The Oakland Athletics had the second-best record in the American League behind the Red Sox. But based on run differential, the Red Sox (+197) and Tigers (+174) were the two best teams in the league and very much belong in the ALCS.
The likely starting lineups on Saturday will feature 11 players who have been All-Stars with six other All-Stars (all starting pitchers) watching from the dugout.
Jim Leyland has been managing for 22 seasons and has 1,769 victories. John Farrell has only been managing for three seasons but helped engineer one of the all-time turnarounds this year.
Here’s a breakdown of the series based more on groupings than the antiquated idea of comparing players by position:
Red Sox offense against Detroit pitching: The Sox are going to strike out a lot. A whole lot. Sox batters have not handled high-end fastballs well all season and that plays into the hands of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez. The question is how adept the Sox will be working pitch counts and getting into a less-imposing Detroit bullpen.
Verander lasted five innings and 112 pitches against the Sox on June 23. Scherzer took a loss against the Sox on Sept. 3 despite allowing two runs over seven innings. Doug Fister has been hit hard by the Sox in the last two years. The Sox would be wise not to let the series go seven games because Verlander could be waiting. Edge: Tigers, but not by as much as you may think.
Detroit offense against Red Sox pitching: This largely depends whether Miguel Cabrera is Miguel Cabrera or the guy who hit a modest (for him) .291/.398/.342 over the final 24 games he played in the regular season. Cabrera was 5 for 20 against Oakland with one extra-base hit, a home run in Game 5.
Red Sox scouts got a good look at Cabrera to find whatever weakness his injuries have exposed. Prince Fielder was 7 for 28 against the Red Sox this season with one home run. Torii Hunter was quiet against Oakland, but Victor Martinez is somebody to watch.
The Red Sox have a deep bullpen that performed well against Tampa Bay. But Cabrera is 2 for 4 with two home runs against Koji Uehera, one coming this year. Edge: Red Sox. They won’t let Cabrera beat them.
Defense: The Tigers are wretched in the infield, especially if Jose Iglesias is out of the lineup. Their outfield defense is fine in center and right and shaky in left if Jhonny Peralta is out there. The Red Sox are a much better defensive team in almost every position. They also employ shifts to a much greater advantage. Edge: Red Sox by a ton.
Benches: Outside of using Don Kelly in left, the Tigers didn’t employ their bench much against Oakland. Farrell actively looks for spots to use Jonny Gomes and Mike Carp and would use David Ross against a lefty. Edge: Red Sox.
Managing/intangibles: Leyland’s vast experience gives him an edge on Farrell. There’s no way around that. But in pitching coach Juan Nieves, the Sox have somebody very familiar with the Tigers from the years he spent with the White Sox. The Sox also have done an excellent job of preparing for teams this season. Their edge comes from the group perhaps.
The Tigers are in the ALCS for the third straight season. If you believe experience counts, that matters. The last-to-first Red Sox are playing with house money, so perhaps they will be loose. You can make an argument either way as to which is better. Detroit needs to make the World Series or their season is a bust. The Sox have home field advantage and that could be huge. Edge: Red Sox.
Things to watch for: Peralta has little experience in left field. How he deals with the Green Monster will be interesting. … Dustin Pedroia twice got in Stephen Drew’s way on the infield against Tampa Bay. Was that just random miscommunication or trying too hard? … The Tigers don’t run (35 steals) and the Red Sox do (123). That will come into play. … If Shane Victorino keeps getting hit by righthanders, getting hit by Verlander or Scherzer could break something. The Sox can’t afford to lose him.
Prediction: The Red Sox are a better team top to bottom and have several advantages, starting with extra time off to set their pitching. The Tigers have been slogging it out with a 16-15 record since the start of September (counting the playoffs). The Red Sox show no signs of letting up. Red Sox in six games.