MLB Division Series Preview: Detroit-Oakland

The MLB Division Series round starts tonight as #3-seed Detroit hosts #2-seed Oakland. The first two games of this series will be in Detroit on Saturday & Sunday, and the rest of the best-of-five series will finish out west from next Tuesday to Thursday.

TheSportsNotebook previews the Tigers-A’s matchup by looking at how they match up the four key areas—the ability to get on base, to hit for power, starting pitching and relief pitching. We’ll also mix in some historical backdrop,  look at how the folks in Las Vegas see the matchup and make a prediction.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: Detroit does a credible job at keeping the base paths active, ranking second in the league in on-base percentage, in no small part because the big guns of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder know how to take their walks along with hitting for power. Austin Jackson had a breakout year at the top of the lineup. Alex Avila and Andy Dirks also do a good job getting on base, but on the flip side the weak spots of Jhonny Peralta, Delmon Young and Brennan Boesch are really weak.

Oakland was only 12th in the American League in OBP, although they were better after the All-Star break than before. Yoenis Cespedes and Brandon Moss are each steady contributors, but no one beyond these two really a good year. The A’s have to hope that Josh Reddick, who tanked in the second half, can get his game back together for this series. And they need to hope Coco Crisp’s second-half resurgence carries over. So that’s two contradictory wishes that have to come together.

Otherwise, DH Seth Smith is adequate, and manager Bob Melvin has to figure out a way to get Chris Carter (.350 OBP/.514 slugging) into a lineup where Moss is at first, and Cespedes and Reddick are at the corner outfield spots. Another hope for a breakout series is shortstop Stephen Drew, whose number was a mediocre .326, but has seen better days.

HITTING FOR POWER: The fact Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown tells you the man can hit for some power, but he also led the league in the more modern stat of slugging percentage, at .606. Fielder was at .528, a very good number although not quite superstar level. Dirks and Jackson provide solid power to the alleys, an important facet of the offense for a team that plays in a deep pitcher’s park. No one else has shown any kind of consistency, either hitting home runs or driving it to the gaps.

On the Oakland side, Moss fulfilled the potential he started to flash in Boston during the 2009 season, but never really solidified. The first baseman slugged .596 in 265 at-bats while playing in a park every bit as unfriendly to hitters as Detroit’s. Power is another area where Reddick slumped after the break, but he still slugged a solid .463 for the year, while Cespedes posted a .505. Carter gives good power off the bench and Smith is respectable.

Both teams are remarkably similar offensively—the power and the ability to get on-base tends to come from the same core group, meaning any of the also-ran players who can scrape together a few hits can be a decisive factor.

STARTING PITCHING: We’re only evaluating starting pitching for the purposes of this series, not for the long haul, and the fact Justin Verlander is lined up to start Games 1 & 5 give Detroit a massive edge, even if Oakland starter Jarrod Parker can’t be dismissed. It’s anybody’s guess where the edge lies in the middle games—the A’s throw rookie Tommy Milone in Sunday’s Game 2, then the oft-injured, but high-quality Brett Anderson will be ready for Game 3. Another rookie, A.J. Griffin goes for Game 4. Detroit counters with the sequence of Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer. Over the course of the year, the A’s starters have been better. But the Tiger pitchers have done well in September and in the case of Fister and Scherzer, were big parts of Detroit’s Division Series win over New York a year ago.

RELIEF PITCHING: There’s no getting around how much better Oakland is here. The team of Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour is steady at the end of games, while Detroit closer Jose Valverde is a heart attack waiting to happen, even on his best days. Even if you allow that Valverde usually does get the job, we’re now at a point in the season where closers are expected to pitch in tie games. If you’re a Detroit fan does that make you feel good or make you shudder?

Oakland’s also much deeper, with four relievers in front of Cook/Balfour that have sub-3.00 ERAs. Detroit has inconsistency back here, and can only hope that Octavio Dotel’s postseason experience and some of Joaquin Benoit’s natural talent will lift them to a big week.

HISTORICAL NOTE: These teams have met twice before in the playoffs. The first time came in 1972, back in the days of Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin. The former was a rising star in the Oakland outfield, while the latter was the Detroit manager and their days of feuding in the Bronx together still five years off. Oakland won that LCS in five games (it didn’t become a best-of-seven until 1985). The next battle came in 2006, the last time Oakland was in the playoffs. Detroit won in a four-game sweep before losing to St. Louis in the World Series.

THE VIEW FROM VEGAS: Detroit’s the favorite here, posted at (-155), meaning you’d have to bet $155 to win $100, while the number in Oakland is (+135), so you can get a 35 percent increase on the size of your original bet if you win. The A’s might have more wins, the might be hot coming in, but the betting world still likes the Tigers.

FINAL PREDICTION: There’s one thing missing from Justin Verlander’s resume, and it’s dominating postseason performances. He beat the Yankees last year, although that was a 5-4 game where neither he nor C.C. Sabathia were all that special. Verlander split two games against Texas in the ensuing ALCS. We already know he’s one of the top pitchers, if not the top pitcher in baseball. But it’s time for him to take the next step and put his team on his back in a postseason series. A situation where he can get two-thirds of the requisite wins against a fairly soft lineup while working in pitcher-friendly parks on both sides, mark this a breakout point.

The pick here is for Verlander to do just that. He delivers a dominating performance tonight, the hot Tiger starters of September can get at least one more win in the middle games and set the ace up for a road win in Game 5 to move forward. All of which is made easier by the fact Detroit’s superstars on offense are better, and their bottom-feeder players are more likely to have a good series. Keep an eye on Jhonny Peralta as a possibility for a sequence of pesky singles or a surprise home run at a big moment. And take the Tigers to win in four, with a surefire fallback in a potential fifth game.