ALDS Preview and Predictions – Oakland Athletics vs. Detroit Tigers

Games, History, Management, Players, Playoffs

Oakland Athletics (96-66) vs. Detroit Tigers (93-69)

Keys for the Athletics: Do their “thing”; keep the Tigers in the ballpark; get into the Tigers’ bullpen.

When I say “do their thing,” I mean the A’s game is based on hitting home runs and their pitchers throwing strikes. As long as they’re hitting home runs and their pitchers are throwing strikes, they win. If they don’t hit home runs, they don’t do much of anything else worthwhile.

Brandon Moss, Coco Crisp, Josh Donaldson and Yoenis Cespedes all had big power years. Other players in their lineup – Jed Lowrie and Josh Reddick – hit the ball out of the park as well. But if they don’t hit homers, they won’t score.

The Tigers are a power-laden team that hits a lot of home runs in their own right. With Miguel Cabrera dealing with a spate of injuries, the A’s can’t fall asleep on him because he can still manipulate the pitcher like an aging George Foreman used to with his, “I’m an old man, I’m not gonna hurt you, I’m not gonna hurt you, I’m not gon…” BANG!!! Then they’re watching the lights in the sky from their backs. It’s a similar situation as watching a Cabrera homer.

The Tigers’ bullpen is shaky and if the A’s force their way into it, Jose Veras and Joaquin Benoit aren’t accustomed to the roles they’ll face as post-season set-up man and closer.

A’s’ boss Billy Beane makes an impassioned self-defense of his methods not working in the playoffs because the playoffs are a “crapshoot.” It’s the exact type of excuse to which Beane would reply arrogantly and obnoxiously if someone else were to give it. If he’s supposed to be finding methods to bend baseball to his will, isn’t it time he finds a way to win in the playoffs?

Keys for the Tigers: Get something from their warhorses; get depth from their starters; hit the ball out of the park; keep the A’s in the park.

Cabrera is injured and Justin Verlander has been shaky. The playoffs tend to send a jolt into veteran players who’ve grown accustomed – and perhaps slightly bored – by the regular season. Adrenaline could help Verlander regain his lost velocity. Max Scherzer has been great this season, but the Tigers’ chances may come down to Verlander.

Leyland doesn’t like having an untrustworthy bullpen and while Benoit has adapted well to being a closer, there’s no way of knowing whether he’ll be able to do the job in the playoffs until he gets an opportunity and does it. It’s best to have the starters go deep into the games and score plenty of runs to not have to worry about it.

The Tigers’ pitchers keep the ball in the park. That has to continue.

What will happen:

Every year, the A’s are the “feel good” story and every year they get bounced in the playoffs. There’s a desperation to have Beane win that ring to somehow shut out any remaining simplistic Chris Russo-style, logically ludicrous argument of, “I don’t wanna hear what a genius he is. Win a championship.” If he wins, where can they go?

The problem is that Beane has never figured out how to use his “card counting” skills in the draft (also a fallacy) to handle the dice in the “crapshoot” that is the playoffs. One would think he’d have done it by now. Maybe he should show up for the playoffs in a mask and declare himself “Billy Bane” while telling the A’s to take control of his genius.

The Tigers are deeper and their defense has been shored up by the acquisition of Jose Iglesias. The shift of Jhonny Peralta to the outfield gives them an even deeper lineup.

Not hitting home runs is the death knell for the A’s and the Tigers aren’t going to give up the homers the A’s are used to hitting. On the mound, the Tigers and A’s are evenly matched top-to-bottom, but the Tigers all-around offense gives them the advantage.

The A’s are trying to validate their backstory, but all they continually do is validate the criticism of it.

