World Series Preview: Detroit-San Francisco

The higher-ups at Fox Sports are probably weeping, with the prospect of the San Francisco Giants and Detroit Tigers matching up. The TV ratings won’t be huge, but the baseball promises to be good. These are two evenly matched teams, and TheSportsNotebook will break down each team by their ability to put runners on base, hit for power, get starting pitching and close games out in relief. We’ll also look at the 2012 World Series in a little historical context, along with seeing how the smart money in Las Vegas sees things.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: Marco Scutaro became a national name with his performance in the National League Championship Series for the Giants, getting 14 hits in the two-hole in the batting order. Scutaro has a .404 on-base percentage for the postseason. But don’t overlook the fact he’s been doing that ever since he came over from Colorado at the trade deadline. Scutaro’s OBP during his 61 regular season games in Frisco was a sparkling .385

Gregor Blanco and Angel Pagan are also steady, with the latter swinging a hot bat in the NLCS. And in the middle of the order, Pablo Sandoval is good at getting on base, while Buster Posey is outstanding, the reason he’s likely already won the MVP vote that took place the day after the regular season ended. Posey has been in a slump for the postseason, as has first baseman Brandon Belt. Both need to be active members of the offense in this series.

Austin Jackson sparks the offense for Detroit, scoring 103 runs during the season with an OBP of .377. He’s playing well in the playoffs and keeping the table set for Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. Since Cabrera won the Triple Crown you can probably guess he does more than just hit for power. He gets on base at a prolific rate, something that served him well in the American League playoffs. Even though he didn’t hit for as much power until the final game of the Yankee series, he was a regular part of the Detroit attack.

Fielder is in a slump in all facets of his game, as is normally productive catcher Alex Avila and left fielder Andy Dirks. They’ve been covered for by solid hitting from shortstop Jhonny Peralta and designated hitter Delmon Young, MVP of the ALCS. And rightfielder Avisail Garcia is also swinging a good bat. Between all of these players, if Detroit can get three to have a World Series, they’ll give their stars a fair chance to carry them.

POWER: Sandoval is the muscle in the San Francisco lineup and he’s stepped up in his game in the playoffs, slugging .580, after a season-long number of .447. Scutaro also drove the ball to the gaps well at the end of the regular season, although this is not a regular part of his game, and I’m not counting on seeing it over the next week. And Posey popped 24 home runs and slugged .549.

Cabrera and Fielder give Detroit a huge edge in this area in the World Series, and both Jackson and Dirks can drive the ball with authority. Peralta can be streaky, and he just happens to be on a positive streak right now, slugging .543 in the postseason and hitting the home run that broke open the final game of the ALCS. The same goes for Young.

STARTING PITCHING:  If you look at the season-long numbers these teams match up pretty well, but the factors unique to this World Series give Detroit at least  a small edge and potentially a decisive one. The Tigers have Justin Verlander ready to go in Games 1 & 5—and have the option of using him in Games 1, 4 & 7 if the ace wants to try short rest, though I doubt this will happen. San Francisco ace Matt Cain won on Monday night to clinch the NL pennant and won’t be available until at least Game 3 on Saturday.

San Francisco overcame not having Cain until Game 3 in the NLCS and could do the same here. But they had Ryan Vogelsong lined up for Games 2 & 6 against the Cardinals. Vogelsong pitched on Sunday night and unless he can go on short rest in Thursday’s Game 2, it means the Giants have to push him or Cain back to Game 4, which in turn means the one who goes Game 4 (presumably Vogelsong) could only take one turn on their normal four days’ rest. It’s the same problem the Yankees had against Detroit in the ALCS and by the time C.C. Sabathia took the mound in Game 4 the series was all but over.

The Giants will start Barry Zito in Wednesday’s opener, apparently still lacking confidence in Tim Lincecum and we have no idea what the plans are for him. Bruce Bochy apparently lacks confidence in Madison Bumgarner as well—the lefty who won 16 games with a 3.37 ERA in the regular season, has been rocked in the playoffs. Even though he’s on regular rest, he was passed over for Game 1 and as of now is still not officially announced for Game 2.

Detroit, on the other hand, has its rotation rolling, even after Verlander. Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer were all pitching well prior to getting some national attention during the ALCS when they collared the Yankees. In fact, the Tiger rotation had finally clicked in September and there’s no reason to think it will stop now.

RELIEF PITCHING: If Detroit has the edge with the starters, San Francisco has better relievers and a lot more of them. The Giants can run out Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez in set-up work and then close games with Sanitago Casilla and Sergio Romo. All four are pitching well. Then let’s add in the fact that Lincecum’s relief appearances in the playoffs have been solid. If Bochy wants to pitch Vogelsong on short rest in Game 2, he won’t have to ask for a lot of innings—if a starter gets this pen to the sixth inning, the relievers can match up with anyone.

By contrast, Detroit’s starters need to go at least seven, and even at that, things can be an adventure. Phil Coke took the closer’s job from Jose Valverde in midstream in the ALCS and has pitched very well in the playoffs. It gives Detroit some hope, but what does it say when you have to change the closer in the middle of playing for the pennant?

Octavio Dotel is pitching well in setup and is a veteran that can be trusted, while Joaquin Benoit’s performance is anyone’s guess on a day-to-day basis. Potential X-factors in a positive way for Jim Leyland are Drew Smyly, the young starter who has thrown 2.1 IP of shutout ball in relief this October and Al Albuquerque, has done 1.1 IP without giving up a run. We’ll see if they need to be called on more against San Francisco.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT: There’s no history between these two teams, so the context here is more in the form of irony. Verlander and Cain were the starters in the All-Star Game, won by the National League. So at least this silly idea MLB has of settling homefield advantage got to be decided by the aces of each team. Both pitchers also tossed a no-hitter this season. But that’s about it. There’s not even a good sports history between the two cities in general. The most we’ve got is a 1983 NFL playoff game between the 49ers and Lions, when Detroit lost 24-23 by missing a makeable field goal at the end. The history for these teams and these cities begins on Wednesday night.

THE VIEW FROM VEGAS: Detroit is a solid favorite, listed at (-185), meaning it requires a $185 bet to turn a hundred-dollar profit. This is the biggest series price we’ve seen in this postseason, eclipsing even the Yankees-Orioles matchup in the Division Series. If you bet San Francisco, you can get (+155), meaning your profit will be 55 percent higher than the original bet if the Giants win. This has to be about star power—Verlander, Cabrera and Fielder—that’s driving the market.

PREDICTION: When I was doing my podcast with Greg DePalma at Prime Sports Network on Monday, I picked San Francisco (even in advance of their NLCS win) and further added that I’d take St. Louis if they won. My reasons were bullpen length and the belief that Detroit’s power advantage is likely to be negated in a postseason situation dominated by good pitchers and played in pitcher-friendly parks. But upon further review, I’ve changed my mind.

I just don’t like the way the starting pitching shapes up for San Francisco. They need two starts apiece from Cain and Vogelsong, and while they can get it by using Vogelsong on short rest on Thursday, this Series is competitive enough, that every edge matters. That’s why I’m picking Detroit to win in six games. I’ll just play politician and create an escape hatch with one caveat—if it goes seven, with Cain on the mound, the Giants win.