MLB Playoffs 2012: Biggest Questions Facing AL Teams in October
As we reach the final day of the 2012 Major League Baseball regular season—I will pause for a moment as you dry your eyes—it is time to look at what the postseason has in store for us.
Specifically, we want to look at what is going on in the American League. Before the season started, raise your hand if you predicted Baltimore and Oakland making it here. If you put your hand up, you're a liar.
New York, Texas and Detroit are the three powerhouse teams that everyone expected to be here. Yet even as we talk about those teams as the rock-solid locks for the postseason, it is clear there is not one team who stands out above the rest.
Compelling arguments can be made for all five teams to make a run, especially in the short series format that the postseason provides.
With that in mind, here are the biggest questions that we are looking at from the American League teams in the postseason.
Do The Yankees Have Enough Starting Pitching?
One of the great things about baseball is how so much can change in from the start of the season to the postseason. In spring training, we were all wondering if the Yankees had too much pitching and how they would manage it all.
Now, you have to wonder how their staff will hold up in October. C.C. Sabathia has provided a lot of relief thanks to a strong August and September that saw him allow just 59 hits with 74 strikeouts in 74 innings.
Hiroki Kuroda was the best starter for the Yankees most of the year, but he scuffled in September, posting a 5.22 ERA in 29.1 innings. He also allowed 46 baserunners during that time.
The return of Andy Pettitte has never meant more, as they are going to need him to be their stopper if they lose a game or two at the start of the Division Series or ALCS.
Given Sabathia's track record, it's not a stretch to expect him to be great. Beyond that, this could be a very interesting October for the Yankees on the mound. I don't see impact or depth beyond their big work horse, so he has to be dominant every time he takes the ball.
Which Surprise Team Is More Likely To Make A Deep Run: Baltimore or Oakland?
I am glad you asked, because I can honestly say I have no idea. And that's what I love about this postseason.
Who Will Win The AL Pennant?
The A's, at least to me, are the better team from top to bottom. Neither offense is going to light the world on fire. They both finished in the middle of the pack in runs scored, but the Orioles did finish second in baseball with 213 home runs.
Both teams finished close enough in on-base percentage (.310 for Oakland, .313 for Baltimore) and slugging (.403 to .420) that the obvious separator is going to be on the mound.
The A's were second in the American League in team ERA, whereas the Orioles finished sixth. Oakland's starters had an ERA of 3.78 compared to 4.44 for the Orioles. The bullpens are basically a wash, as the A's finished second in the AL and the Orioles were third.
One thing to note is that the A's do get a big boost in those stats because of their ball park. It's no secret that the Coliseum is a cavernous haven where flyballs go to die, unless you are Yoenis Cespedes and can hit a ball over Mount Rushmore.
On the road, the Orioles actually had a better team ERA (3.68) than the A's (3.95). However, we have to factor in quality of starters as well, which is easily in Oakland's favor.
Tommy Milone looks like Cy Young when he pitches in Oakland. Jarrod Parker has always been a prospect with the skills to be a good No. 2 starter, and he finally got the opportunity with the A's and ran with it.
I have no idea what I am going to get on a game-by-game basis from their starters. Wei-Yin Chen has been their most durable pitcher, though he has looked tired and the league has finally caught up to him in the second half.
Chris Tillman has looked strong in a small sample size, though to be fair, that is exactly what the playoffs are.
Since pitching, particularly starting pitching, seems to decide playoff games a lot more than relievers, you have to give the A's an decided advantage in that area.
Who Will Step Up In The Rangers' Rotation?
Two years ago, the Rangers surprised a lot of people by not only winning the American League West, but riding the magical left arm of Cliff Lee and the amazing bat of Josh Hamilton all the way to the World Series before losing to the Giants.
Last season, even without that dominant ace at the top of the rotation like Lee, the Rangers had C.J. Wilson as their No. 1 starter. He didn't pitch well in October, but he had the numbers in the regular season to warrant being a Game 1 starter.
Now, who is going to step up and be a hero? The best and most obvious answer is Yu Darvish. The Japanese import has more than lived up to the hype in his first year as a Major Leaguer, throwing 191.1 innings and striking out 221 hitters.
The high walk total—89 unintentional—is a little deceiving since 64 of them came in his first 122.1 innings. He has much better control of the strike zone now than he did at the start of the season, which helps his already-electric stuff look even better.
After Darvish, though, who do you trust? Matt Harrison has the win total, but his stuff is decent and he doesn't miss bats. Scott Feldman is an extreme flyball pitcher in Texas, which is a very bad combination.
Ryan Dempster is still striking out hitters, but he has allowed 92 baserunners and 34 earned runs in 66 innings since being acquired from the Cubs.
Derek Holland might have the best stuff of anyone in the rotation after Darvish, but his command is so spotty that you never know what you are going to get.
The one saving grace is the offense is so good and so deep that it is not impossible for them to three-peat as AL Champions without a dominating starter at the top of the rotation. But right now, it looks like the Rangers will have to ride Darvish as hard as they can in October.
Will The Tigers Start to Play Like The Team We Expected Them to Be?
If there was one thing you could count on this year, it was the Detroit Tigers winning the American League Central. They were clearly the most talented team in the worst division in baseball. In fact, you could have predicted them to win 100 games and no one would have thought you were crazy.
A funny thing happened along the way: The Tigers found out just how important defense is, even though they continue to not emphasize it. Everyone got lost in the majesty of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder hitting third and fourth in the lineup that no one bothered to mention they were both bad defensive first basemen.
Moving Cabrera to third base was always going to be a bad idea, and sure enough it turned out that he was at best a below-average defender at the hot corner. But no one cares because he is one of the two or three best hitters in the game.
Their inability to turn batted balls in play into outs is what kept them so close to the White Sox in the division.
They wound up needing 160 games to determine their fate as AL Central Champions, which is astounding given how weak everyone else is.
However, one of the great things about October baseball is that you only need to be great for a three-week period to win.
The Tigers have the best pitcher in baseball taking the mound in Game 1 of every series they play. Justin Verlander has had another Cy Young-caliber season, though I sense a lot of love for David Price in that category right now.
Doug Fister is the stabilizing force in the rotation after Verlander. He always struck me as a starter who benefited from playing in Seattle, but the quality of his off-speed stuff and command of everything makes him a lot better than his fringy fastball suggests he should be.
Max Scherzer is the wild card in the rotation. The Tigers were reportedly going to pitch him today if they needed a win.
If Scherzer's shoulder hold up enough for him to pitch like he did before being shut down--between August and September, he had 77 strikeouts, allowed 52 hits and, most importantly, only walked 13 in 61 innings—the Tigers could have the best 1-2 punch at the top of a rotation of any team in the postseason.
We overrated the Tigers in a 162-game scenario, but they have enough offensive punch and starting pitching to shine in the short sprint known as Playoff Baseball.
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