PREDICTION: TIGERS IN FOUR




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Manny Ramirez’s Last(?) Fight

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Manny Ramirez will either wind up like Muhammad Ali or George Foreman. With Ali, his final comeback attempt (not counting a last-last, this is definitely the last fight in 1981 in which he lost to journeyman Trevor Berbick) came when he took a ferocious beating from a reluctant, in-his-prime heavyweight champ Larry Holmes. Ali went to great lengths to show what great shape he was in prior to the fight by getting back to the weight he fought at when he defeated Foreman in Zaire. But the fact that he was in shape didn’t matter. Holmes battered him in a perfunctory manner and, by the end, was screaming at the referee to stop the fight before he seriously injured Ali. Ali certainly didn’t need the money nor the increased number of blows to his already damaged brain, but he couldn’t stop himself from seeking the limelight and that one last shot at glory doing the one thing he truly knew how to do better than anyone else.

With Foreman, he was ridiculed when he came out of retirement and is still looked at with a jaundiced gaze by saying God told him to do it. He was overweight and old, but the laughter ended when he showed he still had the punching power and savvy to win fights. He put up a great show when losing to Evander Holyfield and eventually knocked out Michael Moorer to regain the title he’d lost twenty years earlier to Ali in 1974.

With Ramirez, he is returning after a stint hitting against, in boxing parlance, tomato cans in Taiwan. In Taiwan, they’re professionals and they’re talented, but they’re not on a level with a good Double A team in North America. While there, he was hitting subpar pitching in accumulating a .352 average, .422 OBP, and eight homers in 49 games. Abruptly leaving his Taiwanese team—the EDA Rhinos—Ramirez was rumored to be heading to Japan before deciding he’d like another shot with an MLB team. No one seemed interested until the Rangers decided to take a chance on him. The question is, can he help them?

Ramirez hasn’t played with a major league team since he went 1 for 17 for the Rays in 2011 before walking away and subsequently being caught failing another PED test. Amid much fanfare in an otherwise dreary off-season for the Athletics in the winter of 2011-2012, he was signed to a minor league contract. At that point, the A’s were embarking on another rebuilding project and for half the season, played as poorly as predicted before a sudden hot streak vaulted them into the playoffs. No one knew they could achieve those heights when they signed Ramirez and they needed him to sell a few seats with the mere hint of him being in the big leagues as a sideshow. In a best case scenario, he’d attract a few fans and hit well enough for the A’s to trade him to a contender (because not even Billy Beane thought they’d contend in 2012); worst case, they’d release him. He batted .302 in 63 at bats for Triple A Sacramento with no homers. The A’s released him last June and he went to Taiwan.

Now he’s back.

Can the Rangers expect anything from him? Like the decision on the part of the A’s to sign him, this is a test case for team benefit. The Rangers are contenders and need a righty bat. The trade deadline is July 31st and the Rangers are aggressive and active in improving their team. With a month to go before the time comes when they’ll have to make an acquisition along the lines of Mike Morse to boost their righty power, it’s cheaper and zero risk to look at Ramirez and get an answer as to whether he can still hit. Like Ali’s last fight, it could be a “would you stop it already?” moment. Or it could be an out-of-shape former star who shows he can still perform as Foreman did. The odds are it’s the former and even if the evidence is clear that Ramirez needs to hang it up, he probably won’t. Either way, there’s no risk for the Rangers to have a look.

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The Giants Do It Old School

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With the tiered playoff system, single game play-ins, and short series, two World Series titles in three years counts as a dynasty in today’s game. By that metric, the San Francisco Giants are a new-age dynasty. That they accomplished this with decidedly old-school principles in the era of stat-based dominance and condescension, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Michael Lewis—the chronicler of the paragon of stat-based theories of Billy Beane in Moneyball—step over Beane and saunter over to Giants’ GM Brian Sabean and declare that he always knew there were alternate methods to success in baseball, but simply forgot to say it; that Moneyball was about more than just numbers and Ivy League educated “geniuses” permeating (or infecting) baseball morphing front offices from cigar-chomping old men using randomness into put their teams together to something resembling a Star Trek convention. It was actually about value and was not a denigration of alternate methods to finding players.

Of course that would be a lie, but truth has never stood in the way of Lewis when he has an ending in mind and is willing to do whatever necessary to get to that ending—accuracy be damned.

