MLB Coverage: Detroit-Oakland Division Series Preview

The Oakland A’s and Detroit Tigers  meet in the American League Division Series for the second straight year, and for the third time in the playoffs since 2006. TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage breaks down the series by comparing each team in the key areas of getting on base, hitting for power, starting pitching and the bullpen. Then we’ll conclude with some historical context and make a prediction.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: Of all the countless amazing things we can say about Detroit third baseman Miguel Cabrera, how about we start with this–the  man gets on base successfully a little more than 44 percent of the time. Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez aren’t in Miggy’s ballpark, but both fit the mold of power hitters who are also patient, thereby allowing them to continue to help the team, even if they don’t hit home runs.

Detroit’s challenge is going to be getting other runners on base to create big innings. Austin Jackson’s .337 OBP isn’t bad, but he’s not the same threat he was in 2012. Tori Hunter is in the same neighborhood. And Alex Avila had just a .317 OBP, which rendered him a liability.

Oakland made a big midseason acquisition when they picked up Alberto Callaspo, and the second baseman posted a .350 OBP. Josh Lowrie and Derek Norris were in that same neighborhood, with Crisp not far behind. Crisp, in particular, is important for setting the table for the middle of the lineup.

Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss are that middle of the lineup, and play on the corner of the infield, at third and first respectively. Donaldson is a very productive player who will get introduced to the country in these playoffs, and Moss is a steady on-base threat.

POWER HITTING: Cabrera’s slugging percentage was .636, narrowly edging out Baltimore’s Chris Davis for the best in baseball. This in spite of hitting in Detroit’s vast Comerica Park. Fielder’s power was down this year, but he still slugged a solid .457, and Omar Infante picked up some of the slack with a surprising .450 showing at second base. Hunter and Martinez are both legitimate power threats.

Donaldson, who slugged .499, and Moss, who hit 30 home runs, and let’s note that Oakland’s home park is no more hitter-friendly than Detroit’s. Like the Tigers, the A’s have a middle infielder who showed surprising pop, as Lowrie slugged .446. Even Crisp got in the act, with a .444 slugging percentage.

We should note that all four of these players have higher slugging percentages than Yoenis Cespedes, the man who won the Home Run Derby this past summer at Citi Field in New York, but is dealing with a sore shoulder coming into the playoffs. Oakland could use Cespedes, or rightfielder Josh Reddick, who had a miserably disappointing season, to find their stroke in the next week.

STARTING PITCHING: The strength of the Detroit rotation is underscored by the fact that Justin Verlander won’t pitch Game 1. That honor will go to Max Scherzer, who went 21-3 and should win the AL Cy Young Award. Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister are solid starting pitchers in any circumstance, and when they’re your 3-4 hurlers, you know have a tough rotation.

Bartolo Colon won 18 games for Oakland and gets the ball against Scherzer in Game 1. A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker are above-average starters with ERAs in the high 3s, as is Dan Straily. A potential X-factor could be Sonny Gray, who got his shot this season and went 5-3 with a 2.67 ERA. We’ll see if that earns him an opportunity to start in this series.

BULLPEN: This topic has been the rub with the Tigers all season long, and while the strength of the rotation, the muscle in the offense and the expertise of manager Jim Leyland covered it up en route to 93 wins, this is still the one area that can prevent a World Series celebration in Detroit.

Joaquin Benoit has handled the closer’s role, nailing 24/26 save chances with a 2.01 ERA. But he’s also never closed really big games. The setup team is basically Leyland taking his chances and hoping to get lucky. The challenges don’t stop, as Bruce Rondon and Phil Coke are each nursing some elbow injuries and their status for their series is uncertain.

Whether Oakland has a World Series celebration remains to be seen, but it won’t be the bullpen that costs them. Grant Balfour is a reliable closer, who only blew three saves all year. The setup crew is deep, and while the A’s starters might not match up with the Tigers, Oakland can spread the workload by going to the bullpen early.

One caveat whose importance remains to be seen–one of Balfour’s blown saves, and his low point of the season came in Detroit when he blew a four-run lead and lost the game on a Tori Hunter walkoff grand slam.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT: We mentioned at the top that this is a rematch from last season. We can also go back further into history and find a meeting in the 1972 ALCS, when the A’s won a hard-fought series in what was then a decisive fifth game. In fact each time these teams have met in a best-of-five series (1972 ALCS and 2012 ALDS) it has gone the distance, each team winning twice. The 2006 ALCS ended in a sweep for Detroit.

PICK: I picked the Tigers to win the World Series at the start of the year and won’t pull back now, even though Oakland does hold homefield advantage in this series. In fact, I think Detroit will dominate this series. I’ll allow their bullpen to blow one game, but otherwise look for the Tigers to win in four.

In recent years, Detroit has had the number of both Oakland and the New York Yankees, of whom they are a combined 5-0 in series since 2006. The Tigers don’t have the Yanks to beat up on this year, but at least the A’s are still around.