For two teams not in the same division, the Oakland A's and the Detroit Tigers have seen plenty of each other over the past two years. In 2012, the A's and Tigers met seven times during the regular season and then took their ALDS to the maximum five games. Detroit won the season series in 2012, four games to three, and the Division Series, three games to two. This year, the A's and Tigers squared off seven times once again. This year, it was the A's who came out ahead in the season series, four games to three.
The A's and Tigers first met in mid-April, when Oakland hosted Detroit for three games. The A's won the first game of that series, 4-3, on a 12th-inning homerun by Josh Donaldson, but they dropped the next two in blowout fashion, 7-3 and 10-1. Oakland would return the favor in a four-game trip to Detroit in late August. The A's came into that series in a bit of a slump, having lost three of four, but they had surprising success against the Tigers' four top starting pitchers. It took a ninth-inning rally by the Tigers in the fourth game to prevent a sweep. Oakland left that series having won three games out of four and having outscored the Tigers, 34-19.
The Tigers and A's finished the 2013 regular season second and third, respectively, in the American League in scoring (796 runs for Detroit, 767 runs for Oakland). The A's and Tigers were also second and third in the AL in team ERA, with the A's finishing ahead of the Tigers in this category. In their seven games against each other this season, the A's hit .285/.348/.463, while the Tigers hit .311/.362/.490. Despite that discrepancy, the A's actually out-scored the Tigers, 42-40.
Below we take a closer look at the match-ups that will make-or-break the series for these two clubs.
A's Hitters Versus Tigers Pitchers
Outside of the Los Angeles Dodgers, there is no more star-studded playoff starting rotation than the one put together by the Tigers. Detroit will feature the AL's reigning leader in wins (Max Scherzer), a former AL MVP and Cy Young award winner (Justin Verlander), the 2013 AL ERA champ (Anibal Sanchez) and a fourth starter who had a 4.1 WAR for the year (Doug Fister). Three of the Tigers' four starters finished the year with more than 200 strike-outs and the only pitcher who didn't (Fister) had a 159:44 K:BB. All four faced the A's in the ALDS last year and all four pitched well.
The Tigers led all American League teams in strike-outs by a healthy margin this season, striking out 1,428 in 1,462.2 innings pitched. Their starters accounted for 981 of those strike-outs in 1,023 innings pitched. Starting pitching is by far the strength of the Detroit staff. The Tigers had a starter's ERA of 3.44 this season (best in the AL). Their bullpen, while improved over last year's group, had a 4.01 ERA – 12th worst in the AL out of 15 teams. It goes without saying that the A's will need to get into the Tigers' bullpen to find success in the series. That could be tough to do, as Tigers' starters are used to working deep into games. They averaged 6.1 innings pitched per start this year.
The A's set all kinds of team strike-out records last year, but with Jonny Gomes, Chris Carter and Brandon Inge no longer on the team, Oakland's K-rate was significantly lower in 2013. The A's struck-out 1,178 times this year, the seventh-fewest in the league. Oakland made pitchers work throughout the year, walking the third-most times this season (573). Driving up the Tigers' pitch counts early in games will be a big key for the A's in the series.
The Tigers appear to have an advantage with their style of pitching, at least out of the rotation. The A's had 1,122 plate appearances against pitchers that would be considered ‘power pitchers' this season, and they posted an OPS of 672. That was slightly better than league average against power pitchers, but significantly worse than they performed against ‘finesse pitchers' (OPS of 773 and an sOPS of 106). Against pitchers that fell in the average category (neither power or finesse), the A's had a 746 OPS and an sOPS of 114.
A's manager Bob Melvin leaned heavily on his deep roster this year, mixing and matching players throughout the season based on match-ups. He won't get the opportunity to do as much mixing-and-matching in his starting line-ups in this series, as the Tigers will use an all-right-handed starting rotation. However, Melvin wasn't shy about pinch-hitting players in the late innings during the regular season and he figures to use right-handed hitters such as Chris Young and Derek Norris liberally off of the bench.
The A's were second in the AL in pinch-hitting appearances this season (only Tampa Bay had more). The A's weren't particularly successful in their pinch-hitting appearances, posting a .144 average in 139 at-bats. However, Norris homered in his last three pinch-hitting appearances of the season, something to watch in this series.
