The ALCS Preview: Rangers Vs. Tigers

Colby Lewis is secretly perhaps the most important player in the Rangers' ALCS. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

The Rangers host the Tigers for the ALCS, and the pitchers everyone will not be talking about should decide which team takes home the pennant.

Magic Number: 8

A shiny, brand-new postseason opponent for the new-look Texas Rangers!

For five decades, this franchise had won a single playoff game. Now in two years, their fans will see them play for the American League Pennant twice. It is a strange feeling, going from a team that recently dreamed of just winning a series, to becoming a team where hosting an American League Championship Series is old-hat.

For the opponent, Detroit has the Tigers. A team with big names in the lineup, studs in the rotation, and a real shot at taking away the Rangers' league crown. A team with a rich history, multiple titles, and a town that apparently "needs this." The opponent is perhaps less daunting this time around on paper, but then the only reason Texas does not have to deal with the Yankees yet again is because the Tigers took care of them.

What is more daunting is this: 3-6. The Rangers' record against the Tigers in 2011. Since the Rangers lept on to the competitive stage in 2009, they are 11-16 against Detroit, with some awfully miserable games played in Comerica Park. They are in the heads of Rangers fans, fearful of things like having Texas's number.

The thing is, nine games is a small sample. It is not crazy for a bad team to beat a good time six times in nine tries, let alone a good team beat another good team. What is more important than Detroit's record against Texas is the relative performance of the two teams in 2011, and that is not particularly close.

That is no insult to the Tigers, who have more than a hope of upsetting Texas. We will hear repeatedly that the Tigers have a chance (or maybe even the better chance) because they have an Ace, and an Ace is an automatic win in a postseason series, even though it's not. However, while that Ace is a big part of the Tigers having a chance, the real question mark of the series is his No. 2 man, how good he really is, and how much postseason magic his opponent has left.

KNOW THY ENEMY

 

FANGRAPHS’ TOP FIVE TIGERS

POS

PLAYER

PA

AVG

OBP

SLG

wOBA

UZR

WAR

1B

Miguel Cabrera

688

.344

.448

.586

.436

-3.8

7.3

POS

PLAYER

IP

K/9

BB/9

HR/FB

ERA

FIP

WAR

P

Justin Verlander

251

8.96

2.04

8.8%

2.40

2.99

7.0

POS

PLAYER

PA

AVG

OBP

SLG

wOBA

UZR

WAR

C

Alex Avila

551

.295

.389

.506

.383

-2.7

5.5

SS

Jhonny Peralta

576

.299

.345

.478

.353

9.9

5.2

DH

Victor Martinez

595

.330

.380

.470

.368

-0.4

2.9

 

We begin with the top five Tigers in 2011 by Wins Above Replacement from FanGraphs. For any stat you see in this preview you want to know more about, check the glossary at the bottom. For now, just look at this as an estimate of how many wins said player produced for his team above what a scrub would have done in the same time.

Unsurprisingly, Cabrera and Verlander -- two legitimate MVP candidates -- find themselves at the top with great seasons. Cabrera has long established himself and one of the most destructive hitters in all of baseball. In 2011, he led the league in Batting Average and On Base Percentage, and trailed only Jose Bautista in most measures of total offense, despite playing in a pitchers' park. And this is something he's been doing for a while. As a righty, he poses a particularly terrifying threat for the Rangers' trio of lefty starters, though he fortunately has not shown an especially large split in his career.

Justin Verlander, meanwhile, will win the Cy Young, and maybe even the MVP, and neither award should be met with much, if any, criticism. Here is the thing about Verlander, though: his season was merely great. The media and fans have spun his 2011 year in to being something from the ages, and have spun Verlander in to an unbeatable beast; a guaranteed victory for the Tigers in October.

Ignore the rhetoric. Verlander's season was fantastic, but it was not necessarily even the best season in the Majors (Roy Halladay says hi), and was not head and shoulders over CC Sabathia in his own league. Further, while his season was terrific, it was not one of the ages. It was more on par with how good the best pitcher in baseball is every year. It was not the kind of stuff Koufax, Martinez, and Johnson (pick one) would put forth. Even if it was, that is no guaranteed October win (just ask Martinez about 1999). He surrendered five runs to the Yankees in nine innings in the ALDS -- four of them in Detroit -- and while he got a win, he would not have without some offensive support. Verlander is really good. We will talk about how good he is later on. Feel free to be afraid of how good he is, just do not resign yourself to a loss. He is hard to beat, but he is absolutely beatable.

