It’s been quite a year for the Oakland Athletics, and for all their hard work and perseverance, they’ll get to pick up where they left off last year in a battle against the Detroit Tigers for the right to move on to the American League Championship Series.
In their most recent meeting in late August, the A’s went into Detroit having lost 14 of 23 along with their grip on first place in the AL West. It wasn’t time to hit the panic button, but it was the first real extended losing stretch the team had faced since the first half of the 2012 season.
True to form, Oakland came to play, and after winning three of four (the Tigers narrowly avoided a sweep thanks to a walk-off three-run homer by Torii Hunter off of Grant Balfour in the final game), the series served as a turning point in the season for a team that would finish tied for the second-best record in baseball.
The A’s went on to roll through September and post their best monthly record (19-8), while Detroit had to deal with various injuries to Miguel Cabrera, without a doubt their best player, and finished the season with their lowest monthly win total of the year (13-13).
While it should still be a competitive matchup between two familiar foes, this year’s Division Series features a few key differences from 2012′s that could work in the A’s favor, not the least of which is each team’s respective health.
To focus in on Cabrera for a moment, the reigning AL MVP and likely recipient of the award in 2013 has struggled over the final month of the season after aggravating an abdominal strain in that August series against the A’s. The result was a dip in production, as his batting average in September ended up at .278 (compared to .356 in August) with only two extra-base hits.
There’s no indication that Cabrera is going to miss any games, but facing a power hitter that’s less than 100 percent and can’t stretch singles into doubles obviously bodes well for the A’s, especially since the Tigers don’t have a lineup that can manufacture runs with speed. It was no coincidence that the Tigers posted a season-low 97 runs over the month of September with Cabrera hurting after never scoring less than 120 in any other month this year.
Not to say that Cabrera was a one-man offense, although he’s about as close to one as you’ll see. As Golden Gate Sport’s Jake Dal Porto points out, Prince Fielder and Alex Avila finished the season strong, and the recent return of Jhonny Peralta from a 50-game suspension bodes well in terms of bolstering Detroit’s lineup with capable hitters so they don’t have to rely so much on power hitting for run production.
Interestingly enough, Peralta saw time in left field in the last few days of the regular season since Jose Iglesias took over as starting shortstop in his absence. In his 1o years in the Majors, Peralta has never played in the outfield, and Andy Dirks will be starting off the series at the position, but if Peralta is in the game Jim Leyland will be making a pretty obvious trade off for offensive output as opposed to defensive proficiency.
Of course, like every playoff matchup, the final outcome will likely be dictated by the overall performance of the starting pitching. While Oakland’s rotation is certainly above average, the only AL team that posted a superior ERA among their starters was Detroit (3.44 for Detroit, 3.72 for Oakland).
This was the first season since 1949 that a Tigers team has had five 10-game winners. It’s been an off-year for Justin Verlander, but he’s recovered nicely down the stretch to ease any concerns about his playoff capabilities. Max Scherzer won 21 games and will probably win the Cy Young Award. Anibal Sanchez posted the lowest ERA in the American League and Doug Fister won 14 games and is a solid fourth starter.
BUT…Oakland is not exactly unequipped to face such a pitching staff. In the August series, the A’s touched up Sanchez for four runs on five hits, knocked Verlander out after five innings and put up six runs in a rain-shortened contest, hammered Fister for 13 hits and seven runs in a 14-4 rout, and nearly handed Scherzer his second loss of the season before Hunter’s walk-off dinger secured a narrow victory for the Tigers.
So in a sense, you could say that the pressure is on Detroit to come in and pitch their tails off and keep pace with Oakland’s staff, which has fortified any mid-season shortcomings with solid starts down the stretch by Bartolo Colon, Sonny Gray and Dan Straily. Jarrod Parker got hit up in two of his last three starts, but there shouldn’t be a ton of concern for the right-hander, who went unbeaten in 19 straight starts this season.
Yet many observers will likely give the Tigers’ starters the edge. They’ve certainly earned it after great performances this year and a trip to the World Series last season, so on the surface it’s justifiable. In the long run, however, it won’t mean much if they can’t each last at least six or seven innings, because Detroit’s bullpen is just not very good.
And getting that deep in a game may be tougher than many might think as the A’s have been surging on offense down the stretch. This is a much improved lineup than the one the Tigers faced in 2012, one that takes pride in going deep into the count every at-bat and making a pitcher work as hard as possible to get an out, as pointed out in the Dal Porto piece linked above.
Oakland is probably stronger offensively at every position across the board in comparison to last season, with the exception of corner outfielders Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick, who ironically are two of the biggest power hitting threats on the team. Josh Donaldson and Coco Crisp are having career years, and additions like Jed Lowrie and Alberto Callaspo will likely play a big part in making sure Oakland holds their own at the plate this postseason.
Oakland hit .285/.348/.463 against Detroit this year, their third-best batting split against any opponent. Unfortunately, Tigers hitters have the very best split of any team to face the A’s pitching staff this year (.311/.362/.490), so you’re never going to say the A’s have the advantage on offense, but with Cabrera struggling and Detroit putting up season-low numbers down the stretch, it’s a safe bet to say that the A’s are the hotter team going into the playoffs.
While that didn’t do them much good last season, Oakland’s sustained success certainly gives them more to hang their hat on in regards to those perceived advantages this year. Nowhere is that more clear than the pitching staff.
Parker’s sophomore success should serve him well in taking on one of the best hitting lineups in all of baseball. Dan Straily has looked unhittable for stretches this season, and you get the sense that he’s still out to prove something after working his way in and out of a regular roster spot this year. Sonny Gray is simply a phenom that looks like he’s on the fast track to becoming The Next Big Thing for an organization that routinely churns out young talent, and Bartolo Colon puts on a clinic on controlling velocity and location every time he takes the mound.
Since big hitters are always going to be a luxury the A’s can’t afford with their small market budget, they’re always going to build on a foundation of pitching and defense. The first one they have in abundance, all the way through the bullpen with Dan Otero, Jerry Blevins, Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour. As far as defense, Oakland has been one of the top teams in terms of defensive efficiency over the course of the season.
Those qualities, combined with the intangibles that this team possesses and the experience they’ve gained over the past year and a half, have many of their loyal followers believing they should be favored to win it all.
Who could blame them? After all, this isn’t last year’s A’s team, which was surely talented but not at all familiar with playing on the biggest stage the sport has to offer with all of the playoff pressure that comes with it.
This is a new year, and after coming out winners 96 times, there’s reason to think the A’s can’t get 11 more and take home their first World Series since 1989. It all starts tomorrow, and it’ll be a sight to see when the fans fill the Coliseum to cheer on the biggest underdog franchise in professional sports, the Oakland Athletics.