ALDS Preview: Can the Detroit Tigers' Pitching Match the Baltimore Orioles' Bats?
The Baltimore Orioles surprised many this year on their way to winning 96 games and easily running away with the AL East crown, finishing 12 games ahead of the second-place Yankees. Their opponent in the American League Division Series, the Detroit Tigers, were the team many expected to finish atop the AL Central, and while they did, they had a tumultuous time getting there.
These two teams played each other six times this season, with the Tigers winning five of the contests, outscoring the O’s 33-20 over the six games. However, the two teams haven’t met since May 14th, and much has changed since then.
Let’s delve into both clubs and see how they got to this point.
How The O's Got Here
The O’s made the playoffs by hitting more home runs than any other team in baseball, getting solid pitching from their starters, having a dominant bullpen, and playing elite defense. Their 211 home runs are 25 more than the second-place Rockies, and they were the only team to break 200, led by Nelson Cruz and his MLB-best 40 home runs.
Four of the five main starters for the O’s won at least 10 games, and only Ubaldo Jimenez posted an ERA higher than 3.65. Their starting pitching for the season wasn’t dominant, but it was consistent and kept the O’s in most of their games. It picked up tremendously in the second half, however, as the O’s starters posted the third best team ERA in baseball at 2.98.
The bullpen has been dominant, led by closer Zach Britton and his 1.35 ERA to go with 37 saves. Darren O’Day has also been solid, posting a 1.70 ERA and stranding 90.8% of base runners. Lefty Andrew Miller, acquired in a trade with the Red Sox, has not slowed down since coming to Baltimore, posting a 1.35 ERA, a 1.13 fielder independent pitching (FIP), and 15.30 strikeouts per nine innings. Their 2.66 team ERA in the second half led baseball for relievers.
If it were not for the amazing defense the Royals played all season, the O’s would have arguably been baseball’s best defense. They were second to the Royals in both team defensive WAR and UZR, while leading in UZR/150, and committing the third fewest errors in the AL. Losing Manny Machado’s Gold Glove-caliber defense hurts, but the O’s still have J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones, and Jonathan Schoop, who all finished in the top-20 for defensive WAR in the AL.
How The Tigers Got Here
Simply put, the Tigers won the AL Central by scoring a lot of runs, thus overcoming their spotty pitching and terrible defense.
Their 757 runs scored were second only to the Angels, and they had the most RBI as a team, to go along with the seventh most stolen bases. The Tigers led the AL in team slugging percentage, weighted on base average (wOBA), and weighted runs created plus (wRC+). These numbers were heavily influenced by Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera, both of whom were in the top-10 in all of baseball in these categories.
The Tigers needed an explosive offense, because their team ERA of 4.01 tied for seventh worst in baseball. Their pitching as a whole struggled, with the starters posting the 10th-worst ERA and their bullpen posting the fourth worst. David Price, who was acquired at the trade deadline, has also contributed to the poor pitching numbers. Prior to this last two starts, Price had posted a 4.09 ERA with the Tigers. There were some bright spots as Max Scherzer had a nice year, winning 18 games and posting a 3.15 ERA and 2.85 FIP. And as bad as Justin Verlander’s season went, he has pitched much better as of late, posting a 2.65 FIP over his last six starts.
All you need to know about the Tigers’ defense is that it stinks. As a team, they were close to last in virtually every defensive metric, with only Ian Kinsler and Alex Avila posting above average defensive ratings among regular players.
Keys To Victory For the O's
In order to beat the Tigers, the O’s will need to rely on what got them this far, the home run. They will be missing Chris Davis and his 26 home runs for this entire series due to his suspension, but the O’s got 50 combined home runs from Adam Jones and Steve Pearce, as well as another 30 combined from Nick Markakis, and Schoop, in addition to Cruz’s 40. When the O’s get on base they don’t run – their 44 stolen bases are dead last in baseball – and instead hope for a home run that scores more than just one run. This may prove to be a difficult task for the O’s as the Tigers have posted the eighth fewest home runs per nine innings ratio (0.79) as a staff.
The O’s will also need their starters to keep them in the game and neutralize the dangerous offense of the Tigers. If the Tigers are able to jump out to a big lead, a bloop and a blast might not be enough for the O’s to win.
Look for the Tigers to be very careful with Cruz, often pitching around him, as he has the ability to hit one out at any moment. That means Pearce and Hardy will likely be attacked, so if the O’s win the series, they could be the reasons why.
Keys To Victory For the Tigers
They say defense and pitching wins championships, and for the Tigers to win, they will need their pitching to step up. They have big name guys in Verlander, Price, and Scherzer, and we’ve seen all three be unhittable at times. The question will be whether or not they can replicate their dominance against the O’s when it matters most. Otherwise, they will have to outhit the O’s in order to win, something they are capable of doing, but not something they should rely on happening.
If the games do become slugfests, the obvious candidates to do the most damage are Martinez and Cabrera. However, just as the Tigers are likely to pitch around Cruz and Jones, the O’s would be smart to do the same with Detroit’s big bats, meaning guys like J.D. Martinez and Ian Kinsler will need to step up.
In the playoffs, the importance of winning each game is magnified, especially in a five game series, meaning the Tigers’ shaky bullpen cannot afford to have any rough outings against the O’s. Closer Joe Nathan has had a better second half than first, although he posted just a 1.25 strikeout to walk ratio and a 3.35 FIP in September. He will need to pitch much better in order to close out victories for the Tigers.
Our predictions have the O's as favorites in this series, with a 54.77% chance to win. The O’s finished the season with a nERD score of 0.49, while the Tigers posted a score of 0.30. Using these numbers alone, we'd give a slight edge to the O’s, but with their underrated pitching and ability to hit home runs along with the home field advantage, they should be favorites to advance regardless. Detroit has bigger names and more postseason experience, but the O’s are a more complete team.