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For the third time in the last eight years, the Tigers and the A's will lock horns in the playoffs, and for the second straight season, they will meet in the Division Series. Detroit prevailed last year in five games, taking the first two at Comerica Park and then the rubber match at the Coliseum.
Oakland, which had the better record (96-66 versus 93-69), will again have home-field advantage, but the Tigers had the better run differential this season (+172 to +142) against a stronger schedule -- Detroit played just seven games against the 111-loss Astros, as opposed to A's, who played Houston 19 times. Baseball Prospectus' third-order Pythagorean winning percentage, which adjusts for offensive and defensive run components as well as strength of schedule, ranks the Tigers as the stronger team, with a .645 projected winning percentage, as opposed to BP's .578 mark for Oakland. The A's took the season series 4-3, losing two out of three in Oakland back in April, but winning three out of four in Detroit in late August.
Here are the pitching matchups:
Game 5 at Oakland (if necessary): Max Scherzer vs. Bartolo Colon
Player To Watch: Miguel Cabrera
A year after winning the Triple Crown and the AL MVP award, Cabrera won the Triple-Slash Triple Crown by hitting .348/.442/.636, though neither his 44 home runs nor his 137 RBIs led the league this time around. That's due in part to the fact that he played in just 148 games, the lowest full-season total of his career, due to a variety of injuries -- back, abdomen, groin -- that plagued him throughout the second half of the year. After playing in 97 of the team's first 98 games, Cabrera only played in 51 of the final 64, making early exits in 24 of those and pinch-hitting just once.
While he held his own in August, Cabrera's power disappeared in September (.278/.395/.333, with one double and one homer in 86 PA). I argued several times that the Tigers would have been better off sending him to the disabled list so that he could fully heal in time for the postseason. The team felt otherwise, with manager Jim Leyland citing the look of Detroit's lineup and Cabrera's mere presence in it as a threat. On Tuesday, however, Leyland conceded that Cabrera "is playing in a lot of pain."
The A's held Cabrera in check last fall (.250/.318/.350, with no homers in 22 PA) after he demolished them in the regular season, and perhaps they learned their lesson -- he hit just .240/.345/.360 against them, with one homer in 29 PA. Within the small samples of Cabrera's head-to-head interactions with Oakland's current staff, he has never homered against any of the A's scheduled starters in this series. He's 8-for-16 with a pair of doubles against Colon, but has never faced Gray and has just three PA against Straily.
Key Matchup: Drew Smyly vs. A's lefthanded hitters
No AL pitching staff had less of a left-handed presence in 2013 than the Tigers, whose southpaws made a league-low six starts (all by rookie Jose Alvarez) and faced a total of just 803 hitters, 233 fewer than any other AL team, and 1,130 fewer than the average of the league's other 14 teams. With Phil Coke ailing, the 24-year-old Smyly may wind up as the lone left-handed pitcher on the roster, with Darin Downs (4.84 ER, .219/.265/.359 in 68 PA versus lefties) the only viable option as a second southpaw. Less of a specialist than a setup man, Smyly enjoyed a strong year out of the bullpen, with a 2.37 ERA. He struck out 9.6 per nine innings, while walking just 2.0 in 76 total innings of work. He shut down left-handed hitters (.189/.225/.246 in 129 PA), but scuffled a bit against righties (.242/.295/.404 in 174 PA).
That's important, because one major reason why the A's have succeeded in each of the past two years is manager Bob Melvin's devotion to the platoon advantage in his lineups. While injuries and in-season additions cloud the picture, this year he has generally deployed platoons at catcher (righties Derek Norris and Kurt Suzuki and lefty Stephen Vogt taking over for the injured John Jaso), first base (righty Nate Freiman and lefties Brandon Moss and Daric Barton), second base (switch-hitter Alberto Callaspo and lefty Eric Sogard) and a rotating cast of designated hitters, with switch-hitters Jed Lowrie and Coco Crisp playing every day.
