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ALCS Preview: Red Sox and Tigers

The Cinderellas are dead, and so the ALCS will be a battle of two high payroll perennial contenders, but that doesn’t mean that this series isn’t interesting. It’s pitching versus hitting, old school versus new school, big name stars versus a balanced roster. What will be the key factors in this battle? Let’s examine.

Tigers’ X factor: Miguel Cabrera

It’s a little weird to call the best hitter on the planet an X factor, but the reality is that no one really knows what Cabrera is right now. Hobbled by a body that is betraying him, Cabrera has been an immobile singles hitter for most of the last six weeks, as his home run in Game 5 of the ALDS was only his second since the beginning of September.

As Jeff Sullivan noted [1], the Tigers primarily pounded Cabrera on the outer half of the zone for most of the series, and his home run came on a mistake inside. The Red Sox surely noticed that the pound-him-away plan worked, and are likely to continue until Cabrera shows he can drive the ball the other way like he is capable of.

Beyond just his questionable offensive skills, Cabrera remains a liability at third base, and at some point, Jacoby Ellsbury or Shane Victorino might decide to start bunting in his direction to see if he can adequately play the position. The A’s didn’t have guys who were particularly good at bunting, but the Red Sox have a couple who could use Cabrera’s injuries to get on base regularly, and if his health doesn’t improve, Leyland may still be forced to choose between Cabrera’s less threatening bat in the line-up and taking away free bunt hits from the Red Sox hitters.

Red Sox X factor: Shane Victorino

The Red Sox offense is built around David Ortiz, but over the last couple of months, Victorino has been the reason that this team was a run scoring juggernaut. After giving up switch hitting and batting exclusively as a right-hander, he became a different hitter, pounding right-handed pitching in a way he never had before. For the season, he hit .274/.319/.389 against RHPs as a lefty, but he hit .300/.386/.510 against RHPs as an RHB. And he’s going to see a steady diet of RHPs in this series.

The Tigers rotation is entirely right-handed, and their bullpen pieces lean heavily towards the right side as well. Traditionally, this would have been a problem for Victorino, but he’s mastered the art of getting hit on inside fastballs by right-handed pitching, and his swing has more power from the right side than the left, so he’s both gotten on base and hit for power against righties of late. If Victorino keeps hitting this well from the right side against right-handers, the Red Sox line-up will become basically unstoppable.

Tigers key reliever: Drew Smyly

The Tigers ALDS pitching staff consistent of nine right-handers and two lefties, and of those two lefties, one of them is starter turned long reliever Jose Alvarez. In effect, Smyly was the only left-handed pitcher on the team for the first round, and he’s the only one likely to get called upon to get David Ortiz out in a critical situation.

Ortiz is basically Miguel Cabrera against right-handed pitching, as he hit .339/.440/.652 against RHPs this year. Against lefties, he’s more Omar Infante, as his .260/.315/.418 line shows. Ortiz is going to love facing all the Tigers right-handers, but in late and close situations, he should be fed a steady diet of Drew Smyly, who held left-handed hitters to a .187/.225/.246 line this season. Smyly doesn’t have to be used only as a situational lefty, so they can bring him in to go after Jacoby Ellsbury and let him stick around through Ortiz, and he should probably pitch in every close game this series.

Red Sox key reliever: Ryan Dempster

If the Red Sox have a weakness, it’s probably the bridge innings between when the starters exit and when Koji Uehara enters, which is one of the reasons they acquired Jake Peavy at the trade deadline. Not only did Peavy boost their rotation, but he allowed them to shift Dempster back to the bullpen to strengthen their relief core.

While he’s been exclusively a starter since 2008, Dempster was a pretty good reliever with the Cubs from 2004-2007, and a move back into that role for October will give John Farrell another option to get multiple innings from a reliever who doesn’t have to specialize. Dempster’s fastball/splitter combination plays up in relief, and even as he had his struggles this year, he was much better against opponents the first time facing them. In his first PA against a batter this season, he had 66 strikeouts against 20 walks, but the second time through, that fell to 43/32. In a relief role, only facing batters one team each, Dempster could be a real weapon for the Red Sox again.

