Steps for the Detroit Tigers to Win the ALCS
For the third consecutive season, Detroit will be playing for the American League Pennant, taking on the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series that kicks of on Saturday night at Fenway Park.
While Detroit took the regular season series from Boston, 4-3, it hasn't been an easy road for the Tigers to get to this point, being pushed to the brink by an upstart Oakland team in the ALDS and needing a near perfect game from Justin Verlander to finally put the A's away.
Amazingly, while Boston and Detroit are two of the oldest and most storied teams in baseball, having played nearly 2,000 games against each other over the course of baseball history, this marks the first time that the two teams will do battle in the playoffs.
Let's take a look at the steps the Tigers need to take in order to emerge victorious from what promises to be another hard-fought series.
*Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
Get Prince Fielder Going
While Prince Fielder hit a respectable .278 against Oakland in the ALDS, the slugging first-baseman has been nothing more than a glorified singles-hitter for the past few weeks.
Fielder hasn't recorded an extra-base hit—or driven in a run—since September 22, when he hit a solo home run against the Chicago White Sox.
Since then, he's hit .206 (7-for-34) with four walks, three strikeouts and three runs scored. His numbers against Boston this season were mediocre at best, hitting .250/.290/.393 with two extra-base hits (one home run) and seven RBI in seven games.
Yet for his career, Fenway Park has been one of his favorite places to go off, hitting .368/.439/.789 with 13 extra-base hits (five home runs) and 12 RBI in 17 games.
If the Tigers offense is going to keep pace with Boston's high-powered attack, Fielder must get back to being the aggressive power-hitter that we've come to know and—especially in the first two games of the series—begin producing like his career numbers indicate that he's capable of doing in Fenway.
Figure out a Way to Help Alex Avila Control the Running Game
Detroit's starting catcher, Alex Avila, was one of the worst at controlling the opposition's running game this season, throwing out only 17 percent (15-of-88) of runners that tried to steal a base against him.
Boston brings with them the fourth most potent running game in baseball, swiping 123 bases on the season, highlighted by Jacoby Ellsbury's 52 steals.
You can be sure that the Red Sox are going to take off running on Avila whenever the opportunity presents itself, moving runners into scoring position and putting added pressure on the starting rotation, who is already going to have their hands full against a very dangerous Boston lineup.
Whether it's the starters keeping runners at first base close with multiple throws over or pitching out more often than they normally would, figuring out a way for Avila to control Boston's running game is going to be key to Detroit's success in the ALCS.
Attack Boston's Lineup
Detroit's starting rotation made baseball history this season, striking out 1,428 batters, a new regular season record, previously held by the 2003 Chicago Cubs, who sent 1,404 batters down on strikes.
They also became only the third team in baseball history to boast three pitchers with 200-or-more strikeouts in the regular season—Max Scherzer (240), Justin Verlander (217) and Anibal Sanchez (202)—joining the 1967 Minnesota Twins and 1969 Houston Astros in that exclusive club.
For as dangerous as Boston's lineup is, the Red Sox struck out 20.5 percent of the time during the regular season, tied with the Miami Marlins for the ninth-highest strikeout percentage in baseball. Three players—Mike Napoli (187), Jarrod Saltalamacchia (139) and Stephen Drew (124)—all posted triple-digit strikeout totals, while three more—Will Middlebrooks (98), Daniel Nava (93) and Jacoby Ellsbury (92)—came close.
If there's one advantage that the Tigers have over Boston in this series, it's their rotation's ability to induce strikeouts—and Boston's penchant for swinging and missing.
Detroit must exploit that tendency if they're going to return to the World Series.
Continue to Start Jhonny Peralta at Shortstop
While Jose Iglesias is unquestionably the superior defensive shortstop, the Tigers cannot afford to play Jhonny Peralta in left field—nor can they afford to not have his bat in the lineup.
Peralta was on fire in the ALDS against Oakland, hitting .417/.417/.750 with a double, a home run, five RBI and a run scored. To be sure, Peralta has struggled over his career against Boston, hitting only .214 against the Red Sox this season and owning a .246/.325/.379 slash line in 62 games against them.
But his ability to drive the ball with power—especially with Miguel Cabrera far from being himself—is simply too valuable for the Tigers to not have in the lineup on a daily basis.
Don Kelly, starting in left field, shores up the team's defense on the left side. Iglesias can certainly be used as a late-inning defensive replacement, but if he's in the game before the eighth or ninth inning, Jim Leyland will have made a terrible mistake.
Jim Leyland Must Have a Quicker Hook
While Jim Leyland improved in this area as the ALDS against Oakland wore on, it's something that he needs to stay on top of.
Clearly, he kept Anibal Sanchez on the mound in Game 3 far longer than he should have, with Sanchez racking up 63 pitches through the first three innings of the game and ultimately surrendering three home runs and six earned runs before he was finally pulled in the fifth inning.
Making the same mistake against the Red Sox could prove to be a season-ending mistake—and Leyland must be quick to pull one of his starters if it's clear to everyone watching and listening that they simply aren't near the top of their game, turning to his bullpen—namely Rick Porcello—earlier than later.