Tigers-Athletics ALDS preview: Who has the edge?
It's the ALDS. It's the Tigers. It's the A's. It's the best of five. Let's break this down.
The most intriguing match-up of the division series round? Quite possibly.
It's the AL West champs versus the AL Central champs. It's also the 2012 AL West champs versus the reigning pennant winners. The two teams have 189 wins between them, and each has legitimate designs on hoisting the World Series trophy.
Before we lay out the particulars, some words on Bob Melvin’s Oakland roster … He loves to shuffle his lineup, play match-ups and move guys around the diamond (for instance, in 2013 he’s used 13 different DHs this season, seven left fielders, six right fielders and six second basemen). That’s to say, predicting how Melvin will fill out his lineup card on a given night is a fool’s errand, so on the Oakland side of things you’ll see quite a bit of educated guesswork below with regard to who's playing what position.
Now let's get to it on a position-by-position, corps-by-corps basis ...
Catcher: Alex Avila vs. Stephen Vogt
Avila's overall numbers are dragged down by a miserable first half. After the break, though, he batted .303/.376/.500. He's not that good of a hitter, but with a career OPS+ of 108 Avila is definitely an offensive asset by catcher standards.
On the other side, we have a likely arrangement of Vogt plus platoon partner Derek Norris . However, since the Detroit Tigers will be starting nothing but (very, very good) right-handers in this series, it's likely regular duty for Vogt. On the season, Vogt's batting .252/.295/.400 overall and .256/.305/.393 against RHPs. His numbers have improved with more regular playing time, however.
As for controlling the running game, it may not be much of a consideration in this series, as the A's and Tigers ranked 11th and 15th, respectively, in the AL in stolen bases this season. All elements considered, give a slight edge to Avila.
First base: Prince Fielder vs. Daric Barton
Fielder didn't quite have a characteristic offensive season this year (his 2013 batting line of .279/.362/.457 is well below his career mark of .286/.389/.527). With that said, Fielder is still productive (120 OPS+), and he'll face all right-handed starters in the ALDS match-up with Oakland. In 2013, he's shown very little in way of a platoon split, but such single-season numbers don’t mean very much. Across the much larger career sample, he's been significantly more effective against the opposite side. As for Barton, he's a tick better than league-average with the bat, and he's a better defender than Fielder. With that said, Fielder's track record at the plate wins out rather easily.
Second base: Omar Infante vs. Alberto Callaspo
Infante this season batted .318/.345/.450 in 118 games. While those numbers are solidly above those of his typical seasons, he was fairly consistent across every month. Infante is also a plus defender according to multiple years of Ultimate Zone Rating data.
The switch-hitting Callaspo is roughly a league-average hitter once you correct for home park influences, but over his career he's been less effective from the left side of the plate. His defensive body of work is also much more of a mixed bag.
Shortstop: Jose Iglesias vs. Jed Lowrie
Iglesias is a standout defender who also has some solid overall numbers at the plate going for him. With that said, he's coming off a September in which he put up an OPS of just .551. Lowrie, meanwhile, gives away a good bit on defense to Iglesias, but he’s plainly the better hitter at this stage of things. Call it a push.
Third base: Miguel Cabrera vs. Josh Donaldson
Here's a good one. Normally, the nod would go to Cabrera, who's the best hitter on the planet these days. However, Cabrera has been limited by a series of nagging injuries and is coming off an uncharacteristically middling September. Donaldson, meantime, is a vastly better defender, and he owns a 149 OPS+ for the season. In a related matter, he's going to finish in the top five in the AL MVP balloting. Donald's broad-based excellence in tandem with Cabrera's somewhat questionable health at the moment make this a tie.