Facing an all-right-handed starting rotation won't be a significant disadvantage for the A's. For the season, the A's posted a .258/.332/.428 line against left-handed pitchers. Versus right-handers, they were almost equally effective: .252/.324/.414.
The A's top three offensive players this season – Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss and Jed Lowrie – all hit well against Detroit this year and the A's will need those three to continue to perform against Tigers' pitching for the A's to have a chance at winning the series, especially with Yoenis Cespedes nursing a sore shoulder. Coco Crisp also hit well against Detroit this year, and when he has hit well this season, the A's have usually been at their best on offense.
One wildcard for the A's will be whether they can get any offensive production from right-fielder Josh Reddick during the series. Reddick struggled in the ALDS last year and he is coming off of an injury-marred season during which he posted a 686 OPS with 12 homers in 114 games. Reddick has four hits in eight career at-bats against Detroit's Game One starter Scherzer. Reddick hit much better in September (846 OPS), which was arguably his healthiest month of the year. He figures to be in the bottom half of the A's line-ups in this series, but if he can give the A's a powerful left-handed bat in the lower part of the line-up, the A's will be in good shape.
Mid-season acquisition Alberto Callaspo will give Melvin a weapon he didn't have against Detroit during last year's ALDS. Callaspo appeared in four games against the Tigers this season and he had seven hits in 16 at-bats. He is a downgrade defensively (more on that later) in comparison to fellow second baseman Eric Sogard and third baseman Donaldson, but Callaspo figures to get plenty of at-bats in the series. He is one of the few A's hitters who would be considered a contact hitter (he had a 53:47 BB:K in 453 at-bats this season). Callaspo hit .270/.350/.409 in 50 games after coming over to the A's in a July trade with the Angels. In his career, Callaspo has hit particularly well against Fister (918 OPS).
It isn't clear how Seth Smith will be used in the series. He struggled for much of the middle part of the year, but Smith hit .393 in September and .286 with a 944 OPS against the Tigers this season. Smith had the game-tying double in the bottom of the ninth inning in the A's come-from-behind win over the Tigers in Game Four of last year's series.
Other notable match-ups to watch for include Donaldson vs. Sanchez (Donaldson is 3-for-8 with a walk), Lowrie vs. Sanchez (Lowrie is only 1-for-10), Sogard versus Scherzer (Sogard is 3-for-5 with two doubles), Cespedes vs. Verlander (Cespedes is 3-for-6 with a double), Crisp vs. Verlander (Crisp is 8-for-24 and he homered against Verlander in last year's post-season), Crisp vs. Fister (Crisp is 6-for-15 with two triples), Reddick vs. lefty reliever Darin Downs (Reddick has two walks in three plate appearances), Young vs. reliever Jose Veras (Young is 2-for-6, including a double and a ninth-inning homer this year).
A's Pitchers Versus Detroit Hitters
As intimidating as the Tigers' line-up was at times last season, Detroit has a much deeper and more talented line-up in 2013. Last year, the Tigers used a hodgepodge of players in right field and at DH. This year, those spots have been filled by veteran stars Torii Hunter (114 OPS+) and Victor Martinez (111 OPS+). First baseman Prince Fielder had a down year, by his standards, but he still hit 25 homers, drove-in 106 runs and posted an OPS+ of 120, second-best on the team behind Miguel Cabrera. The Tigers' line-up features almost exclusively veteran players (with the exception of rookie shortstop Jose Iglesias) who have post-season experience.
The Tigers' offense centers around Cabrera, who put together another fabulous season one year after his Triple Crown performance in 2012. Cabrera has been hobbled by lower body injuries in September, but it is hard to imagine that he won't play a significant role in the series. He is a career .339 hitter against the A's, with 15 homers in 48 games.
While the strength of the Detroit pitching staff lies with their rotation, the A's staff is more balanced. A's starters posted a 3.72 ERA, second-best in the league behind Detroit. That number was helped significantly by Bartolo Colon, who finished second in the AL behind Sanchez in ERA with a 2.65 mark. A's starters relied on their defense this season, striking out 6.93 per nine innings (compared to 8.63 for Detroit starters). They were efficient, however, tying the Yankees for the fewest number of pitches thrown per at-bat. A's starters finished in the middle of the pack in K:BB at 2.74.
The A's bullpen stumbled some down-the-stretch, but they still finished third in the league in ERA with a 3.22 mark. A's relievers struck-out 8.16 per nine innings, and they walked 154 in 475.1 innings pitched (2.91 per nine innings). They allowed 41 homeruns in 2,005 plate appearances.
