- FanGraphs+ | FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/plus -

ALDS Scouting Report: Athletics-Tigers

For the second straight season, the A’s and Tigers will meet in the American League Division Series. Last year’s series was hotly contested, with each of the first four games being decided by two runs or fewer before Detroit broke things open at the end of Game 5. This series should be just as competitive.

Key matchup: Brandon Moss vs. Tigers starting pitchers

Since arriving in Oakland, Moss has brutalized right-handed pitching. His 158 wRC+ against righties [1] during the past two seasons ranks eighth in baseball, and has easily been the best on the A’s. With the fearsome foursome in Detroit — all righties — the burden will fall on Moss to produce. Oakland will especially need him for power, as they are uncertain if they can rely on the hurting Yoenis Cespedes from that standpoint.

Athletics’ X factor: Sonny Gray

The club’s first-round pick in 2011, Gray quickly ascended to the majors and has posted great results since his arrival. His 74 FIP- [2] was easily the best mark among Oakland starters, as was his 24.8 percent strikeout rate. But there are a couple of caveats. First, he only threw 64 innings in The Show. In addition, six of his 10 starts came against the Astros, Mariners and Twins.

On the other hand, if you subscribe to the theory that a pitcher has the upper hand the first time he faces a team, Gray holds all the cards. Not only has he never faced the Tigers, he never faced a Tigers affiliate in the minors and hasn’t faced them in spring training either. The A’s have to hope that works in their favor.

Tigers’ X factor: Miguel Cabrera

Cabrera has compiled at least 80 plate appearances in 53 months during his major league career. He has never had a lower slugging percentage in a single month than the .333 mark he posted this September. It has been some time since Cabrera has been right health-wise [3], but in the postseason the Tigers need him to produce.

As good as the Tigers are offensively, they are powered by Cabrera. With Jhonny Peralta back, they could slide him or Jose Iglesias over to third base if Cabrera is still too hurt to play, but that is a pretty big drop-off offensively. It’s no coincidence that Detroit’s run production suffered markedly in September.

Athletics’ key reliever: Sean Doolittle

One of the 10-15 best relievers in the game the past two seasons, the lefty-throwing Doolittle hums it in there at better than 94 mph, and he does so as frequently as possible. Over the past two years no qualified reliever has thrown his four-seam fastball as frequently as has Doolittle, who throws it 87 percent of the time. When he does mix in his other pitches though, he is able to get swings and misses on them.

In essence, Doolittle is dominant. And Doolittle is no left-handed specialist. He is just as capable of setting down right-handed hitters as he is lefties. In fact, for his career, he has posted a better FIP and xFIP against righties (2.31 and 3.28) than he has lefties (2.74 and 3.67). This will be key because while he is most likely to be used against Prince Fielder, he won’t be vulnerable against Victor Martinez and Peralta on the way to Alex Avila.

Tigers’ key reliever: Joaquin Benoit

Tigers manager Jim Leyland made fewer bullpen decisions than most this season — the only team to make fewer pitching changes was the Royals, and then only by one. However, this was sort of necessary too, as Detroit had just 103 shutdowns [4], last in all of baseball (yes, they had even fewer than the Astros). With 30 shutdowns against four meltdowns, Benoit was the only reliever on the team to finish with at least 10 more shutdowns than meltdowns, and is really the only high-leverage reliever.

Of the Tigers pitchers likely to make the ALDS roster, only three had a pLI (Average Leverage Index) [5] of 1.00 or higher: Benoit (1.71), Jose Veras (1.40) and Al Alburquerque(1.01). Leyland will need all three of them, but of the trio, Benoit has the longest track record of domination. Unfortunately, Benoit wasn’t that strong toward the end of the season (4.38 ERA in September), but he didn’t have any dramatic drop in velocity, so there is no reason for alarm, especially because momentum means very little heading into the postseason. That said, Benoit will need to be on his A-game — pun intended.

Athletics’ key bench player: Daric Barton

With Cespedes laboring through a shoulder injury, he may see some more time off than Oakland would like. If he does, Moss figures to spell him in left field, leaving Barton as the last man standing at first base. He won that role partly by default, as the A’s won’t carryNate Freiman [6] on the ALDS roster. But Barton may also be key off the bench as he can draw out at-bats and force the Tigers pitchers to throw a lot of pitches. Oakland’s best chance of winning this series is to get to the bullpen as quickly as possible, and Barton and his double-digit walk rate can help them achieve that goal.

Tigers’ key bench player: Andy Dirks

With Peralta back, the most likely outcome for him is to play left field. This will make Dirks a backup, and he can be valuable in this role defensively. Peralta is learning left field on the fly — he had never played the outfield before the final weekend of the regular season. Austin Jackson is solid in center, but has battled some nagging leg injuries this season, and Torii Hunter is a good defender only by reputation at this point, having posted a below-average UZR in seven of the last eight seasons [7]. In fact, Hunter’s poor defense has dragged down the defensive ratings of the entire Tigers outfield. Between him and Peralta, Dirks should find himself caddying for someone toward the end of every game.

Key stat: 77 FIP- for Tigers starting rotation

Top rotation FIP- in history

Team FIP-
2011 Phillies 77
2013 Tigers 77
1971 White Sox 77
1996 Braves 78
1997 Braves 78
2002 Diamondbacks 79
1998 Braves 79
1970 Cubs 79
10 teams tied 81

The Tigers’ 77 FIP- is tied for the best mark in baseball history (1901-present) with the 2011 Phillies and 1971 White Sox (see table), and they’re probably even a little better than that in the postseason, as fifth starter Rick Porcello moves to the bullpen. With an 88 FIP-, Porcello was good himself this season, but he still lags behind Max Scherzer (68), Justin Verlander (81),Anibal Sanchez (59) and Doug Fister (81).

Even against the A’s offense — which did hit righties well this season — this is the largest edge in the series and the biggest reason to put faith in Detroit. The Tigers rotation was tops in the majors this season at 25.3 WAR this season, which was 9.3 WAR more than the next-best team’s rotation and more than double that of the A’s rotation (11.2, 17th place overall).

Modest proposal: A’s need to be aggressive with their bullpen

Oakland’s starting rotation isn’t bad per se, but it’s better described as solid than spectacular. Only Bartolo Colon totaled more than 2.0 WAR, and at some point his act is going to wear thin [8]. Combine that with the fact that hitters fare increasingly better [9] against starting pitchers the more times they face them in the same game, and manager Bob Melvin is almost compelled to be aggressive with his bullpen. Luckily, he has the horses to make this happen.

In his bullpen, he has Brett Anderson, who is normally a starter and should be able to work extended stints. He also has Dan Otero and Jesse Chavez, both of whom recorded more than three outs per outing with regularity this season. Deploying this trio — who posted FIPs ranging from 2.12 to 3.33 as relievers this season — will give the A’s key length without sacrificing quality. Also, with Doolittle, Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour all capable of closing out games, Oakland has the freedom to insert one of them early in the game if there is a high-leverage situation. Given how good the top of Detroit’s lineup is, Oakland’s starting pitchers should rarely — if at all — be allowed to face it a third time.

Prediction: Tigers in 5