ALCS 2013: Boston Red Sox vs. Detroit Tigers Position by Position Breakdown

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistOctober 11, 2013

ALCS 2013: Boston Red Sox vs. Detroit Tigers Position by Position Breakdown

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    It only seems fitting that the battle for the American League pennant will come down to the best starting rotation against the best offense when the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox lock horns for what is sure to be a clash of epic proportions. 

    Of course, while the Tigers are strong on the mound and the Red Sox can score with anyone, there is a lot more to these teams than that. You can't get to this point in the season being one-dimensional. 

    The Tigers are hoping to make it to their second consecutive World Series and third in seven years. This is their third straight appearance in the American League Championship Series, the first team to do that since the New York Yankees from 1999-2001. 

    The Red Sox have come back from the depths of despair in 2012 to post the best record in the AL this season (97-65) and made fairly quick work of the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS. 

    But which team has the edge in this series? Will the Tigers be hurt by needing five games to defeat Oakland? Will the Red Sox be able to conquer this dominant Detroit staff?

    Here is our position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 ALCS, including a series prediction. 

     

    Note: Rosters used are same as ALDS; will be updated before series, if necessary. All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and Fangraphs unless otherwise noted. 

Catcher

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    Detroit Tigers: Alex Avila

    It's become clear over the last two years that Avila's breakout 2011 season when he hit .289/.395/.506 was an aberration. His average has dropped more than 60 points, on-base percentage more than 70 points and slugging 130 points this year from those peak numbers. 

    There is some good news offensively, as Avila has been a strong hitter at home in 2013 with a .259/.345/.463 line and 15 of his 26 extra-base hits. He also found a groove in the second half, posting a .303/.376/.500 line. 

    However, because of his 2012 performance and lackluster first half, we don't really have a strong gauge of what kind of player Avila is. He might be the All-Star talent from two years ago, or an extreme hot-cold guy with the bat. 

    Defensively, Avila is fine, though he did throw out a career-low 17 percent of base stealers in 2013. Some of that has to do with his pitchers, but this is largely the same group from last year when he threw out 30 percent. That's not a good sign against a strong running team like Boston. 

     

    Boston Red Sox: Jarrod Saltalamacchia

    Jarrod Saltalamacchia has really come into his own this season, which may not be a coincidence since he will be a free agent at the end of the year. He set career highs in average (.273), on-base percentage (.338) and slugging (.466) in years with more than 61 games played. 

    On top of that, his defense, while still not great, has gotten to a point where it's passable. His throwing is better, though there are still issues with accuracy. 

    Given Saltalamacchia's ability to hit for power at a premium position and play adequate defense behind the plate, even with some throwing issues and a knack for striking out, he gets the edge here. 

     

    Advantage: Boston Red Sox

First Base

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    Detroit Tigers: Prince Fielder

    I don't know that a lot of people realized because he still had the magical RBIs in his pocket, but Prince Fielder took a huge step back in 2013. His 25 home runs were the fewest he's ever had in a full season, and he had the lowest OBP in a season since 2006 and the worst slugging percentage of his career. 

    That's not to say Fielder was bad because a lot of teams would love a first baseman who gets on base at a .362 clip and slugs .457, but that's not what the Tigers paid him more than $200 million just 19 months ago to do. 

    To those who say that Fielder loses something playing in Comerica Park, he hit better at home in 2013 than on the road (.842 OPS to .797). He's also about as bad a defender as you will find at first base. 

    And for whatever reason, Fielder doesn't hit in the playoffs with just a .197/.288/.352 line in 122 at-bats. I feel I am overbashing Fielder, who is still a really good player. But maybe he's hit his decline phase a few years before anyone thought he would. 

     

    Boston Red Sox: Mike Napoli

    Mike Napoli basically was Prince Fielder, at least offensively, this season. He hit .259/.360/.482 with 23 home runs and 38 doubles. He's still better against hitting left-handed pitching, but put together a solid .816 OPS against righties this season. 

    Where the separation between the two comes is on defense. That's not to say Napoli is anything special with the glove, but he isn't nearly as bad as Fielder. In fact, according to FanGraphs, Napoli rated quite well with 10 runs saved and a 9.7 UZR. 

    I can't say whether that's a sign of Napoli being a much-improve defender or just one of those random single-season outliers that tends to happen with defensive metrics. 

    Still, even though defense isn't a requisite to be a successful first baseman, when two players are as even as Fielder and Napoli, it should be taken into account when trying to find an edge. 

     

    Advantage: Boston Red Sox

Second Base

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    Detroit Tigers: Omar Infante

    Seen as more of a stop-gap acquisition when the Tigers traded for Anibal Sanchez last year, Omar Infante turned in arguably the best offensive season of his career and remains a solid defender at second base. 

