The ALDS that we have been waiting for will start soon. In essence, the whole season does come down to this – the rest was just 162 preseason games. Unlike Cleveland fans, we expected this and would have been mightily surprised had the Tigers not been heading to the ALDS. That said, baseball has a lot of random noise – more, I would argue, than other major professional sports. In a 5 game series, the odds of baseballs worst teams beating its best are not all that low. The Tigers, after all, just got swept by the Marlins… But of course, that isn’t to say that how a team stacks up is irrelevant.
Offensively, the “edge” in the regular season would go to Detroit who finished with 33 more runs scored than Oakland. The Athletics walk a bit more than the Tigers, they hit with a bit more power than Detroit and they make significantly more noise on the basepaths (though not necessarily by stealing a lot of bases). The Tigers have two large advantages – statistically speaking – they strike out a lot less and they do a lot better at hitting the ball where the other team ain’t.
Given that BABIP is supposed to be the least reliable “tool” that a batter can have – there are probably sabermetricians out there wondering whether the Tigers offense is actually good or whether the Tigers offense is actually lucky. The same can’t be said for walks, home runs and speed. I would argue that the Tigers offense is built for BABIP, Dave Dombrowski has been collecting gap hitters that spray line drives to all fields in order to take advantage of Comerica Park’s dimensions. The Tigers high BABIP isn’t a one year fluke, they have been at or near the top in BABIP since 2010 and almost every significant personnel move on the offensive side has been to add a BABIP guy.
Unfortunately, the team-wide lack of speed means that this premier singles hitting team (the Tigers have 91 more singles than the next best team) isn’t among the best at plating runners. The Tigers “plate rate” (ignoring guys who reached on errors – I don’t have data for that) is worse than the A’s, the Red Sox, the Indians and a couple of other teams – but 6th best in the majors is not that bad. The lack of speed hurts – but having guys to drive you in matters a lot too and that the Tigers have. The Tigers propensity to hit hard ground balls rather than flies is part of what keeps that BABIP up, but combine that with slow feet on the basepaths and you do have a recipe for double plays. The A’s had the highest fly ball rate of any team this season, which led to that low BABIP but as a consequence hit into only 108 double pays this year while the Tigers hit into 147.
As far as team defense is concerned, the A’s don’t appear to be Web Gem poster boys – but they do appear to be less bad than the Detroit Tigers. The different advanced metrics are puzzling here: the Tigers had, again, among the highest BABIPs allowed in baseball – that tends to suggest poor defensive range and means that advanced metrics are going to say your team defense is not good. The Athletics had among the lowest BABIPs allowed in baseball this season – so you’d expect that those advanced metrics would say that they had good range and hence good team defense. Fangraphs FLD says they’re above average, UZR/150 says that they are average and DRS says that they were almost as bad as Detroit (and no one really disputes the fact of the Tiger weak D). To venture a guess as to why this might be: first DRS tries to control for more stuff (like how hard the ball would have been to field) than some other metrics and second DRS is rounded to the nearest whole number. Rounding a guy’s aggregate defensive stat from 12.9 to 13 is no big deal, but it means that numbers will be way off for guys who didn’t play many innings at a particular position. The A’s were listed at 55 runs below average as a team by DRS, 38 of that is guys who played fewer than 200 innings at that position (which includes a number of pitchers, of course). In constrast, DRS says the Tigers were 66 runs below average as a team but only 18 of that was from guys who played fewer than 200 innings at a position. The majority of the Tigers defensive “badness” comes from Prince Fielder (-13), Miguel Cabrera (-18) and Torii Hunter (-10).
And, of course, Pitching. The Tigers rotation is probably – at least on paper – the best in baseball. And yet, if we go by ERA, the A’s look the better team (3.56 to 3.64). The difference is this: the Tigers pitchers have gotten a lot more strikeouts and ground balls, while the A’s pitchers have a much better batting average allowed on balls in play. Your sabermetricians will say that most of difference in BABIP is either defense or luck – hence according to “Fielding Independent Pitching” measures the Tigers pitching staff looks absolutely loads better – 1st in xFIP compared to 11th in xFIP. If we break it down a little finer – the A’s have the 3rd best bullpen ERA at 3.22 but only the 11th best bullpen xFIP at 3.86, the Tigers have the 12th best bullpen ERA but the 5th best bullpen xFIP. Tigers starters are the best in the league by any measure, despite the high BABIP allowed.
Sadly, which team you think is better – and both teams are solid – does boil down to who you think is responsible for BABIP. If you believe that BABIP is an important skill in pitchers repertoire (and luck) and that hitters don’t have much to do with it, you’d say that the A’s have the better offense and the better pitching staff. If you believe that BABIP is mostly batting ability (and luck), you’d say that the Tigers have the better offense and the better pitching staff. Hmm.
Personally I’m inclined to believe that the A’s staff isn’t as good as it has looked and that the Tigers staff (particularly the ‘pen) is better than it has looked. I’d say that the Tigers offense might be a tad overrated, but that it’s basically a wash between the two teams in that respect. It’s all going to come down to making bit pitches when it counts, to whose reliever doesn’t have it on what night and on whether balls carry or die on the track. That’s baseball.