MLB Postseason Preview: Tigers vs. Athletics

Detroit Tigers (88-74) at Oakland Athletics (94-68)

OVERVIEW

Two division winners that actually trailed their divisions for most of the year face off in this series, though each team took a different path to its comeback. The Tigers were expected to win the AL Central, but underperformed all year and then snuck in when the White Sox lost 11 of their last 15 games. The A’s, on the other hand, surprised people be staying competitive all year, and ultimately finished ahead of both the Angels and the Rangers in what was probably the league’s toughest division.

LINEUPS

Obviously, Detroit has Miguel Cabrera, the first Triple Crown winner in 45 years and one of two serious MVP candidates in the AL this year.* Behind him, the Tigers have now added Prince Fielder, who justified his $214 million contract (as much as such a thing can be justified): Fielder’s numbers were great this season, if slightly less extraordinary than Cabrera’s. After those two, though, there is a considerable drop-off. It is what Jonah Keri likes to call a “Stars and Scrubs” lineup—the team was only sixth in runs scored despite having two of the best three hitters in the league (by OPS+). Jhonny Peralta returned to his subpar form, Delmon Young couldn’t maintain his production for a full year, Alex Avila took a big step back, etc. Austin Jackson had a breakout year and Andy Dirks shouldn’t be overlooked, but stopping this lineup is really about stopping Cabrera/Fielder.

*It only shows how great a hitter is that this was probably Cabrera’s worst offensive season in three years.

If Detroit’s lineup only has two guys who should scare you, Oakland’s has only one: Yoenis Cespedes.* The Cuban import is the best all-around hitter in a weak lineup. But the A’s have managed to piece together runs with a lineup of guys who can do at least one thing pretty well: Brandon Moss hits righties well, Josh Reddick has a ton of power, Coco Crisp has speed, and Jonny Gomes (Jonny Gomes!) has put together a surprisingly impressive season. Oakland obviously relies on its pitching staff to win, but the lineup is no longer the impotent force it was in years passed.

*It’s ironic that in a year with two prominent AL “rookies”—Cespedes and Yu Darvish—who were actually professionals for several years abroad, it’s 20-year-old Mike Trout who’s running away with the Rookie of the Year award.

ROTATIONS

You almost have to feel bad for Justin Verlander. Though he’s the reigning Cy Young winner and MVP, he’s set the bar so high for himself that nobody thinks much when he turns in a 17-8 record with a 2.64 ERA and 239 strikeouts. Still, he’s the best starter left pitching the AL, and that’s a huge advantage for the Tigers if the series goes five games. Moreover, Detroit’s rotation is deeper than ever before now. Doug Fister was nearly as dominant as Verlander in the second half, including a game where he struck out a record-setting nine in a row. Anibal Sanchez has been solid since he was picked up in July, and Max Scherzer led the AL in strikeouts per nine innings. The weakness in this staff is in the bullpen now, where Jose Valverde has blown five saves and seemed very hittable all year.

Oakland, meanwhile, had the second-best staff in the AL this year (man, Tampa Bay was absurdly good; if only the Rays could hit…), largely due to a brilliant bullpen. What’s amazing is that the A’s traded the only two starters who gave them over 200 innings last year—Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez, who might win the Cy Young in the NL this year—and still allowed fewer than four runs per game this year. Perhaps it’s not right to call the staff “dominant,” since it has no real Cy Young candidate, no clear ace, and only three guys who even threw over 150 innings (one of whom, Bartolo Colon, will not be available for the division series for, um, some reason). What defined the rotation was consistency from whomever happened to be starting, from rookie Jarrod Parker to call up A.J. Griffin to Twitter star (and recently injured) Brandon McCarthy, and dominance from the bullpen, where Grant Balfour closed games behind young guys like Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle. It looks like Brett Anderson, who only started six games this year, will be ready for a start in this series, along with Parker, Griffin, and Tom Milone.

 

Lingering Questions (from TIM)

 How was Cabrera able to win the Triple Crown despite having, as you mentioned, kind of a down year? His on-base percentage dropped 54 points from 2011.

