October 2, 2014
ALDS Preview: Orioles vs. Tigers
A series between opposites pits the preseason favorite Tigers against the anything-but-preseason-favorite Orioles. The two teams differ in a few other noteworthy ways—one has a veteran manager, excels at defense, and uses a strong bullpen to brace a shaky rotation; the other is led by a rookie manager, struggles at defense, and begs its rotation to minimize its shaky bullpen. Which style will prevail and advance to the ALCS? Let's find out. (Note: Neither team's Divisional Series roster is set, so we'll update the article when the names are officially announced.)
Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv, WARP)
The Tigers produced the majors' fifth-best True Average, a spot below the Orioles, yet scored 52 more runs than their Divisional Series opponents. One plausible explanation for the gap is Detroit's advantage on the basepaths. Yes, you read that right. These aren't the old, immobile, station-to-station Tigers any longer. This version has some spryness to it, some spunk. Almost like a kitten. Three of Detroit's likely starters—Kinsler, Davis, and Romine—combined for 63 steals at a 79 percent clip, and altogether the Tigers took the extra base at a 40 percent clip—one percent worse than the Royals, yet a marked improvement over their 2013 rate (33 percent). The Tigers have a clear advantage over the Orioles on the basepaths, making this series similar to the Royals-Athletics game in that regard.
With that strength stated, there are a few nits to pick in an objectively good lineup. For instance: Detroit doesn't walk a whole bunch (counter: they don't strike out much), and they grounded into the second-most double plays of any playoff squad (counter: that means they got on base a lot). There's also the matter of platoon splits. Detroit will have two regulars with poor seasonal numbers against the pitcher's hand regardless: Castellanos and Avila versus lefties, Davis and Romine with righties.
Overall, a good lineup.
Here's the O's lineup summed in a few words: No steals, no walks, all bop. No AL playoff team struck out more often or walked less often than the Orioles did. Similarly, no other team in baseball hit more than 190 home runs this year—the O's hit 211. We keep a stat here called Guillen Number, or the percentage of a team's runs that were scored on homers. The Orioles not only led the league, at 47.8 percent, but set a new franchise record—higher than the 2012 squad, higher than any of Earl Weaver's three-run home-run lineups. In fact, on a league-wide basis, the only teams that have posted higher Guillen Numbers since 1970 were the 2012 Yankees and 2010 Blue Jays. Must be an AL East thing.
Of course, if Baltimore fails to gain traction in the postseason, there will be comments written about how they were too one-dimensional. Whether you believe in that or not, here are a few other negatives about this lineup that are easier to accept: Schoop can't hit lefties, righties, or Pat Venditte; Markakis and Hardy didn't have good seasons against lefties; and Jones was poor versus righties. Still, on the season, the O's posted almost the same OPS against each hand. Far from conventional, but it worked.
Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv, WARP)
The weaker of the two benches. Carrera gives the Tigers a stolen-base threat in the late innings, but that's the extent of his value. Kelly is a onetime most-unlikely postseason hero, and a defensive upgrade at third base to trot out in the late innings. Collins was born for pinch-hitter duty. Suarez is another glove-only type. Holaday probably won't play unless Avila gets dinged or subbed out against a lefty. There's not much other value Brad Ausmus can extract from this bunch.
Buck Showalter, conversely, has a player available for every situation. Berry, who you should recall stole three bases for the Red Sox last postseason, has become the role model for designated pinch-runners. Joseph is a defensive-minded backup catcher who'll get a start or two behind the dish. Flaherty and Lough are like Joseph, but play in the infield and outfield, respectively, and boast speed. Then there's Young, possibly the most likely and least likely .300 hitter on the season. He's good for hitting and inciting a run on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle jokes.
In spite of the star power, the Tigers' rotation finished in the bottom-third in ERA. (They also finished third in FIP, which is almost certainly a truer representation of their skills.) Scherzer, the obvious Game One starter, features a fantastic mid-90s fastball that he complements with a changeup and slider. He likes to stay away, coming inside only to protect the outside corner, and won't yield many walks, home runs, or runs. Verlander, a faint cry from his usual self through the majority of the year, lasted into the eighth inning in each of his past two starts. That was good enough to earn him the Game Two nod. Price is, at worst, the second-best starter in the rotation, yet he gets relegated to Game Three, where he'll use his command and varied arsenal to mess with minds and bats. Finally, there's Porcello. He's the most likely of any starter in the series to break the 50 percent ground-ball mark. He works with a five-pitch mix: sinker, four-seamer, two breaking balls, and a changeup.
