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Oakland vs Detroit: A Story of Depth

If you hadn’t been paying close attention to the Athletics and the Tigers, you might have a couple preconceptions about the matchup. Maybe “old, slow sluggers” vs “speedy upstart youngsters.” Or maybe “tradition” vs “moneyball two.” Or maybe even “offense and an ace” vs “pitching and defense.” Delve further into the numbers, though, and this matchup between the elephants and the tigers isn’t so easily monikered.

The Athletics have a good team ERA, so saying their staff is a strength is no stretch. But you might be surprised that the Tigers have a better team FIP (3.63 to 3.89). Home parks have something to do with this. The Athletics have a pitching-friendly home park (97 park factor for wOBA, 93 for home runs), and sure enough, they have worse overall numbers away from home (3.95 ERA, 4.11 FIP). As is the case with most of Oakland’s staff, these numbers have been in flux all season — Brett Anderson, Oakland’s first- or second-best pitcher, only started his first game on August 21st, but the overall numbers are there for the Tigers staff, too. Let’s just say the distance between these two staffs is closer than you might have thought.

Of course, much of Detroit’s strength lies at the top of their rotation. Justin Verlander is the best pitcher on either team, and Max Scherzer (3.74 ERA/3.27 FIP) belongs in the conversation for second-best pitcher on either team, if only because I put him in that conversation. The Tigers pitching staff had 24.8 WAR and Verlander has 6.8 of them. The Athletics staff had 18.1 WAR and nobody had more than Jarrod Parker’s 3.7.

But if Parker, Tommy Milone, Anderson and Griffin (in that order) can hold serve through five innings, there is a pitching advantage that is decidedly in Oakland’s favor: the bullpen. As we saw in the final series, having Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle and Grant Balfour for the final two-plus innings can be a deadly thing. Oakland’s bullpen far outshined Detroit’s, at least when it came to results — 2.94/3.74 to 3.79/3.77 — and having the rapidly-declining “Big Potato” Jose Valverde at the very end of the game will make for some stressful times for Tiger fans at the end of games.

One thing worth watching in that bullpen is their current state of stress. Doolittle, Cook and Balfour all pitched four days in a row (Cook and Balfour five actually) in order to win the division for the elephants. The title was worth it, if only for that extra day of rest, but that’s a lot of days in a row. Didn’t seem to bother the trio in terms of velocity — all three of them even added velocity late in the season. Check out Balfour’s rise to excellence:

A lot of words have been spent talking about Oakland’s rookie starters, and for good reason. On the other hand, it’s the bullpen that’s the best pitching strength for this team.

The Tigers mash. Oakland? They just two-true-outcome you. Right?

Here are the things that Oakland did more of this year, on offense:

* Hit more home runs (195 to 163)
* Coaxed more walks (550 to 511)
* Stole more bases (122 to 59)
* Showed a better ISO (.166 to .154)

Of course, the Tigers did have a better wRC+ (104 to 98) and did hit more doubles (279 to 267) and also all-importantly scored more runs (726 to 713), so their offense was better this year. But that might have been a whole lot better than you expected.

The Tigers are top-heavy in the lineup, just as they are in their pitching staff. Your meat and bones is Austin Jackson (132 wRC+) — courtesy a mini breakout — at the top, Prince Fielder (152) and Miguel Cabrera (166) in the middle. The only other above-average hitters on the team are Alex Avila (104) and Andy Dirks (131). The Tigers lineup had 49.2 batting runs over replacement and Cabrera had 55.7 of them. The Athletics lineup put up 3.2 batting runs over replacement and Yoenis Cespedes led the team with 25.5 runs.

Oakland has eight above-average hitters: Brandon Moss (158), Jonny Gomes (142), Yoenis Cespedes (138), Chris Carter (136), Coco Crisp (116), Josh Reddick (109), Seth Smith (105) and George Kottaras (104). Once again, Oakland has some depth to balance out the Tiger’s excellence. You’ll notice that some of these guys man the same position, though, and that some of this depth is thanks to the platoon. Matt Klaasen already did such an excellent job pointing out the value Oakland has gotten from the platoon, but it is worth pointing out that platoons have a weak point: end-game strategy. Once you switch from one to the other, you can’t go back. This also means that Phil Coke and Drew Smyly as lefties they can use to try and match up the matchup masters and empty the Oakland bench.

This is where Oakland has a definite edge. All of the defensive metrics love the Athletics — UZR/150 (+4.6, and second in the AL to -5.7 and second-to-last in the AL), DRS (+14 to -20) and BABIP allowed (.279 to .307) — and for good reason. Look around that field, and the eye test agrees that the A’s can pick it.

But again this is a work in progress — the A’s have been better since they moved to their most recent defensive alignment. The Oakland infield had a -6 plus/minus according DRS as a unit until August 21. Then Stephen Drew came to town and moved Cliff Pennington to second base. That new unit has had a +7 DRS since, and the former shortstop looks excellent at second base (+7 DRS at the position since the trade). It’s a little strange, considering that DRS has Drew as a -7 shortstop this year, and it could be a sample thing, but it does look like their best arrangement right now.

And they did something similar in the outfield. Yoenis Cespedes doesn’t look great as a center fielder, and since Coco Crisp has been back, he’s ceded the position. DRS agrees — the Cuban is a -8 CF by the metric, and a +1 LF, while Crisp is a scratch center fielder. With Crisp and Cespedes healthy and in the right position, this defensive group is looking good.

That’s not to say that the Tigers haven’t figured a few things out along the way. From 2005-2008, Jhonny Peralta had -19 DRS at SS. On balls to his right, he was +10; on balls at him, he was -11; at balls to his left, he was -35. From 2009-2012, Peralta has had +6 DRS at SS. On balls to his right, Peralta was -16; on balls at him, he was +19; at balls to his left, he was +20. Looks like Peralta likely changed his default positioning between 2008 and 2009. Since then he’s been hurt on balls to the right, but helped on balls to the left. The net has been a big positive, and his recent improvements are almost all due to his range numbers. No matter what, Peralta still has Miguel Cabrera — and his -8 Runs Saved Plus/Minus (Range) component of DRS — not helping him out this year, and has performed admirably anyway.

Still, the advantage with the glove pretty clearly goes to the Athletics.

With depth on their side, the Athletics will try to take shorten the game in order to take advantage of their superior defense and bullpen. They’ll root for close games and matchups that could go either way on a dime — it’s otherwise closer than some might think.

I’ll be chatting during the game. Join me!