Alex Avila, who throws out nearly half of all baserunners, and Jhonny Peralta quietly had career years in Detroit, and then there is a large drop-off on the chart above. Just missing is Doug Fister, who put up 2.4 Wins Above Replacement this season. . . in Detroit. Coupled with his first half in Seattle, Fister had a 5.4 win season, giving the Tigers a Top of the Rotation-caliber pitcher behind Verlander, and the Rangers a serious problem in game two.

Now let's take a look at each of the three components of baseball.

OFFENSE

Woba_medium



DETROIT PROBABLE LINEUP

  1. CF Austin Jackson
  2. 2B Ryan Raburn
  3. LF Delmon Young
  4. 1B Miguel Cabrera
  5. DH Victor Martinez
  6. RF Magglio Ordonez
  7. SS Jhonny Peralta
  8. C Alex Avila
  9. 3B Brandon Inge

The chart above compares each spot in the two lineups -- at least the players likely to start most of the games -- in weighted On Base Average. Even with a salty lineup like the Rangers, the Tigers compare fairly well, even coming ahead in a few spots. In particular, Miguel Cabrera's dominance, though Napoli has him beat two spots down.

This doesn't consider ballparks, where the Rangers clearly have the offensive advantage, but Texas still had Detroit beat on the season by more than 30 runs created even after park considerations. That was with significant time missed from the third, fifth, and seventh spots in that batting order. The Tigers offense is good, the Rangers' offense is great.

The Tigers did some screwy things with their lineup against the Yankees, so take this projected order with a grain of salt. Inge was typically the starter against lefties, and they will see lefties in every start but (at most) two. Against righties, that honor goes to Wilson Betemit (.340). At times, it was also given to Don Kelly (.296), who hit as high as second in game five of the ALDS. Jim Leyland is a mad man.  Ramon Santiago (.306) typically starts at second over Raburn vs. RHP, and even some against LHP, so that, again, is a position where you'll just have to guess day-to-day it seems. Additionally, Young is currently battling an oblique strain, and may miss time, which would likely send Raburn to left field, and either (most likely) Santiago or Kelly to the starting lineup.

Remember when Magglio Ordonez was good?

The Rangers will be facing righties in the entire series, which likely means an entire series of Mitch Moreland and David Murphy, though Ron Washington may try and sneak Yorvit Torrealba in at some point.

As with the last series, the Rangers face a team that prefers to hit against lefties, though the difference is far more slight this time.

PITCHING

Fip_medium
PROBABLE STARTERS

Game 1/5:  RHP Justin Verlander vs. LHP C.J. Wilson
Game 2/6:  RHP Rick Porcello vs. LHP Derek Holland
Game 3/7:  RHP Doug Fister vs. RHP Colby Lewis
Game 4:  RHP Max Scherzer vs. LHP Matt Harrison

Here, it gets tight.

The chart above is similar to the offensive chart, but using Fielding Independent Pitching to estimate ERA. Since it's an ERA estimate, lower is better, and obviously the Tigers' starter this series is twice lower. The Rangers had one of the best rotations in baseball this season -- maybe even the best -- but much of that was due to an all star-caliber performance from Alexi Ogando, who tired out and won't be in the rotation this series. The Tigers, meanwhile, also had a great rotation, not far behind the Rangers, but did so with only half a season of Doug Fister, and a weaker back of the rotation than Texas. In the setting of the playoffs, it is not inconceivable that the Tigers have the better rotation, even after considering FIP here is not yet park-adjusted.

This assumes the same rotations the teams put forth in the first round, with Fister pushed back due to starting game five.

We talked about how Verlander is getting overrated, but now we talk about how he is really good. Though C.J. Wilson comes out much closer than people would probably give him credit for, Verlander finished just one-tenth of a win behind CC Sabathia in WAR among AL pitchers. He has maybe the best fastball in baseball, averaging in the mid-90s, and seemingly hitting triple digits whenever he feels like it. Yet, he is not an all-fastball type of pitcher like the Rangers enjoy, throwing it less than half the time in 2011 as he became more of a crafty pitcher. He couples it with a wicked curve, and a changeup coming anywhere from 10-15 miles per hour behind his fastball, throwing each nearly a fifth of the time. A slider and a sinker round out the repertoire that defines the term "nasty." He strikes people out, and he doesn't walk them, and he will not be fun to face.