We've covered this ground before, but Baltimore's rotation is the second-most likely aspect of the postseason to cause a chasm between those who favor mainstream statistics and those with more advanced tastes. Anyway, Tillman is the nominal top starter here, though he hardly feels like one. He's a physical righty with a hybrid delivery—when he's pitching with no one on base it looks like he's using part-set, part-stretch mechanics—who relies on a low-90s fastball, hard-biting spike curveball, and change. Tillman is neither the king of strikeouts nor groundballs, leaving him in that awkward state where he's probably over and underrated at once. The rest of the rotation is three takes on the same formula: throw strikes, avoid walks, and try to limit the damage against opposite-handed batters. Chen is the only lefty of the bunch, Gonzalez is the finesse righty, and Norris is the power arm. Look for Chen and Gonzalez to work with low-90s fastballs, a pair of breaking balls (though Chen seldom uses his curve), and a splitter. Norris has a hotter fastball-slider combination, along with a firmer changeup.
Given the starting pitchers and lineups involved on both sides, don't expect to see many walks.
Bullpen (IP, ERA, FIP)
The fourth-worst bullpen, according to ERA and FIP, and the most obvious weakness on the Tigers. Nathan's well-publicized struggles aside, the Tigers have a few other issues at play. Chamberlain's control wavered as the season progressed, and Soria hasn't been used in many high-leverage spots since returning from the disabled list. Alburquerque—at least historically—has been a quality two-way reliever, while Coke is a traditional left-handed specialist. Presuming the Tigers carry both Lobstein and Sanchez, instead of someone like Blaine Hardy, Ausmus will have a pair of wild cards on hand.
By ERA, the Orioles have the three best relievers in the series. Miller's addition at the deadline, along with Britton's ascent to closer, gives Showalter two power left-handed relievers to use at the end of games. If Showalter goes to the pen earlier, he'll have to choose between the likes of Hunter, who distanced himself from the ROOGY tag this season, and Matusz, whose numbers instead pushed him closer toward LOOGYville. Not to be outdone by the Tigers, the O's could use Gausman as a plausible difference-maker. Or he could be hidden as a long reliever. Stay tuned to find out.
Detroit's other big weakness. The Tigers ended the season with a .688 defensive efficiency, good for 29th in the majors. Park adjust those numbers and they still finished 27th. This isn't a good defensive bunch, in results or projection. Among the worst of the worst: Castellanos at third, Martinez in left, and the Davis-Carrera combination in center, which reaffirms that speed alone doesn't make someone a defensive asset.
On the other side of the spectrum is the one of the best defenses in the league. The O's posted a .720 defensive efficiency, good for fourth-best in the majors. Even without Manny Machado and Matt Wieters, the O's have been able to defend well. The late-season addition of De Aza, who pushed Young into a lesser role, was the kind of move that seems minor at the time, but has helped solidify an already capable defensive unit.
Ausmus is one of two rookie managers in the postseason, joining Washington's Matt Williams. All the focus on him in this series will concentrate on how he manages his pitching staff. During the regular season, Detroit's starters boasted the highest average pitch count in the majors, and notched the most blown quality starts. Signs of a rookie manager left behind by the speed of the game, a former catcher putting too much faith in his pitchers, a concerned skipper who wanted to avoid his troubled bullpen, or a little bit of each? Ausmus' loyalty to Joe Nathan, albeit admirable and understandable for a time, will come into question, too. The postseason needs to be about what's best for the team, not an individual.
Though Showalter has a wealth of regular-season experience, this will mark just his third time managing in the postseason. From a managerial greed perspective, Showalter is as selfless as they come. He doesn't hit-and-run, nor will he call for a stolen-base attempt unless it's a special circumstance. He will bunt, and, like Ausmus, he did finish top-10 in the majors in pinch-runner usage. But, for the most part, Showalter stays out of his team's way and lets them do what they will.
The Tigers would seem to be the obvious pick. They have the better rotation and, at minimum, a comparable offense. Yet the limitations imposed on them by the bullpen and defense, along with the questions about Ausmus' tactical ability cast doubt on their chances. As hard as it would seem to lose a five-game series in which three games will be started by Scherzer and Price, Detroit's disadvantage in the situational baseball areas—the bullpen and the bench—could cost them in tight games.
Baltimore has its problems, too: the O's starters appear to be the underdog in each game, and their offense is far less balanced than Detroit's. In a sense, this will be a compelling matchup between teams that double as test cases. Can an offense this heavy on home runs win a series? Can a bullpen without a reliable closer eke out a playoff series?
We'll take the Tigers in five because their rotation feels like the surest thing in the series, but it's not a confident pick.