Saturday, October 12, 2013
Key matchups in the ALCS
By Buster Olney
BOSTON -- David Ortiz hosted his Red Sox teammates for a barbecue at the two acres of his home here Thursday, a night away from the grind. Sort of. There are six televisions in the Ortiz home, and what filled the screen of each was the Detroit Tigers, playing their Game 5 against the Oakland A's.
Boston and Detroit go back to work tonight in the American League Championship Series. Here are 10 crossroads to watch, as the Tigers or the Red Sox navigate their way to the World Series.
1. Detroit's starting pitchers versus the relentless Boston hitters
The Tigers’ rotation is the modern-day version of the Braves’ rotations of the '90s. But what the Red Sox hitters do better than anybody is wear on starting pitchers. Through their collective at-bats, they damage pitch counts like no other team.
Total number of pitches seen in 2013, by team:
Red Sox -- 25,664
Twins -- 25,027
Athletics -- 24,500
Indians -- 24,409
Mets -- 24,331
Diamondbacks -- 24,288
Rays -- 24,219
Mariners -- 24,138
Tigers -- 24,040
Blue Jays -- 23,955
Reds -- 23,955
When Leyland spoke with the media Friday, he said the same thing that a lot of the Red Sox hitters have been saying: Boston’s ability for extended at-bats is not about taking pitches. Taking strikes, he said, would be good for the Tigers.
The tough at-bats, Leyland said, were reflected more in the number of foul balls hit -- the spoiling of good pitches. The Red Sox are really good at this, as this data dug out by ESPN Stats & Information's Katie Sharp shows:
Red Sox are fourth in foul balls this season (regular season)
Mets -- 4,252
Reds -- 4,221
Rockies -- 4,219
Red Sox -- 4,202
Tigers -- 4,183
Giants -- 4,183
Brewers -- 4,176
Twins -- 4,163
Athletics -- 4,162
Dodgers -- 4,134
The Detroit bullpen is an Achilles’ heel for the Tigers (just as the Braves’ bullpen was for those '90s teams). Detroit needs its starters to dominate, to lead the way, to give extended innings, and, conversely, the Red Sox will be working to get them out of the game as quickly as possible. This crossroad is probably the key to this series.
The Tigers’ slugger is greatly hobbled by his abdominal issues and has been robbed of a lot of the power in his swing by his lower-half problems. But rival players rave about Cabrera’s physical adjustments at the plate, in particular how he uses his hands. The Athletics’ Sonny Gray learned firsthand about this in Game 5 of the division series.
Throughout the series, Oakland had pounded Cabrera with outside fastballs, and, perhaps because of his physical issues, this left him hitting harmless fly balls. In Game 5, Gray -- in an effort to keep Cabrera honest -- tried throwing inside off the inner half, and, when Gray missed his target, Cabrera clubbed what turned out to be the decisive home run in the series. It was only his third extra-base hit since Aug. 26.
3. Tigers pitchers and catchers versus the Red Sox baserunners
The Red Sox aren’t the most prolific baserunning team, nor do they have a lineup full of burners. But they will look for opportunities, will pressure the defense repeatedly and are incredibly efficient. This year, Boston attempted 142 steals and was successful 123 times for a remarkable 87 percent success rate, the best in the majors. Jacoby Ellsbury, who swiped 52 in the regular season and four more in the first round against the Tampa Bay Rays, has been thrown out only four times this season.
Meanwhile, the Tigers allowed 128 steals, the third most in the majors, and their success rate at throwing out runners was 18 percent, the second worst. Sanchez has always been vulnerable to the running game, and he allowed 25 steals in 26 attempts this year. So, it really will be more about what the Detroit pitchers do -- with pickoff attempts, stepping off the rubber, varying delivery times -- than about Alex Avila. Leyland noted that, late in the season, the Tigers had done a better job slowing down the Royals’ racehorses after placing a greater focus on containing the Kansas City running game.
