Reshuffled Lineup, Lethal Starting Trio Give Tigers an Edge over Red Sox in ALCS

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Reshuffled Lineup, Lethal Starting Trio Give Tigers an Edge over Red Sox in ALCS

Everything about the American League Championship Series between the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers indicates it could be the best kind of series: one that goes the distance.

Four games have been played, and it is tied at 2-2. The Tigers have shown they can win in Boston, and the Red Sox have shown they can win in Detroit. The Red Sox won Game 2 with hitting, and Game 3 with pitching. The Tigers won Game 1 with pitching, and Game 4 with hitting.

It's that last point, however, that stands out as being significant.

It's not only the series' most recent occurrence, but one that bodes well for the Tigers the rest of the way. Detroit manager Jim Leyland has stumbled upon an improved offense, one that he'll now get to combine with terrific starting pitching in an effort to make the World Series.

If you missed Game 4, you didn't miss another nail-biter; the Tigers dropped a five-spot on a struggling Jake Peavy in the second inning, and notched two more runs in the fourth to take a commanding 7-0 lead. Doug Fister made it hold up with six innings of one-run ball, and Detroit's bullpen was able to keep the scares at a minimum to see the Tigers through to a 7-3 win.

Those seven runs are a high mark for either team, and indeed were more than the Tigers were able to muster in Games 1, 2 and 3 combinedThe convenient narrative is that Detroit's offensive explosion Wednesday night was thanks to a new lineup. And in this case, the convenient narrative also happens to be a valid one.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Leyland dropped Austin Jackson from leadoff down to the No. 8 spot and moved everyone up a spot, resulting in this:

  1. Torii Hunter, RF
  2. Miguel Cabrera, 3B
  3. Prince Fielder, 1B
  4. Victor Martinez, DH
  5. Jhonny Peralta, LF
  6. Alex Avila, C
  7. Omar Infante, 2B
  8. Austin Jacksom, CF
  9. Jose Iglesias, SS

Leyland explained his reasoning for the new look in a decidedly Leyland-ish way. Via Chris Iott of MLive.com:

Perhaps it was desperation that was guiding Leyland's hand, but he looked like a wizard by the end of Game 4. Hunter collected a hit, a run scored and a pair of RBI out of the leadoff spot. Cabrera and Martinez both had two hits. Down in the No. 8 hole, Jackson had two hits, two walks and two RBI.

Not surprisingly, Iott has reported that Leyland isn't planning on changing a thing for Thursday:

Rightfully so. For while there's always a certain amount of luck that determines a lineup's production on a given day, there was more than just blind luck at work with the Tigers' breakout in production.

In case you've forgotten, below is a look at what the first eight spots of Leyland's lineup tended to look like, complete with postseason stats, before Game 4:

Tigers Lineup Before ALCS Game 4
Spot Player Postseason OBP/SLUG
1 Austin Jackson .143/.121
2 Torii Hunter .229/.212
3 Miguel Cabrera .273/.419
4 Prince Fielder .364/.310
5 Victor Martinez .438/.645
6 Jhonny Peralta .417/.708
7 Alex Avila .355/.320
8 Omar Infante .233/.214

ESPN.com

Leyland had a badly struggling leadoff man, another struggling hitter batting second, and the team's two best hitters batting fifth and sixth. Not ideal. And by the sabermetric way of thinking, the lineup Leyland was using was even worse than "not ideal"; it was just plain wrong.

There's a book on baseball by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andy Dolphin called simply The Book, and one of the topics it tackles is lineup optimization. Back in 2009, Sky Kalkman of Beyond the Box Score did a great job of breaking The Book's lessons down into easy-to-follow steps, with the key lesson being that lineup spots rank like so in terms of importance: Nos. 1, 4, 2, 5, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9. Kalkman elaborated:

[Y]ou want your best three hitters to hit in the #1, #4, and #2 spots. Distribute them so OBP is higher in the order and SLG is lower. Then place your fourth and fifth best hitters, with the #5 spot usually seeing the better hitter, unless he's a high-homerun guy. Then place your four remaining hitters in decreasing order of overall hitting ability, with basestealers ahead of singles hitters. 

