If you're tired of great pitching matchups in the postseason, Game 5 of the American League Championship Series won't be for you. The Boston Red Sox send Jon Lester to the mound against Anibal Sanchez of the Detroit Tigers.
Besides, didn't you get enough offense from Game 4?
After being dominated by pitching the first three games of the series, things turned in a hurry on Wednesday night. The Tigers racked up seven runs on nine hits to even the series. The Red Sox finally had something going on offense with 12 hits, but they were only able to muster three runs.
Lester vs. Sanchez is a rematch of that Game 1 classic in which Sanchez threw six no-hit innings and racked up 12 strikeouts before giving way to a bullpen that was able to preserve a 1-0 victory. Lester was no slouch in that game, allowing one run on six hits in 6.1 innings.
As we head into the pivotal Game 5, it is time to look at what the two starters bring to the table.
Lester vs. Tigers
From a numbers perspective, Lester did not have his best season in 2013. His ERA was 3.75, better only than last year's 4.82 mark in the last six seasons.
However, while the lefty wasn't dominant overall, he did set a new career high with 213.1 innings pitched and had his lowest home run rate since 2010 (0.8). More impressive is the way Lester turned his season around in the second half after another slow start.
The change has come as Lester has relied more on his four-seam fastball. He's throwing the heater at least 46.6 percent of the time since August, according to BrooksBaseball.net.
This approach allows Lester to set himself up later in at-bats with a changeup that has been used more in 2013 than at any point in his career (12.5 percent), per FanGraphs. That's a great pitch to neutralize opposite-handed hitters because a lot of times it is going to fade away from the barrel of the bat, inducing weak contact.
Now that we have an idea of Lester's new approach to pitching, it is time to examine how the Tigers' starting lineup has fared against him.
If that lineup looks a little odd, it's because Tigers manager Jim Leyland decided to shake things up with Austin Jackson struggling mightily this postseason. The strategy paid off in Game 4, so they might as well ride the hot hand.
These numbers would appear to be surprising given Lester's pedigree. Yet when you realize that Miguel Cabrera, Torii Hunter and Jhonny Peralta all had a significantly higher OPS against left-handed pitchers, things start to make sense.
|Player||OPS vs. RHP||OPS vs. LHP|
Another thing to note in this game is the way Lester's style has changed over the years. He used to have a huge ground-ball ratio, as high as 53.6 percent in 2010. He is still primarily a ground-ball pitcher, but that number has dropped to 45 percent this season.
As a result, Lester's fly-ball rate has jumped nearly six percent in the last three years (29.6 percent to 35.4), and his line-drive rate has increased almost three percent (16.9 to 19.6).
Lester's biggest problems this season have come after hitters get a look at him during a game. They have been able to make adjustments to his stuff or his approach, forcing him to change his game plan to avoid big trouble.
|1st PA in Game||274||.226||.295||.336||69-26|
|2nd PA in Game||271||.273||.337||.446||48-22|
|3rd PA in Game||251||.263||.320||.406||55-19|
That pattern held during Lester's start in Game 1.
The Tigers recorded three of their six hits off Lester the second time through the order, though they didn't get a run until the third time through, when Peralta blooped a single into center field.
Finally, it is important to distinguish between what Lester has done at Fenway Park and on the road this season. There has been a stark contrast in performance from the 29-year-old in the friendly confines of Boston and enemy territory.
Eventually one team is going to find that crack and exploit it. A lot of these numbers suggest that Lester might provide the opening that the Tigers need to get their offense rolling for the second consecutive day.
Anibal Sanchez vs. Red Sox
How great has Sanchez been since coming over to Detroit from Miami?
Joining a rotation that already included studs like Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, Sanchez has found another level this season.
Which pitcher will perform better in Game 5?
Sanchez tied his career high with 202 strikeouts, set a career high with 9.99 strikeouts per nine innings, and had a 2.57 ERA in 2013.
So what's changed for Sanchez to make him so dominant this year?
Like Lester, it all starts with the changeup.
Sanchez started throwing it more often in 2011 (17.7 percent) and has only gotten more comfortable with it in the last two years (19.6 percent in 2012 and 24.1 percent in 2013).
It also doesn't hurt that Sanchez has seen his fastball velocity increase from 91.8 mph in 2012 to 93 mph this year. That little extra gas allows him to better implement the changeup, which has about 7.5 mph of separation from the heater.
Unlike Lester, who has spent his entire career in the American League, Sanchez is relatively new to the league and doesn't have much of a track record against the Red Sox. In order to make up for that, the players with an asterisk next to their names will have their 2013 stats against right-handed pitching
We all saw what Sanchez did to this lineup in Game 1, but perhaps there was something else going on. When you don't have a lot of firsthand experience against a pitcher, it can be harder to figure him out.
The Red Sox did draw six walks against Sanchez, so it's not like they weren't seeing some things. But that delayed turn in Sanchez's delivery can throw everyone's timing off, especially if you are seeing it for the first time.
That's not to say Sanchez is going to get lit up like a Christmas tree in Game 5, but now that the Red Sox have seen exactly what he has to offer, will they be more comfortable against it?
One thing that Red Sox manager John Farrell figures to do is put a lot of lefties in the lineup against Sanchez. Detroit's right-hander has been dominant against hitters on both sides of the plate this year, but right-handers haven't laid a finger on him.
The Red Sox did a great job of finding and implementing platoon players. That's why you see players like Mike Carp (.904 OPS vs. RHP), Jonny Gomes (.889 OPS vs. RH starters) and Daniel Nava (.894 OPS vs. RHP) starting in games against right-handed pitchers.
If Sanchez does have one weakness for the Red Sox to jump on, it would be the first inning.
Some pitchers take time to find their rhythm in a game, so if the opponent doesn't pounce early, it isn't likely to happen.
The Red Sox scored 106 runs in the first inning this season, tied for their fourth-most in a single inning. Considering the strength at the top of their lineup, this isn't a surprise. It will be imperative for Sanchez to avoid trouble early because that's been the one glaring weakness on an otherwise stellar resume.
What more can you say about what Sanchez has done this season? If he hadn't injured his shoulder and missed three weeks in June, he would be right up there with Scherzer and Felix Hernandez for the AL Cy Young award.
None of that matters to Sanchez or the Tigers right now. He proved how dominant he can be in Game 1 against the Red Sox in a hostile environment. He has to do that again to send Detroit back to Boston with a series lead.
How do you bet against Detroit's pitching at this point?
Even in the two games the Red Sox have won, the Tigers have held that potent offense in check. The one big inning for Boston came from one swing of David Ortiz's bat.
Sanchez was otherworldly in that Game 1 start. We have no reason to believe he can't or won't do that again.
The Red Sox have their horse on the mound with a chance to head back home leading 3-2. The offense did put together some hits in Game 4, but they need to string them together in order to put up a big inning here or there.
Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.
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