For the second straight year, the Detroit Tigers have a date with the Oakland A’s in the ALDS. It’s a slightly different team than the one Detroit defeated last October, though. Here’s a look at what the Tigers will be up against.
At first glance, the A’s aren’t much to look at offensively. They don’t get a ton of hits. They have one regular hitting above .300 and only two starters OPSing over .800. This is all a bit misleading, and they’re much better at run scoring than they were last season. No, the A’s don’t really hit for a high average – they’re eighth in the AL in hits – but a lot of those hits are of the extra base variety. Over 36 percent of Oakland’s hits are doubles, triples, or home runs. Where they’re eighth in overall hits, they’re second in doubles, fourth in triples, and third in home runs.
There are plenty of power threats throughout the lineup. Brandon Moss has 30 home runs. Jed Lowrie, a huge improvement over the Drew/Pennington combo of 2012, has 45 doubles. Josh Donaldson is a threat in all facets and has established himself as a top five AL third baseman. Despite a poor overall season, Yoenis Cespedes still has 26 homers and is a threat to go deep if he can make contact. Coco Crisp offers 20 doubles, 20 homers, and 20 steals. Donaldson aside, most of these guys aren’t high average hitters, but they can cause plenty of damage.
This, of course, is a Billy Beane roster, so OBP gets plenty of emphasis as well. Oakland draws the third most walks of any AL team, so they get enough traffic on the basepaths to ensure that many of those extra base hits drive in runs. That explains how, despite being eighth in hits and ninth in batting average, they’re third in runs scored, ahead of everyone except Detroit and Boston.
With all that extra base power, it’s a bit of a surprise that Oakland does not strike out a whole lot. Brandon Moss and Yoenis Cespedes do, as do a couple others, but on the whole, Oakland is ninth out of fifteen AL teams in strikeouts, an impressive improvement after the team led the league in that category in 2012.
Oakland does not steal a ton of bases – only Coco Crisp and Eric Sogard have more than ten steals – but it will be interesting to see if they test Alex Avila and a Detroit staff that has struggled to throw out would-be basestealers recently.
Bob Melvin likes his platoons and, with the Tigers lacking any lefty starters, expect to see plenty of Brandon Moss, Seth Smith, Daric Barton, and Stephen Vogt over the course of the series.
Oakland’s batting averages aren’t helped by the Coliseum. It’s a big stadium with a huge foul territory. Park factors show that it played as an extreme pitcher’s park this season. While we’re on the topic of the ballpark, this being the playoffs, the A’s will actually have a packed stadium (weird, right?). They plan to open the upper deck this year, so the intimidation factor will be very high. Oakland has played very well at home this year to the tune of a 52-29 record (only Boston’s home record was better) so the Tigers will have a tough task in the away games.
Oakland’s strength is, as usual, their pitching. Only Kansas City and Detroit have allowed fewer runs than Oakland’s staff this season (Detroit allowed 624, Oakland 625). It’s not really a power pitching staff – they’re twelfth in the AL in the strikeout category – but they don’t need to be. They’ve issued the fewest walks in the AL – 2.6 per nine innings. This is spearheaded by ageless wonder Bartolo Colon, who nearly won the ERA title and walked just 29 in 190 innings. Colon is backed by Jarrod Parker, whose near-4 ERA is somewhat misleading. The Tigers blasted Parker to the tune of eight runs in a start in April and he was 1-5 with an ERA over 7 on May 6. Since that point, his ERA is 3.26, and it drops under 3 if you take a couple disaster starts against the Angels and his last start against Seattle out of the equation. In short, Parker is a solid pitcher who has been very good since mid-May.
The back end of the Oakland rotation has been a bit unsettled at times, but all indications are that Sonny Gray will be their third starter in the postseason. Gray was Oakland’s top pick in the 2011 draft and is the lone A’s starter striking out a batter an inning. He’s been in the rotation since mid-August and, with the exception of one rough outing against the Orioles, has been excellent. He hasn’t pitched more than six innings since September 5th, though – partly due to the A’s limiting him. The Tigers have never seen him before, and he’ll be a tough matchup for the Tigers. If his turn is third, though, he’s have to start at Comerica Park – he hasn’t been as good away from home, though that’s somewhat skewed by his very poor start in Baltimore.
The weakest link of the rotation might be A.J. Griffin, the only 200 inning guy on the staff. Griffin’s WHIP is actually the lowest in the rotation – lower than even Colon’s – and like his fellow starters, he doesn’t walk many. He also strikes out nearly 8 batters per nine. Unfortunately for him, he has also given up an astonishing 36 home runs this season, the highest total in the majors. He, too, has been more vulnerable away from the Coliseum, and he’d be in line to start game four in Detroit if that does turn out to be the rotation. He started at Comerica once this year and the Tigers hit him pretty hard, so that could be a favorable matchup.
As far as the quality of arms goes, the A’s bullpen is great. They’ve gone through some rough patches in the last month, though, as Tiger fans who saw Grant Balfour fall apart at Comerica Park in August will recall. Balfour has been good in September, but not quite the same pitcher he was earlier in the season. That said, he did strike out the side in both of his final two outings of the regular season.
Oakland still has that deadly righty-lefty combo in Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, though both have gone through rough patches of their own. Cook slipped up in late August and has a 5.73 ERA over his last 11 innings, due in part due to a ton of walks (nine) and a ton of bad luck (.571 BABIP). Doolittle had a rough August as well but he’s turned it around with an excellent September – just one run allowed in his last 14.1 innings – and his dip in form seems to be behind him. If Cook is right, it’s a back end that will be tough to score on.
Beyond that, Oakland has two more lefties that they can throw at Prince Fielder in Jerry Blevins and oft-injured Brett Anderson. Giants castoff Dan Otero has established himself as an indispensable member of Oakland’s bullpen as well this year, posting a 1.40 ERA in 38.2 innings since joining the big league club in mid-June. Expect to see sidearmer Pat Neshek on the postseason roster as well.
Oakland is decent defensively. Donaldson is a good third baseman, but defensive metrics aren’t huge fans of Lowrie, Moss, and Alberto Callaspo. Vogt, who will likely spend most of the series behind the plate for Oakland, throws out 31% of basestealers, a rate of 9 out of 29, though the Tigers’ reluctance (and/or inability) to run means that probably won’t be a huge factor in the series.
In short, Oakland is a 96 win team for a reason. They’re very sound in all aspects of the game and they’re better than they were a year ago. They certainly score more runs than that team did and their pitching has remained consistent. They may have a reputation as the underdog, but the A’s should be considered a legitimate World Series contender. That said, like all teams, they’re not perfect – this is still a team that doesn’t really get a ton of hits. If Tigers pitching can limit the walks – and make good pitches, obviously – they stand a good chance of pitching some good ballgames.
Many will point to that series in late August where Oakland rocked everyone the Tigers threw at them, but I honestly don’t see this series being anything like that one. I’m expecting a lot of tight, low scoring games, which could mean plenty of bullpen battles. People also forget the April series in Oakland where the Tigers won two of three, scored 17 runs in the last two games, and lost the only game of the series in twelve innings when they had to turn to Human White Flag Brayan Villarreal, who probably should have been in Toledo (or Lakeland, or the independent leagues) by that point. Yes, that was obviously a long time ago, but those games counted too. Oakland is a tough draw for the Tigers, but the AL is much tougher this year than it was last year and there was never going to be an easy path to the World Series. They’ll have to beat the best.