The boxing promoter Don King was famous for his sheer and unending audacity in this vein of going with the winner, exemplified early in his career as a boxing promoter (and not long after his release from prison) when he walked to the ring with then-heavyweight champion Joe Frazier and rapidly switched allegiances to George Foreman when Foreman knocked Frazier out. King magically emerged as part of the celebration in Foreman’s corner.

But King is a genius and Lewis isn’t. In fact, King wallowed in his amorality; Lewis doesn’t realize what he’s doing is amoral to begin with. Masked by legitimacy and critical acclaim, Lewis is far worse than King could ever be.

Because the Athletics had a shocking season in which they won 94 games and made the playoffs, losing to the AL Champion Tigers in 5 games, Lewis and Moneyball again entered the spotlight as if the 2012 A’s validated a long-ago disproved narrative. As this Slate article by Tim Marchman shows, such is not the case.

Had the Athletics been as awful as many—me included—predicted, would Lewis have abandoned his vessel out of convenience? Or would have have stuck with Beane still trying to find a reptilian method of explaining away the fall of Moneyball?

I’ll guess on the latter, but don’t discount the possibility of a new book extolling the virtues of Sabean; his veteran manager with the 1880s-style mustache and grumbly voice, Bruce Bochy; and the way the Giants championship club was built.

Before that can happen, let’s get in front of whatever the latecomers and opportunists try to pull and examine how this team was put together.

Players acquired through the draft

Brandon Crawford, SS

Crawford was taken in the 4th round of the 2008 draft out of UCLA. He received a $375,000 signing bonus.

Brandon Belt, 1B

Belt was selected in the 5th round of the 2009 draft out of the University of Texas at Austin. He received a $200,000 signing bonus.

Buster Posey, C

Posey was drafted from Florida State University in the 1st round with the 5th pick by the Giants in the 2008 draft. He received a record (at the time) signing bonus of $6.2 million.

Sergio Romo, RHP

Romo was drafted in the 28th round of the 2005 draft out of Mesa State College in Colorado. Romo took over for injured star closer Brian Wilson and was brilliant.

Madison Bumgarner, LHP

Bumgarner was drafted in the 1st round of the 2007 draft with the 10th pick out South Caldwell High School in Hudson, North Carolina. He received a $2 million bonus.

Tim Lincecum, RHP

Lincecum was drafted from the University of Washington in the 1st round of the 2006 draft with the 10th pick. He received a $2.025 million signing bonus.

Matt Cain, RHP

Cain was taken in the 1st round (25th pick) of the 2002 draft—the “Moneyball” draft that was documented by Lewis as exhibit A of stat guy “genius” from Paul DePodesta’s laptop. He was taken out of high school in Tennessee—exhibit B of “mistakes” that clubs make when drafting players because selecting high school pitchers was presented as the epitome of risk and stupidity.

Cain received a $1.375 million signing bonus. The A’s took Joe Blanton out of college the pick before Cain. Blanton received a $1.4 million signing bonus.

Acquired via free agency

Pablo Sandoval, 3B

Sandoval was signed by the Giants out of Venezuela as an amateur free agent at age 17 in 2003.

Gregor Blanco, OF

The veteran journeyman Blanco signed a minor league contract with the Giants after spending the entire 2011 season in Triple A with the Nationals and Royals. He was an integral part of the Giants’ championship team with speed, defense, and a key homer in the NLDS comeback against the Reds.

Ryan Vogelsong, RHP

Vogelsong’s signing was mostly luck helped along by opportunity and the alteration of his game under pitching coach Dave Righetti. Vogelsong was a journeyman who has become a post-season star and rotation stalwart at age 35.

Jeremy Affeldt, LHP

Affeldt was signed as a free agent from the Reds in 2008.

Ryan Theriot, INF

Theriot signed a 1-year, $1.25 million contract before the 2012 season.

Aubrey Huff, 1B/OF/PH

Huff was a low-cost free agent signing in 2010 and was a large part of the World Series title that year. He re-signed for 2-years and $22 million and didn’t contribute on the field to the 2012 title.

