1.4 to 0.9 per nine) and increased his groundball rate to a career-best 40.6 percent. He also lowered his walk rate, but his strikeout rate plunged from 7.8 to 6.5, so his K/BB ratio fell slightly. His 4.01 FIP wasn't much to write home about, but as a flyball-oriented pitcher backed by a strong defense — the Orioles' .706 defensive efficiency ranked third in the league, 33 points higher than the Tigers (who were 14th) — he has a history of success in limiting opponents' BABIP; his .268 mark this year was in line with his .274 career mark. He has never pitched in the postseason.

Again via BrooksBaseball.net, here's a look at Tillman's arsenal:

In 2014, he has relied primarily on his Fourseam Fastball (92mph), also mixing in a Curve using a Knuckle Curve grip (76mph), Change (83mph) and Cutter (86mph). He also rarely throws a Sinker (91mph).

…His fourseam fastball explodes on the hitter, has less armside movement than typical and has essentially average velo. His curve has an exceptional bite, generates a very high amount of groundballs compared to other pitchers' curves, has primarily 12-6 movement and has slightly below average velo. His change has slight cut action, has an extreme amount of backspin and results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers' changeups. His cutter generates more whiffs/swing compared to other pitchers' cutters, has slightly below average velo, has some natural sink and has strong cutting action.

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In 2014, Tillman showed virtually no platoon split, though he was more prone to walks and extra-base hits against righties (.225/.287/.385) while serving up more singles to lefties (.249/.307/.363) via a higher BABIP (.286 to .245). The Tigers' lineup leans heavily to the right, with Alex Avila, switch-hitting Victor Martinez, Don Kelly and Ezequiel Carrera the only significant lefthanded presences; the team was considerably more effective against lefties (.285/.339/.451) than righties (.274/.328/.417). Among current Tigers, Cabrera's 5-for-13 is the only head-to-head matchup that jumps off the stat sheet, but a closer look shows that his only two extra-base hits, a double and a homer, both came in 2009, Tillman's rookie season.

Of the two starters, Scherzer (average 6.9 innings per turn) is more likely to pitch deep into the game than Tillman (6.1 per turn), though he'll have to, given the state of the Tigers' bullpen, which resembles the Springfield Tire Fire. Nathan blew seven of 41 save opportunities en route to a 4.89 ERA with 4.6 walks per nine, top setup man Joba Chamberlain faded drastically in the second half, and Phil Coke is what passes for their lefty specialist, though he still winds up pitching more to righties (who smoked him at a .333/.394/.476 clip in 146 PA) than lefties (.257/.310/.381). Ausmus will need to integrate Anibal Sanchez, Joakim Soria and Al Alburquerque more fully into his high-leverage mix to avoid those pitfalls.

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Meanwhile, the Orioles' bullpen ranked third in the league in both ERA (3.10) and unintentional walk rate (2.5 per nine) and second in rate of allowing inherited runners to score (25 percent). They were particularly strong in the second half (2.66 ERA, 8.7 strikeouts per nine) thanks in large part to the addition of lefty Andrew Miller at the trade deadline, though he won't be of particularly great tactical use in this series due to the dearth of lefties in the Tigers' lineup and the fact that V-Mart has been eating southpaws for breakfast (.371/.430/.692 this year).

The larger point, however, is that with closer Zach Britton, setup men Darren O'Day and Tommy Hunter, the aforementioned Miller, and quite possibly Kevin Gausman, the Orioles have the deeper bullpen and the manager who's better set up to exploit it. Showalter could run rings around Ausmus in the late innings.

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