    Infante's .318 average actually led all AL second baseman with at least 450 plate appearances. He's not a dynamic hitter in that he doesn't hit for a lot of power and doesn't work counts, but he makes contact and does not strike out much.

    The same thing can be said about Infante's glove. He's not a great defensive player, or even a good one, but does enough to remain adequate at second base. He had a decent UZR of 2.0, but did cost the Tigers five runs. 

     

    Boston Red Sox: Dustin Pedroia

    Dustin Pedroia's hitting approach hasn't really changed over the years, he just doesn't have the power he once did. His slugging percentage has dropped from .493 in 2010 to .474 in 2011 to .449 in 2012 to .415 this season. 

    That said, he's still a fantastic hitter capable of putting the bat on the ball and making hard contact. His 42 doubles were the most in a season since 2009. He remains one of the hardest players to strike out, with a great 75-73 strikeout-to-walk ratio and .372 on-base percentage. 

    He's also one of the best defenders in baseball, regardless of position. Pedroia ranked fourth in defensive runs saved (15) among all qualified AL players. He has great range and makes up for his lack of arm strength with one of the quickest releases you will see from a second baseman. 

    Infante is a good player, but he isn't at Pedroia's level. 

     

    Advantage: Boston Red Sox

Shortstop

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    Detroit Tigers: Jhonny Peralta

    I am going on the assumption that Jim Leyland will start Peralta at shortstop and not left field, though I could see an argument for Peralta in left field and Jose Iglesias at shortstop because of the defensive upgrade Iglesias provides. 

    That said, Iglesias can't touch Peralta when it comes to offense. And we all know that if the Tigers are forced to choose between a fringy defender at shortstop who can hit and a no-hit, all-defense player, the former wins every time. 

    However, despite his solid offensive numbers, Peralta is vulnerable against right-handed pitching. He can crush lefties to the tune of a .964 OPS this season, but righties held him to just a .750 OPS. He is also a dominant hitter at home with a .346/.406/.534 line in 2013, compared to .266/.315/.390 on the road. 

     

    Boston Red Sox: Stephen Drew

    Stephen Drew finally stayed (relatively) healthy for the first time in years, playing in more than 100 games for the first time since 2010.

    This was the quintessential Stephen Drew season, meaning there were some things to like about his offense (.443 slugging, 50 extra-base hits) and some things to dislike (124 strikeouts in 442 at-bats). 

    But Drew is also a platoon player at this point because he can't hit left-handed pitching at all. He hit .196/.246/.340 this season and .235/.291/.390 in his career against southpaws. The good news is the Tigers starters in this series are all right-handed. 

    There was also his usual solid defense. Drew's not a great defensive player at shortstop, but did rebound, showing more range (55 plays made out of the zone) than he has in a long time. 

     

    Advantage: Detroit Tigers

Third Base

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    Detroit Tigers: Miguel Cabrera

    Here is what it all comes down to: If Miguel Cabrera is healthy, he gets the advantage in this category by a country mile. Unfortunately, that Game 5 home run against Oakland notwithstanding, we aren't sure how healthy he is. 

    Cabrera's home run came from a combination of factors. First, he's a great hitter capable of doing these type of things at less than full strength. Second, and more importantly, Oakland starter Sonny Gray, for some reason, changed his approach and tried to pitch inside instead of busting Cabrera outside where his injured legs and groin can't drive the ball as well. 

    Gray missed his spot and Cabrera destroyed the ball. I can't talk about Cabrera's rate stats this season because they were all a product of him being at or close to full strength. We don't physically know where he's at right now. 

    I'm not going to talk about his defense because the Tigers don't care about how bad it is, so why should we?

     

    Boston Red Sox: Will Middlebrooks

    Will Middlebrooks had an up-and-down season, literally and figuratively, in 2013. He started out as Boston's everyday third baseman, but got sent down to Triple-A in June to work on his swing and came back hitting well before sliding back into some bad habits in September. 

    I do think Middlebrooks' second half performance (.276/.329/.476) is about in line with what he will do in his career, though that line doesn't show that he hit just .244/.270/.477 in September with 22 strikeouts in 86 at-bats. 

    Middlebrooks also struggles against right-handed pitching, posting a .206/.244/.412 line this season. That's not going to serve him well against Detroit's powerful, right-handed heavy starting rotation. 

    He's a decent defender at third base with more arm strength than instincts, which limits the number of balls he can get to. That said, he's still a vastly superior defensive player to Cabrera. 