With A.J. Griffin out for the Division Series with a sore elbow, the A's will feature two rookies in their starting rotation (Sonny Gray and Dan Straily) and one in their bullpen (Dan Otero). That is a significantly smaller number of rookies than the A's had on their pitching staff for the 2012 ALDS, when they had three rookie starters and five rookie relievers. A's Game One starter Bartolo Colon wasn't available last year for the ALDS, as he was serving his suspension for PEDs, but he will be pitching in his sixth post-season.
Colon is coming off of arguably the best regular season of his career. He had a 5.1 WAR, tied for the second-best WAR of his career (his best was 2002, when he pitched for Cleveland and Montreal). Colon led the league in shutouts with three and his 2.65 ERA was the best of his career. His 141 ERA+ was the second-best single season mark of his career. Colon struck-out only 5.5 per nine innings, but he walked just 1.4 and he allowed just 0.7 homers per nine innings.
Colon hit a bump in the road in August when he was lit up for two straight starts and saw his velocity dip. However, after a two-week stay on the disabled list, Colon allowed two runs or fewer in each of his final six starts. Colon faced the Tigers twice this season, allowing four runs in 12 innings of work. The Tigers figure to present a challenge for Colon, however, as Cabrera, Andy Dirks, Fielder, Martinez and Alex Avila all have excellent career numbers against him.
Gray, who will pitch in Game Two for the A's, presents as another wildcard in the series. The rookie made only 10 starts for the A's this season and none of them came against Detroit, so they will be seeing Gray for the first time on Saturday. Gray has arguably the best stuff of any A's pitcher, as evidenced by his 67 strike-outs in 64 major league innings. A groundball pitcher, he allowed just four homeruns. Command has occasionally been an issue for Gray (especially as a minor leaguer), so look for the veteran Tigers' line-up to work the count against the right-hander.
Jarrod Parker was the A's Game One and Game Five starter in last year's ALDS. The A's lost both games, although Parker pitched well enough to win in Game One. Parker had an up-and-down regular season. He posted a 7.36 ERA in April, but he found his footing in early May and pitched very well for the rest of the season until hitting a bump-in-the-road in late September. The time-off for Parker between his last start and Game Three should be beneficial, as he appeared to be tiring in September.
Across the board, Parker's numbers were down in 2013, although a lot of that had to do with his early season struggles. Parker's ERA was better on the road than at home, although his homer-rate was more than doubled on the road. In his one start versus the Tigers this season, Parker was hit around, allowing eight runs in just 3.1 innings. He fell behind often in that game. Getting ahead of hitters will be important for Parker in Game Three.
If the series reaches a fourth game, Straily will get the call. The right-hander was left off of the A's post-season roster last year, and he was expected to be on the sidelines again this year before Griffin was ruled out because of the elbow injury. Straily shouldn't represent a downgrade from Griffin, however, although Griffin does have post-season experience. Straily was arguably the A's best pitcher in September, when he allowed just seven earned runs in 30 innings. Like Gray, Straily can be prone to command issues from time-to-time. Unlike Gray, Straily is a flyball pitcher, so those command issues can lead to homeruns (he allowed 16 in 152.1 innings). Straily averaged more than seven strike-outs per nine innings and right-handed hitters posted a 617 OPS against him (Detroit's line-up is predominantly right-handed).
The A's bullpen had a rough month of September, and they will need to regain their early season form for the A's to win the series. Unlike last year, when the A's top three relievers (Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle) were running on fumes, the A's bullpen is well-rested coming into the series. Not only has the entire team had Monday through Thursday off, but the A's were also able to use their bullpen judiciously during the final week of the season since they had already clinched their division.
Balfour and Cook will be two closely watched relievers in this series. Both struggled over the final six weeks of the year after putting together outstanding seasons up until that point. Both pitched better in their final few outings of the season, although both still walked several batters.
Balfour had a memorable blown save against the Tigers during that August series. He has generally pitched well against Tigers' hitters during his career, although Martinez has four hits and two walks against him in 10 plate appearances. Hunter, who hit the walk-off blast against Balfour in that August game, has the only homer of any current Tigers' hitter against Balfour. Cook has more limited experience against the Tigers, but their current roster has just three hits in 20 at-bats against him in regular season play.
