This weekend we Tigers fans were reminded of a simple truth: the Detroit Tigers are not as good as the Texas Rangers. They might very well be better than any non-Ranger team – time will tell – but they simply are not as good as the two-time AL champs.
It’s easy to say that the Tigers need to “get better” in order to beat the Rangers come playoff time (assuming that we see smooth sailing to that point) but that isn’t exactly realistic. The Rangers are stacked from top to bottom with one and only one weak spot (named Mitch Moreland). They look like they’ll win between 105 and 110 games this year… the Tigers simply don’t have enough trade chips at any level to transform into a 110 win behemoth at the trade deadline. What the Tigers need is to match up well and get lucky. Last year they didn’t get lucky, but they did match up pretty well – and won more games (including the regular season and postseason) than they lost against Texas.
Of course – the Rangers biggest Tiger-killer is still there (aside from any other adjustments that might have tilted things in Texas’ favor) – the pitcher who was 5-0 against Detroit in 2011 including the postseason. I am talking, of course, about Alexi Ogando. The Tigers do need to get better (or just play better) to have a shot against Texas – but no matter what else they do they will not be able to win a postseason series if they can’t figure out a way to hit this guy. Period.
You might be thankful that he’s no longer a starter for them – he did win all three of his regular season starts against Detroit in 2011 – but his 7 2/3 innings in relief in the ALCS were every bit as crippling as a quality start or two would have been. In the weekend series, he faced 5 batters in relief. No hits, no walks, no runs – 3 strikeouts. Going back to 2010, he has faced 126 Tigers. Only 29 had any sort of positive result, errors not withstanding. That’s 23%. 25% struck out. The Tigers batting average against him was .183, in grand total they mustered 5 runs over 32 2/3 innings. That’s a 1.38 ERA. And an unhittable pitcher that you’re going to see for multiple innings at a time whenever the outcome of the game is actually in question.
So why is it that the Tigers simply have not been able to hit this guy and what can they do to improve the odds?
First take a look at how the current and former Tigers have fared against him:
* If we include Betemit’s PAs with other teams, he’s 3-12 lifetime against Ogando.
If we don’t count the guys no longer with the organization (like Wells and Betemit) and their tiny sample sizes, it looks like only four Tigers have had any success at all against Ogando and a lot of decent hitters have done nothing but hack and flail. Boesch? Nothing. Avila? Nothing. Jackson? Nothing. Though Inge and Kelly haven’t done much, they have provided the teams only home runs against Ogando – and therefore 40% of the runs scored off him. Cabrera has done well, as have Santiago, Dirks and Martinez. We’ve yet to see a Prince Fielder vs. Alexi Ogando matchup, so there’s no way to know whether he’s got his number or not.
Ogando is a pretty darn good pitcher overall, as his lifetime ERA of 3.00 should suggest, but he hasn’t been quite that good against everybody. One thing that leaps out at you vis-a-vis Ogando is that he has been extraordinarily hard on right-handed batters (not just against Detroit, but overall). The Tigers have typically had a righty-heavy lineup over the past few years and haven’t done all that well – in general – against right-killing righties like Jake Peavy, etc… Ogando’s career OPS allowed against righties is a miniscule .523 compared to .703 against lefties.
The Tigers have done as good a job as possible (given the roster) of ensuring that Ogando has seen a lot of lefties – but they haven’t done much against him. Tiger lefties have gone 13 for 70 against him with two walks and a homer. Tiger righties have gone 9 for 50 with four walks and a homer. A batting average edge of .185 over .180 is not a big difference. Lest you imagine that lefties do not – in fact – have an advantage, bear in mind that NON-CABRERA righties have hit .105 off Ogando while NON-CABRERA lefties have hit .185. And while there are 10 at-bats from Don Kelly in there, not all Tiger lefties are subpar – but Boesch and Avila are hitless between them.
Ogando is basically a two-pitch pitcher (fastball and slider) but those two pitches are very, very good. His fastball in particular has tremendous movement and as a result gets a lot of fouls but not a lot of balls in play. There is a big speed difference between the two pitches and apparently a lot of deception. You expect every fastball-slider guy to have big L-R splits, but you don’t expect him to do so well against opposite side hitters.
This is just a theory of mine, but it appears to me that the reason that the Tigers – specifically – struggle against Ogando has something to do with the makeup of the lineup. The Tigers are a team full of hard-swinging BABIP guys – they don’t make more contact than the average team, or even necessarily swing at the right pitches, but when they get a piece of it good things tend to happen. Unfortunately, Ogando has a career BABIP in the realm of Mariano Rivera and hoping to sting one into the gap doesn’t seem to be a very profitable strategy. The teams that have done the best against him are the ones known for an organization focus on patience, working counts and not trying to do too much with a pitch. The Yankees have a .975 OPS against him, the Red Sox .883. While those are both very potent offenses overall, the moribund A’s (with their Moneyball patience fetish) have an OPS of .869. Other hackers like Detroit have fared almost as badly.
So if that’s all true (and you may disagree) is there any hope against Ogando for the Tigers in the future? Well… maybe a little. The first thing is this: the team needs to get Victor Martinez back, since he can actually hit the guy. It looks to be possible that we’ll get Martinez back in time for the playoffs – so keep your fingers crossed. The second thing is that Ramon Santiago should probably be the starting second baseman in every single game against the Rangers (if that wasn’t logical enough already). As far as in-game decisions go – Delmon Young should never, ever be allowed to hit against Ogando while Andy Dirks draws breath. That’s not because he is uniquely unable to hit him (he is “typically” unable to hit him) but because he doesn’t add anything on the other side like Jackson does. While Jackson, Boesch and Avila (and Peralta too) don’t seem able to do anything at all against him, pinch-hitting options are limited. Would you rather let Laird hit against Ogando? Inge? The Don Kelly we saw in the minors for a decade (the patient, scrappy, slap-hitting Kelly) might have been a decent option off the bench, but the Kelly we’ve seen in Detroit (the all-or-nothing, swing-for-the-fences Kelly) probably isn’t.
If the Tigers are going to add a hitter (even a pinch-hitter) during the season, this might suggest what kind of a hitter it should be: a lefty with quick hands and good pitch recognition who can work a count. Somebody like Hideki Matsui might have made sense – he is 2 for 4 against him lifetime – but it appears he’ll be signing with the Rays. My current preferred offseason target – switch-hitting second baseman Maicer Izturis – could be a midseason target as well (given the right circumstances). He’s 3-9 with a walk against Ogando over his career.