The Rangers, somewhat predictably, disposed of the Rays in four games to earn an ALCS date with the Tigers, who, somewhat unpredictably, closed out the Yankees in New York in a tense Game 5. The first ALCS since 2006 without an AL East team is still loaded with star power. Texas and Detroit won 96 and 95 games, respectively, and both have deep lineups and strong rotations. Let’s see how they stack up position-by-position.
Catcher: Mike Napoli vs. Alex Avila
By fWAR, these were the two best catchers in the game in 2011. Aside from baserunning, where neither was great, Avila has no real advantage against Napoli except playing time. The way Napoli finished the season (.416/.505/.792 in September), it’s hard to imagine him missing a plate appearance in this series, even if his right arm falls off.
First Base: Mitch Moreland vs. Miguel Cabrera
Unless we put Napoli at first base too, this is about as big a mismatch as we can get from any two major league players who play the same position. First base is one of the Rangers’ few weak spots, as Moreland is below average on both sides of the ball, while Cabrera has probably been the best hitter in baseball over the past two seasons, and he’s only getting better (5.3, 6.3, and 7.3 in fWAR the past three seasons).
Huge Edge: Tigers
Second Base: Ian Kinsler vs. Ramon Santiago/Ryan Raburn
Another sizable advantage no matter who the Tigers start at second. Kinsler (7.7 fWAR) was the Rangers’ MVP this year, an invaluable combination of power, speed, patience, and defense. Santiago has a good glove (10.4 UZR/150 in ’11), and Raburn can run (2.4 BRAA), but neither can hit.
Big Edge: Rangers
Third Base: Adrian Beltre vs. Don Kelly/Brandon Inge
These two teams have very different strengths, don’t they? Beltre is building a case as one of the best all-around third basemen in baseball history. His .296/.331/.561 slash line may be a product of The Ballpark at Arlington, but his power (32 home runs) and defense (11.2 UZR) play well anywhere. Kelly may live in Yankee-hater lore for his first inning home run in Game 5 of the ALDS, but his sub-.300 OBP and seven regular season homers suggest that we shouldn’t expect that kind of power in the ALCS. Considering Jim Leyland’s only other option is the rotting corpse of Brandon Inge (-0.4 fWAR), this one’s not close either.
Big Edge: Rangers
Shortstop: Elvis Andrus vs. Jhonny Peralta
Andrus is quick (37 stolen bases) and slick with the leather (7.7 UZR), but Peralta established himself as a star this season, hitting .299/.345/.478 with surprisingly excellent defense. Andrus is younger and maybe less of a fluke (Peralta hadn’t earned more than one WAR in a season since ’08), but at the moment, the Tigers couldn’t ask for any more than Peralta in the seventh spot in the lineup.
Slight Edge: Tigers
Left Field: Josh Hamilton vs. Delmon Young
Despite a season-ending injury to Brennan Boesch, the Tigers couldn’t be happier to go into Texas with Delmon Young in left field. Young was barely a replacement-level player all season, but he finished strong (six home runs in September) and added three more dingers in the ALDS. That doesn’t make him the equal, of course, of reigning AL MVP Josh Hamilton, who missed over 40 games this season but still hit 25 home runs and earned 4.2 fWAR.
Center Field: Craig Gentry/David Murphy vs. Austin Jackson
If Gentry starts, the Rangers are giving up offense for speed (18 steals in 18 tries) and defense (29.9 UZR/150, albeit in a small sample). Murphy brings some power (11 homers in 440 PAs), but weakens the defense, likely playing left and moving Hamilton over to center. Either way, the Tigers have a small advantage in Jackson, who doesn’t get on base enough to lead off (how does Leyland keep getting bailed out despite baffling lineups?), but steals bases (22 in 27 tries) and plays good defense (7.9 UZR).