The Tigers feature mostly right-handed power-hitters in their line-up, although Fielder is an obvious exception. Martinez, a switch-hitter, also hits better as a left-handed batter. The A's will have three lefties in their bullpen (Brett Anderson, Sean Doolittle and Jerry Blevins), although only Doolittle had better numbers against left-handed hitters this season. Anderson and Doolittle will most likely be used in full-inning situations, while Blevins will likely be used more situationally.
Doolittle has allowed just two hits in 16 regular season at-bats against the current Tigers' roster, while Blevins has allowed 14 hits in 41 at-bats against current Tigers (Fielder is 2-for-3 with a homer). Anderson had one appearance against the Tigers this year, allowing three runs in three innings in a relief appearance. He shut-out Detroit in Game Three of the ALDS last season as a starter, but he hasn't been as sharp this season.
Neither Dan Otero nor Jesse Chavez were on the A's ALDS roster last season. Both are right-handers who have pitched their way into more significant roles with the A's after beginning the year in the minor leagues. Otero is equally effective against righties and lefties. Chavez has been used as a long reliever during the regular season, but he has dominated right-handed hitters this year and could be used for match-up purposes during this series. Otero has tossed three scoreless innings against Detroit this year, while Chavez hasn't faced the Tigers this season.
A's Defense Versus Batted Balls; Behind The Plate
For years, the A's have built their teams around pitching and defense, but they sacrificed some of that defensive prowess this off-season to make upgrades offensively. Shortstop Jed Lowrie and catcher John Jaso were added to give the A's offense at positions they had traditionally struggled to get production from, and both delivered on that promise. Jaso's season was derailed by a concussion that will keep him out of this series, but how Lowrie handles his position at shortstop will play a significant role in the series.
Lowrie posted an impressive 4.4 oWAR this season, but his dWAR was an abysmal -1.4. He committed a team-high 18 errors and rated well below-average for his range according to nearly all defensive metrics. The A's don't have any other true shortstops on their roster (Sogard is a second baseman who has added shortstop to his resume late in his career), so Lowrie is likely to remain at his position even late in close games.
Brandon Moss has spent most of the season playing first base, and his defense has rated poorly at that position, as well. He had a team-worst -2.2 dWAR this season. Moss isn't likely to play first base during the ALDS as often as he did this season. First baseman Daric Barton, who spent the majority of the year in Triple-A and wasn't on the A's ALDS roster last season, has played well enough over the past six weeks to get regular playing time during the series. If Yoenis Cespedes is healthy enough to play left field, Moss will be the A's DH during the series. If Cespedes needs to DH, Moss will be in left, where he has still rated as below-average, but he has been better than he was at first.
The A's will have a difficult decision to make at second base when it comes to choosing between Eric Sogard and Alberto Callaspo. Callaspo has been the better offensive player since joining the A's in July, but Sogard has been one of the A's best defensive players with a 1.0 dWAR this season. The A's have struggled to turn groundballs hit up the middle into outs this year, and that could be a big factor in this series.
Where the A's haven't struggled defensively is at third base and in the outfield. Josh Donaldson led the team with a 1.8 dWAR this year and ranked near the top of all third basemen in many defensive metrics this season. The A's outfield has helped make the team one of the most efficient at turning batted balls into outs, and they have benefited a pitching staff that has favored allowing flyballs over groundballs this season. Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick have both been above-average defensively this year, according to the metrics. Chris Young has struggled some, especially in the corners, although he has traditionally been a strong defensive player.
Behind the plate, the A's struggled defensively for much of the early season, especially when Jaso was getting the majority of the starts. Jaso's replacement, Stephen Vogt, has represented an upgrade defensively, although none of the A's catchers (Vogt, Derek Norris and Kurt Suzuki) rate among the elite with the glove. In terms of dWAR, Norris (0.0 dWAR), Vogt (0.4 dWAR) and Suzuki (0.1 dWAR) scored as average defensive catchers in 2013. Suzuki has always rated highly amongst pitchers for his game-calling and ability to block balls in the dirt. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the A's use Suzuki as a late-inning defensive replacement during this series.
With so much power in their line-up, the Tigers were mostly a station-to-station team in 2013, but they showed during last year's post-season that they aren't afraid to run on the A's catching corps. No Tigers' player had more than eight stolen bases this season, however, although A's catchers allowed 83% of all attempted base-stealers to swipe their bags successfully.