Thanks to all of that, Oakland's hitters batted against opposite-handed pitchers in 70.4 percent of their plate appearances this year, second in the AL behind the Indians' 70.5 percent; by contrast, Tigers hitters had the platoon advantage just 56.5 percent of the time, which ranked 10th in the league. When A's hitters did have that advantage, they hit .268/.342/.443 for the league's second-highest OPS despite playing in a pitcher-friendly park; their 136 homers in that situation led the league. When they lacked that advantage, they hit just .221/.289/.362 for the league's third-lowest OPS and second-largest platoon differential (133 points).
Thus, it will be of particular interest to see how Leyland uses Smyly. He could be employed as a specialist against a lineup where the lefties are mainly clustered among the weaker hitters at the bottom or as a seventh- or eighth-inning setup man in front of Joaquin Benoit. Smyly could be asked to run a gauntlet of Crisp, Josh Donaldson, Lowrie, Moss and Yoenis Cespedes, where he has the platoon advantage just once but where a righty (Al Alburquerque or Jose Veras) would just twice, or he could be faced with a less-imposing slate of Josh Reddick, Vogt, Barton (or Seth Smith) and Sogard.
Stats To Know: Batter Park Factor
When Comerica Park first opened in 2000, it played as one of the league's most pitcher-friendly parks, but fence rejiggering both there and elsewhere as well as the addition of even more pitcher-friendly Target Field in Minnesota has made it more of a hitters' haven. Baseball-Reference.com's three-year Batting Park Factor for the venue is 106, meaning that it inflates scoring by six percent relative to the league, tied with Camden Yards for the second-highest BPF in the league (U.S. Cellular Field is first at 107). By comparison, the sewage-spewing Coliseum — I only wish I weren't kidding by pointing that out — is 12th in the league at 95, meaning that it reduces scoring by five percent.
That makes for the biggest contrast in venues among any first-round matchup, including the wild-card games, and it's worth bearing in mind when examining most major statistics. For example, while the Tigers ranked second in the league in scoring (4.91 runs per game), on-base percentage (.346), slugging percentage (.434) and OPS (780), they owe at least some of that to Comerica. More impressive is the fact that the A's ranked third in scoring (4.73), OPS (745) and isolated power (.165), and fourth in slugging (.419) in spite of the Coliseum. Using OPS+ or Baseball Prospectus' True Average — which expresses runs created per plate appearance on a batting average scale after adjusting for park and league scoring levels, with .260 as league average — the A's are basically on equal footing with the Tigers offensively. Both teams have a 110 OPS+, and Oakland has a one-point edge in TAv, .278 to .277.
On the flip side, the Tigers' 3.85 runs per game allowed (second in the league) was considerably more impressive than the A's 3.86 per game (third) due to those differing surroundings, a point that comes through when examining their ERA+: 117 for Detroit, 105 for Oakland. Still, park factor doesn't absolve the Tigers of all their sins on this side of the ball; their raw defensive efficiency (the rate at which they convert batted balls into outs) of .683 was virtually tied for the third-worst mark in the league, seven points below average, while Oakland's .708 led the AL. Using BP's Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, the A's were an MLB-best 3.7 percent better than average at converting batted balls into outs, while the Tigers were the AL's second-worst at −1.2 percent.
It's not exactly Mickey Stanley moving from centerfield to shortstop for the 1968 World Series, but Leyland is doing some improvising by opening up the possibility of using Jhonny Peralta — who returned from his 50-game suspension for the final three-game series — in leftfield. Aside from a brief crash course in the instructional league prior to his activation, he had never played the position as a professional prior to his return. Though deadline acquisition Jose Iglesias has cooled off at the plate (.259/.306/.348 since being acquired), he rates as a better defender at short than Peralta, no small matter especially if Cabrera's injury limits his mobility.
The Tigers have struggled to get offense from their leftfielders (.259/.325/.383 from Andy Dirks, Matt Tuiasosopo, Don Kelly et al en route to the league's sixth-worst OPS at the position), so it's understandable why Leyland might view Peralta's bat (.303/.358/.457 overall, 3-for-12 with a double since returning) as the better option. Obviously, he's a work in progress defensively, having made just two putouts in 18 2/3 innings there, but Dirks and Kelly will both be on hand to serve as defensive caddies for the late innings if Leyland decides to go in that direction.