Right Field: Nelson Cruz vs. Magglio Ordonez
Ordonez is hardly playable at this point (-1.0 fWAR in 2011), but Kelly, Santiago, and Andy Dirks aren’t huge upgrades, so the veteran will get some at bats in this series. Cruz missed a lot of time with injuries in 2011, and is a liability on defense, but he brings prodigious power (29 homers in 513 PAs), and that’s enough to win this contest.
Designated Hitter: Michael Young vs. Victor Martinez
One of baseball’s most overrated players vs. an underrated one, this may be the most even of the nine positions. Young hit .338 this year, but walked just 47 times and hut just 11 home runs. Martinez had the same OBP (.380) and nearly the same sluggling percentage (.470 to Young’s .474). Both offer some positional flexibilty, as Martinez can catch and play first and Young can play anywhere in the infield, but neither is a particularly capable defender.
#1 Starter: CJ Wilson vs. Justin Verlander
Wilson was a warrior (2.31 ERA, 1.15 WHIP) on the road this year, and he may be closer to Verlander than you think, but Verlander is the best pitcher in the AL right now.
#2 Starter: Derek Holland vs. Doug Fister
Fister was a breakout star this year, particularly after his trade to Detroit, where he went 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA and a 2.49 FIP. He may have shaken the underrated tag with a Game 5 win against the Yankees, but his low walk rate (1.54/9 innings) and home run rate (0.46) make him a good candidate to weather the storm that is The Ballpark. Holland, on the other hand, would be easy to overrate after a 16-5 season, but his 3.95 ERA is right in line with his 3.96 FIP. He strikes out more than seven batters per nine and will succeed if he can keep the ball in the yard.
Slight Edge: Tigers
#3 Starter: Colby Lewis vs. Max Scherzer
Lewis will welcome a start away from Arlington. In a strange year, Lewis struck out 169 batters in 200 innings, but gave up 35 home runs, 22 of which came at home. In Tampa in the ALDS, he threw one-hit ball for six innings. Expect success in Detroit. Meanwhile, Scherzer no-hit the Yankees into the sixth in his first postseason start. He struck out more than eight batters per nine, but was also homer happy, giving up 29. Very similar pitchers.
#4 Starter: Matt Harrison vs. Rick Porcello
We won’t see either of these guys more than once in the series, but neither is a terrible option. Harrison kept the homers in check and had a 3.39 ERA despite striking just over out twice as many as he walked this year. Porcello barely struck out five batters per nine, but had a respectable 4.06 FIP in 182 innings.
Slight Edge: Rangers
The Rangers’ pen has been hyped since acquiring Koji Uehara and Mike Adams at the trade deadline and picking up Mike Gonzalez in August. A few Uehara meltdowns aside, they’ve been worth the hype. Adams and his 1.47 ERA outshone closer Neftali Feliz, who walks a batter every other inning. Detroit’s bullpen goes just three deep effectively, with Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, and Al Albuquerque expected to log serious innings in the ALCS. Valverde proved his mettle in Game 5 of the ALDS, pitching a 1-2-3 inning against the heart of the Yankees’ order after suffering through 50 straight saves this year despite four and a half walks per nine. Similar to Adams in Texas, Benoit’s nearly four to one K/BB ratio is the real star of the Tigers’ pen.
Slight Edge: Rangers
In total, that’s seven edges for Texas, including big edges at second and third base, and five edges for Detroit, including Miguel Cabrera’s Miguel Cabrera-sized edge at first. The Rangers are the slightly more balanced team, as Jim Leyland’s lineup doesn’t really heat up until the 4-5-6-7 spots, while Ron Washington’s lineup is solid 1 through 7. The Tigers’ rotation is top-heavy, while the Rangers’ rotation is deeper.
There’s not much separating these teams, so maybe this is the series in which the Tigers will be hurt by batting sub-.320 OBP guys in the first three spots in the lineup. I can also see Valverde blowing his first save with the season on the line, all those walks finally blowing up in his face when he can’t get past Beltre, Napoli, and Cruz. The pick:
Rangers in six