     

    Advantage: Detroit Tigers

Left Field

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    Detroit Tigers: Andy Dirks

    The Tigers don't have a lot of dead spots in their lineup, but left field is certainly one that sticks out like a sore thumb. That's probably a big reason why Jim Leyland has tried Peralta out there a couple of times in the postseason, despite no evidence whatsoever he is physically capable of playing the position. 

    Andy Dirks is a near replacement-level player who has started a lot of games for the Tigers because they don't have a better option to use. He did hit well in 2012 with a .322/.370/.487 line, but that came in just 88 games. 

    Stretched out over 131 games, the flaws in his swing and approach really came through. About the best thing you can say about Dirks is he hit better in the second half with a .278/.354/.395 line. Not good for a corner outfielder, but not bad as the No. 8 or 9 hitter in a good lineup. 

     

    Boston Red Sox: Daniel Nava

    The Red Sox use a platoon in left field with Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes. Since Nava is the left-handed hitter who crushes righties, he gets the nod here because of what Detroit will be throwing out there. 

    Some teams don't like to exploit platoon advantages, for whatever reason. But Nava and Gomes have made it easy for the Red Sox to do so. Nava hits like an all-star against righties (.322/.411/.484, 35 extra-base hits in 339 at-bats). 

    Despite what UZR says (-14.2/150 games played), Nava isn't that bad defensively. He's an adequate defender whose numbers look worse than they are because it is harder to calculate left-field play in dimensionally challenged Fenway. 

    He strikes me as a sleeper player to watch in this series. That's not to say he will be the MVP or hit three home runs, but his performance against right-handed pitching could give the Red Sox a nice edge. 

     

    Advantage: Boston Red Sox

Center Field

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    Detroit Tigers: Austin Jackson

    No one is happier to get away from Oakland than Austin Jackson. Detroit's leadoff hitter was awful in the ALDS with 13 strikeouts in 20 at-bats. He did have a big RBI single in that Game 4 comeback win, but other than that offered nothing in the series. 

    Jackson did regress this season following a breakout 2012. His strikeouts were nearly identical (134 in 2012, 129 in 2013), but he didn't walk at the same rate (67 in 2012, 52 in 2013) and his flyball rate dropped more than three percent (34.0 in 2012, 30.7 in 2013). 

    That lack of elevation also caused his slugging percentage to drop from .479 in 2012 to .417 this season. Jackson still hit well against right-handed pitching (.296/.345/.439), though. 

    He's the best defensive player—excluding Jose Iglesias, who will likely be a bench player this series—on the team being forced to cover a lot more ground than he's capable of because neither Dirks nor Torii Hunter has the range in that big Comerica outfield.

     

    Boston Red Sox: Jacoby Ellsbury

    Jacoby Ellsbury's power explosion two years ago caught everyone off guard because he never had the kind of swing geared to hitting for more than 10-12 homers in a season, which has proven to be the case the last two years. (We can exclude 2012, if you like, because he was injured.)

    Yet, while some of the focus might be on the power dropping, Ellsbury has evolved into one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball. He hits for average, gets on base and slugs over .400 with a ton of infield hits and more than 50 stolen bases this season.

    The biggest knock against Ellsbury is lefties can get him out (.246/.323/.318 in 2013). But the Tigers don't have a lot of effective left-handed pitchers in the bullpen. They have Drew Smyly and that's about it.

    In addition to his offensive prowess, Ellsbury is one of the best defensive center fielders with range for days and solid arm strength. He picked a great time to head into free agency.

     

    Advantage: Boston Red Sox

Right Field

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    Detroit Tigers: Torii Hunter

    We keep waiting for Torii Hunter to start acting his age, yet somehow, someway the 38-year-old keeps defying the odds with a solid first season in Detroit with a .304/.334/.465 line and 59 extra-base hits. 

    He's certainly not the player he was in his prime. The speed is, while not completely gone, diminished in many ways. His range is not what it once was, necessitating the move to right field. 

    However, despite the solid overall numbers, Hunter's performance is largely based on an incredible April (.911 OPS) and even better July (1.074). Other than that, he was fairly pedestrian with an OBP no higher than .313 in May, June, August and September. 

    He has never walked much, but has basically abandoned that skill as his bat has slowed down since he has to cheat to catch velocity. 

     

    Boston Red Sox: Shane Victorino

    Speaking of players we thought were on the downswing, Shane Victorino was in line to be one of the biggest overpays last winter when the Red Sox signed him for $39 million over three years. Instead, the Flyin' Hawaiian looks like a bargain after one of the best seasons of his career. 

    The biggest difference for Victorino was abandoning switch hitting in favor of going right-handed all the time, where his swing is cleaner and gets more power. 