Meanwhile, Detroit will be missing two familiar faces from its bullpen. Coke hasn't pitched since Sept. 18 due to a sore left hip flexor, and Bruce Rondon has made just one appearance since Sept. 2 due to elbow soreness, suffering a significant setback afterward. Coke was rocked for a 5.40 ERA in 38 1/3 innings this year, and lefties hit him for a .760 OPS, all of which is to say that even given the aforementioned platoon situation, the Tigers may not miss him. Rondon, a 22-year-old rookie fireballer who threw 28 2/3 innings of 3.45 ERA ball while striking out 9.4 per nine, flopped in a springtime audition as closer but worked his way into a high-leverage role once he came up for good in late June. The Tigers do have Veras among their setup stable, but without Rondon, Leyland will have to call upon someone less effective or less experienced in that role for additional righthanded support. Among the options are exiled fifth starter Rick Porcello (4.32 ERA), Alburquerque (4.59 ERA), Jeremy Bonderman (6.48 ERA) or Luke Putkonen (3.03 ERA but with just 45 2/3 major league innings under his belt in two seasons).
As for the A's, A.J. Griffin's elbow tendonitis has forced Melvin to tab Straily for the Game 4 start instead, which could actually work in Oakland's favor. The two had similarly middling ERAs this year (3.83 for Griffin, 3.96 for Straily) but the former had a much higher FIP (4.57 to 4.07, respectively) due to an astronomical home run rate (1.6 per nine) and had allowed two homers in nine PA against Cabrera. Griffin didn't make the roster, while oft-injured starter Brett Anderson, who was limited to 44 2/3 innings this year due to injuries, is in the bullpen; in 21 innings there, he had 22 strikeouts and a 4.71 ERA, the latter down from 7.24 in five starts.
Also off the A's roster are Freiman and Jaso. Freiman has just one plate appearance since Sept. 16 due to an abdominal injury; he'll be replaced by the lefty Barton, which cuts into Melvin's flexibility to platoon at first base but potentially gives him a better fielder there, with Moss moving to DH (assuming Cespedes can play the field, which may be a stretch given his sore shoulder). Jaso hit .271/.387/.372 but hasn't played since July 24 due to a concussion. The A's will carry three catchers in Vogt, Norris and Suzuki, which is overkill given the lack of a lefty starter for Detroit, but Melvin enjoys the liberty for in-game substitutions at the spot. Vogt will likely start against the righties, but Norris could be used as a pinch-hitter and Suzuki as a late-inning defensive replacement.
X-factor: Bartolo Colon
Much has been made about the excellence of the Tigers' rotation, which boasts this year's likely Cy Young winner in Max Scherzer, AL ERA leader Anibal Sanchez and 2011 Cy Young, MVP and pitching Triple Crown winner Justin Verlander. Comparatively little has been said about the A's rotation, whose configuration for this series includes just two pitchers with an ERA+ better than league average in Colon (141) and Gray (140), the latter a rookie with all of 64 innings under his belt. Thus much of the focus falls on Colon, who will start Game 1 opposite Scherzer and presumably again in Game 5 if the series goes the distance.
After missing last year's ALDS due to his 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs — an absence that could have been the difference in a tight series — the 40-year-old Colon continued his unlikely late-career resurgence by throwing 190 1/3 innings this season, his highest total since his 2005 Cy Young-winning campaign, and putting up his lowest ERA (2.65) and second-highest ERA+ (141) in 16 major league seasons. Relying almost exclusively on pinpoint placement of his two- and four-seam fastballs, which together account for 85 percent of his repertoire, he doesn't miss many bats (5.5 strikeouts per nine), but he posted the league's second-best walk rate (1.4 per nine) and was stingy with the homers as well (0.7 per nine)
Colon has made nine career postseason starts, but all of them came from 1998 through 2005, when he was a fireballer with an intact rotator cuff. He made two starts against the Tigers this year, allowing three runs and striking out five without walking a batter in seven innings back on April 12 and then throwing five innings of one-run ball with one strikeout and no walks on Aug. 29, his first start following a 15-day stay on the DL due to a groin strain. If he can pitch that well opposite Scherzer, the A's have a fighting chance in this series, but if he can't, they're in trouble, because the dropoff to the other starters is fairly steep.
Prediction: Tigers in 4