The key difference between this thinking and conventional thinking is that this thinking considers the No. 3 spot to be relatively unimportant compared to Nos. 2, 4 and 5. These three, along with leadoff, are the real money spots in a lineup.

And this leads us to what's cool about the order Leyland came up with. Taking postseason numbers into account, it's actually a fairly optimized lineup:

Tigers Lineup in Game 4
Spot Player Postseason OBP/SLUG
1 Hunter .229/.212
2 Cabrera .273/.419
3 Fielder .364/.310
4 Martinez .438/.645
5 Peralta .417/.708
6 Avila .355/.320
7 Infante .233/.214
8 Jackson .143/.121

ESPN.com

Hunter's not an ideal leadoff guy, but he's certainly a better option than Jackson. And while Cabrera would normally be a better option for clean-up because of his power, he's a better fit at No. 2 with his power diminished by injury. Putting Fielder at No. 3, meanwhile, opens up the more important No. 4 and 5 spots for the hot-hitting Martinez and Peralta.

With key pieces more or less where they should be, it's not such a shocker that the Tigers bats were able to come through in Game 4. Nor will it be a shocker if they continue to come through in the next two/three games, as this is a lineup that should be producing better.

That ought to agree with three fellows named Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, who are lined up to start Games 5, 6 and 7 (if necessary). As if they needed the help, of course.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

If you need a reminder of what Sanchez, Scherzer and Verlander did in Games 1, 2 and 3, here you go: 

Sanchez, Scherzer and Verlander vs. Red Sox
Pitcher Game IP ER H K BB Pitches GSc
Sanchez 1 6 0 0 12 6 116 78
Scherzer 2 7 1 2 13 2 108 80
Verlander 3 8 1 4 10 1 120 79

Baseball-Reference.com

*GSc=Game Score, a stat developed by Bill James that evaluates a given start based on things like outs recorded, innings pitched, strikeouts and so on. The counting starts at 50, so anything over that is good and the higher the better.

While it must be noted that the Tigers only won one of these games, it doesn't get more dominant than that. Sanchez, Scherzer and Verlander basically racked up six times as many strikeouts as they did hits. Baseball's highest-scoring offense was basically DOA against them.

Having seen those three once might help the Red Sox hitters the second time around, but that door swings both ways. Tigers hitters will be getting their second look at Jon Lester in Game 5, Clay Buchholz in Game 6, and (if necessary) John Lackey in Game 7, and the three of them didn't dominate nearly as thoroughly as the Tigers' big three did. Here's a quick comparison:

Tigers Game 1-3 Starters vs. Red Sox Game 1-3 Starters
Team IP ERA WHIP K% BB% AVG OBP SLUG
Tigers 21 0.86 0.71 44.3 11.4 .087 .203 .145
Red Sox 18.2 2.97 1.04 23.4 1.3 .247 .286 .397

Baseball-Reference.com

If the Red Sox's big three take a step back in their second go-round, it will be from "very good" to "good." If the Tigers' big three take a step back, it will be from "fan-freakin'-tastic" to merely "fantastic."

Since we're nearing the end of our program here, I'll pump the brakes a little bit and grant that the Red Sox absolutely have a fair shot at winning the series. They guaranteed themselves at least one more game at Fenway Park with their victory over Verlander in Game 3, and their resiliency should not be written off as a non-factor. If the Red Sox are to go down, it won't be without a fight.

But the Tigers have the advantage in the rotation, and that's huge in a postseason that's been defined by starting pitching. And now that Leyland has an optimized lineup, the Tigers should be able to get their big three of Sanchez, Scherzer and Verlander some runs. The offense failed to do so for Sanchez and Verlander in Games 1 and 3, scoring a grand total of one run.

It may take all seven games for the Tigers to finish off the Red Sox, but that should be OK with them. They know from what happened in 2006 and 2012 that the quick way to the World Series isn't necessarily the best way.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. 

 

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