    Like Hunter, Victorino's overall numbers benefit from an outlier month of August when he hit .328/.392/.578 with seven home runs. But he never had the huge drops in performance that Hunter did month-to-month, staying around the .780-.790 OPS range the rest of the year. 

    Then there is Victorino's defense in right field, which caught everyone off guard with how incredible it was. He is credited with saving 24 runs and making 105 plays out of the right field zone, both shattering his career highs of 16 (2007) and 82 (2008). 

     

    Advantage: Boston Red Sox

Designated Hitter

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    Detroit Tigers: Victor Martinez

    No matter what the circumstances, Victor Martinez is going to hit. He did need time to find his timing early this season after missing all of 2012 due to a torn ACL, but came on like a house of fire in the second half by hitting .361/.413/.500. 

    Being able to play DH every day was the best thing for Martinez. He is a natural hitter, capable of squaring up balls no matter where they are thrown, and has no defensive value at all.

    Speaking strictly on offensive talent, Martinez is like Detroit's version of Dustin Pedroia with more power. He doesn't strike out, will foul off a ton of pitches before getting what he likes and isn't afraid to go the other way. 

    In virtually any other series, Martinez would be the best DH on the field. 

     

    Boston Red Sox: David Ortiz

    It's not getting talked about much, likely because he's still playing and no one knows what to do with DH candidates, but David Ortiz is building a very strong Hall of Fame resume. That isn't directly related to what he can do in this series, though his late-career resurgence did carry over to 2013. 

    Ortiz is a monster. He eats right-handed pitching for lunch, to the tune of .339/.440/.652 and a 54-60 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2013. His ability against left-handed pitching has fallen off in recent years, dropping all the way to .260/.315/.418 with just seven home runs against southpaws. 

    He's equally adept at hitting in front of Boston fans (.931 OPS) as he is on the road (.990 OPS). Ortiz slugged .488 against power pitching in 2013, which he figures to see a lot of in this series. 

     

    Advantage: Boston Red Sox

Starting Pitching

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    Detroit Tigers Projected Rotation

    Game 1: Anibal Sanchez

    Game 2: Max Scherzer

    Game 3: Justin Verlander

    Game 4: Doug Fister

     

    We now know who will follow Anibal Sanchez in ALCS Game 1, as Scherzer, Verlander and Fister will pitch in that order through Game 4.

    Sanchez, who was so good during the regular season, got lit up by Oakland in Game 3 of the ALDS. He allowed eight hits, three home runs and six runs (five earned) in 4.1 innings, marking the first time all year he gave up more than one homer in a game. 

    That's scary to think about against a Boston lineup that boasts more power top to bottom than Oakland and makes a lot more contact. 

    Scherzer and Verlander are the stars and having them pitch in games against Boston's No. 2 and 3 starters would seem to give the Tigers a huge edge, though I wonder if they'll be able to dominate a patient lineup nearly the same way they did Oakland's heavy strikeout group. 

    Fister was effective against the Athletics, though they did hit him around with seven hits and one home run in six innings. He can miss bats but isn't a power pitcher, relying more on location than anything else. 

    Regardless of my minor concerns, this starting staff is the best in baseball and easily the best left in the postseason. You can get away with a lot of flaws, not that the Tigers have many, when you can throw out a 1-2 punch like Scherzer and Verlander and be confident in Sanchez and Fister to at least provide a quality start. 

     

    Boston Red Sox Projected Rotation

    Game 1: Jon Lester

    Game 2: Clay Buchholz

    Game 3: John Lackey

    Game 4: Jake Peavy

     

    The Red Sox will have the pitching advantage in Game 1 because Lester has been very good in the second half with a 2.57 ERA and 74-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He looked dominant in his ALDS start against Tampa Bay, giving up just three hits and three walks with seven strikeouts in 7.2 innings. 

    Lester is also a much better pitcher at Fenway, with a 3.09 ERA and 3.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 87.1 innings. 

    After that, the Tigers will have the starting pitching edge in every game.

    Buchholz has the stuff to dominate, including one of the best changeups in baseball. But he was all over the place in Game 3 of the ALDS before Evan Longoria finally got to him and is still finding his command after missing two months during the regular season. 

    Lackey has been hit or miss in the second half (4.35 ERA) and allowed 10 baserunners in 5.1 innings against Tampa Bay.

    Jake Peavy is a solid No. 4 starter for Boston. He did well working through Tampa Bay's lineup twice before giving up a few hits the third time around.

    I like the depth the Red Sox have. It just isn't as strong overall as Detroit's, which isn't an insult. 

