Following a pair of one-run games in the American League Division Series, the Detroit Tigers and Oakland Athletics head to Detroit for a pivotal Game 3 on Monday night.
With the series tied and the teams seemingly so evenly matched, exploiting even the smallest advantage—or making the smallest mistake—could be the difference between taking the series lead and falling into a must-win situation.
Let's take a look at the keys for each team to find success in Game 3, which will likely dictate how the rest of this series plays out.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted.
The last time Anibal Sanchez faced Oakland, he turned in one of his worst performances of the season. He allowed four earned runs on five hits and three walks, needing 112 pitches to get through five innings of work en route to an 8-6 Detroit loss on Aug. 26.
It was a stark difference from the American League ERA champion's first start against the A's. On April 14, Sanchez tossed 113 pitches over seven innings of three-hit, one-run ball in a 10-1 blowout win over Oakland.
Sanchez was also the tough-luck loser in Oakland's 2-0 shutout of Detroit in Game 3 of the 2012 ALDS.
A quick look at the breakdown of pitches that he threw, courtesy of Brooks Baseball, gives us some insight into what he did differently:
|Start||Fourseam %||Sinker %||Curve %||Slider %||Changeup %|
|April 14 (Win)||35.09||18.42||14.91||9.65||21.93|
|Aug. 26 (Loss)||34.82||8.04||7.14||13.39||36.61|
|Game 3 2012 ALDS||33.66||16.83||16.83||12.87||19.80|
Sanchez got away from throwing his sinker and curveball, two of the better pitches in his arsenal.
A return to what works—mixing things up more often than he did in his last start—could be the difference between Detroit taking a 2-1 series lead and falling behind.
From May 28 to Sept. 10, 24-year-old Jarrod Parker went on a nine-game winning streak for the A's and remained unbeaten over 19 consecutive starts—the longest unbeaten streak in Oakland history. Along the way, he posted a 2.61 ERA and 1.03 WHIP, holding the opposition to a .209/.268/.312 slash line.
Then the wheels fell off. Parker allowed seven earned runs in two of his final three starts this season with a 9.20 ERA and 1.50 WHIP, as the opposition hit .302/.333/.556 against him.
That's not the kind of momentum any pitcher wants to carry into the playoffs, especially when facing a team he has historically had trouble against.
Four times in his career, Parker has faced the Tigers, and Parker has lost to the Tigers all four times with a 6.65 ERA and 1.71 WHIP in those losses. That includes the two losses that he was dealt in last year's ALDS, culminating in the deciding Game 5 against Justin Verlander.
Looking at the numbers from Brooks Baseball, we can see that Parker has tried to mix things up against Detroit, relying on different pitches to no avail:
|Date||Fourseam %||Sinker %||Cutter %||Curve %||Slider %||Changeup %|
|May 13, 2012||47.75||16.22||0.00||0.00||15.32||20.72|
|Oct. 6, 2012||15.63||51.04||0.00||0.00||8.33||25.00|
|Oct. 11, 2012||16.47||49.41||0.00||1.18||1.18||31.76|
|April 14, 2013||36.11||36.11||0.00||2.78||9.72||15.28|
If Oakland is going to jump out to a 2-1 series lead, Parker needs to find the right mix—and quickly.
Since collecting three runs on four hits and a hit batter in the first inning of Game 1, the Tigers offense has fallen asleep, mustering only 10 hits over its last 58 at-bats (.172 BA) with two walks and 16 strikeouts.
In Game 2, only three Tigers collected a base hit, with Miguel Cabrera (1-for-4) the only Detroit hitter among the first seven in the lineup to reach base against Sonny Gray and Grant Balfour. Through two games, the Tigers only have a slash line of .219/.254/.250 and have not scored a run in 17 innings.
Prince Fielder, Torii Hunter, Jose Iglesias and Austin Jackson have combined to go 4-for-29 in the series, striking out nine times. That lack of production from key members of the lineup isn't going to help the Tigers reach the next round.
But things are looking up with the series heading back to the cozy confines of Comerica Park, where Detroit's offense is far more dangerous than it is on the road:
|2013 Split||BA||OBP||SLG||Runs Scored||Runs Per Game|
Between the offense's increased productivity at home and past success against Oakland starter Jarrod Parker, the pregame advantage in Game 3 lies firmly in Detroit's dugout.
Whether Jim Leyland's squad can keep it there—especially with Cabrera still hurting—will be the difference between the series ending in four games and heading back to Oakland for a win-or-go-home Game 5.
After Game 1, Oakland's biggest issue was the lack of production behind leadoff hitter Coco Crisp, who drew three walks but stood helplessly on base as Jed Lowrie and Josh Donaldson went 0-for-8 behind him.
In Game 2, Crisp became part of the problem, not the solution, as the Tigers' first four batters—Crisp, Lowrie, Donaldson and Brandon Moss—combined to go 1-for-14 with two walks and eight strikeouts. That left Yoenis Cespedes (2-for-4) and Seth Smith (2-for-4) with nobody to drive in when they stepped to the plate.
The good news for the A's is that no team in baseball, other than Boston (434 total runs, 5.36 runs per game), was as dangerous on the road this season as Oakland, which scored 414 runs away from home, an average of 5.11 runs per game.
Considering Detroit's increased production at home, the A's need to stay true to their home/away splits as well, focusing on producing runs in a series where baserunners—especially those crossing home plate—are at a premium.
During the regular season, the Tigers walked 8.3 percent of the time, a number that tied them with the Toronto Blue Jays for 10th-best in baseball, according to FanGraphs. Through the first two games of the ALDS, Detroit is walking only three percent of the time, with only Alex Avila and Omar Infante drawing free passes.
That's not conducive to generating offense, especially when neither Avila nor Infante is hitting near the top of the order. Detroit needs the early part of its order to get on base in order to give its biggest run producers a chance to move baserunners into scoring position or send them home with a home run or deep fly ball into the outfield gaps.
While Oakland's pitching staff doesn't issue walks often, averaging only 2.65 walks per nine innings for the lowest mark in the American League and third-lowest in baseball, Detroit's offense isn't helping things by swinging at pitches outside of the zone.
Meanwhile, Oakland has managed to keep its postseason walk percentage fairly consistent with that of its regular-season numbers at 8.8 percent in the playoffs compared to 9.2 percent in the regular season. But Oakland's strikeout rate has skyrocketed, jumping from 19 percent in the regular season to 42.7 percent in the ALDS.
That's right—the A's are dangerously close to striking out in every other at-bat against Detroit's stellar rotation. It's going to be difficult for the A's to not swing and miss in Game 3 against Anibal Sanchez, who averaged nearly 10 strikeouts per nine innings of work during the regular season.
But the A's don't really have much of a choice, as a strikeout rate as high as they've posted is a recipe for a guaranteed first-round playoff exit.