The Tigers are electing to pitch Rick Porcello, a one-time Rookie of the Year candidate who now sits in the realm of mediocrity, twice, which is good for Texas. He is still a nice pitcher, but not one who would make the Rangers' rotation, most likely. Like Fister, he has a deep repertoire and finds the zone well, but does not get many strikeouts at all, and allows more hittable pitches. Without Fister's control, a pitcher who lives in the zone so much against a contact-first team like Texas has a potential for a big game. With both of his starts coming in Alrington, that is a potentially disastrous choice for Leyland.

Game three features Doug Fister, who in 2011 went from a nice pitcher to a guy you can put in the front of your rotation and be happy. The Tigers put him second. Fister is sort of a mini-Cliff Lee. He does not get a ton of strikeouts, or miss a bunch of bats. What makes him great is relentlessly hitting his spots in the zone, making up for the lack of Ks by allowing very few free passes, while avoiding hittable pitches. Fister allowed just over a walk and a half per nine innings in 2011, and it is very hard to produce offense against a pitcher that disciplined without getting more hanging pitches than he supplies. He rarely touches the 90s with his primary fastball, but he also only throws it around a third of the time, pairing it with a sinker to make up most of his pinpoint pitches. A change, a curve, and a slider give him a full repertoire to keep hitters off-balance.

Game three also features Colby Lewis fortunately getting a start in a homer-suppressing stadium, which worked out well for him in the ALDS. Still, if the series goes to seven, he will be on the mound trying to save the Rangers' season in his dangerous home park.

Max Scherzer had a solid year, better than you can expect from a No. 3 starter, though it was also perhaps the worst of his career. He's methodical on the mound, and throws his fastball that touches the mid-90s more than three-fifths of the time, and splits thee rest of his pitches between a changeup and a slider. His strikeouts have continued to decline, though he still gets plenty, and while he cut down on his walks in 2011, he also started allowing more home runs, and his swinging strike rate has declined over his career. Finding the zone more often may have resulted in more meatballs from Scherzer, though the product is still an above-average pitcher. He has some severe home run tendencies, which is probably why he is being set up to avoid Arlington.

The bullpens above do not give the Rangers much credit for their second-half stability gained through transactions, or the addition of Ogando for the postseason. The Tigers' bullpen was good, though short of great, in 2011, but looks very good in a postseason setting, with dominant aces Al Alburquerque and ex-Ranger Joaquin Benoit, and overrated-but-still-good closer Jose Valverde. Phil Coke also serves as a very successful lefty specialist, giving the Tigers a back of the pen that will not be fun to try and come back on.


FIELDING

Fielding_medium

The fielding comparison is similar to the previous charts, comparing each position by likely starter, based on Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating. Each bar represents runs saved per 150 games -- according to the two metrics -- in 2011.

Even without the Rangers' outfield looking particularly good in 2011, they come out as the superior defense, thanks to their incredible infield and looking stronger at every position short of center. It should always be mentioned that defensive metrics are an imperfect science, and one season -- let alone less, like many of the players here had -- is a small sample for them. This chart is meant more to show how they played on the season, not as an estimation of true talent.

Yet what is shown there largely matches what has been estimated out of their careers. Jackson looks like a stud in center, but Ordonez, Cabrera, and Young have never been good fielders, and if anything Peralta's defensive metrics in 2011 look like an aberration as he has never been particularly good, either. Inge has typically been a good third baseman, but never on the level of Beltre, while Nelson Cruz has typically looked far better than he has in 2011.

The big damage done to the Tigers is Ryan Raburn, traditionally an outfielder but frequently played at second base in 2011, a dramatic climb up the defensive spectrum. And, statistically, it has worked out horrifically. Ramon Santiago is no great shakes at second, either, but every inning Raburn is playing at second is a good thing for the Rangers.

