World Series preview: Tigers rested and ready for resilient Giants
At the time of the All-Star Game, the Tigers were in third place in the AL Central, and the Giants were tied with the Mets for the sixth-best record in the NL. But the Midsummer Classic, played on July 10, apparently foretold the World Series, as the two starting pitchers were the Giants' Matt Cain (who won) and the Tigers' Justin Verlander (who lost).
Their involvement made the game's stakes (homefield advantage) especially appropriate with Detroit and San Francisco getting ready to meet in the 108th World Series. (Mercifully for baseball, the game was an 8-0 rout so the performance of the Giants' Melky Cabrera -- the All-Star MVP suspended for PED use a month later -- didn't singlehandedly determine the outcome, as the score was 5-0 before he hit the homer that won him the award.)
Both clubs played much better in the season's second half -- the Tigers' winning percentage was nearly 70 points better while the Giants improved by nearly 100 points -- and now they meet in the Fall Classic that begins Wednesday night at AT&T Park.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland insisted throughout the ALCS that Valverde -- who has allowed seven runs in 2 1/3 innings this postseason -- remained his closer but that he'd be employing a closing committee as a short-term solution. Valverde has been working with Detroit pitching coach Jeff Jones on the side to work through this rough patch.
Leyland's plan quickly morphed into riding the hot hand, which belonged to the lefthander Coke, who has thrown 7 1/3 shutout innings in the playoffs. Before Game 4 of the ALCS, Leyland said that Coke was available but that he'd prefer to give him an extra day of rest -- and then threw him two innings in a game the Tigers led by seven. But Coke had his own uneven patches this year, including a 6.35 ERA in August and September action as a lefthanded specialist.
Detroit believes Coke has the stuff to get lefties and righties out -- he began the 2011 season in the starting rotation -- but will his hot run last? Will Valverde, who saved 110 out of 118 games the last three seasons, return to form? Leyland himself noted the other day that with games in NL parks requiring the pitcher to remain in the lineup, there may be need for more relief pitchers per game, which means he could use both depending on the circumstances.
Even with closer Brian Wilson having missed virtually the entire season with an elbow injury, the Giants have no such concerns in their bullpen. In fact, the 'pen is San Francisco's one clear advantage, as its relievers -- with a great mix of lefties and righties -- have allowed only 12 earned runs in 42 innings this postseason, good for a 2.57 ERA.
Detroit's four-man rotation of righthanders has been outstanding this postseason -- a 1.02 ERA in 62 innings of work -- and all year has been especially brutal on hitters who step into the same-side box. The Tigers' Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Doug Fister ranked first, second and fourth, respectively, among qualified AL pitchers in righthanded opponents' OPS with marks of .588, .593 and .611. (Anibal Sanchez, who spent two-thirds of the season in the NL, was poor against righties with a .797 OPS against, though he held lefties to a .645 OPS.)
The Giants have Buster Posey and NLCS MVP Marco Scutaro as righthanded hitters who hit righthanded pitchers well -- both had an OPS over .820 for the Giants during the regular season -- though Hunter Pence (.658) has not been as effective.
And no big-league team had more plate appearances with opposite-handed advantage (i.e. right vs. left and left vs. right) than the Giants. Even without Cabrera, they had two other everyday switch-hitters in Angel Pagan and Pablo Sandoval, as well as backup catcher Hector Sanchez. San Francisco can also play lefthanders Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford and Gregor Blanco against the Tigers' starting staff. In AL parks they could also use Aubrey Huff as a DH.
Four-to-one is the ratio by which the Tigers lead the Giants in game-changing offensive players, defined here as hitters who had a regular-season OPS above .850. Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera (.999) highlights Detroit's list, joined by Prince Fielder (.940), Andy Dirks (.857) and Austin Jackson (.856). The Giants had only Posey (.957); the active teammate with the second-best rate was Sandoval at .789.
Similarly, the Tigers had the edge in power, having hit 163 homers to the Giants' 103; Detroit has five active hitters who slugged at least 13 while San Francisco has only one with that many. Of course, it should be noted that Giants' pitchers allowed fewer homers than the Tigers' staff did, 142 to 151.
What little offensive depth the Giants had this year disappeared with Cabrera's suspension and the club's subsequent decision not to invite him back. They have no consistently credible offensive threats on the bench, unless Huff reverts to his form of two years ago. In the Giants' nine regular-season interleague games in AL parks, their designated hitters went 7-for-35 (.200) with no extra-base hits.
The Giants' best bet, particularly given Detroit's all-righty rotation, will be to play Sanchez more, whether he's the actual DH or whether he's catching with either Posey or Belt serving as the designated hitter (and the other at first base).
It's not a perfect solution, in that Sanchez has been the personal catcher for both Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito, but they may wind up the Games 1 and 2 starters in San Francisco, meaning one or the other would only start Game 5 in Detroit.
The Tigers wrapped up the ALCS last Thursday night, meaning they've had six days to rest for the start of the World Series. That ought to be a good thing, as it sets up Verlander to pitch Game 1, whereas the Giants had to use Matt Cain in Monday's Game 7 of the NLCS; it allows Jones more time to work with Valverde; and all the players have the chance to rest and recuperate from any nagging aches and pains.
But time off between rounds of the playoffs hasn't always been beneficial. The 2006 Tigers, for instance, swept the A's in the ALCS, had six days off before playing the Cardinals in the World Series and struggled at times, highlighted by the disastrous fielding by their pitchers, who made five errors.
Two other notable examples: The 2007 Rockies had won 21 of 22 games entering the World Series but had eight days off after the NLCS and were swept by the Red Sox, who had just completed a seven-game ALCS. And, most recently, the Yankees' two hottest hitters at the end of the season were Robinson Cano (nine straight multi-hit games) and Nick Swisher (.407 with four homers in his last 16 games), yet they combined to go 8-for-70 (.114) in the postseason after three days off.