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Welcome to MLB's Second Season

AL Division Series Preview

Why big stars and big bats will lead the Tigers and Yankees to the American League Championship Series

Remember: These are best-of-five series, which means anything can happen. Play enough times, and the Omaha Storm Chasers could win a best-of-five against the 2001 Mariners. Predictions are for entertainment purposes only.

TIGERS VS. ATHLETICS

If ever there were a team built for the postseason, it’s the 2012 Detroit Tigers. The free-agent signing of Prince Fielder before the season gave the Tigers three bona fide superstars in Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, and Justin Verlander. In the playoffs, you ride your horses as far as they can carry you, and the Tigers have three horses as good as any trio in baseball.

The problem with building a team for the postseason was that the Tigers weren’t ideally suited for the regular season; their bench was terrible, and they had one of the worst defenses ever put on the field by a contender. A year after winning 95 games, the Tigers went 88-74. They’re only in the playoffs because of the geographic good fortune that comes with playing in the AL Central, and because the White Sox — who held a three-game lead on Detroit with just two weeks left in the season — collapsed at the end, losing 11 of their last 15 games.

It’s a cliché to look at everything that Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s do through the prism of Moneyball, but the 2012 A’s better epitomize Beane’s genius as a general manager than the A’s that Michael Lewis chronicled a decade ago. The story line of the book ignored the substantial contributions of star players like Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito. But the narrative of Beane’s ability to identify undervalued assets grafts perfectly onto Oakland’s current group.

How impressive was Billy Beane’s performance this year? Even the sabermetric community — his longest and most loyal fans — expected the A’s to be hopeless. In spring training, 27 writers for Baseball Prospectus projected the 2012 standings. Not one of them predicted that the A’s would win the AL West.

It’s not hard to see why. The A’s went 74-88 last season, and over the winter they traded their two best starting pitchers and their closer. Andrew Bailey, who saved 75 games for Oakland from 2009 to 2011, was sent to Boston in exchange for two low-level prospects and Josh Reddick, who had struggled to break into the Red Sox outfield (he hit .248/.290/.416 in 375 at-bats for Boston). Trevor Cahill, who in three years had averaged 32 starts, 194 innings, and a 3.91 ERA for the A’s, was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks for former first-round pick Jarrod Parker, who had spent last season in Double-A after missing all of 2010 with Tommy John surgery, along with minor league reliever Ryan Cook.

Gio Gonzalez, who threw more than 200 innings in both 2010 and 2011 with a 3.17 ERA, was shipped to the Washington Nationals for four prospects, including Tommy Milone, a soft-tossing left-hander with impeccable control, and Double-A catcher Derek Norris. (And just for good measure, they traded fourth starter Guillermo Moscoso to the Colorado Rockies for platoon outfielder Seth Smith.)

As a general rule of thumb, if a 74-88 team wants to finish in first place the following year, trading away three of its best players for prospects in the offseason is not the best approach. But Parker gave the A’s 29 starts and a 3.47 ERA; he was the best rookie starter in the league aside from Yu Darvish. Milone walked just 36 batters in 190 innings, fashioning a 3.74 ERA despite rarely hitting 90 on the gun. Reddick hit .242/.305/.463 with 32 home runs. Cook made the All-Star team as a rookie setup man, finishing with a 2.09 ERA in 73 innings.

Those moves were just plain old-fashioned Moneyball-style arbitrage, sensing a buy-low opportunity before anyone else. But Beane showed off another club in his bag when the A’s shocked the rest of MLB by winning the bidding for
Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes when the outfielder agreed to a four-year, $36 million offer. While no one doubted Cespedes’s talent, few expected him to go straight from the Cuban National Series to the major leagues without orienting himself in the minors. Instead, Cespedes was in the Opening Day lineup, doubled in his first game, and then homered in each of the next three. He finished with a line of .292/.356/.505.

The A’s hadn’t been to the playoffs since they were swept out of the 2006 ALCS by these same Tigers, and after five years without so much as a winning record, the whispers that Beane was past his prime, that other front offices had passed him by, even that he was always more lucky than good in the first place — they had become an open rumble. In one season, Beane’s best season, the whispers have been silenced. He showed everyone that he still has his fastball — and he’s added a nasty changeup.