Left field: Jhonny Peralta vs. Yoenis Cespedes
While Cespedes's shoulder is a bit of a concern right now, his power numbers improved in the second half, and he's a good glove so long as he's manning a corner spot. Peralta, meanwhile, is back on the Detroit roster after serving his 50-game Biogenesis-related suspension. He's logged just 12 plate appearances since returning, so rust is a concern. As well, Peralta's worked all of 18 2/3 career defensive innings in left field. Peralta can hit a little bit when in top form, but can he quickly resume top form after such a layoff?
Center field: Austin Jackson vs. Coco Crisp
Great battle here. Both are standout defenders, and both are solid at the plate. Crisp, though, gets the narrow edge thanks to his home run power, overall offensive edge this season and base-stealing chops. Very close call.
Right field: Torii Hunter vs. Josh Reddick
Hunter's an All-Star who brings a slash line of .304/.334/.465 (114 OPS+) into this series. In the past, he's been a plus glove, but his range is very much in decline (he is, after all, 38 years of age). Reddick is a standout defender, but his numbers at the plate this season aren't strong overall. With that said, what makes this a closer call is that Reddick has been trending upward with the bat in recent weeks.
Designated hitter: Victor Martinez vs. Brandon Moss
As for V-Mart, here are his numbers in the first half, when he was still rounding into form after missing all of 2012: .258/.314/.380. And here are his numbers since the break: .361/.413/.500. As for Moss, he owns a 139 OPS+ on the season, and 26 of his 30 home runs this year have come off right-handers.
As implied above, Bob Melvin loves to mix and match, seek out the platoon advantage and deploy players at different positions. This season, Melvin claimed the platoon advantage 70-percent of the time, which is second only to Terry Francona and in the Cleveland Indians in the AL. Melvin is likely to start a lot of his left-handed bats against that all-right-handed rotation of Detroit's, but in the later innings he can counter lefty relievers with right-handed hitters like Derek Norris, Nate Freiman and Chris Young . Eric Sogard can provide a defensive upgrade over Lowrie or Callaspo in the event of a late-inning lead, and Seth Smith , although he bats lefty, also has hit pinch-hitting uses.
While Detroit's bench isn’t quite as strong as Oakland’s, they do have a useful bat in Matt Tuiasosopo , a corner outfield glove and lefty pinch-hitter in Andy Dirks and a quality back-up catcher in Brayan Pena .
There's nothing shameful about the Oakland ALDS rotation of Bartolo Colon , Sonny Gray , Jarrod Parker and Dan Straily -- after all, the A's this season ranked a strong third in the AL in starters' runs-per-game. They’d compare favorably to almost any rotation in baseball. These, however, are the 2013 Tigers.
The Tigers ALDS rotation features the likely AL Cy Young winner in Max Scherzer , the AL ERA champ in Anibal Sanchez , a recent MVP in Justin Verlander and a “fourth wheel" in Doug Fister who pitched to a 115 ERA+ this season. As a unit, the Detroit rotation led the AL in ERA, average game score and quality start percentage. They also paced the league in strikeout percentage. Missing bats is important for them in that it allows them to work around the sub-par Detroit defense.
Unlike last year, Tigers skipper Jim Leyland does have a couple of reliable arms he can call on -- Drew Smyly from the left side and Joquin Benoit at closer. With that said, the depth isn't there, even with Rick Porcello likely working out of the pen (and he’ll be a serious asset there).
Oakland, meantime, boasts a shutdown closer in Grant Balfour and plenty of depth -- Sean Doolittle , Ryan Cook , Jerry Blevins and Dan Otero are all capable of getting big outs. That depth is why the A’s as a team ranked third in the AL this season in bullpen ERA (the Tigers ranked 12th).
The A's led the AL in defensive efficiency rating (i.e., the percentage of balls in play that a defense converts into outs), and the Tigers ranked 11th out of 15.
My guess is that most observers are siding with the Tigers because of the strength of their rotation. And that's certainly defensible. However, I'm leaning toward Oakland because of home-field advantage, the potency of their offense away from O.co Coliseum, the superiority of the bullpen and the health concerns regarding Cabrera. A's in five.