ALDS 2013: Will the Oakland A’s Solve the Detroit Tigers Starting Pitching?


October 4, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Max Scherzer (37) delivers a pitch against the Oakland Athletics during the first inning in game one of the American League divisional series playoff baseball game at Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Max Scherzer was, well, the 2013 version of Max Scherzer on Friday night against the Oakland A’s.

That Max Scherzer is quite good. Cy Young-good, in fact.

Putting aside the whole 21-3 win-loss record and all the chaos it’s caused between old-school statisticians and new-school sabermetricians, his peripherals confirm that his success is not just a byproduct of the American League’s second-best offense. ERA (2.90), FIP (2.74) and xFIP (3.16) can all concur.

So, what Scherzer did Friday night wasn’t anything out of line. In case you missed it, he pitched seven innings, allowed two runs on three hits and struck out a whopping 11 batters.

A pitch that drifted a bit too far inside to Yoenis Cespedes was the right-hander’s only blemish. Cespedes’ two-run blast shifted the momentum temporarily, but Scherzer settled back down. The Tigers proceeded to collect a Game 1 victory by a final tally of 3-2.

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking: I’m going to take the results of Game 1 way out of line and conjure up some debatable conclusion. Nope. At least I don’t think so.

However, there is a glaring question sprouting to the surface: Will the A’s be able to solve Detroit’s formidable starting staff?

The same question could’ve and probably was posed multiple times before Scherzer twirled a game in Game 1. So no, Scherzer’s performance isn’t so much of an overreaction as it as a confirmation that the A’s won’t have it easy on offense. “Duh,” right?

October 4, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics center fielder Coco Crisp (4) walks off the field with assistant trainer Walt Horn (back) after the eighth inning in game one of the American League divisional series playoff baseball game against the Detroit Tigers at Coliseum. The Tigers defeated Athletics 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Seriously, though, the A’s have a steep hill to climb, and it’s not going to get any easier. The Tigers will send Justin Verlander to the mound on Saturday night, and when the series heads to Detroit, Anibal Sanchez will take the bump. If a Game 4 is needed, Doug Fister will likely get the honors.

Sure, they’re all beatable. Everyone’s beatable. But take note: Scherzer is the front-runner for the AL Cy Young for reasons already stated, Sanchez took home the AL ERA crown, Verlander tallied a 2.27 ERA in September (and, you know, he’s Justin Verlander) and Fister also had a solid September, posting a 3.09 ERA in five starts.

That’s quite a platter of impressive numbers. It’s then no wonder that the Tigers rotation led AL starting staffs in ERA, FIP and xFIP. I could dig up a few more too, but you get the point.

The bad news for the A’s is that they’re all going to pitch. A lot. Tigers manager Jim Leyland will ride his rotation for one extremely obvious reason: His bullpen falls in the “in shambles” category. It posted baseball’s seventh-highest bullpen ERA, with just slight improvements in the advanced metrics.

So this is really a silly question, but why would Leyland even consider riding his bullpen if it’s a big question mark? Easy answer: he won’t.

October 4, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Joaquin Benoit (53, left) celebrates with catcher Alex Avila (13, right) after game one of the American League divisional series playoff baseball game against the Oakland Athletics at Coliseum. The Tigers defeated Athletics 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Now, I’m shortchanging a couple of Tigers relievers. Joaquin Benoit posted a 2.01 ERA in 67 innings for the year. Drew Smyly mustered a 2.37 mark in 76 innings. Give Bruce Rondon (not on postseason roster) credit for tallying a 2.29 ERA in 19.2 second-half innings while pitching with an injured elbow.

Overall, however, the Tigers bullpen is a whole lot of “meh.” And when Leyland can avoid putting the game in the hands of it, you bet he will, unless it’s Benoit, who got a four-out save on Friday, or Smyly, who pitched 0.2 scoreless innings. Jose Veras and Rick Porcello could make cases too.

Using said approach (avoiding the bullpen) wouldn’t be going into unfamiliar territory for the Tigers, however. In terms of innings pitched, Tigers relievers were dead last. And in terms of batters faced, they were third to last.

I think you can guess what types of stats I’m going to throw at you next…

If you guessed something about Detroit’s starters, give yourself a pat on the back. Specifically, Tigers starters threw 103 pitches a game on average, the most in baseball. Likewise, their starters faced batters for a fourth go-around in a single game the a grand total of 34.2 innings, the fourth-most in baseball.

The latter scenario is something we don’t see very often. Unless a starter is really cruising along (and even if he is, facing batters for a fourth time would suggest that he’s giving up some hits too), facing a batter four times in a game just isn’t common.

As one might expect, it’s short sample size galore when dealing with facing a batter for the fourth time situation. It was emphasized above: It just doesn’t happen a ton.

But take this for what it’s worth: A’s hitters posted a mere .219 average when seeing a pitcher for the fourth time. Call short sample size on me, but hey, it counts for something, especially considering that Oakland could be seeing Tigers starters four times in a game frequently over the next week, if not less.

So to recap: The A’s will be seeing a whole lot of Verlander, Sanchez and Fister (if needed) over the next few days. Maybe Scherzer again too. In contrast, they won’t be seeing much of the Tigers ‘pen.

There’s one other thing.

Tim Kawakami of the Bay Area New Group relayed an idea on Twitter during the game, which you can see below.

Naturally, I went stat-digging to find some correlations. Sure enough, I did. And it didn’t take long.

Without getting too fancy with the advanced metrics and such, observe the table below. That’s a simple look at the point I’m trying to make.

(With MLB Ranks)

Pitcher   Season K/9   September K/9
Scherzer   10.08 (2nd)   11.32 (4th)
Verlander   8.95 (13th)   10.89 (8th)
Sanchez   9.99 (3rd)   11.45 (3rd)
Fister   6.85 (55th)   7.97 (36th)

A predicted reaction: “Holy strikeouts.” I would agree.

The stats in September have a short sample size feel (about five or six starts for each), but the stats over the entire course of the year confirm that Detroit’s September strikeout binge wasn’t a fluke. Fister, you’ve probably noticed, is the one exception.

Scherzer proved his part on Friday. As aforementioned, he punched out 11 Oakland hitters.

The strikeouts are nice and all, but how Scherzer picked them up is even more impressive.

Hint: With the changeup

Per Brooks Baseball, he threw 35 changeups, garnering 10 whiffs with it in the process. Outside of the change, the rest were fastballs (72), curveballs (7) and sliders (4). Basically, Scherzer rode a deadly fastball-changeup combo. It worked, I’d say.

And guess what? The A’s better get ready for more changeups.

Note: “wCH” is basically how valuable the pitch is. 

(MLB Ranks)

Pitcher   CH%   wCH
Scherzer   20.9 (14th)   2.1 (29th)
Verlander   16.9 (21st)   2.2 (28th)
Sanchez   24.1 (5th)   12.5 (7th)
Fister   14.8 (30th)   3.1 (21st)

As wCH would hint, Tigers starters throw quality changeups. If you’re scoring at home, that’s quality and quantity. The result: scary.

But the A’s can hit changeups, they have dropped their strikeout percentage by roughly three percent and they were the AL’s third-best offense in 2013.

Yet the Tigers will throw a former MVP and Cy Young winner in Game 2 and a Cy Young candidate in Game 3. Both are riding hot streaks, and both are punching batters out at lofty rates.

So the easy answer is “no,” the A’s won’t be able to solve the Tigers starting pitching.

But hey, they’re the A’s. They’ve proven plenty of people wrong before.