Rotations

Among the A’s many tricks this season is that they’ve relied on rookie starting pitchers to a greater extent than any playoff team in history. We just covered Parker and Milone, and A.J. Griffin was an unheralded prospect (a 13th-round pick two years ago) who debuted in June and became the first pitcher in almost a century to allow no more than three runs and two walks in each of his first 11 starts. But Griffin, who has thrown a career-high 184 innings this year, may be wearing down — in his last four starts, he has allowed 26 hits and 15 runs in 17 innings.

Brett Anderson is the ace up Oakland’s sleeve. Anderson was quickly earning a reputation as one of the best left-handed starters in the major leagues going into 2011 when he blew out his elbow after 13 starts and had Tommy John surgery. He returned this year in late August and was brilliant in six starts, but in his last start on September 19 he strained an oblique muscle and he’s been out since. The A’s hope he’ll be healthy enough to pitch in this series, but whether he’ll be 100 percent remains uncertain.

While the A’s bring youthful exuberance to the table, the Tigers bring fire and brimstone. Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer finished one-two in the American League in strikeouts this season. Verlander pitched essentially as well as he did in 2011, when he became the first starting pitcher in a generation to win MVP honors. A decline in run support (the Tigers averaged 3.98 runs per start for Verlander this year, down from 4.73 last year) dropped his record from 24-5 to 17-8, but make no mistake: Verlander is still the best starting pitcher in the world.

Scherzer took a giant step forward in harnessing his monster stuff; after a 7.77 ERA in April, he has had a 3.14 ERA since the beginning of May, with 204 strikeouts and just 47 walks in 163 innings. Anibal Sanchez, acquired at midseason from Miami for Jacob Turner, the Tigers’ best pitching prospect, is a very solid no. 3 starter who has kept his ERA in the 3s in each of the last four seasons. Doug Fister is a finesse right-hander who found a way to miss bats this season; in his next-to-last start, he broke the all-time AL record for consecutive strikeouts by whiffing nine straight batters.

The A’s have a nice rotation, but the Tigers have a clear edge. It helps that Rick Porcello, Detroit’s very hittable fifth starter, won’t have to make a start. If the series goes five games, Detroit can start Verlander twice on normal rest. Good luck with that, Oakland.

Bullpens

Aside from their defense, their bullpen is the Tigers’ biggest weakness. It’s not a bad bullpen — it’s just not very good. Jose Valverde was a perfect 49-for-49 in save opportunities last year, but that was a stone-cold fluke. He blew five of 40 save chances this year and posted a pedestrian 3.78 ERA. Setup man Joaquin Benoit struck out 84 batters in 71 innings, but he also gave up 14 homers.

The A’s, relatively speaking, are loaded. Cook sets up for Grant Balfour, who allowed opponents to bat .160/.242/.253 against him all year. Sean Doolittle is one of the most incredible stories of the year. He was drafted as a college first baseman and then moved to the mound last August — a last-ditch attempt to save his career after his bat failed to develop. Apparently, lefties who throw 94 mph aren’t meant to be first basemen; Doolittle was in the majors by June, and in 47 innings he has struck out 60 batters against just 11 walks.

Lineups

Among the many little advantages that the A’s look to find, they are one of the few teams in baseball that still practice the lost art of platooning. While the Tigers have no left-handed starters, against lefty relievers look for Oakland to sub in right-handed batters Chris Carter at first base, Jonny Gomes at DH, and Derek Norris at catcher. Their reliance on platooning gives the A’s an unusually deep and productive bench; between their hitters off the bench and a more effective bullpen, the A’s have a decided advantage in any game that remains close into the eighth inning.

The Tigers’ lineup is devised to put games out of reach before then. The lineup starts with Austin Jackson, who in a breakout season hit .300/.377/.479 while playing his usual standout defense in centerfield — Jackson is the only above-average defender in the lineup. Miguel Cabrera, you might have heard, became the first player in 45 years to win the Triple Crown. Fielder was worth every bit of the $23 million they paid him in 2012, hitting .313/.412/.528 and striking out a career-low 84 times.