Barry Zito, LHP

The Giants were in need of a star to replace Barry Bonds as they rebuilt from the “Build around Bonds” days and Zito was the biggest name available in the winter of 2006-2007. They signed him to a 7-year, $126 million contract that has $27 million guaranteed remaining for 2013. A pitcher being paid that amount of money is expected to be an ace, but Zito has been a back-of-the-rotation starter at best and was left off the 2010 post-season roster entirely. In 2012, he won 14 games and picked up the slack for the slumping Lincecum and Bumgarner to help the Giants win their 2012 championship.

Santiago Casilla, RHP

Casilla was signed as a free agent in 2009 after the Athletics non-tendered him.

Joaquin Arias, INF

Arias signed a minor league contract before the 2012 season. People forget about this, but in the Alex Rodriguez trade from the Rangers to the Yankees, the Yankees offered the Rangers a choice between Arias and Robinson Cano.

Neither the Yankees nor the Rangers knew what Cano was.

It was Arias’s defense at third base on the last out that helped save Cain’s perfect game in June.

Guillermo Mota, RHP

Mota has been with the Giants for three seasons and signed a 1-year, $1 million contract for 2012.

Hector Sanchez, C

Sanchez was signed as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela in 2009.

Players acquired via trade

Melky Cabrera, OF

The contribution of Cabrera will be debated forever considering he failed a PED test and was suspended for the second half of the season. He was eligible to be reinstated for the playoffs, but the Giants chose not to do that. It was Cabrera’s All-Star Game MVP performance that wound up giving the Giants home field advantage for the World Series

Cabrera was an important factor in the first half of the season, but the Giants were 62-51 with Cabrera on the active roster and 32-17 without him. The Giants’ success was based on their pitching more than anything else and they won the World Series without Cabrera.

Cabrera was acquired from the Royals for Jonathan Sanchez, who was talented and inconsistent with the Giants and outright awful for the Royals.

Javier Lopez, LHP

Lopez was acquired from the Pirates in July of 2010 and was a key lefty specialist on the two title-winning teams.

Angel Pagan, CF

Pagan was acquired from the Mets for center fielder Andres Torres and righty reliever Ramon Ramirez. Pagan had a fine year at the plate and in the field, leading the majors in triples with 15 and stealing 29 bases including the one in the World Series that got everyone a free taco from Taco Bell.

George Kontos, RHP

The Yankees traded Kontos to the Giants for backup catcher Chris Stewart. Kontos is a solid reliever who’s more useful than a no-hit catcher.

Hunter Pence, RF

Pence was acquired from the Phillies for minor league pitcher Seth Rosin, catcher Tommy Joseph, and veteran big league outfielder Nate Schierholtz. The Giants are set at catcher, so Joseph was expendable. Pence had a .671 OPS in 59 games with the Giants, but it was his stirring, wild-eyed speech before game 3 of the NLDS against the Reds that was widely credited by teammates as waking them up to make their comeback. His teammates were either inspired or frightened by Pence’s intensity, but whatever it was, it worked.

Marco Scutaro, 2B

Scutaro was almost steamrolled by Matt Holliday of the Cardinals in the NLCS, but he came back from that and batted .500 in that series, winning the MVP. Then he had the game-winning hit in game 4 of the World Series.

Scutaro was acquired from the Rockies in late July for infielder Charlie Culberson.

Manager Bochy was run out of his longtime home as a manager, coach and player with the Padres when the front office wanted someone cheaper and more agreeable to the new age statistics and doing what he was told. Then-Padres team president Sandy Alderson allowed Bochy to interview for the Giants’ job—a division rival no less—and made utterly absurd statements of his policy being to allow his employees to seek other opportunities blah, blah, blah.

The Padres didn’t want Bochy back because Bochy didn’t do what he was told by the stat guys in the front office. In exchange, they got a far inferior manager Bud Black, and the Giants now have two championships and the hardware (and parades) to say there are different methods to use to win. Sometimes those methods work better without the fictionalized accounts in print and on film.

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New Age Collisions and Matt Holliday

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The photo you see above is Graig Nettles kicking George Brett in game 5 of the 1977 ALCS. The Yankees eventually won the game and the pennant. A brawl occurred between the two teams following this incident. No one was kicked out of the game. (Get it?)

