ALDS Preview: A's should survive Tigers in matchup of surging teams
The Division Series matchup between Detroit and Oakland pits the team most heavily favored to win its division prior to the 2012 season, the now back-to-back AL Central champion Tigers, against the 2012 division winner no one saw coming, the A's, who took the AL West title for the first time since 2006.
Despite that, these two teams followed surprisingly similar paths to the division title. Both were roughly .500 teams in the first half (the Tigers were 44-42, the A's 43-43), but much better in the second half (Tigers 44-32, .579; A's 51-25, a major league best .671) and both had to make up big September deficits to clinch their division. Detroit trailed the White Sox by three games with 16 to play and Oakland was five back of Detroit with nine games remaining and didn't sit alone in first place until beating the Rangers in Game 162.
Max Scherzer, who will start Game 4 for the Tigers (if necessary), led the American League in strikeouts per nine innings this season and went 11-2 with a 2.45 ERA across 16 starts from mid-June to mid-September. His final three starts, however, were compromised by a sore deltoid muscle in his pitching shoulder. On Sept. 18, he was removed after just two innings due to soreness in his right shoulder and a steep drop in velocity. Taking his next scheduled turn on Sept. 23, Scherzer gutted out five innings by leaning heavily on his off-speed pitches, but his velocity was down even further, with his fastball a full four miles per hour below his usual 95 miles per hour.
Scherzer was subsequently scratched from his next start, and almost missed his final turn on the final day of the season after a teammate stepped on his right ankle in the team's division-clinching celebration. Scherzer did wind up making that start, however, and threw 75 pitches across four innings, recovering much of his lost velocity with a fastball that averaged 93.7 miles per hour per TexasLeaguers.com.
He'll have had six days of rest if the series gets to Game 4, which can only benefit his sore shoulder and ankle, but there still has to be some concern about just how effective he'll be in a game in which the Tigers could be facing elimination. Indeed, the fact that the Tigers have opted to schedule him for a game that might not even be played despite the fact that he could have pitched Game 3 on an extra day's rest would seem to suggest that the team also lacks full confidence in the man who served as a second ace for most of the second half.
Miguel Cabrera just won the first Triple Crown in 45 years, so the A's top priority in this series has to be to keep Cabrera from beating them. That's easier said than done, of course, particularly given that if they chose to pitch around Cabrera, they're going to run right into Fielder, who hit .313/.412/.528 this season with 30 home runs and 108 RBIs of his own. Enter Blevins, who has held lefties to a .182/.248/.327 line in 125 plate appearances this season and struck out Fielder in their only career confrontation back in May.
Fielder, meanwhile, hit just six of his 24 home runs (25 percent) off lefties this year despite facing them in 36 percent of his plate appearances. Fielder also posted an OPS more than 200 points lower against lefties than righties and struck out roughly 50 percent more often against southpaws. Oakland rookie reliever Sean Doolittle is also left-handed, but had a big reverse-split this season, with lefties hitting .286/.318/.476 against him in the admittedly small sample of 67 plate appearances; he has settled into a non-matchup set-up role. That leaves the job of neutralizing fielder to Blevins, and makes choosing the perfect situation in which to deploy him one of Bob Melvin's primary concerns with regard to in-game strategy.
With Cabrera and Fielder in the heart of their lineup, the Tigers give the impression of being the power-hitting team in this series, but the A's actually out-homered Detroit by a large margin this season, 195 to 163. Most of that difference came in the second half of the season, when Oakland hit 112 homers to the Tigers' 81. To put that another way, the A's hit 38 percent more home runs than Detroit after the All-Star break despite playing their home games in a ballpark in which it is harder to do so (home run park factors over the three-year span from 2009 to 2011 per The Bill James Handbook: Comerica Park, 97; The Coliseum, 83).
The A's 25-man roster includes 12 rookies, four platoons and just seven players who appeared in a game for Oakland in 2011. The entire starting rotation was comprised of rookies down the stretch in the regular season, though veteran Brett Anderson, a 24-year-old who made just six starts this season because of injury and is working his way back from an oblique problem, was added to the staff for this series. The other seven rookies include the everyday leftfielder (Yoenis Cespedes) and third baseman (Josh Donaldson), righthanded platoon first baseman (Chris Carter) and catcher (Derrek Norris), and the team's two primary set-up relievers (Doolittle and righty Ryan Cook).
What's more, the players who led the team in games started at catcher, second base, and third base this season (Kurt Suzuki, now with the Nationals, Jemile Weeks, whose struggles landed him on the bench, and Brandon Inge, who is out for the year with a shoulder injury) are not on the roster, and the player who led them in starts at shortstop, Cliff Pennington, is now part of their second base platoon having been pushed over by the late-August acquisition of shortstop Stephen Drew.
As for those platoons, by far the most successful has been the one at first base, where 29-year-old journeyman Brandon Moss (the lefty) and 25-year-old rookie Carter have hit a combined .267/.354/.559 with 37 home runs in 556 plate appearances since taking over the position in early June. Meanwhile, if you look only at what DH platoon partners Seth Smith (the lefty) and Jonny Gomes (the righty) have done against opposite-handed pitching, you get a .273/.373/.491 line with 23 home runs in 557 PA. The platoons at catcher and second base, both of which came into existence toward the end of August, have been less effective.
This series pits one of the best-fielding teams in baseball, the A's, against one of the worst, the Tigers. Looking at team defensive efficiency, which is simply the rate of turning balls in play into outs, Oakland ranked third in the majors this year, behind only the Angels and Mariners, while Detroit ranked 26th, ahead of only the Astros, Royals, Brewers, and major league-worst Rockies. Using Baseball Prospectus's Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, which helps correct for the extra opportunities the A's get with all of that foul territory in the Coliseum, drops the Oakland to fifth, but also drops the Tigers to 26th.
Looking at the percentages, it may not seem all that significant that the A's turn roughly 2.7 percent more balls in play into outs, but consider that this year the average American League team put 26 balls into play per game (not counting home runs, which are considered out of play), so that 2.7 percent translates to a difference of more than three outs over the course of a five-game series in which every out is precious. Given how fielding gaffes can loom large in the postseason, it wouldn't be surprising to see this series turn on a ball hit by Oakland that should have been converted into an out but wasn't.