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Series Preview: Tigers vs. A’s American League Division Series

October 6, 2012

The A’s today released their roster for the ALDS and will face the Detroit Tigers today at 3PM PT. Here is how the series will go and following that is a position by position breakdown of what to expect and some keys and predictions.

Game One (October 6) : Oakland A’s (Jarrod Parker) @ Detroit Tigers (Justin Verlander)

Game Two (October 7): Oakland A’s (Tommy Milone) @ Detroit Tigers (Doug Fister)

Game Three (October 9): Detroit Tigers (Anibal Sanchez) @ Oakland A’s (Brett Anderson)

Game Four (October 10): Detroit Tigers (Max Scherzer) @ Oakland A’s (A.J. Griffin)
(if necessary)

Game Five (October 11): Detroit Tigers (Verlander) @ Oakland A’s (Parker)
(if necessary)

The Starters

They will feature four starters, this afternoon’s starter Parker; presumed Game Two starter Milone; most noteworthy of the bunch, expected Game Three starter Anderson; and finally suspected Game Four starter Griffin. This series against Detroit is a dangerous one because Jim Leyland and the Tigers can employ one scary weapon: Verlander. It’ll be up to the young Parker, this year’s ace of the A’s staff to keep the A’s in the game against arguably the American League’s most talented pitcher. Verlander this year was worth 6.8 WAR, as he posted a 2.64 ERA and 2.94 FIP while throwing 9.0 K/9, 2.3 BB/9 and 0.7 HR/9 squeezing out a 42.3% ground ball rate. Parker himself was no slouch, and while Verlander has 232 MLB starts to his name, Parker has a mere 30 and this year put together a 3.47 ERA and 3.43 FIP while throwing 7.0 K/9, 3.1 BB/9 and 0.6 HR/9 with a 44.3% ground ball rate. The key to the A’s in this series very well could be beating Verlander once and if the A’s are to do it with anyone Parker is the man.

The Game Two starters look to be Milone and Fister. Fister pitched to 3.6 WAR this year posting a 3.45 ERA well in line with his 3.42 FIP. I feel that Fister is the quintessential three starter and this year he showed that going 161 2/3 innings of 7.6 K/9, 2.1 BB/9 and 0.8 HR/9 baseball. He coaxed out a 51.0% GB%, and his normal BABIP (.296) and HR/FB (11.6%) kept all his peripheral numbers in check with where is ERA was (xFIP at 3.39). What you see from Fister is what you get. In that way he isn’t much different from Milone. Milone is not as good as Fister, but also is like the A’s Game One and Game Four starters a rookie. Milone this year posted a 3.74 ERA, 3.93 FIP and a slightly higher 4.02 xFIP (likely aided by the Coliseum) in his 190 innings of work. He is a control pitcher so his 6.5 K/9 was aided greatly by a stellar 1.7 BB/9 to go with his mediocre 1.1 HR/9. Milone was worth 2.7 WAR in 2012. The concern with Milone is that his start comes in Detroit and he has well chronicled issues with pitching on the road: 4.83 ERA and a 4.76 FIP as HR’s seem to be the culprit 1.8 HR/9 and 15.4% HR/FB. If Parker can’t coax the A’s past Verlander in Game One, and then Milone’s road woes continue in Game Two, the A’s could find themselves in a very tough spot returning to Oakland.

Game Three in Oakland promises to be an exciting one however as Sanchez will take the hill for the Tigers and it marks the return of Anderson for the A’s. Anderson looked marvelous in limited time before being saddled with a right oblique strain incidentally against Detroit. Anderson only threw 35 innings this year but posted 1.0 WAR with a 2.57 ERA and 2.72 FIP and incredible 59.8% GB%. He had very strong peripherals: 6.4 K/9, 1.8 BB/9 and 0.26 HR/9. Had Anderson a “full” 32 starts and maintained his ratio of WAR/GS he’d have finished at 5.3 WAR best on the A’s and second only to Verlander among pitchers on the two clubs. Sanchez since coming over to the Tigers from Miami, threw 74 2/3 innings of 6.9 K/9, 1.8 BB/9 and 1.0 HR/9 3.74 ERA, 3.68 FIP baseball.

