ALCS Preview: Tigers vs. A’s

Oakland Athletics: An unconventional team built by a genius architect that can’t do jack squat in the playoffs because they value silicon over leather.

Detroit Tigers: An inspiring story of a team that turned around a losing franchise, whose second half struggles make them ripe for a Yankee ass-kicking.

Those storylines are gone now, and all we’re left with now are two very good baseball teams who will play each other for the American League pennant. This year there are no curses or epic rivalries, just two teams with good pitching, exceptional defenses and a handful of entertaining players. Hopefully Fox isn’t tempted to create a story beyond that (Jeremy Bonderman, meet a flying chair!). Just a few weeks ago it seemed inevitable that these two teams would meet in the ALDS, but the Tigers’ inability to capture the AL Central delayed that matchup. The fact these teams now meet in the ALCS is a treat for the fans, as the best-of-seven format really tests the depth of a rotation and bullpen, allowing both the Tigers and the A’s to show off their best parts.

While predicting the outcome of any particular contest is a fool’s errand, a short series is probably better viewed through a microscopic lens. So, instead of breaking down this series player-by-player, or run-prevention/run-scoring, let’s break this series down game-by-game.

Game 1

Nate Robertson (4.23 RA, 1.31 WHIP, 4.63 xFIP) versus Barry Zito (4.03 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 5.46 xFIP)

Robertson has turned in three consecutive seasons of basically the same performance, but the excellent Tigers defense this year is turning a lot of his batted balls into outs. He absolutely controls left-handers, holding them to a .490 OPS this year, but does struggle against right-handers, who hit him at a .824 OPS in 2006. Expect Oakland manager Ken Macha to sit lefty-swinging Mark Kotsay in favor of lefty-masher Bobby Kielty.

Defense in the Metrodome was the putative reason that Kotsay started against Johan Santana in the ALDS, but Jay Payton should be able to handle the Coliseum outfield ably. Oakland’s roster flexibility gives them an advantage in this game, as Kotsay can slide into center late in the game when the Tigers send in their right-handed relievers.

Don’t be fooled by Zito’s ugly xFIP; his results have always outstripped his defense-independent measures. There are two things that play into Zito’s favor for this game: 1) He’s better when batters offer at his breaking pitches, especially the curveball, as they result in weak contact and 2) Historically, lefties actually hit Zito better than righties. Look for a solid-if-not-spectacular outing against the Tiger lineup of free-swinging right-handed sticks. A very good Oakland defense should be gobbling up lots of balls in play.

Oakland scores early and often against Robertson, and Zito holds the Tigers down just enough to get it to the Oakland bullpen. Kiko Calero and Huston Street put the Tigers in a cage, Oakland wins, and Tigers manager Jim Leyland saves Joel Zumaya and Jamie Walker.

Advantage: Oakland

Game 2

Justin Verlander (3.77 RA, 1.33 WHIP, 4.67 xFIP) versus Esteban Loaiza (5.35 RA, 1.42 WHIP, 4.80 xFIP)

The Oakland brass chose Loaiza to make the Game 2 start over Rich Harden, but only just barely). While a Harden-Verlander ALCS duel has the potential to be an instant classic, the conservative route is probably best, as Harden is not quite in midseason form. But if Harden comes out with guns blazing in Game 4, Oakland is going to wonder why they didn’t use their best starter twice in a short series.

Loaiza always seems to be pitching on a razor-thin edge—if he’s throwing strikes and hitting 91 mph on the radar gun, he’s likely to turn in a solid performance. If he has trouble spotting his fastball, guys like Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez could have a field day, and a smart hitter like Carlos Guillen could give him fits. Verlander, on the other hand, has the best stuff on the Tigers starting staff, and if he can keep the A’s hitters from taking him deep, he stands a good chance of shutting down the Oakland offense entirely. Oakland’s relative lack of power (outside of Nick Swisher and Frank Thomas) could really hurt them in this game, as they’ll need to string together a bunch of hits in order to score off of Verlander.

The A’s might really miss Mark Ellis having a good at-bats at the bottom of the lineup in order to sustain rallies; who knows what emergency fill-in D’Angelo Jimenez will do?

Regardless of whether Loaiza struggles, I think Verlander gets this game to Zumaya and Detroit scores enough runs to let Todd Jones finish the game without things getting interesting. With the next day off for travel, both managers ought to use their best relievers to keep things close, but don’t be surprised to see Ken Macha summon Chad Gaudin in an attempt to save his bullpen bullets if the A’s are down.

I know I’m not the first to say it, but it is absolutely maddening when managers don’t go to their best guy to preserve a one- or two-run deficit. With the playoff schedule including a few off days, there is no excuse not to see Justin Duchscherer or Zumaya in the sixth inning if this is a close game.