Key matchup: Prince Fielder versus Craig Breslow

Primarily, these left-on-left match-ups are fairly straight forward. Team brings in funky sidearming lefty specialist to exploit big slugging left-handed power hitter who is vulnerable to sliders low and away, and specialist throws nothing but sliders to big slugging power hitter. Rinse and repeat. This match-up, though, will probably not be much like that at all.

There’s no question that Prince Fielder is not a premium offensive player against left-handed pitching, as he’s hit just .267/.347/.457 against southpaws in his career. And Breslow, being the Red Sox primary left-handed reliever, will likely be called on to face Fielder during this series. But Breslow is not your traditional left-handed specialist, and in his career, he’s actually been equally effective against right-handed batters (.289 wOBA against) as lefties (.285 wOBA against).

Breslow is a lefty reliever, but not really a lefty specialist. With Cabrera hobbled, Fielder is going to have to pick up some of the slack, and he’s going to get the benefit of facing a mostly right-handed pitching staff without a true dominant left-on-left reliever in the bullpen. Breslow isn’t a bad option against Fielder, but as far as facing ace lefty relievers go, this is a pretty good match-up for Fielder and the Tigers.

Tigers key bench player: Andy Dirks

The Tigers left fielder for much of the season, Dirks has been unseated by Jhonny Peralta (and, weirdly, Don Kelly) in the playoffs, and only got three at-bats against the A’s in the first round. Dirks, though, is easily the Tigers best defensive left fielder, especially for the games in Fenway Park, where The Green Monster comes into play. While the Tigers aren’t a team known for their defensive skills, punting experience in left field during the games in Boston seems like a big risk, and letting Dirks handle those games is probably the best plan. Despite getting displaced in the first round, Dirks could be a big key for the Tigers in the ALCS.

Red Sox key bench player: Quinton Berry

The Sox aren’t going to need to platoon or pinch hit much in this series, since the Tigers are all right-handers all the time, so you’re probably going to see few substitutions from John Farrell. However, he will need to pinch run occasionally, and that’s why Berry is on the Red Sox roster. Including the postseason, Berry is 27 for 27 in stealing bases in the big leagues, so while he’s not as fast as Billy Hamilton, he is a similar kind of weapon off the bench. With the Red Sox starters not exactly being the speediest group in the game, look for Berry to get a few chances to run in this series, and given his track record, he’s probably going to be safe.

Key stat: Red Sox .325 wOBA allowed against right-handed hitters

The Red Sox have a bunch of good right-handed pitching, so it doesn’t seem like this should be a weakness for them, but they actually ranked tied for 24th [2] in holding down opponents RHBs this season. And the Tigers have some pretty good right-handed hitting.

Some of this weakness will be neutralized by leaving lefties like Felix Doubront, Matt Thornton, and Franklin Morales off the roster or using them sparingly against the Tigers, but even the Red Sox right-handers had some problems against right-handed hitting this year. John Lackey, Ryan Dempster, and Brandon Workman were all better against southpaws this year, and although reverse platoon splits are usually just small sample size, these guys are not traditional right-handed pitchers who dominate right-handed hitters. Toss in two starts from Jon Lester, and this could be a nice series of match-ups for Torii Hunter, Omar Infante, and Austin Jackson.

Modest proposal: The Tigers should bench Jose Iglesias.

The Tigers acquired Iglesias from the Red Sox to patch the hole created by Jhonny Peralta’s suspension, but Peralta is no longer suspended and is the team’s best option at shortstop. They got him into the line-up by using him in left field in the first round, but the defensive downgrade in having Peralta running around the outfield — especially behind Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, two fly ball pitchers — is larger than the upgrade they get by having Iglesias man shortstop instead. The Tigers are a better team with Peralta at short and Dirks in left field than they are with Iglesias at short and Peralta in left. Dirks’ bat is significantly better than Iglesias, Peralta can play short better than he can left. Iglesias can still be inserted for defensive purposes, but their best line-up doesn’t include him in it.