In Game Four the Tigers put up their second best pitcher in Scherzer (11.1 K/9, 2.9 BB/9 and 1.1 HR/9 for a 3.74 ERA, 3.27 FIP and 4.6 WAR) to face the A’s third of four rookie starters in Griffin. Griffin made 15 starts for Oakland following his call up, injury and return. He threw 82 1/3 innings of 7.0 K/9, 2.1 BB/9 and 1.1 HR/9 baseball to a 3.06 ERA. While the numbers look stellar he has a .264 BABIP and a 81.3% strand rate, so the 3.85 FIP and 4.02 xFIP are probably a bit closer to accurate when assessing how Griffin has pitched. The big question remains, is having all these rookies with the limited exposure everyone will have had to them a positive or is having all these rookies with first time playoff jitters a negative?

The Bullpen

The A’s have a magnificent bullpen when it comes down to it. Particularly the fearsome trio that has effectively turned games into six innings matchups as of late: Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour. Cook and Doolittle have both been worth 1.6 WAR this year, very strong numbers for middle relievers (though Cook briefly was a closer), and Balfour’s 1.5 WAR is not far off. Doolittle who I saw pitch live on Opening Day in Lake Elsinore for the High-A Stockton Ports, rocketed through the A’s system in his first year as a converted first baseman to lefty specialist. In just 47 1/3 innings Doolittle posted a team best 11.4 K/9 to just 2.1 BB/9 and 0.6 HR/9 for a 3.04 ERA and even better 2.08 FIP, important for relievers in my mind is his 22/5 shutdown to meltdown ratio. Cook, who spent some time in the closer’s role and also was the A’s lone representative to the All Star Game in Kansas City also has incredible numbers: 9.8 K/9 and much improved from where he was early in the season 3.3 BB/9 and 0.5 HR/9 to go with a 2.09 ERA, 2.89 FIP and strong 37/8 shutdown to meltdown ratio.

I like the way Bob Melvin composed the rest of the bullpen for the most part. He went with Travis Blackley which is good because if someone gets punted out early he can go a long way practically regardless of his performance though on the year he had 102 2/3 innings of 3.86 ERA, 3.98 FIP baseball for 1.2 WAR. He also had unsurprisingly Jerry Blevins from the left side to go with Doolittle. Despite finishing with just 0.1 WAR owing to a high 4.21 ERA, Blevins performed admirably pitching to a 2.48 ERA, 7.4 K/9, 3.4 BB/9 and 1.0 HR/9 in 63 appearances and decent 14 shutdown to five meltdown ratio. I also like the addition of Evan Scribner who has pitched well in limited time in Oakland: 0.3 WAR in 35 1/3 innings across 30 appearances with 7.6 K/9, 3.1 BB/9 and 0.5 HR/9 for a 2.55 ERA and 3.15 FIP. The last addition was Pat Neshek who tragically lost his newborn child the day that the A’s clinched the division. Neshek was a savvy Billy Beane pickup and pitched to a 1.57 ERA, despite a 4.52 FIP. His BABIP is absurdly low at .137 and his strand rate at a perfect 100.0% is unfathomable through 19 2/3 innings, but there has to be something there for those numbers to be not just low but out of this stratosphere off base.  I do however have a problem with the inclusion of Pedro Figueroa. I assume it is to get another lefty out there, but his selection seems curious to me. Figueroa has been worth -0.1 WAR on the year, with an atrocious 5.08 FIP, aided by downright awful peripherals: 5.8 K/9 to 6.2 BB/9 with 0.8 HR/9 in 21 2/3 innings. I likely would have gone instead with Dan Straily to be used from the bullpen or even Tyson Ross as another long arm given that Anderson could experience an injury issue. Even Jim Miller seems a better fit than Figueroa who I doubt sees any action, and therefore why even keep him on the roster?

The Lineup

The A’s used a plethora of platoons down the stretch and will continue to do so. Brandon Moss and Chris Carter will share first base duties. The two hit a combined 37 home runs in 556 plate appearances. Both of them in many ways are incredible stories, Moss more obviously so because of he fact that he had been passed on by Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and Carter because of just how much he struggled so many had written him off for good and the A’s at that point had a three-headed first base monster in Brandon Allen, Daric Barton and Kila Ka’aihue. Another playoff platoon will be Cliff Pennington and Adam Rosales at second base. Pennington has embraced second base and is hitting far better down the stretch and Rosales gives the club much needed versatility. Despite all of Pennington’s woes he was worth 1.4 WAR by season’s end and is a very strong defensive addition. It is telling that the A’s left Jemile Weeks off the roster, it shows just how much his stock has fallen despite the fact that only Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes have more plate appearances than he. The other platoon will be the year’s oldest platoon and a smart one: Jonny Gomes and Seth Smith.

