Talkin’ Baseball: ALCS

MLB’s new one off-day policy meant that John S and Tim didn’t have time to preview the Division Series this year. But now they’re back to discuss the American League Championship Series. Together, they preview the Tigers-Rangers matchup and make their predictions…

JOHN S: Alright, so I think I’m finally over the Yankees loss enough to talk about this potential LCS. First off, let’s talk about Verlander. All throughout the season, we’ve heard how Justin Verlander is the key to how far the Tigers can go. His entire MVP case seemed built around the idea that the rest of his squadron was a bunch of glorified Little Leaguers. Hopefully, though, the ALDS proved that the Tigers are actually quite good, even apart from their dominant ace. And yet there are still a few Around The Horn talking heads who insist that the Tigers only chance against Texas is if Verlander starts Games 1, 4 and 7 (which Jim Leyland won’t do). This idea seems insane to me. So just how important do you think Verlander is to the Tigers, on a scale of “C.J. Wilson to the Rangers” to “Jake Peavy to the ’05 Padres”?

TIM: Don Kelly? Ramon Santiago? Tell me these plucky kids aren’t Little Leaguers!

And is Jake Peavy to the ’05 Padres your top example? How about Steve Carlton to that 59-win Phillies team in ’72? Dude won 27 games!

I thought the reaction to Verlander’s Game 3 start against the Yankees very interesting. People who hadn’t seen him much this season were blown away by how awesome he was…even though he gave up four runs. People who had seen him loved how gritty he was. He’s clearly winning the narrative. (Can we give Delmon Young any credit for winning that game? Is Rafael Soriano taking any heat for allowing that home run? You know it’s easier to not allow a HR in a pitcher’s park than to hit a game-tying HR off Jose Valverde. Lay off A-Rod!)

Do I think Verlander has a legit shot at the MVP award? Yes. Like I said, he’s winning the narrative, as his two biggest competitors (Bautista and Ellsbury) both missed the postseason. But starting three times in the series? Not a fan. He’s never started on three days’ rest, for one, and Detroit has Doug Fister and Max Scherzer behind him (the issue to me is whether Scherzer can start Game 2 and Fister Game 3; if you’ve got to start Rick Porcello twice, that might be a problem).

And C.J. Wilson, based exclusively on the ALDS, is the worst pitcher in the Rangers’ entire organization.

 

JOHN S: Well, I was thinking of playoff teams, so the Steve Carlton example wouldn’t really work (although if Bud Selig had been allowed to introduce his dream 17 Wild Card team system in 1972…).

Maybe my circles aren’t the same as yours, but I don’t know about anyone who was “blow away by how awesome” Verlander was in Game 3. My reaction — and the reaction I saw from most people — was that he was very good, and it was impressive that the Yankees managed to get four runs off of him, but that it wasn’t quite his peak performance. And yeah, I would definitely not start Verlander three times in a series when he’s never started on three days rest before. (And, geez, did Delmon Young make an art of the cheap home run in that series or what?)

Why wouldn’t the Tigers be able to start Max Scherzer in Game 2 and Fister in 3? It seems like it would line up perfectly for them all to pitch on regular rest that way. The only issue for the Tigers would be Scherzer–whose home/road splits suggest he REALLY benefits from Comerica–pitching in Arlington. Texas may hit him much better than New York did…

 

TIM: Is this the space to mock the extra Wild Card? I doubt it. I don’t want to run too long.

Of course our circles aren’t the same, John. I mean, do you even USE Google+? And a bit ironic for you to complain about cheap home runs, given your team’s postseason history.

My issue with Scherzer is that he did pitch Thursday, and I imagine that 1 1/3 innings were more strenuous than his usual bullpen session. It’s unfortunate that he would get stuck with Games 2 and 6, where he’d be on the road for both given those splits (3.80 at home, 5.23 on the road). It does fit that baseball’s preeminent heterochromatic pitcher would have severe splits, am I right? (Max Scherzer is the only baseball player I’d be OK with Mila Kunis dating, for this reason alone.)

