For the second straight October, the Detroit Tigers are playing in the American League Championship Series. Just one year ago, the Tigers qualified for the ALCS by beating the New York Yankees in a five-game Division Series, but lost to the Rangers in six games; this year, they've qualified by beating the Oakland Athletics in a five-game Division Series, and will face the Yankees.
Last year, the Tigers won the American League Central with 95 wins and a +76 run differential; this year they won the Central with 88 wins and a +56 run differential.
This year, the Yankees won the American League East with 95 wins and a +136 run differential.
Is that enough for us to declare the Yankees clear favorites in this ALCS?
Well, perhaps not. But it's certainly a start.
Let's look for reasons to think the Yankees won't beat the Tigers.
Are there good reasons to think those 2012 records and run differentials don't fairly represent these teams, as they are now?
Four months into the season, the Tigers acquired second baseman Omar Infante and starting pitcher Anibel Sanchez. Infante plays every day, and Sanchez started Game 3 against the A's in the ALDS. At the end of August, the Tigers added 20-year-old outfielder Avisail Garcia, who started both ALDS started by left-hended pitchers.
The Yankees' roster has generally been stable this season, with two exceptions: Just before the trade deadline, the Yankees picked up Ichiro Suzuki, who now starts almost every game in left field; and veteran Andy Pettitte, who managed only a dozen starts during the regular season, is now a fixture in the Yankees' postseason rotation.
There is, of course, one more thing: Alex Rodriguez, who played third base for the Yankees all season long, might not play much at all against the Tigers. Famously, in the Yankees' Division Series against the Orioles, Rodriguez was
pulled for a pinch hitter in Game 3,
pulled for a pinch hitter in Game 4, and
benched in Game 5.
With both Eric Chavez available, the percentages suggest playing him instead of Rodriguez when a right-handed pitcher is starting for the Tigers ... and a right-handed pitcher will probably start every game for the Tigers. Considering that the Yankees can stack their lineup with seven lefty and switch hitters, the only exceptions being Derek Jeter and catcher Russell Martin.
By the way, the Yankees led the American League in OPS this season; the Tigers were fourth. The Yankees finished with the fourth-lowest ERA in the league; the Tigers were fifth. The Yankees' fielding is poor; the Tigers' fielding is borderline terrible.
One big difference between the regular season and the postseason, of course, is the role of the starting pitcher. In the regular season, your best pitcher -- just for the sake of argument, Justin Verlander -- starts one out of every five games, while at this point he'll start twice in every five, thanks to the off-days.
Ah, but the Yankees have a best pitcher, too. CC Sabathia will pitch twice in this series, if it goes the distance, just as Verlander will. And their teams will be favored in each game those ace start. Because, alas, it's not yet apparent that they'll actually start against one another, which might be one of the highlights of the whole year.
Of course, all of this "analysis" sort of assumes that things will go according to how they've gone before. And many things will not. One year ago, Verlander started four postseason games. His ERA in those games was 5.31. Even in the two games he won, his ERA was 4.70.
Granted, that unlikely thing probably won't happen this time around. Especially if Verlander's performance against the A's offers any guidance. What we do know, though, is that plenty of unlikely things will happen. Enough so that even as we acknowledge that the Yankees are the better team and should be favored, the qualitative difference is not so large that you'd be likely to notice over the course of a best-of-seven series.