If that happened today, someone would have to be thrown out. I think. Although Roger Clemens was allowed to fling a projectile—a broken bat—at Mike Piazza in the 2000 World Series and didn’t get tossed. It’s a fine line between defending oneself and running the risk of getting ejected.

In last night’s game 2 of the NLCS, on a double play attempt, Marco Scutaro of the Giants was nailed and had his hip injured on a takeout slide by Cardinals’ outfielder Matt Holliday.

You can watch it below.

Holliday was past the base and his specific intent was to hit Scutaro hard enough to prevent the double play. He did it cheaply with a dangerous roll block and raised arm making it doubly treacherous for the infielder. This isn’t little league and there’s a reasonable expectation for hard, clean play. Infielders have their own little tricks they use to prevent this from occurring. In general, they use the base for protection because the runner is technically not supposed to pass the base; they also throw the ball sidearm and specifically aim it at the runner’s head (this is taught) so the runner has to get down to avoid getting beaned. Holliday’s play was arguable in its legality/line-crossing because the ball and Holliday arrived nearly simultaneously and Scutaro didn’t have the time to hop out of the way or use the base as protection, nor could he throw the ball at Holliday’s head. Holliday did go past the base to get Scutaro.

It wasn’t overtly illegal, but it was a legal cheap shot.

On the Fox broadcast, Tim McCarver—a former catcher, no stranger to home plate collisions—compared the play to Buster Posey getting leveled by Marlins’ outfielder Scott Cousins in May of 2011. Posey had his ankle broken, needed surgery, and was lost for the season. It was his absence that set forth the chain-of-events that might have cost the Giants a second straight World Series and forced them to search for more offense and surrender their top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler to get Carlos Beltran from the Mets.

There was no comparison between the two hits because what Holliday did was questionable at best and dirty at worst. What Cousins did was within the rules. Rules and propriety don’t always intersect and if that’s the case, then baseball has to step in and clarify the grey areas.

What creates the controversy is that it’s so rare in today’s game. In the Royals-Yankees annual ALCS matchups (4 times in 5 years between 1976 and 1980), Royals’ DH/outfielder Hal McRae took every opportunity to try and send Yankees’ second baseman Willie Randolph into the left field seats and break up a double play. It’s perfectly acceptable for a runner to run into a fielder if he has the ball and is trying to tag him, but the last player I remember doing it was Albert Belle.

With catchers and runners, it’s an old-school play that some former catchers like McCarver, Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi, and Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy would like to see outlawed, while Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia thinks it’s an integral, exciting, and necessary aspect of competition. No one will accuse any of the above ex-players of being wimps. All were tough, but disagree on the subject. Scioscia relished the contact and was the recipient of one of the most brutal collisions I’ve ever seen in 1985 when Jack Clark of the Cardinals barreled into him. Scioscia was knocked out; Clark was staggered as if he’d been he recipient of a George Foreman sledgehammer punch; and Scioscia held onto the ball.

Nobody runs over the catcher anymore. There’s a commercial playing in New York of Derek Jeter crashing into a catcher. When has Jeter ever run into a catcher? It’s almost never done, and when it is, it turns into a national catastrophe if one of the players gets hurt.

The camaraderie and brotherhood among the players also precludes these hard plays. Everyone knows each other now. With the limited degrees of separation and the amount of money at stake, few are willing to take the chance of ruining another player’s career. You don’t see knockdown pitches; you don’t see take-out slides; you don’t see busted double plays; and you don’t see home plate collisions.

It wasn’t an, “I’m trying to hurt you,” play. But an injury was a byproduct. It was legal, yet borderline. If MLB wants to make it illegal or come up with a way to constrain it, then fine. Until then, it’s acceptable. As long as the people in charge fail to make a concrete announcement and provide a clear-cut mandate to the umpires that certain actions won’t be tolerated, there will be players who are willing to do what Holliday did, injured players, and indignant reactions in its aftermath.