I’d expect the Rangers to hit most of Detroit’s pitchers harder than the cold Yankees did. Even with Josh Hamilton having a relatively down season (based off last year), the lineup is better with Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli extending it. Which leads me to two questions: 1. Does Adrian Beltre have a Hall of Fame case? 2. Is Mike Napoli the most underappreciated catcher of our time, or does his poor play behind the plate mitigate such a distinction?

 

JOHN S: (For readers who don’t know, “heterochromatic” means you have two different color eyes. Unlike Tim, I do not assume that is general knowledge…)

It’s true, I forgot about Scherzer’s relief performance, but I’d have to think that the Tigers would want to use him instead of Porcello, even if he maybe won’t be able to work as deep into the game.

As for your questions: 1) What?! No, Adrian Beltre does not have a legitimate Hall of Fame case. I’m not a big fan of the “he just doesn’t FEEL like a Hall of Famer” logic but, man, Adrian Beltre REALLY doesn’t feel like a Hall of Famer.  I mean, he’s a great defender, and he had one truly exceptional offensive season, but… REALLY? Adrian Beltre? In the Hall of Fame? I don’t think so.

2) As with your first question, I hesitate to make a grand declaration like “most underappreciated catcher of our time” about Mike Napoli after just one year, but this year certainly has been eye-opening. At the same time, he’s hit so well this year that I have to assume he is horrendous defensively. Otherwise why were the Angels so reluctant to give him the full-time job? And why did they ultimately trade him for VERNON WELLS? Judging catchers defensively is so tricky and involves so many things that aren’t visible to an average fan, that I’m going to defer to Mike Sciosca’s judgment about him as a catcher. Even Texas only played him behind the plate about half the time this year.

But his offense has helped make that Texas lineup a lot deeper than it was last year, when Hamilton had his career year. Here’s my question for you, though. Everyone is (rightfully) talking about the Rangers lineup, but here’s something that crossed my mind during the ALDS: Wow, the Tigers lineup is really good. Everyone knows about Miguel Cabrera, but they also have Alex Avila and Victor Martinez, and even Jhonny Peralta has been good this year. The Tigers haven’t scored nearly as many runs as the Rangers have in 2011, but is it possible that the difference is almost entirely the ballparks they play in?

TIM: Jonah Keri kind of made the HoF case for Beltre — if he has three or four more years like the one he just had. I don’t agree either, but my barriers of entry into Cooperstown are, you know, higher than Jorge Posada.

I don’t know if I agree with you on Detroit’s lineup. Obviously Cabrera is awesome; I mean, historically awesome. Barring something remarkable, he is going to the Hall of Fame. And I’ll be very interested to see where he finishes in the MVP balloting, considering his ridiculous finish put him right next to Bautista in terms of offensive numbers.) Martinez is also very good, but I’m not as onboard with the other seven. Avila has cooled down, Peralta substantially so. Young has been better with the Tigers than he was with the Twins, but that’s a small sample. He certainly doesn’t strike you as a No. 3 hitter in a pennant winner.

My biggest concern with the Detroit lineup, however, is at the top. Austin Jackson is an old-school leadoff hitter, who has great speed but strikes out a lot and doesn’t get on base. The Tigers don’t have a second hitter; is Don Kelly the answer?

Of course, saying all this, yes, the run differential between the two teams would seem to be based entirely on ballpark. Detroit scored more on the road than Texas, although the Rangers do have to play in three pitchers’ parks in their division.

My next question for you is on the Rangers rotation. Namely, is Colby Lewis the Brandon Backe of this half-decade? A mediocre regular-season starter who brings out his best in the postseason? And can Texas expect the same kind of pitching in this series against an offense that — regardless how I see it — is definitely better than the Rays’?

JOHN S: Yeah, I too will be very interested in where Cabrera ends up in the MVP voting (the whole race this year is truly fascinating to me). If I had a ballot, I’d put him at the top of it.

It perplexes me how Leyland puts that lineup together. Jackson* should not be hitting leadoff, Cabrera should probably hit third, Avila should be moved up, and Brandon Inge should only start if everyone else on the team gets the Plague.