These lineups in 2011 played to a tune of more than three more runs saved by the Rangers over seven games in the two metrics, a massive margin. While the reality might be closer than that, the two teams defensively are not at all close. The Rangers are one of the best defensive teams in baseball, and while the Tigers are not one of the worst, they are bad. Texas might just hit every ball to Austin Jackson, and Detroit might hit every ball to David Murphy, but the odds are defense will play some difference in the ALCS, and that difference will likely favor the Rangers.

Once again, it should be mentioned Delmon Young's status is in question, and he may not play. He is assumed to play here, but should he not, the defense actually gets a boost, Santiago takes over second base, and Raburn moves to left field where he has actually shown some skill. It is not enough to overtake the Rangers defensively, but if Young is out it is not a total nightmare for the Tigers.


EXPECTATIONS

Finally, where we set our expectations for the ALDS. Pitching looks close, perhaps favoring the Tigers. Offense and defense are not, favoring the Rangers heavily, and Texas also has homefield. It stands to reason the Rangers are favorable in the series, but by how much?

The following table uses a probability model developed by Steve Sommer, and uses similar data to what's seen above to forecast the series. Included are each player's platoon splits, homefield advantage, bullpens and their likely innings pitched, starting pitchers, fielding, and a bit of regression. It is absolutely not perfect and debate and disagreement may rage, but it is meant to be a best estimate.

Alcs_wins_medium

For the second straight series, the Rangers come out as huge favorites, forecasted to win at least four games in seven tries 68% of the time.

It should be noted the losing numbers do not represent the Rangers chances of only winning 0-3 games, but rather only winning one game if all seven games were played regardless of when the Tigers clinched. The model runs all seven games, and spits out how often the Rangers win 4-7 of them. The near 0% chance of the Rangers winning no games represents their chances of losing seven straight. The chances of the Tigers getting a sweep are closer to one-in-five to one-in-ten, depending on some variables, with the Rangers sitting at around one-in-ten or better to do the same.

The individual game percentages, meanwhile, break down in order of the Rangers' favor like this:

  1. Game 7, 70%
  2. Game 2, 62%
  3. Game 6, 62%
  4. Game 3, 61%
  5. Game 1, 60%
  6. Game 4, 58%
  7. Game 5, 49%

This list brings up the most questionable element here: Colby Lewis being favored in a start over Doug Fister -- by a lot -- whether it be in a hitter's park or with the Tigers' homefield advantage. The giant bar on the right of the graph is published because that is what the model spits out, but there is a a glaring reason here to be cautious of that number. The reason is the regression applied here being particularly harsh on Fister and beneficial to Lewis. There is reason to believe Lewis is better than 2011 suggested, and Fister is worse. However, there is also plenty of reason to believe their respective abilities to keep fly balls in the park in 2011 are for real -- sort of like Matt Cain in the World Series.

If that is the case, and Fister really is the far better pitcher, and these pitchers' FIPs are closer to what we should expect ouf of them, the Tigers' chances in game three shoot up as high as 58%. The Rangers would find themselves with only a slight advantage in a potential game seven that looks more like a coin flip; even in their own park. Simply treating Fister and Lewis this way launches the Tigers to a 48% shot at winning the series, making the ALCS look potentially extremely close.

All that variation from a  very slight change. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle, with a Lewis start in Comerica being closer than first blush would suggest, and a Fister start in game seven being much closer than Rangers fans would like. What we see Lewis vs. Fister starts (if the series shakes up that way), more than perhaps anything else, is is likely to shape this series one way or the other. This is where individual interpretation comes in, and how good you think these two pitchers are should tell you how good you think their two teams chances are of winning.

Regardless, even if Doug Fister should be expected to pitch like an ace and Colby Lewis should be expected to be mediocre, the Rangers look like the favorites in the series. The Tigers may have the advantage in starting pitching, but the Rangers are still the better team, with an extra game at home, and the better team usually wins.

Of course, the better team does not always win.  Because baseball gets in the way. No one should be shocked if the Tigers win, and even in the same statistical breakdown that says the Rangers are favored an easy argument can be made that they are not favored by much. Detroit is a good team, and they just eliminated a good team. They can do it tonight.

Go to bed with the happy feeling of knowing the Rangers are perhaps the best team in the league, if not baseball, and have a very good chance of making their second straight World Series. Just be prepared for a fight when the games start.

Glossary: DRS FIP UZR wOBA WAR


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