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The Roger Clemens Comeback Attempt

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Whatever Roger Clemens’s agenda is, he doesn’t have to explain himself to anyone as to why he wants to pitch again. It could be boredom; it could be a conscious decision to return to the big leagues to delay his Hall of Fame eligibility (and delay the embarrassment of not getting elected); it could be to prove that he can pitch cleanly at age 50; or it could be for no reason whatsoever.

Does he deserve the ridicule he’s receiving? I don’t see why he does. If Jamie Moyer was able to come back (and back, and back, and back) and teams signed him, then why can’t Clemens pitch for the independent team in Texas, the Sugar Land Skeeters, and see if he still has any juice (pardon the double entendre) left in the tank?

Athletes have retired or taken time off and tried comebacks before. There were the ludicrous (Pedro Borbon); the shocking and ill-fated (Jim Palmer); the otherworldly (George Foreman); and successful (Michael Jordan). It’s not impossible.

There’s every possibility that Clemens would pitch in the majors and embarrass himself as Orel Hershiser did when he hung on one year too long with the Dodgers in 2000 and his body wouldn’t cooperate with his still-fertile baseball mind. Moyer adjusted to his declining fastball with savvy and control. Clemens’s biggest downfall was when then-Red Sox GM Dan Duquette uttered his famous, retrospectively accurate, and cold-blooded assessment of Clemens when he chose to let him leave the Red Sox by saying the pitcher was in the twilight of his career at age 33. Any pitcher at age 33, without the use of drugs or a superhuman will to stay in shape and Nolan Ryan-like longevity, would be in the twilight of his career. But it’s easily forgotten when assessing Clemens’s last year with the Red Sox and focusing on his 10-13 record for an 85-77 also-ran that Clemens had terrific secondary numbers that season including 242 innings pitched and an American League leading 257 strikeouts. Duquette might not have wanted to pay Clemens for 4-5 years when he probably would’ve gotten production for 2-3, but Clemens could still pitch.

We’ll never know what he would’ve accomplished for the Blue Jays had he not allegedly done what it’s been pretty well documented that he did to enjoy the renaissance from 1996 veteran who could still recapture his greatness in spurts to the consistent dominance he exhibited in the 1980s, but there was something left.

Could Clemens return to the big leagues at age 50 and get hitters out if he adapts to what he is now and doesn’t try to recapture what he was then? If he uses his brain and doesn’t try to bully the hitters with a fastball to the head, then he can. Does he want to do that? I don’t know. He wasn’t prepared to do it in the late-1990s and that’s what got him in this position of being persona non grata to begin with and almost got him tossed in jail. It also made him a lot more money than he would’ve made otherwise.

He might need the money now given how his fortune was likely decimated by ongoing legal battles.

Major League Baseball would exert not-so-subtle pressure on any team that entertained the notion to sign Clemens not to do it. They don’t want to see him or hear from him again. But there’s nothing to stop a club if they truly decide to sign him and nothing MLB can do about it.

Scott Kazmir is also pitching for the Sugar Land Skeeters, but no one thinks it’s a joke because Kazmir is trying to resurrect his career and is only 28-years-old. If nothing else, he can transform himself into a lefty specialist and will be back in the big leagues once he acknowledges that the strikeout machine he once was is gone.

Clemens was once faced with the same quandary and chose to bring back the strikeout king through illicit means that have yanked the Hall of Fame and historic greatness away from him. Had he stayed clean and just accepted the ravages of time both he and Barry Bonds—not exactly well-liked during their careers—would be viewed with a post-career respect as having done it clean in what’s known as a fake and dirty era of steroids. Instead, they understandably joined in to again prove that they were better on what was a level playing field of most everyone using PEDs.

Would Clemens have the clarity to accept what he is now and put his ego aside to get batters out? Or would he revert to exerting his will on the hitters when he doesn’t have the weapons to do it and be humiliated back into retirement?

He has the capability to get hitters out if he takes the Moyer-route, but it’s doubtful that he has the willingness to endure the abuse he’d receive if he tried, so I wouldn’t expect this “comeback” to go much further than with the Skeeters.

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