Not platooning are the outfielders: Cespedes, Coco Crisp and Reddick all of whom had solid seasons. After an atrocious start, Crisp really redeemed himself finishing the year with 2.9 WAR (third best on the team’s offense) and one has to realize that number is completely born of his hitting as his baserunning was neutral (that should bring a far larger conversation about how baserunning is valued in stats like WAR but now is not the time for that) and his fielding was considered a net negative. Crisp ended at .259/.325/.418 with a .338 wOBA and 116 wRC+ in his 120 games. Cespedes meanwhile was everything his supporters touted and maybe then some. He had a 3.1 WAR year with a .292/.356/.505 slash line and 23 home runs in 540 trips to the plate. Blessed with a cannon of an arm, he was a net negative defender but is still getting his sea legs out in left field. Reddick meanwhile was the club’s best player on offense, hitting 32 home runs, and posting a .242/.305/.463 slash line with a .328 wOBA and 109 wRC+. One can make a good argument that he was the best fielder in the American League in right and no other right fielder scored better by saving 18.5 runs in the field. The A’s outfield is an absolute source of strength for the team with Gomes or Smith available to sub in also.

Behind the plate the A’s will carry both George Kottaras and Derek Norris. I wonder if it might’ve made sense to drop one of these two players and leave Josh Donaldson as the option to fill in in a pinch and give the A’s some more versatility with a speed threat like Jemile Weeks or Collin Cowgill being added to the roster but, ultimately one can’t really gripe too much here.

Keys to the A’s Winning

1) Anderson and the Starting Pitching. The A’s face a tough series because first off despite a disappointing year, Detroit is still a very good and dangerous team. The starting pitching has to keep the team in the game. The bullpen is solid and deep but if the starters get rattled and thrown out early this team rapidly has a myriad of problems. Parker has to keep up with Verlander which is a lot to ask, and if the A’s drop the first game Milone needs to lose his road jitters against the likes of Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder to let the A’s get back to Oakland with at least a split. There the A’s face another issue which is what exactly do they get from Anderson when he makes his return? His inclusion demonstrates a lot of confidence in him but this game could very well be pitched by Blackley as well and the A’s can’t afford to have Anderson get knocked out early due to injury or being beaten up by the Tigers’ bats especially if the bullpen is extensively used in Detroit prior. The starting pitching has to pitch like they’ve pitched all year long and in this series remember 80% of the games look to be started by rookies against an experienced playoff team.

2) Defense. Defense. Defense. The A’s were carried by their defense. For all the discussion of their pitching, their pitching was aided greatly by a strong defensive club. The A’s UZR/150 of 4.8 was third in baseball, while far from a perfect judge of defensive quality the A’s did lead the league in ERA – FIP with -0.39, meaning their ERA at 3.50 was 39 points lower than their FIP of 3.89. So the team should’ve pitched worse than they did. Surely some of that is attributable to the A’s playing in the Coliseum and the infinite foul ground that turns souvenirs into outs, but a lot of that also has to do with a solid defense all year keeping balls from dropping or getting through. The outfield is incredible with Cespedes, Crisp and Reddick all have solid range and the corners in particular featuring two outfielders with such great arms that baserunners are on red alert at all times. The infield is not full of many slouches either except at first base where Carter/Moss are particularly weak. The defense can really help the young pitching stay in the game.

3) Balfour and Cook. While I’ve mentioned several times the A’s ability to turn games into six inning affairs with Doolittle, Cook and Balfour sealing the deal. These three guys pitched four times in the club’s final five games as they sealed their American League West championship. Cook and Balfour have both struggled at times with implosions, while they both have shutdown far more games than they’ve had meltdowns, one has to worry on the grander stage if these problems resurface. Both have had struggles with control and walks with the Tigers’ lineup can quickly create some very sticky situations especially if given the Tigers’ starting strength the A’s can’t muster big leads to hold.

Predictions

It is impossible to separate fandom from the equation and this is why one never bets on their favorite team. The heart wants to say the A’s, look they have been counted out time and time and time again, by me as well even as recently as last week saying I felt it was better to hope that Texas beat up on Los Angeles and won the division thinking it impossible the A’s actually could go out and steal it from them. This team has continually surprised, time and time again and there is no reason to believe that could not be true yet again. That said, the head says the Tigers win this one. I think they win it in five, with Games one and two going their way in Detroit along with the deciding fifth game. Verlander is a tough pitcher to beat coupled with Milone’s road struggles make me nervous. That said, if Oakland can pull off the improbable and win the first game, this series I think goes to Oakland in four. The key game really is tonight’s, a win against Verlander (or just a draw as far as starters goes but a win coming out of this game) changes the entire tenor of the series.

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