*I usually don’t mind high strikeout totals, but Jackson’s speed makes his Ks very frustrating. I want Leyland to make him do 20 pushups every time he fails to hit a groundball, a la Lou Brown.

As for the Brandon Backe-Colby Lewis comparison, I don’t accept the premise. As you know, I don’t buy the idea that any players perform markedly better in the postseason than they do in the regular season. Even Backe only had two great starts in the postseason–we just forget about the four mediocre ones.

With that said, I still remember Lewis stunning performance in the clinching game of last year’s ALCS. But other than that, his good postseason numbers are buoyed by starts against some paltry playoff lineups, like last year’s Giants or this year’s Rays. As I hinted at, I don’t think the Tigers fall into that category, but if Lewis starts Game 3 in Detroit, then his major flaw (surrendering home runs) may be neutralized by that ballpark.

In general, though, the Tigers should be able to do a lot more against Texas pitching than the Rays did. For one, Detroit’s predominantly right-handed lineup should fair better against the left-handed trifecta of Wilson, Derek Holland, and Matt Harrison. Beyond Wilson, the rotation is seems to have a very “bend but don’t break” quality, so I expect most of these games to be decided by the bullpens. With that said, how annoying is Jose Valverde?

 

TIM: Two of Brandon Backe’s four best starts in his career came in the playoffs! And in huge postseason games!

Yeah, I meant to mention Cabrera not hitting third. That’s insane. That alone should prevent Jim Leyland from getting Manager of the Year votes. Let’s construct an ideal Tigers’ lineup:

3B Kelly

LF Young

1B Cabrera

DH Martinez

RF Ordonez

C Avila

SS Peralta

2B Santiago/Raburn

CF Jackson

Much better, right?*

*Incidentally, I’ve grown more skeptical of traditional views of the No. 2 hitter. I agree with Charlie Manuel putting Chase Utley there instead of a struggling Placido Polanco. How many teams do hit-and-runs and therefore require a guy who “handles the bat well” in that spot in the order?

If these games do get to the bullpens, how can you not favor Texas enormously? The Rangers not only added Mike Adams, Koji Uehara and Mike Gonzalez mid-season, but they also have Alexi Ogando — their best reliever not named Feliz last season — back in the bullpen for the postseason. The Tigers, on the other hand, have Valverde — whose antics I find endearing* — along with Joaquin Benoit (insert disgusting joke about the band-aid and the boil) and Al Alburquerque — another rookie whose season has faded a bit. I would venture Detroit’s bullpen is the worst unit left in the postseason (worse, that is, than any other team’s offense, defense, bullpen or rotation), and it’s what would prevent me from picking them to win this series.

*I have no qualms with players celebrating on the field, especially in Valverde’s case, when the game is over. What is wrong with enthusiasm? Football players celebrate every tackle, and yet we castigate that league for not allowing enough creative expression.

Just how did they hold on to that 3-2 lead in Game 5 at Yankee Stadium?* And are we really prepared for a world where the Texas Rangers are the two-time defending AL champions, with a good shot at maintaining that for the next few years?

*Answer: The mystique is gone.

 

JOHN S: How dare you insult the Yankee mystique! That’s Mike Lupica’s job!

That’s actually pretty close to the Tigers lineup I would use (maybe I wouldn’t put Ordonez 5th, but I’m not sure), and I think your view on the No. 2 hitter seems to be evolving along with the accepted view. Just like “high OBP” seems to have replaced “speed” as the most important quality for a leadoff hitter, the elusive “handles the bat well” seems to be fading as the most important quality for the two-spot, in favor of another high on-base guy with more power than a leadoff hitter (like Curtis Granderson, or Dustin Pedroia, or Utley).

As for the Tigers bullpen, I share some of your skepticism, but I think you have to give credit to the job they did against the Yankees. Benoit and Valverde got through some high-pressure situations, and it was as much to their credit as it was to New York’s discredit. Alburqueque wasn’t good in the division series (he couldn’t even convince Mike Francesa of his own existence!), but before that he hadn’t given up an earned run since June. His numbers over the year are very impressive — his K/9 ratio was even better than David Robertson’s.

