ALCS preview: Even with deep rotation, Tigers’ strategy is obvious against Red Sox


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His detractors in our baseball neighborhood would suggest you’d never know it by listening to him, but it took awhile for Joe Maddon to get smart.

In Games 1-2 of the Red Sox’ American League Divisional Series matchup against Maddon’s Rays, Red Sox cleanup hitter David Ortiz went 3 for 8 with a double, four runs scored, two runs batted in, and a pair of homers, both off of Rays ace David Price. He walked once.

In Games 3-4, had two hits in five at-bats, with an RBI. He walked four times.

The Red Sox did eventually bounce the Rays, a worthy rival, in four games. But in the tense final two games, they didn’t let Ortiz beat them.

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Let’s see if this guy …


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… catches on faster than Maddon did. Because with these two evenly matched opponents, the Tigers’ willingness — or lack thereof — to let Ortiz swing the bat in high-leverage, it’s-all-on-the-line situations may determine which team plays on beyond this series.

This is not about Ortiz’s habitual superb October performances, though his .938 career postseason OPS is certainly reason enough not to mess with him. It’s not even about his recent successes against the Tigers, including one game that may still be fresh in Leyland’s mind.

This is about something perhaps even more impressive, albeit on a smaller cscale. But one relevant to the task at hand.

Consider how easy it is to marvel at the front end of the Tigers rotation, which will feature Anibal Sanchez against the Sox’ Jon Lester in the opener, followed by Max Scherzer versus Clay Buchholz in Game 2. Former Cy Young winner Justin Verlander gets the ball for Game 3 in Detroit, with John Lackey opposing him.

I think we all had a thought similar to this when we first put the Rays series in the rear-view mirror and began considering the Tigers:

Sheesh, Verlander looks as untouchable as ever after that domination of the A’s … and the Tigers have the AL ERA champ and the Cy Young Award front-runner going ahead of him! This is ridiculous. Where’s Jerry Ujdur when you need him?

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It is a truly extraordinary Big 3 that the Tigers are running out there (and fourth starter Doug Fister is no slouch, either).

Which is where Ortiz comes in. Do you have any idea how he’s fared against Sanchez, Scherzer, and Verlander in his career? Neither did I. So I looked it up.

And the results are as breathtaking as one of the Ortiz’s majestic home runs deep into the Fenway night.

In 51 plate appearances and 45 at-bats against Sanchez, Scherzer and Verlander, here are Ortiz’s career numbers versus the trio: 20 hits, 7 home runs, 14 RBIs, and a .444 batting average.

Sure, the sample-sizes aren’t huge — he’s faced Sanchez just three times, homering twice and doubling. But look at those numbers again. They’re ridiculous.

Few hitters have any success against these guys by any measure large or small.

But thus far in Ortiz’s history with these three extraordinary Detroit pitchers, he’s treated Sanchez, Scherzer and Verlander like they are the 2003 versions of Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Cornejo, and Mike Maroth. He’s owned them. He’s owned all of them.

If the Red Sox are to win this series — or certainly at least if they’re going to win it before having to deal with Verlander in a Game 7 — Ortiz is going to have to own them again, starting with Sanchez Saturday night.

The Red Sox’ lineup doesn’t have much experience against the longtime Marlins righthander (and oft-overlooked piece in the Mike Lowell-Josh-Beckett-Hanley Ramirez deal). Sanchez remains unsung despite a superb season — he whiffed 202 in 182 innings, led the league with a 2.57 ERA, and allowed just nine homers. And he’s mostly unfamiliar to the Boston lineup.

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He’s faced just five Red Sox — Ortiz, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, David Ross, and Jonny Gomes — for a total of 90 plate appearances. Seventy of those plate appearances are by Victorino and Drew, and they’ve combined for just 15 hits and one home run against him.

Yet the Sox have a .792 OPS against him. Why? Did I mention that in three at-bats, Ortiz has a double and two homers, for a 4.333 OPS. I did? That’s good, right?

As excellent as Sanchez was this year, I don’t think many would dispute that Scherzer was their true, or truest, ace. He led the league in wins (21) and WHIP (0.97), and struck out 240 in 214.1 innings. He was torturous to righthanded hitters (.165 average, .494 OPS. 7 homers in 316 at-bats), and lefties didn’t fare particularly well, either (.222/.645, 11 homers in 450 at-bats).

Drew and Daniel Nava are just 2 for 21 against him combined, and righty Mike Napoli has been absolutely hopeless — he has a .077 slugging percentage against Scherzer. But the hitters on the current Red Sox roster total 7 homers and a .273 average lifetime against Scherzer. And a trio of Red Sox lefties have traditionally hit him well. Check this out:

PA AB H HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
David Ortiz 18 15 7 3 6 3 2 .467 .556 1.133 1.689
Jacoby Ellsbury 12 9 5 1 5 3 1 .556 .667 1.000 1.667
Jarrod Saltalamacchia 12 12 5 1 2 0 4 .417 .417 .667 1.083
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 10/11/2013.


There’s no such discernible potential soft spot in Verlander’s game based on his history with the Red Sox — he’s held their current cast of hitters to a .609 OPS in 165 plate appearances.
The 2011 Cy Young winner is known for getting stronger as a game goes on. Now he’s getting stronger as the season goes on. He hasn’t allowed a run in 15 postseason innings, and that’s after putting up a 2.27 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 39.2 September innings.
Verlander did have surprising issues with righthanded hitters at times this year — they hit him at a .275 avg/.739 OBP rate, with 11 homers in 345 at-bats. Lefties were far less fortunate at .237/.658 with 8 homers in 493 at-bats.
Two members of the heart of the Red Sox’ order have fared very well against Verlander, while a certain No. 3 hitter has not:

PA AB H HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
David Ortiz 30 27 10 2 4 3 8 .370 .433 .741 1.174
Mike Napoli 28 23 7 1 3 5 5 .304 .429 .435 .863
Dustin Pedroia 19 18 1 0 0 1 3 .056 .105 .056 .161
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 10/11/2013.

Of course, there are so many other elements that will go into determining this series besides how Boston’s hitting fares against Detroit’s starting pitching. You know the potential plot points:
Is Clay Buchholz the right choice for Game 2? … Can beat-up yet always dangerous Miguel Cabrera hit anything on the outer half of the plate? … Will Victor Martinez go on one of his patented tears? … Should John Farrell find at-bats for Mike Carp? … Will Xander Bogaerts see more time? … Will the Red Sox’ running game (123 steals to the Tigers’ 35) make a difference? … Will fourth starters Jake Peavy and Doug Fister play major roles? … Will Jose Iglesias play more than Jhonny Peralta at shortstop?
These teams are so evenly matched and there’s so much to consider that a prediction might as well be determined by a flip of a coin.
But I’ll offer one up anyway, albeit with a caveat you probably saw coming like a hanging slider:
If Papi is permitted to swing the bat, give me the Red Sox in six.