Andy Dirks quietly hit .322/.370/.487 in his sophomore season, and while Alex Avila couldn’t replicate his outstanding 2011 season, he still got on base at a .352 clip. It helps that the Tigers acquired Omar Infante in the Sanchez trade; while he only hit .257/.283/.385 for the Tigers, that still represented a massive upgrade over the scar he replaced — Ryan Raburn’s .171/.226/.254 numbers.

The Tigers outscored the A’s by only 13 runs during the regular season, and given their ballparks — the Oakland Coliseum favors pitchers, while Detroit’s Comerica Park is pretty neutral — the A’s had a better offense on paper. But the Tigers’ lineup today is better than it was in June, and in a short series, where their atrocious bench won’t hurt them, Detroit has a clear advantage.

The offense comes at a cost. The Tigers ranked 27th in the majors in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (PADE), a measurement of overall team defense. This is what happens when you have a first baseman playing third base, a third baseman playing shortstop, and a DH playing first base. Dirks and Quintin Berry have also played poorly in the outfield corners. The A’s, meanwhile, rank third in the majors in PADE — Cespedes, Coco Crisp, and Reddick make up one of the best defensive outfields in baseball.

The Verdict

Oakland won 94 games this season, Detroit just 88, but the Tigers are so top-heavy in talent that it would seem to tip the scales in their favor. It’s not just their three superstar players — both Austin Jackson and Max Scherzer are burgeoning stars themselves, giving the Tigers five players who are as good as or better than anyone on the Athletics.

The Tigers’ defense is their fatal flaw, one they’ve tried their best to cover up by employing a staff of strikeout pitchers. But a team adept at putting the ball in play would be well poised to strike at this weakness. Here’s the problem for Oakland: They are the most ill-equipped team to take advantage of the Tigers’ defense in American League history. No, seriously. The Oakland A’s set the all-time record for strikeouts by an AL offense this season.

Against a different team, the Tigers might be exposed. But the A’s offensive philosophy plays right into Detroit’s hands. Between that, the talent advantage at the top, and the ability to start Justin Verlander twice if necessary, the Tigers are well-poised to take the series. Oakland will probably win one game late when they empty their bench against the Tigers’ mediocre relievers, but in the end, Detroit won’t even have to call on Verlander a second time. Tigers in four.

YANKEES VS. RANGERS OR ORIOLES

For a breakdown of the wild-card playoff game between Texas and Baltimore, click here.

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” F. Scott Fitzgerald wasn’t referring to the Yankees, but he might as well have been. Like their fans who sit behind home plate, protected by a concrete moat that separates them from the riffraff in the stands, the Yankees are part of the 1 percent. They are insulated from the problems other teams face. Ordinary teams would be alarmed by an offense in which every key player is at least 29 years old. (The average age of the Yankees’ offense this year is 32.7, making it the oldest in Yankees history.) Ordinary teams would not be able to recover from trading their best prospect, Jesus Montero, for Michael Pineda, who was an outstanding rookie starter for the Mariners in 2011 — only to lose Pineda for the entire season with a torn labrum.

But the Yankees are different from you and me. They won 95 games, the most in the American League, anyway.

Rotation

L CC Sabathia
R Hiroki Kuroda
L Andy Pettitte
R Phil Hughes

Every time a pitcher wins 300 games, the punditocracy will wonder if he’ll be the last 300-game winner — until the next guy does it, and they say the same thing. In about eight years, they’ll probably be calling CC Sabathia the last 300-game winner. Sabathia has 191 career wins, he just turned 32, and he shows no signs of slowing down: He led the AL in strikeout-to-walk ratio.

After four highly underrated seasons with the Dodgers, Hiroki Kuroda signed a one-year contract with the Yankees and turned out to be a huge bargain, giving New York 220 innings and a 3.32 ERA for around the same money the Yankees are spending on the luxury tax for Alex Rodriguez’s contract. Only Hideo Nomo has had a more successful career in the major leagues among Japanese hurlers. Andy Pettitte came back from retirement at age 40, and in 12 starts fashioned a 2.87 ERA — which happens to be his lowest ERA ever in a Yankees uniform. The Yankees are different from you and me.

