ALCS 2013 Preview: Tigers vs. Red Sox

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Two closely-matched teams square off in what should be a great series.

How they got here

By now you know the story of each club, each having been recapitulated endlessly during the two Division Series. At this point it suffices to say that the Tigers arrived at the ALCS by way of a come-from-behind ALDS victory over the Oakland A's keyed by a where-you-been-big-guy? home run from Miguel Cabrera and a vintage performance by Justin Verlander, and the Red Sox earned their ticket in with a dominating victory over the Tampa Rays. The Red Sox had the best record in the American League, the Tigers only the third best, but when you consider underlying factors like the quality of competition, the two best teams on the circuit are exactly where they should be. This should be a hard-fought, very competitive series between two teams that don't have a lot of weaknesses.

Tigers Offense

Sure, their bats disappear from time to time, but the Tigers have one of the most potent lineups in the league this year. The only soft spots are shortstop, catcher, and left field, and even they aren't so bad --Jhonny Peralta may be a butcher at both positions he plays (shortstop and left field) but he props up both with his bat, and if he doesn't, Andy Dirks isn't a pushover. Catcher Alex Avila's offensive production has been all over the place in his career, but he finished the year hot, hitting .303/.376/.500 in the second half. It's only when Don Kelly is in left that the Tigers have a position that's a total loss.

Our list of weaknesses would be incomplete without including Miguel Cabrera. Sure, his home run in Game 5 helped put the Tigers over the top, but he was otherwise invisible, just as he was in September. When healthy, Cabrera is one of the best right-handed hitters of all time, but he's clearly diminished right now.

Jhonny Peralta (Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports)

Cabrera's lack of production is somewhat offset by the team's switch-hitting DH, Victor Martinez, who began the season looking like his yearlong layoff due to knee surgery had eroded his ability to hit. He found his groove beginning in July and kept it, hitting .336/.394/.490 over his final 107 games, then went 9-for-20 in the ALDS.

The Tigers have had slower teams, but not many; Baseball Prospectus's baserunning runs (it's a miserable name, but they can't all be WAR), a measure of how many runs a team gained or lost based on how many extra bases it took per opportunity, stolen base percentage, and so on. Their league-low 35 steals and 20 caught stealing were just one component of a baserunning effort that was one of the 10 worst since 1950.

More on the Red Sox ALCS effort at: Over the Monster Contact rate favors the Tigers, says Bless You Boys

Red Sox Offense

Just because the Red Sox have chosen to disguise themselves as escaped bear robots from Disneyland doesn't mean you don't have to take them seriously. They led the league in runs scored for a reason. There are no soft spots in their lineup; even Will Middlebrooks, the player with the weakest statistical performance, hit a solid .276/.329/.476 in 41 games after returning from a midseason demotion. This is a team that might not have scored 1,000 runs or hit 250 home runs, but those things matter less than the fact that it had more regulars with an OPS+ of 110 than any team in history. David Ortiz had the only MVP-style superman season, but everyone else contributed at a high level. Essentially, the Red Sox can chain up hits with any team in history.

Boston's 123 stolen bases are emblematic of their overall approach. The total was neither the highest in the league nor their highest of the lively ball era, but they were the most efficient base-stealing team in franchise history, getting caught only 19 times. They continued to be high-percentage base-stealers in the ALDS round, plucking six bags in seven attempts against the Rays, the lone caught stealing a busted hit-and-run.

Edge: Boston, but it's close.

Justin Verlander (Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports )

Tigers Pitching

The Tigers will open the ALCS with American League ERA leader Anibal Sanchez. The Red Sox did not face Sanchez this year, which could prove an advantage to the pitcher given how important the element of surprise is to a hurler. In fact, Sanchez (who came up in the Red Sox organization) has made just one career start against the Red Sox and has never pitched at Fenway. Probable AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer will start Game 2, Justin Verlander Game 3, and Doug Fister Game 4. This quartet was the main force behind the Tigers' league-best 3.44 starter's ERA. The Tigers' bullpen is not necessarily the dark and scary place it was portrayed as being throughout the season, but it's not nearly the asset  the starting is. We've seen postseason teams win on great bullpen arms -- the 1990 Reds come to mind -- but the Tigers will go only as far as their starters can carry them.

Red Sox Pitching

Red Sox starting pitchers weren't far behind the Tigers at 3.84, and throw a few park adjustments in there and the latter's advantage starts to disappear. Following Lester, the Red Sox will bring Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, and Jake Peavy to bear against the Tiger' bats. Note that Lester is the only left-hander in the group, Felix Doubront having been remanded to the bullpen. That's a good thing for Boston; the Tigers hit lefties very well throughout the regular season. If there's a weak link here it's Lackey, who slumped in September (4.98 ERA, though with peripherals that were somewhat better than that) and then pitched poorly against the Rays in the ALDS.

On paper, Boston's bullpen was about as effective as Detroit's, but taking the birds'-eye view doesn't do justice to adjustments they made during the season, giving the eighth and ninth innings over to Japanese relief tandem Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara and solving a problem that had been nagging since Jonathan Papelbon left town.

Edge: Tie, leaning Red Sox if only because they've had more of a chance to set up their pitching.

Managers

Jim Leyland has been managing since the days of Connie Mack, and in his heart he probably likes to think of himself as a small-ball guy. After all, this is the manager who used to call on Jay Bell to sacrifice 40 times a season. Those days are gone, however: the Tigers station-to-station approach demonstrates Leyland's understanding of his team's strengths and weaknesses. Trying to stay out of his bullpen and blessed with a staff of dominant starters, he pushed his rotation harder than any manager of the league, leading the circuit with 110 starts of over 100 pitches and nine of over 120. Farrell was second in the latter category with five such starts. The former pitcher Farrell was a little more aggressive an offensive manager this year, starting his runners more often (or using the hit and run) a bit more than the average and calling the most double-steals (eight) in the league. The Red Sox like to bunt a bit with Shane Victorino, but otherwise don't fetishize one-run strategies. Note that the average AL team issued 30 free passes this year. Leyland held up four fingers 29 times. Farrell gave out only 10, by far the least in the league.

Edge: Again, it's hard to see an edge here. Farrell has been to the postseason with the Red Sox as pitching coach and knows his way around; Leyland has more experience than the next five managers put together now that Tony La Russa has retired. Call it another tie.

David Ortiz (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports )

Breakout Player

This is a clash of veteran teams, so this category really doesn't apply. The Tigers don't have a left-handed starter, so let's say that David Ortiz is likely to have another big postseason series to add to his collection of stellar October performances.

Prediction

Red Sox in seven, but really it could go either way.

More from SB Nation MLB:

Verlander, Cabrera lead Tigers to ALCS | Video: Ewok Dance?

Goldman: Verlander rises to occasion | What the Tigers did to Bob Melvin

Yankees will be "serious players" for Tanaka | Dodgers want Price

Meet Sir Bam Bam, who may be the future of big league managing

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