Tigers-Orioles Division Series Preview

The Detroit Tigers and Baltimore Orioles begin the Division Series round for all of MLB this afternoon at 5:30 PM ET, with the cameras of TBS upon them. Detroit is a (-140) betting favorite to win and advance to the American League Championship Series, in spite of Baltimore holding homefield advantage and the second-best record in all of baseball. The reason is simple and that’s the shadow the top three Tiger starters cast over any short series. Here’s a few thoughts on the Tigers-Orioles Division Series matchup…

A 1-2-3 punch of Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and David Price, lined up in that order, is imposing, but it begs a question. From an analytical standpoint, how much credence should we give to their 2014 performance alone vis-à-vis a broader window of time?
The question applies specifically to Verlander, who struggled to a 4.54 ERA. While he did pitch better at the end of the season, there’s still nothing in this year’s performance alone to suggest he’s ready to be an ace.
But of course, the last two Octobers he’s been dominating in the Division Series round, and last year in the ALCS he was dominant against the Boston Red Sox, losing a tough 1-0 decision in his one start. It’s hardly pushing it to suggest that Verlander can be that pitcher when he gets the ball in Game 2.
BaseballThe question also applies to Price. The lefty got off to a slow start in Tampa Bay, and even after being traded to Detroit has been fairly pedestrian, with a 3.59 ERA and a 4-4 record. Scherzer, with his 18 wins and 3.15 ERA is the only pitcher of the trio with a strong record this season carrying him into October.
It would hardly be unprecedented for veteran players, who have been a little off in a particular year, to turn around right the ship. We’ve seen entire teams of vets do it—the 2000 New York Yankees and the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals are examples of teams that had pretty weak regular seasons, but found the form of the years immediately preceding the minute they stepped on to the October stage. Perhaps Verlander and Price can do the same.
That’s the biggest issue in this series, but for now it needs to be said—in 2014, Baltimore’s starting pitching was better than Detroit’s. In fact, it was a lot better. Chris Tillman, the Game 1 starter, Miguel Gonzalez and Wei-Yin Chen all have better ERAs than Price did in his Detroit time. Bud Norris is only narrowly behind Price. The edge on Verlander is obviously quite dramatic.
Furthermore, Camden Yards is a hitters’ park, while Comerica Park in Detroit is a pitchers’ park. The statistical edge that Baltimore’s arms enjoy on the surface gets even larger when you factor this in.
And double furthermore, we’ve only discussed the starting rotation. Detroit’s bullpen cost them the ALCS last year, and probably the World Series. It’s not any better this year. In the meantime, Zach Britton has been lights-out as the Baltimore closer, and Darren O’Day has been insanely good as the eighth-inning man for several years now. They have a lefty setup man in Andrew Miller and at least four other arms that would get significantly more work if they were in Detroit.

Detroit’s path to winning this series—besides the Big Three starters all looking like Cy Young aces—is going to come through their offense. In spite of the aforementioned park issues, they ranked second in the AL in runs scored while Baltimore ranked sixth. Again, adjust for park differential, and the gap becomes wider.
Miguel Cabrera might not have chased a Triple Crown and he won’t win MVP this year, but he still finished with a stat line of .371 on-base percentage/.524 slugging percentage. In other words, what normal players would call a career year. Victor Martinez was even better, at .409/.565 and J.D. Martinez was solid, with a stat line of .358/.553. Torii Hunter also offers some power from the right side, and he’s one of the Tiger veterans that have seemed to come up big in October, as he chases his first World Series appearance.
Baltimore got big years from Nelson Cruz and Steve Pearce, while Nick Markakis sets the table very well. The Oriole offense though, for both better and worse is captured in the person of Adam Jones. The centerfielder hit 29 home runs and slugged .469. But his lack of patience at the plate also led to a .311 OBP. The Orioles don’t consistently put men on base and if they lose this series, that’s going to be the reason why.
So who comes out on top? I lean Baltimore’s direction. If Detroit’s Big Three doesn’t completely dominate, then the Oriole pitching edge is going to be overwhelming. Even if the Big Three does pitch extremely well, the Baltimore rotation can keep their team in games long enough for the bullpen to win it—the path the San Francisco Giants and Boston Red Sox have used en route to eliminating Detroit each of the last two years.

The biggest concern I have with my pick (aside from the fact that my American League picks have been putrid all season long, starting with my March call of Texas to reach the World Series), is Baltimore’s offense. They’re going to have to hit home runs and that always makes me a little nervous. But a formula of pitching and three-run homers has been used in this town before to win championships. I’m sure Earl Weaver is smiling somewhere.
To close on the human interest side, both Hunter and Baltimore manager Buck Showalter are deserving of huge respect from fans around the country. I’m pulling for Buck to get to his first World Series, but Hunter’s own pursuit is worthy of respect as well. I hope whomever wins this series takes the ALCS.