Matchup to Watch: Brandon Moss vs Phil Coke
The A’s don’t have a ton of power from the left side, and the Tigers don’t have much left-handed pitching, so this series is going to be a battle of right-handers, but the two prominent lefties might end up deciding things. Moss slugged .643 versus right-handed pitching but just .431 against lefties this year, so you can bet that Jim Leyland is going to target his lefty specialist to face the A’s toughest slugging lefty as many times as possible in the series. Because of Coke’s problems against right-handers — they hit .381/.446/.604 against him this year — Moss is probably the only batter he’ll face all series. These two should get used to seeing each other.
A’s X-Factor: George Kottaras
Like Moss, Kottaras will also benefit from the right-handed heavy pitching staff that Detroit leans upon, and should end up spending most of the time behind the plate for the A’s. He has 21 home runs in 541 career plate appearances against right-handed pitching, so while he’s not going to hit for a high average, he’s capable of turning around a fastball and providing some production from the bottom of the order.
Tigers X-Factor: Austin Jackson
For the first four months of the season, Jackson may have the Tigers best position player, as he added power and posted a .400 OBP, providing the opportunity for the big boys to drive in a lot of runs. He faded a bit in August and September, however, looking more like the decent hitter with some OBP issues he’d been in previous years. Last year, opposing pitchers dominated Jackson in the postsesaon, exploiting his contact issues to limit him to just a .195/.327/.317 line. His improvement in the first half of the year suggests that he can do better this year, but he’ll need to get back to the things that made him successful earlier in the season.
A’s Key Reliever: Sean Doolittle
It’s amazing that a converted position player could become so good so quickly, but in Doolittle’s first year of pitching, he’s become a dominant left-handed reliever, and one of the key parts of the A’s bullpen. Interestingly enough, though, he posted a large reverse platoon split, and was much better against right-handed batters than lefties. This attribute should let him go multiple innings if need be, and Bob Melvin shouldn’t be afraid to let him go through the heart of the Tigers order – he’s got as good a chance of retiring Miguel Cabrera as he does of getting Prince Fielder out.
Tigers Key Reliever: Joaquin Benoit
Jim Leyland leaned on Benoit very heavily last October, but given his second half meltdown — he’s allowed 11 home runs since the start of July — it will be interesting to see if he’ll be given as much responsibility this year. Most of the rest of the Tigers bullpen is primarily made up of match-up guys, so Benoit’s ability to get both right-handers and left-handers out could prove to be pivotal, but his gopheritis this year suggests that asking him to protect a late lead for too long could go horribly wrong in a hurry. The Tigers need Benoit to be the guy he was last year, not the guy he’s been in the second half of this year.
A’s Key Bench Player: Chris Carter
With Seth Smith as the starting DH against right-handed pitchers, Carter will be limited to pinch-hitting duties in this series. If Cliff Pennington comes to bat in a key situation, look for Carter to pop out of the dugout and provide a little more pressure on the Tigers pitchers. While he strikes out a lot, Carter may very well be the best pinch-hitter on anyone’s bench in the playoffs, with his power giving him the chance to change a game or two.
Tigers Key Bench Player: Ramon Santiago
This is almost a selection by default, as the rest of the Tigers bench is not much look to at. In fact, the Tigers lack of depth beyond their starters was one of their key problems this year, and Leyland is likely to just ride his starters for as long as he can. Santiago can serve as a pinch-runner in a key situation, but beyond that, don’t expect to see many of Detroit’s reserves in this series. They’re just not good enough to be featured in games with this kind of meaning.
Most Important Stat: Tigers starters, 82 ERA-
Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez combined to prevent runs at a rate that was 18 percent better than the league average this year. To put that in context, that’s essentially the same rate put up by Felix Hernandez and CC Sabathia this year. The Tigers starters are the best group that any team takes into October, and while they’re not quite up to the Phillies level from the past few years, they’re pretty close. The A’s offense has been surprisingly good in the second half of the year, but they’re in for a stiff challenge, as there just isn’t a weak spot in this Detroit rotation.
Modest Proposal: Jose Valverde should not be asked to begin the 9th if an LHB is due up.
While Valverde is the Tigers capital-C Closer, he’s really a right-handed specialist masquerading in that role. He only struck out 21 left-handed batters all season (against 19 walks), and his problems holding leads have mostly come when he’s been asked to retire a series of guys who bat from the opposite side. If a left-hander is due up to start the inning, the Tigers are better off sticking with Benoit for one additional batter, then handing the ball to Valverde to go after the righties. The A’s don’t have the same amount of scary left-handed bats that others do, but Leyland should still protect his closer as best he can, and that means not using him for the entire ninth inning if a right-hander isn’t due up first.
Prediction: Tigers in five.
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