It feels like Phil Hughes has been teasing the Yankees forever — he’s in his sixth season with the club. But now, he may finally be putting it all together. Although Hughes allowed 35 homers in 191 innings (this was largely a product of the new Yankee Stadium and its short power alleys), he struck out 165 batters and walked 46. He’s the Yankees’ no. 4 starter. The Yankees are different …

By comparison, if the Rangers advance, they will likely start Matt Harrison, Ryan Dempster, Yu Darvish, and Derek Holland. If the Orioles advance, it will be Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Tillman, Joe Saunders, and Jim Palmer. (OK, probably not Palmer, but it’s not clear that the Orioles have anyone better. Though it would be 10 flavors of awesome if they started Dylan Bundy.)

If the Yankees square off against Texas, New York has a slight rotation edge, due primarily to the fact that Darvish will have pitched in the wild-card playoff and will only be able to pitch once in the series. If they square off against Baltimore, it’s a mismatch, at least until the leprechauns and pixies get involved.

Bullpen

R Rafael Soriano
R David Robertson
R Cody Eppley
L Boone Logan
L Clay Rapada
R David Phelps

Even without Mariano Rivera, this is a strong bullpen. Soriano and Robertson combined for 128 innings, 150 strikeouts, and a 2.46 ERA. Soriano is a little vulnerable to left-handed hitters, which may be relevant because as the closer, he won’t be pulled in the ninth inning if the matchup is unfavorable. But if that’s the worst thing you can say about the bullpen, then it’s a pretty good bullpen.

Lineup

R Derek Jeter, SS
L Ichiro Suzuki, LF
R Alex Rodriguez, 3B
L Robinson Cano, 2B
S Nick Swisher, RF
S Mark Teixeira, 1B
L Curtis Granderson, CF
L Raul Ibanez, DH
R Russell Martin, C

It’s an old, expensive, and devastatingly effective lineup. Derek Jeter located the Fountain of Youth — a mermaid graciously divulged its location after he sent her home with a gift basket — and hit .316/.362/.429. He shared some of his elixir with Ichiro Suzuki, who was hitting .261/.288/.353 for the Mariners, but hit .322/.340/.454 after the Yankees acquired him.

Even as a shell of his younger self, Alex Rodriguez is still an effective hitter, and Robinson Cano (.313/.379/.550) is a viable MVP candidate. (By Wins Above Replacement, Cano was actually better than Miguel Cabrera, along with every other player in the majors except Mike Trout.) Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher both hit 24 home runs, and Curtis Granderson hit 43, albeit with a .232 average. Forty-year-old Raul Ibanez hit 19 homers in 384 at-bats. Russell Martin (.211/.311/.403) was the only below-average hitter in the lineup, and even he hit 21 home runs.

This Yankees lineup is defined by its power. Aside from Ichiro, everyone else in the lineup hit at least 15 home runs. Super-utility player Eric Chavez hit 16 homers in 278 at-bats. Andruw Jones, the fourth outfielder, batted only .197, but even he hit 14 homers in 233 at-bats. As a team, the Yankees hit 245 homers — the most in franchise history. Let me repeat that: The 2012 Yankees set a franchise record for home runs. They also finished second in the league in walks, and led the AL in both OBP and slugging average.

It’s the same offensive philosophy that has served the Yankees so well since the mid-1990s: Don’t swing at bad pitches, make the opposing starter work, get into the soft underbelly of middle relief, and tee off.

The Verdict

The Yankees couldn’t shake the Orioles off their tail all season long, and came perilously close to coughing up the AL East to them. But a lineup that has been nursing injuries all year long — as old lineups tend to do — heads into the postseason at close to full strength. Even incumbent left fielder Brett Gardner, who missed almost the entire season, is back in action and may be of some service with his legs and his glove.

The Rangers match up closely to the Yankees in terms of talent, but the combination of not having their rotation set up properly and home-field advantage to the Yankees in Game 5 tilts the matchup ever so slightly in New York’s favor. Yankees in five. If the Yankees face the Orioles instead, the massive advantages in the rotation and in the top-to-bottom depth of the lineup make it an easier call: Yankees in four.

But watch out for those leprechauns and pixies.

Filed Under: Magazines, Series, Star

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Rany Jazayerli runs the Rany on the Royals website. He is one of the founders of Baseball Prospectus, and works as a dermatologist in suburban Chicago.

Archive @ jazayerli