ALCS Preview: Texas Rangers vs. Detroit Tigers

DETROIT - AUGUST 04: Brad Penny #31 of the Detroit Tigers pitches in the first inning during the game against Josh Hamilton #32 of the Texas Rangers at Comerica Park on August 4, 2011 in Detroit, Michigan. The Rangers defeated the Tigers 5-2. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

The Rangers and Tigers have five distinct differences between them: ran and ti. Other than that, they're talented teams that are pretty evenly matched.

Not everybody picked the Yankees vs. Red Sox before the season started to be in the ALCS. Some people picked Red Sox vs. Yankees. There were all sorts of varying opinions.

But here we are: Detroit Tigers against the Texas Rangers. Last year, the Tigers were a .500 team that finished third in the AL Central. And in 2011 ...

The Tigers were counting on all of those things not to happen. Instead, they all happened, yet Detroit was clearly one of the strongest teams in the league. The Rangers entered the season with similar question marks. They had:

  • Lost Cliff Lee
  • Really wanted Cliff Lee
  • Oh, dang, Cliff Lee, oh, baby, we promise things will be different, oh, where'd you go, Cliff Lee?
  • Were without the pitcher who had mowed through the American League in the playoffs
  • (Cliff Lee)

They had upgraded the offense (and defense) by signing Adrian Beltre, and maybe they'd make the playoffs, but there weren't a lot of pundits who expected them to have the same run into and through the playoffs. You know, without that guy. Clint something.

Yet like the Tigers, the Rangers were clearly one of the strongest teams in the league. You may ask yourself, well, how did we get here? You may tell yourself: this is not our typical Eastern seaboard team. You may tell yourself: this is not our $200 million collection of All-Stars. Here's a look at how they got here:

Offense
The above list of bullet points mentions declines for several Tigers players, but they were all made up for, and how, by increased production from their catcher and shortstop.

Pos  (2010) PA HR BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
C Alex Avila* 333 7 .228 .316 .340 .656 80
SS Ramon Santiago# 367 3 .263 .337 .325 .662 82
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table Generated 10/8/2011.

Pos (2011) PA HR BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
C Alex Avila* 551 19 .295 .389 .506 .895 143
SS Jhonny Peralta 576 21 .299 .345 .478 .824 123
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table Generated 10/8/2011.


Detroit got huge, huge jumps in production from positions were most teams are hiding bad hitters. Alex Avila turned into Mike Piazza, which isn't that surprising in retrospect. Miguel Cabrera had an MVP-quality season, but he usually does. His OPS+ in 2010: 181. His OPS+ in 2011: 181. So that wasn't that much of a difference. But the improvements at catcher and shortstop -- combined with the free-agent acquisition of Victor Martinez -- turned an iffy offense into one of the league's best. 

One of the Rangers' weakest lineup spots is shortstop, where Elvis Andrus has an 87 OPS+ ... and a .347 on-base percentage. Texas also swapped out the low on-base stylings of Bengie Molina for the defense/offense platoon of Yorvit Torrealba and Mike Napoli. Also, Mike Napoli had as good of a year with the bat as Miguel Cabrera and Jose Bautista, which is to say, much better than Vernon Wells.

I'll stop twisting that knife when it isn't funny. So, 2098 or so. 

The Rangers have as complete of a lineup in baseball -- there aren't any Yunieskys or Santiagos in the bunch when everyone's healthy.

Pitching
The Tigers struggled with everyone behind Justin Verlander at some point during the season. But Max Scherzer improved as the season went on, and the acquisition of Doug Fister made short- and long-term sense. The best part of the postseason? No futzing around with Brad Penny, or any of the other fifth-starter candidates that a team needs to deal with during the regular season.

Also of note: Justin Verlander had a pretty okay year. You should look into that.

Texas lost Lee, but three young pitchers all took huge steps forward -- Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, and Alexi Ogando all pitched close to their potential. CJ Wilson actually improved on his breakout year, and even though Ogando faded down the stretch, the Rangers had a deep rotation for exactly the second time in franchise history. If the 1999 Rangers had this rotation, they would have won 161 games (not counting the rain-out).

Both teams have cardiac closers who are effective in their own unique ways, but the Tigers started the season with a more dominant relief corps. Joaquin Benoit and Al Alberquerque had stretches of dominance setting up Jose Valverde, whereas Neftali Feliz was mostly alone until the trading deadline, as you can see in Kevin Dane's infographic. The Rangers invested a lot of prospect capital to get Mike Adams and Koji Uehara, and while the results have been mixed (Adams has been good, Uehara a little homer-prone), it still looks like a solid-to-fantastic bullpen, especially with Ogando back there to help out.

Prediction
Yeah, no clue. These are two good teams, which is sort of the point of the ALCS. And even then, freaky things could happen. So I'll predict a three-homer game from Matt Treanor just because. 

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