What an incredible finish to the 2011 Major League Baseball regular season. In one of the least climactic events of an amazing Wednesday night, the final night of non-playoff action, the Texas Rangers defeated the Los Angeles Angels and consequently, just after 10:45pm, the Detroit Tigers were finally able to identify their round one playoff opponent. Thanks in large part to the Angels all but rolling over so as to not strain two of their better starting pitchers, the Rangers were able to sneak away with a slim one-game lead over Detroit to earn home field advantage and the right to play the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS. To say Texas earned the right to play the Rays doesn’t sound right, however, as many feel that the Tigers actually landed the more favorable match-up. So how do the Tigers, running on all cylinders, really stack up against the team with the best record in the AL?
The Tigers went 4-3 against the Yankees this year, but the teams haven’t played since the first week of May, so that record is virtually meaningless. We know that both clubs feature a talented, balanced lineup, but before we delve into pitching, the most important component of a playoff roster, lets take a look at who really has the edge in the area of position players.
Russell Martin and Alex Avila will reside behind home plate for the Yankees and Tigers respectively. Both were members of this year’s AL All-Star team, but the obvious advantage goes to Avila, who led not just Martin, but all major-league catchers in many key offensive categories this year, including on-base percentage (.389) and slugging percentage (.506). Martin, meanwhile, hits like a catcher, as his .237 season average demonstrates aptly.
At first base, the Yankees have Mark Teixeira; a good ball player, but dwarfed by the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera. You could make a good argument that Teixeira had the worst offensive season of his major-league career in 2011; still, he slugged 37 home runs and has maintained a spot in the middle of New York’s stacked batting order. He hit just .217 over his final 17 games, but that average was boosted on Wednesday night when he went 2-for-4 and knocked in five runs. Texeira could be heating up just in time. Cabrera, meanwhile, has been hot for a while. Over the final two months of the regular season, Cabrera hit .408, which proved to be more than enough to win him the AL batting title.
An everyday second baseman is a luxury the Tigers have lacked all year, but their recently established platoon of Ryan Raburn and Ramon Santiago, if managed correctly, is certainly capable of matching the offensive prowess of Yankees’ regular second baseman Robinson Cano in a short series. Cano finished the season with a .302 batting average and 28 home runs. Since August 13th, when Carlos Guillen was first impaired by a sore wrist that eventually landed him on the DL, the combination of Raburn and Santiago has hit .320 with eight home runs. That’s incredible production from a position that originally belonged to Will Rhymes, but was squandered in rather pathetic fashion by him and multiple others previous to this rotation’s stabilization.
The Tigers have a similar situation at third base, where they’re set to use some combination of Wilson Betemit, Brandon Inge, and Don Kelly. Given the production of the rest of the lineup, this unique three-man platoon simply has to be respectable offensively, and there’s a good chance that at least one-third of this trio will be putting up numbers at any given time; currently, that one-third is Kelly, who hit .343 over his final 11 games dating back to September 16th. Manning the hot corner for the Yankees, assuming his right knee holds up, will be Alex Rodriguez. Rodriguez finished this regular season with his worst marks since 1995 in on-base percentage (.362), slugging percentage (.461), and home runs (16). That said, he is easily better than whoever the Tigers can put at third, and he’ll have something to prove once again after finishing last year’s postseason hitting a measly .219.
The legendary Derek Jeter, or Mr. November in some circles, will, of course, be playing shortstop for New York. The Tigers will field the little-celebrated Jhonny Peralta at the spot, but even considering Jeter’s clutch reputation and lengthy resume, the version of Peralta we’ve seen in Detroit this year looks like the superior option. The pair had astonishingly similar seasons; Jeter had a .297 average and a .355 on-base percentage, while those same numbers were .299 and .345 for Peralta. The difference, and what makes Peralta a bigger threat, are his power numbers. Jeter hit just six home runs this year, his lowest total since he played just 15 games in his 1995 rookie campaign, despite playing in Yankee Stadium, a long ball factory thanks to its tiny dimensions. Peralta, on the other hand, hit 21 homers, including two in his final three games.
The Tigers’ designated hitter, Victor Martinez, could also be their most important hitter because of the unrivaled protection he provides for Cabrera. Though his surface numbers, such as a .330 season batting average, are excellent, they don’t come close to giving a full picture of just how pivotal Martinez has been to the Tigers’ success; for example, he finished the season hitting .396 with runners in scoring position, whereas the average major-league player hit .255 in similar situations. Jorge Posada, regular designated hitter for New York, is in the same boat as Rodriguez and Teixeira in that he is a household name having a down season. With 14 home runs, he’s demonstrated limited power, but the majority of his numbers, like his .235 batting average, are simply horrendous.
Nick Swisher is the Yankees’ everyday right fielder and, despite his lofty strikeout totals, has fulfilled his role adequately. He finished the season with a .260 batting average coupled with 23 home runs. With Raburn and Kelly seeing time at second and third base respectively, right field will be predominantly occupied by Magglio Ordonez and Andy Dirks. Since June 17th, Ordonez’ average has hovered around .300 and climbed from .168 to a respectable season total of .255. Dirks provides a decent left-handed bat, and when he doesn’t start, he figures to replace Ordonez in the late innings as either a pinch runner or a defensive replacement. Like second and third base, if Leyland plays his cards right, the Tigers could get the better performances out of the right field spot.
Playing left are Delmon Young for the Tigers and Brett Gardner for the Yankees. Young hits for average and some power, but walks on only the rarest of occasions. Gardner is not nearly as skilled a hitter, but makes up for that by getting on base via the walk. He’s also a menace on the base paths, as he’s stolen 49 bases this year. Gardner and Young are very different players and neither has a clear advantage over the other.
One of the most intriguing match-ups is the one that will play out in center field, where Curtis Granderson and Austin Jackson will patrol the grounds for the Yankees and Tigers respectively. Granderson, our favorite former Tiger, is a current MVP candidate; Jackson still has some learning to do at the plate, as evidenced by his strikeout total of 181, but the Tigers hope he develops into something similar to what Granderson has become. It’s a neat little storyline, and it will be nice to see Granderson at Comerica again; he’s played in Detroit just four times since his departure.
Overall, though I’m mildly surprised I came to this conclusion, I believe the Tigers hold a slim edge offensively over New York. If not because of their core players, the middle of the lineup featuring Cabrera, Martinez, Avila and Peralta, Detroit is better because their depth at several spots gives them flexibility and allows them to play hot hands and favorable match-ups. All this could be meaningless, however; playoff games aren’t won in the batters box, but rather on the pitcher’s mound. Check back for part two, the pitching breakdown, later.