     

    Advantage: Detroit Tigers

Bullpen

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    Detroit Tigers Bullpen

    Closer: Joaquin Benoit

    Setup: Drew Smyly, Al Alburquerque, Rick Porcello

    Relievers: Jose Veras, Jose Alvarez, Phil Coke

     

    The Tigers know how important it is for their starters to work deep into games so they don't have to rely heavily on the bullpen, which is easily the weakest part of their roster. The Red Sox can drive a pitch count up quickly, having the third fewest swings on pitches out of the zone (28.2 percent). 

    Joaquin Benoit is the best reliever the Tigers have, equally effective at getting out right- and left-handed hitters. I would be shocked if he only gets into three games this series, both because the Tigers need him and there probably won't be a lot of complete games from the starting staff. 

    Drew Smyly will also be relied on heavily because of his ability to dominate left-handed hitters. That's not to say he's chopped liver against righties, because he can get them out too, but his main task will be getting out Ortiz and Ellsbury. 

    The rest of the group is basically only to be used if the starters fail to go six innings. Alburquerque is a let-it-fly pitcher who can miss bats (70 in 49 innings) or walk the bases loaded (73 baserunners allowed). 

    Alvarez is the other lefty in the 'pen, though he also gave up seven home runs in 38.2 innings. Veras is a nice piece to have in relief, but not someone you want to throw in a high-leverage spot late in a game. 

     

    Boston Red Sox Bullpen

    Closer: Koji Uehara

    Setup: Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow

    Relievers: Brandon Workman, Franklin Morales, Felix Doubront

     

    Koji Uehara did prove to be human in the ALDS when he gave up a walk-off home run to Jose Lobaton in Game 3. Of course, that was the only hit he gave up in three innings as he struck out four with no walks. 

    He's a freak with impeccable command of everything and a splitter you can't touch when he's on top of it, which is 99 percent of the time. 

    Tazawa is a guy who works within the zone so much that he can rack up strikeouts (72 in 68.1 innings) but will also give up a lot of hits (70) and home runs (nine). 

    I don't know what to make of Breslow. He's gotten by this season with the worst strikeout rate of his career (5.0 per nine innings) and best BABIP since 2009 (.254). Sometimes guys just have a season like that, though I can see a game where it all comes crashing down on him. 

    Workman is better served in a relief role, though the small sample size of 23.1 innings shows the opposite. He misses bats but has also allowed 1.7 baserunners per inning. 

    Morales and Doubront are erratic more often than not, though I don't anticipate them seeing much time in this series unless a game gets out of hand one way or another. 

    Neither 'pen is great, so when things are so close, always go with the better closer. 

     

    Advantage: Boston Red Sox

Bench

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    Detroit Tigers Reserves

    Catcher: Brayan Pena

    Infielders: Jose Iglesias, Ramon Santiago, Hernan Perez

    Outfielders: Don Kelly

     

    Boston Red Sox Reserves

    Catcher: David Ross

    Infielders: Xander Bogaerts

    Outfielders: Jonny Gomes, Mike Carp, Quintin Berry

     

    Here is a huge advantage for Boston, mainly because the Red Sox will actually use their bench, and the Tigers are just going to use someone for a pinch runner or defense late in games. 

    We know at some point that Gomes is going to play, if not start. He has a lot of power and knows how to use it. Bogaerts is going to get in a game as a pinch runner, as will Berry. (Bogaerts' time in the spotlight will come next season.) David Ross will probably get into a game because he can hit left-handed pitching (.804 OPS in 2013). 

    The Tigers might play Jose Iglesias late in games at shortstop or let him pinch run. Other than that, I would be shocked if anyone else saw significant time in this series. 

     

    Advantage: Boston Red Sox

Prediction

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    I gave Boston an edge in nine of 12 categories, which would seem to suggest I think the Red Sox are overwhelming favorites. 

    However, a lot of the positions I favor the Red Sox in are very close, and the Tigers have a huge edge where it would seem to matter most: Starting pitching. So I do see this being a very good, very close series all the way through. 

    Before the postseason started, I predicted the Red Sox to win the World Series and to get there by beating Detroit in the ALCS. I still believe that to be the case because no one in baseball can match the Red Sox's offensive ability. 

    If you were to tell me that Scherzer and Verlander combined to throw 34 innings across four games and hold the Red Sox to three runs in the process, it wouldn't shock me at all because that's how good they are. 

    I just feel that you can only keep Boston's lineup down so long before an explosion happens, Miguel Cabrera still isn't back to full strength and Detroit's bullpen scares me a lot more than Boston's. 

    Prediction: Red Sox in seven games

     

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