Well, obviously the Triple Crown depends on the rest of the league. Cabrera led the AL in hitting last year as well, and with a better average. But Jose Bautista wasn’t hurt, so he had more home runs than Cabrera. This was actually the first time Cabrera hit more than 38 home runs in a season, a statistic that surprised me since he’s been the best overall hitter in the AL since being traded to Detroit. Cabrera’s last three seasons are really pretty extraordinary. I know the argument against him as the MVP, and I’d probably vote for Mike Trout if I had a vote. But I almost think Cabrera’s entitled to some kind of lifetime achievement award.

 

One of last postseason’s themes was that starting pitching didn’t matter much. One of the 2010 postseason’s themes was that starting pitching was all that mattered. How will 2012 shake out, and how integral a role will Justin Verlander play in said shaking out?

Last year’s narrative about starting pitching was mostly the result of the fact that Detroit beat the Yankees without great starts by Verlander either time. I think the narrative this year will be less Verlander-centric, simply because the narrative of the 2012 season is less Verlander-centric than last year’s was. As I noted above, he was nearly as good this year as he was last year, but he’s certainly not going to repeat as MVP, and I think David Price will probably win the Cy Young (just because repeating usually requires a better year than the first time).

The narrative of the playoffs is, to be blunt, almost always wrong. One year starting pitching is all that matters, then it’s the bullpen, then it’s who’s hot at the end of the year, then it’s chemistry. The search for narratives in these games is silly, but if I had to guess this year’s narrative will be about role players: All four teams have key guys in the lineup who weren’t there at the start of the season, so no matter who wins, it’ll probably come down to a big hit from someone unexpected.

With that said, if Verlander struggles again, you can be sure to see questions about his “clutchness” and ability to pitch in the postseason, and it will be awful.

 

Are the Oakland A’s the Kentucky of starting pitching? They had more than 100 games started by rookies.

That’s an interesting question. I’d almost call them the John Calipari of starting pitching, since Oakland’s success with young starters goes beyond just this one season. Ever since they traded Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson they seem to have had great young starters who get traded before they can legally rent cars: Dan Haren, Rich Harden, Joe Blanton, and now Gonzalez and Cahill. Of course, they’ve also had a fair share of forgettable young starters, like Vin Mazzarro, Josh Outman, and Dana Eveland.

 

How upset are you that Brandon McCarthy is likely unavailable for the postseason?

Well, it will make rooting Oakland in a potential NYY-OAK matchup easier. And at least we still get his tweets.

 

How did Scherzer strike out so many guys and still give up so many runs?

Bad luck? To be fair, his ERA did fall from 4.43 last year to 3.74 this year. But his walks weren’t up and his home run rate was about what it usually is, so I suspect a lot it was really bad luck.

 

How did Jose Valverde not blow a save last year?

No idea, but the “perfect season” for a closer is kind of an overrated accomplishment. It’s often the result of an unusually lucky season. If you compare the guys who have done it—Eric Gagne, Valverde—to the guys who have not—Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman—it starts to look like a bad tool for judging closers over the long term.

 

When’s the last time a team won a playoff series while operating with platoons at like five different positions?

Well, this is probably a first. What’s weird about Oakland’s platoon system is that for a couple spots it seems basically pointless: Does shifting between Adam Rosales and Cliff Pennington at second base really add spark to the lineup? Wouldn’t it just make sense to play one of them everyday and hope the added at bats helps? With that said, Bob Melvin’s management of the lineup has been pretty good: Gomes and Seth Smith have done surprisingly well sharing time at DH, and Chris Carter and Brandon Moss have thrived at first. So who are we to judge?

 

As a Yankees fan, who would you rather see the Orioles play in the ALCS? And who will the Orioles play in the ALCS?

That hurts, Tim. As a Yankee fan, I’d rather see Oakland in a playoff series, even though the A’s are probably the better team overall. Though it would be tough to root against McCarthy, the A’s don’t really have anyone scary on their team. Detroit, meanwhile, has Cabrera, Fielder, and Verlander. If any one of those guys gets hot, it can tip a playoff series. It’s hard to think of anyone on Oakland having that kind of impact. Plus, Oakland and New York played one of the craziest games I’ve ever seen two weeks ago.

As far as who WILL win… it comes down to experience and star power with Detroit, to youth and momentum with Oakland. I think the layoff will cool the A’s hot streak, and Verlander will have a big start tonight. Cabrera will homer at least twice in the series, and the Tigers will carry the day in four games.

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