Could the Green Monster cause problems for Jhonny Peralta in left field?
Carl Crawford played for years in Fenway Park as a visiting player with the Rays, yet, in his short time with the Red Sox, he seemed completely befuddled by the unique challenges posed by the 37-foot high monster -- how to read when a fly ball is going to carom off the wall, how to position yourself to take the carom, etc. Because Jose Iglesias is starting at shortstop in Game 1, Peralta is starting in Fenway's left field for the first time -- in a playoff game -- so Jim Leyland can get his potent bat in the lineup
There’s no telling whether his inexperience at playing this one weird spot will pose a problem, and whether he’ll adapt quickly. He’s learning on the fly, and Tigers outfield coach Tom Brookens thinks the Monster will actually help Peralta, as John Lowe writes.
Unlike the Rays, the Tigers have just two lefties in their bullpen -- Smyly and Jose Alvarez -- and time will tell about how willing Leyland will be to throw Alvarez into the ALCS fire. Alvarez had one appearance against Oakland and threw three scoreless, hitless innings.
Smyly is Leyland's primary setup option, and you’d figure he will wait to use him against Ortiz when possible. The Boston DH has improved his ability to take the ball to left field so much, honed through his repetitions against late-inning relievers, that he’s really effective against left-handers. This year, Smyly held left-handed hitters to a .189 batting average and a .471 OPS, 16th best in the majors. Ortiz is 3-for-4 with a home run against Smyly, in their small sample size of history.
They are similar in many ways -- both respected veterans with years of experience, both relying on a trick pitch rather than overpowering fastballs and both regarded by rival evaluators as being more vulnerable than the Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman types. Uehara throws a splitter and has what teammates believe is an uncanny instinct for anticipating what a hitter is thinking. Benoit throws a wipeout changeup. They’ll both be tested.
The Red Sox owe the Tigers a debt of thanks, in regards to Uehara, writes John Tomase.
7. The Tigers’ defense versus The Baseball
Look, it’s certainly better than it was last year, now that Omar Infante has settled in at second base and Torii Hunter is playing right field. On top of that, Iglesias can be a significant upgrade over Peralta. But Prince Fielder is not especially adept at digging the balls out of the dirt, and Cabrera is so limited in range by his injury that he often will be positioned near the front of the infield dirt to guard against bunts, opening up the area to his left.
You’d have to assume John Farrell could look to get left-handed Breslow into the game against Fielder, whose OPS versus lefties was identical (at .819) to what Fielder hit against right-handers in the regular season. Breslow’s performance in Game 4 against Tampa Bay was pivotal -- when he struck out four consecutive hitters with a biting fastball -- and evaluators say Fielder has had more trouble against fastballs than breaking balls this year. Fielder is 1-for-4 against Breslow in his career.
These days, Martinez has the look that’s known as: “Hitterish.” He batted .361 after the All-Star break, with a .913 OPS, and he was the pivotal performer against Oakland, racking up nine hits in 20 at-bats, including three extra-base hits. Right now, he is the Detroit hitter who probably concerns the Boston staff the most, and it will be imperative for the Red Sox to limit the number of baserunners who get on leading up to his at-bats.
A) Tough curveball: Cardinals hitters were 0-for-7 with two strikeouts against Greinke’s curveball. In his previous four postseason starts, hitters were 7-for-17 with a home run and no strikeouts against Greinke’s curve.
B) High strikeout rate: Greinke’s 10 strikeouts were his most since September 2012, and his 35.7 percent strikeout rate was his highest this season.
C) Greinke is the first pitcher since Mike Mussina in 1997 whose team lost a postseason game in which he threw at least eight innings, allowed two or fewer runs, and struck out 10.
• The Dodgers are left to answer for Mattingly’s mistake, writes Bill Shaikin.
This is exactly the scenario that could lead to a managerial change because the greatest question among the Dodgers’ leadership about Mattingly is about the choices he makes during games.