If just for the sake of my writing, I set up a narrative for this series. The Tigers’ star power against the Athletics’ depth, speed, defense and bullpen. There have been a few asterisks so far, but surprisingly, the narrative has held. On Thursday, that narrative will meet Justin Verlander.
First, the things that went quote-unquote right. The Oakland bullpen has been amazing. Including Wednesday’s work, the pen has put up 11.1 innings of three-run ball with 12 strikeouts against one walk so far. That’s pretty sexy. Oakland has two of the three errors so far in the season, but the errors were on difficult plays, and they also have this play by Coco Crisp and this play by Yoenis Cespedes (among others) and this play by Josh Donaldson (real time here):
Depth? Seth Smith, their platoon sixth- or seventh-hitter, has three RBI in the last two games, which the elephants won by three runs combined. Cliff Pennington, their one-time shortstop and now number nine hitter, is now playing a flawless second base and has three walks and three hits in the series so far. Speed? There was the high-profile Cespedes jaunt around the basepaths, and little else in the box scores (other than at TOOTBLAN from Stephen Drew on Wednesay night), but it’s obvious that Oakland is the speedier team.
Here come the caveats. The Detroit defense hasn’t been horrid — Prince Fielder ran circles around a ground ball on Wednesday that opened up an inning for Oakland, and there have been a few balls that *could* have been corralled on the infield. Until Wednesday night, the Tigers pen hadn’t been that bad either. Before Jose Valverde took the mound, they’d actually only given up two runs in eight-plus innings. That’s not terrible.
The Tigers rotation hasn’t been all about Verlander, either. After his game one gem, Doug Fister struck out eight and walked two in seven two-run innings; September Anibal Sanchez struck out three and walked two in six-plus two-run innings; and Max Scherzer — who did indeed sit 93 instead of 95, and also left early — was great while he was in there, to the tune of eight strikeouts and one walk in five-plus one-run innings. If that isn’t rotational depth, who knows what is.
But even if the narrative has held like a rickety old train wobbling down worn tracks, it’s come to a gave five, and all of that might not matter any more.
Because, Justin Verlander. Over the last four years, there probably hasn’t been a better pitcher in baseball. Verlander has shown 953.2 innings of 2.95 ERA results, with 9.2 strikeouts per nine and 2.37 walks per nine and 28.6 WAR. That WAR total is the most among qualified starters since 2009, the ERA is fifth-best, that strikeout rate is sixth-best, that walk rate is 36th-best. Just call it — he’s been the best pitcher in baseball over the past four years.
You might hear a forced narrative about his postseason play — he’s put up a 4.96 ERA in nine postseason starts so far — but you’re too savvy to buy that short-sample nonsense anyway. He’s also struck out 10.8 batters per nine, and though his control has suffered (4.4 per nine), it’s more likely that his BABIP (.315) and awful homer luck (15.7% home runs per fly ball, league average is nine or ten percent any given year) that has lead to the inflated ERA so far. Any starter that can strike out double-digit batters against postseason lineups and on postseason rest is an elite starter.
Now Verlander is going on full rest against one of the weaker postseason lineups — among playoff teams only the Reds had a worse wRC+ on the season — and he’s already dominated this lineup. No amount of depth, speed, defense or bullpen strength will help the Athletics if Verlander adds just two more scoreless innings to his game one totals (seven innings, one run, seven baserunners and 11 strikeouts). Because even if Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera have only gone eight for 28 with two walks and one RBI so far in the series, they’re a good bet to produce a run on any given night.
And that’s why any narrative you try to put on a series is only as good a fit as last night’s game. (And man was last night a doozy.)