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Does Tigers' Strikeout Spree Show Their Arms Will Be Red Sox Bats' Kryptonite?

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Does Tigers' Strikeout Spree Show Their Arms Will Be Red Sox Bats' Kryptonite?
Al Bello/Getty Images

Great pitching always beats great hitting.

Ah, yes. The old cliché. There is no baseball cliché that's cited more than that one, even though it's obviously not 100 percent true. Great pitching doesn't always beat great hitting, mind you. 

It was the Boston Red Sox's mission to remind everyone that great pitching doesn't always win in their matchup with the Detroit Tigers in the American League Championship Series. The Tigers entered the series with great pitching in the form of a lethal starting rotation, but the Red Sox were looking to score a point for great hitting with help from the league's highest-scoring offense.

Through one game, however, a point has already been scored for the cliché. Great pitching prevailed.

And given the staggering degree to which great pitching prevailed, any and all concerns about the Red Sox's ability to reverse the narrative in favor of great hitting are warranted. Rather than a 15-round prize fight, this latest matchup between great pitching and great hitting looks like it could be a knockout.

Game 1 of the ALCS went to the Tigers by the final of 1-0, and that zero in the runs scored column isn't the only distressing number produced by Boston's offense. Against 2013 AL ERA champion Anibal Sanchez and a foursome of Tigers relievers, Red Sox hitters collected only one hit. That came with one out in the bottom of the ninth, when Joaquin Benoit allowed a single to Daniel Nava to break up an attempt at a combined no-hitter that started with six no-hit frames from Sanchez.

Sanchez also struck out 12 in his six innings of work, starting with a four-strikeout first inning—the first in the postseason since 1908, per ESPN. Al Alburquerque, Jose Veras, Drew Smyly and Benoit combined to pick up five more strikeouts to give Tigers pitchers a grand total of 17.

That doesn't happen often. Or, well, ever. Right Sporting News?

It's actually not that unfathomable that Tigers pitchers were able to rack up that many strikeouts. It's just what they do, as the Red Sox now understand. 

And what they should understand next, of course, is that things aren't about to get any easier.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

The postseason strikeout record the Tigers set in Game 1 wasn't the first strikeout record their pitchers have been able to achieve. Per MLB.com, Tigers pitchers set a new record for strikeouts by a team this season, and the credit is owed to their starting pitchers.

According to FanGraphs, Tigers starters struck out 23.2 percent of the batters they faced this season, and they also topped the charts in swinging-strike percentage at 10.3. Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander did the heavy lifting, and they did it with good, old-fashioned filthy stuff.

This stuff hasn't backed down in October. If anything, it's gotten filthier.

Consider what Sanchez had working for him on Saturday night. Per Brooks Baseball, his fastball normally sat at 93.73 miles per hour in the regular season. Against the Red Sox, he was sitting at 94.2 and getting as high as the 96-97 range. He also had some devastating movement working on his slider and changeup, which combined to pick up 15 swinging strikes.

The one thing that Sanchez didn't have a whole lot of on Saturday night was command. He walked six batters in his six innings, including three on his way out the door in the bottom of the sixth. He threw only 66 of his 116 pitches for strikes, and he mixed in two wild pitches to boot. 

It's to the Red Sox's credit that they were at least able to make Sanchez work hard, otherwise it likely would have been him on the mound looking to close out the no-hit attempt rather than Benoit. But while their eyes were good, it's hard to remember any good swings taken by Red Sox hitters against Sanchez. Seemingly none of them had any notion what to do against the kind of stuff he was flashing.

And that doesn't bode well. For, if the Red Sox think Sanchez's stuff was overwhelming, wait until they get a load of Scherzer in Game 2 and Verlander in Game 3.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Scherzer doesn't need much of an introduction. Only Yu Darvish struck out more batters at a higher rate than Scherzer in the regular season, and he went on to strike out 11 Oakland A's in his first start of the postseason in Game 1 of the ALDS. Per Brooks Baseball, Scherzer's four-seamer has been sitting at an average of over 95 miles per hour in October, and he's given up only one hit on it.

Verlander, meanwhile, had a down year by his standards, but he has completely reversed his fortunes over his last four starts dating back to the regular season. In 27 innings, he's struck out a whopping 43 batters.

And Verlander, too, has turned on the heat in October.

Brooks Baseball has the regular-season average for Verlander's fastball down at 93.91 miles per hour. He's up to 95.39 in the postseason, and the whiff/swing rate on his fastball has basically doubled from 19.48 percent to 41.33 percent. After looking like a lost cause for much of the season, Verlander's heater has basically gone back to being the thing that made him a legend.

With heat like this, it's almost unfair that Scherzer and Verlander have some of the best secondaries that can be found in the game today. Both of them have changeups, sliders and curveballs to turn to, with Scherzer's slider and Verlander's curveball being among the nastiest of either breed.

Armed with killer fastballs and secondaries, Scherzer and Verlander had no problem carving up the A's in the ALDS, combining for 34 strikeouts and three earned runs in 24 innings. And if they could do that to the A's, you had better believe they'll be able to do it to the Red Sox too.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

That was a good offense that Scherzer and Verlander torched in the ALDS. The A's were hit-or-miss in the first half of the season, but they were second in MLB in runs scored and first in Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), according to FanGraphs. That's a stat that basically says Oakland's offense was the best in the business down the stretch.

There's also the fact that this year's A's differed greatly from last year's A's in one respect: Per FanGraphs, the 2012 A's struck out more often than any other team in the American League. This year, they ranked a respectable ninth in strikeout percentage.

Yet, there was Scherzer and Verlander in the ALDS, nudging Oakland's formidable offense aside like it was a basket full of daisies.

What makes that a scary thought where the Red Sox are concerned is the fact that they had a notably worse strikeout habit than the A's this season, as only four American League clubs struck out more frequently than the Red Sox. For all the scoring they did, they also did a lot of swinging and missing.

Sanchez and the relievers called on by Tigers skipper Jim Leyland showed an ability to exploit this matchup advantage again and again and again on Saturday night. All while the 38,210 packed into Fenway Park could do nothing but look on in stunned silence for a majority of the evening.

Which would you rather have in October?

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So the tone has been set for the rest of the series, and it's a gloomy one for the Red Sox. For them to have any real shot at getting to the World Series, their hitters are going to have to find ways to keep the count from getting to three strikes.

And that, of course, shines light on a dilemma. For, what's more likely to happen: the Red Sox stopping something they've been doing all season, or the Tigers continuing to do something they've been doing all season?

It doesn't take a seasoned betting man to side confidently with the latter. The Red Sox may have a damn good offense at their disposal, but Sanchez and the other Tigers hurlers who took the mound on Saturday night made it clear enough that said offense has met its match. The next two guys in line have the goods to send the same message.

Because it's only been one game, there's obviously still time for the ALCS to end up being one of those things that proves that great pitching doesn't always beat great hitting. But with one brilliant performance already turned in by one excellent pitcher with two more ready to follow his lead, it's looking like the ALCS will instead turn out to be a reminder.

What it would remind everyone is this: There's a reason that oft-cited cliché is cited so often.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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