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Advantage: Detroit

Game 3

Kenny Rogers (4.28 RA, 1.26 WHIP, 4.92 xFIP) versus Dan Haren (4.40 RA, 1.21 WHIP, 4.06 xFIP)

The Gambler’s ownage of the A’s is overstated: since being traded away from the A’s in 1999, Kenny Rogers is 11-3 against his former team but has a 5.07 RA and a 1.52 WHIP. He has a chance to stick it to the A’s in Game 3 if he avoids Thomas and uses his pitches (“junk” and “junkier”) to tame Eric Chavez and Jay Payton, Oakland’s “protection” for the Big Hurt. Still, the Oakland lineup is formidable against left-handed pitchers, especially if Kielty is playing, and they should get enough runs off of Rogers to support Haren.

Haren pitches like a poor man’s Roy Halladay: He throws strikes, gets a good number of groundball outs, and doesn’t allow hitters to reach via walk. If Detroit coming out hacking and Haren uses his breaking stuff effectively, he’ll have a fine outing. But if he gets predictable with his fastball, watch out: the Tigers hitters will be spanking first-pitch heaters all over the place.

More so than Games 1 and 2, I can see Game 3 coming down to a battle of bullpens. Both teams have very good relievers, and we may be lucky enough to see Duchscherer’s curveball butt heads with Zumaya’s gas for a few very entertaining innings. I’m going to give Oakland the edge, as Haren is more likely to pitch deep into the game than Rogers and Oakland’s general competence against lefties.

Advantage: Oakland, barely

Game 4

Jeremy Bonderman (4.37 RA, 1.30 WHIP, 3.68 xFIP) versus Rich Harden (4.24 RA, 1.22 WHIP, 4.12 xFIP)

Bonderman and Harden were roommates in the minor leagues until A’s general manager Billy Beane traded Bonderman (along with Carlos Pena and Franklyn German) for Jeff Weaver, who he then flipped for Ted Lilly. Bonderman has blossomed into a fantastic young pitcher, and he showed the height of his talents when he carved up the Yankees lineup to put away the ALDS last week. His fielding-independent stats are awesome; he trailed only Santana, Felix Hernandez, and Halladay in xFIP this year. Expect a solid performance out of the young horse.

For Oakland, Rich Harden is a complete wild card: he could be completely dominant and use his killer changeup to confound the Tigers hitters, or he might leave his fastball up in the zone as he did in his final start of the regular season and get tattooed. Who knows? I don’t, and neither do you. A major point of concern for the Athletics is that if Harden is shaky, they may end up trotting out Joe Blanton for a multiple-inning stint. Blanton is a solid young pitcher, but the game will not be going their way if Blanton ends up on the bump. Furthermore, Harden is unlikely to make it past 110 pitches in any event, so unless he has a great outing, the A’s will have to lean on their bullpen.

If Duchscherer and Street can’t do the job themselves, Curtis Granderson may be facing either Kiko Calero (.395 OBP allowed to lefties in 2006) or Joe Kennedy (.465 SLG allowed to lefties in 2006) in a critical situation.

Advantage: Tigers

Game 5

Nate Robertson (4.23 RA, 1.31 WHIP, 4.63 xFIP) versus Barry Zito (4.03 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 5.46 xFIP)

The Tigers can be in real trouble if Robertson is shaky against Oakland’s lefty-mashing lineup in this game. If they have to lean on Zumaya to get through Games 3 and 4, they may find the cupboard bare when they go to the ‘pen. Zito, on the other hand, does nothing if not work deep into games, or at least throw lots of pitches. Oakland can have the opportunity to really take control of the series in this game.

Advantage: Oakland

Game 6

Justin Verlander (3.77 RA, 1.33 WHIP, 4.67 xFIP) versus Esteban Loaiza (5.35 RA, 1.42 WHIP, 4.80 xFIP)

As in Game 2, Detroit has the pitching advantage in this game, and with the off day in between Games 5 and 6, everybody should be available for relief. Loaiza will once again be pitching at home, where he has been solid this year (4.06 RA at home, 6.66 RA on the road), but once again, he matches up poorly against Detroit’s offense. Oakland may even throw Harden in relief if he looked good in Game four, but it won’t be enough to overcome Verlander and a semi-rested Zumaya.

Advantage: Detroit

Game 7

Kenny Rogers (4.28 RA, 1.26 WHIP, 4.92 xFIP) versus Dan Haren (4.40 RA, 1.21 WHIP, 4.06 xFIP)

A worthy Game 7 matchup, and it’s hard to say who holds the advantage. With runs at a premium, Detroit’s power can put runs on the board in a hurry without having to string together an extended rally. On the other hand, if Oakland batters are patient, they can grind through Rogers, wait out Zumaya, and take their chances with Walker, Fernando Rodney, and mustachioed man himself, Todd Jones. This one is really a toss-up, and I’ll avoid making a prediction.

However, since I am under strict orders to predict the outcome of the series, I’ll go out on a limb and say that Oakland steals one of the games that it isn’t supposed to and wins the series before Game 7 even happens. Oakland in six.

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