Meanwhile, neither Uehara nor Gonzalez has been all that good for Texas since coming over from Baltimore, and Darren Oliver and Arthur Rhodes are each waiting for their next Social Security check. So it’s really Adams/Ogando/Feliz vs. Alburquerque/Benoit/Valverde. Texas still has the edge, but I’m not sure it’s as lopsided as you make it seem…

Anyway, so it seems like we’d each give the edge to Texas in the bullpen, with Detroit having the edge in the rotation, thanks mostly to Verlander. The offenses are a little trickier, but I think we both think it’s closer than it looks at first. So, let me ask you: Who ya got?

 

TIM: Francesa — not knowing who Al Alburquerque is, loving Brandon Inge. How ill-informed is he on this Tigers team?

It’s time for my patented overly specific prediction:

Verlander and C.J. Wilson each give up early runs before settling into Game 1. Terry Francona delivers some platitudes and rivals Jon Gruden for his use of “This guy” in his announcing debut, and he mentions on several occasions how much Wilson owns the Red Sox. Wilson lasts into the seventh, where he’s replaced with two on by Mike Adams, who allows a go-ahead single to Jhonny Peralta. Verlander gets an out in the eighth before walking Elvis Andrus, and Tigers fans hold their breath as Phil Coke retires Josh Hamilton — the only time he will all series. Detroit holds on for a 4-3 win.

Scherzer is blasted in Game 2. Texas wins 11-6.

Fister takes a no-hitter into the sixth in Game 3, but Derek Holland yields only a pair of Miguel Cabrera solo homers in his six innings, keeping it tight. Fister allows two runs to score in the seventh, before a Cabrera RBI single off Ogando in the eighth plates the winning run. Ron Washington is criticized for not walking Cabrera in the big spot.

Porcello is blasted in Game 4. Texas wins 23-4. (Kidding, 9-4.)

Verlander again gives up a first-inning run in Game 5, then retires 16 in a row — eight by strikeout. Wilson, though, is pitching zeroes on the other end, with several long drives dying on the warning track. Washington opts to go to Ogando again in the eighth despite Wilson’s shutout, and the Tigers open the floodgates for a five-run frame to win 5-2.

Scherzer is blasted in Game 6, but so is Colby Lewis. Porcello comes on in long relief and does a fantastic job “keeping the Tigers in the game,” according to a recovered Tim McCarver, who at this point in this series has rendered Francona comatose in the corner of the booth. The game goes back and forth, with Joe Buck’s even-more-monotone-than-before voice describing several unbelievable plays — including a rare 8-2-5 triple play pulled off by Detroit — flatly. With the game tied at seven in the seventh, Alex Avila pokes an opposite field single off Adams to push the Tigers ahead and to the World Series. They add two more in the inning, only to see Valverde load the bases with two outs. Napoli hits a long drive to right that bounces off the wall, but Don Kelly — moved to right for defense — is able to chase it down and start a remarkable 9-4-2 relay to cut down Beltre at the plate to win the series, 10-9. Buck will be unmoved.

Anything else would be uncivilized.

JOHN S: I like how your “patently overly specific prediction” includes almost as many specifics about how the game will be called as how it will be played.

Anyway, as I often do, I feel compelled to go to the other extreme in response to your behavior, so I will make all my predictions in that Japanese formal ode to brevity, the haiku:

Game 1:

Verlander is great

Wilson struggles in the fourth

The Tigers take it

 

Game 2:

The Texans tee off

Tigers cannot battle back

Leave Arlington tied

 

Game 3:

Fister good not great

Cabrera gives Detroit lead

Which Valverde blows

 

Game 4:

Leyland sticks with Rick

Who gives up four solo shots

Verlander he’s not

 

Game 5: 

With season on line

Hand ball to ace on full rest

He outduels C.J.

 

Game 6:

Young homers early

Texas bullpen shuts the door

Anticlimactic

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Tim on October 8, 2011 at 3:33 PM

    We probably shouldn’t have written this before knowing Delmon Young was going to miss the series with his oblique injury. Now my predictions are going to be way off.

    Reply

  2. […] Aught Lang Syne « Talkin’ Baseball: ALCS […]

    Reply

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