Due to time constraints, this piece is going to hit right before Game 3 of the ALCS tonight. Since many of you will be reading this tomorrow morning, it’ll either look foolish or prescient. In any event, the analysis would be stale if it waited until tomorrow morning, so I finished it up this afternoon, West Coast time, before Game 3 began.
ALCS - Detroit at Texas
As the Tigers are finding out, the Rangers line-up, in terms of top-to-bottom strength is very similar to the New York Yankees. Sure Nelson Cruz has been a one-man wrecking crew in the first two games, but would it surprise anyone if instead it had been, Josh Hamilton, or Adrian Beltre, or Michael Young, etc? Unlike the other three teams left in the playoffs which have six or seven hitters playing the supporting character role to two elite hitters (possibly three in the Cardinals’ case depending on how you rate Lance Berkman) the Rangers have seven well-above average hitters, all of whom can don the leading man role on any given day.
While this is very reminiscent of both the Yankees and the Red Sox line-ups, the Rangers execution is surprising different. In 2011, Boston, New York, and Texas ranked 1, 2, and 3 respectively in runs scored. Texas, in third place with 855 runs scored, was only 20 runs behind Boston's leading pace but they were 68 runs ahead of the 4th highest scoring team. As no other team even scored 800 runs, these three teams were in a class by themselves offensively. However, the Red Sox and Yankees score a lot of runs by constantly getting men on base via the walk. They are a collection of patient hitters who work counts and don't swing at bad pitches. The Rangers do things differently, however, which stands as a counter argument to those that say all front offices have "Moneyballed" any inefficiencies out of the market. 20th in all of baseball in walks, while the Yankees and Red Sox were first and second respectively, the Rangers stood in stark contrast to their high scoring brethren by constantly swinging the bat. Texas has the right players to implement this strategy because, despite their impatient and free-swinging ways, the Rangers were last in all of baseball in strikeouts -- by a very large margin. Simply put, the Rangers swing the bat and when they do, they don't miss.
Tonight, the Tigers send Doug Fister to the mound in an effort to keep this series from getting out of hand. I like to say that in a best-of-seven game format, no series begins until the home team loses a game, but for all intents and purposes if the Tigers lose tonight the series will have ended at the same time it began.
For a starter in the current era of baseball, Doug Fister is a fairly unique pitcher in terms of type. He, as they say in scouting reports, "pitches to contact." In fact, he's an extreme contact pitcher. Strip out the baseball jargon and it means Fister doesn't walk batters, but he doesn't strike them out either. His 2011 strikeout rate of 6.1 batters per 9 innings is materially below the major league average of 7.1 and his career rate of 5.5 is even lower. However, his walk rate of 1.54 batters per 9 innings is exceptionally low -- the 5th lowest in all of baseball among pitchers with 20 or more starts. The problem is Fister's strength -- that is, keeping runners off base and not rewarding patient teams like the Yankees and Red Sox with free base runners -- would appear to be of little value against a team like Texas. Further, his below-average strikeout rate should plummet even further against the line-up least likely to strikeout against pitchers league-wide.
Therefore, thisappears like a bad match-up for Detroit, but that's just a theory, right? Well, there might be a way to test it. I ran a screen for all American League starters with a walk rate of less than 2 batters per 9 innings and a below-average strikeout rate. In addition to Fister, five other names popped up as follows:
Carl Pavano, Twins
Brandon McCarthy, A's
Josh Timlin, Indians
Jeff Francis, Royals
Mark Buehrle, White Sox
That's a nice mix of slightly above average pitchers who as a group (including Fister) posted an average ERA of 3.86, a little below the league average of 3.95.
So how did the Rangers do against these pitchers in 2011? With all caveats of small sample size duly noted, the total pitching performance looked like this:
59 innings pitched
70 hits allowed
44 runs scored
6.71 Runs Allowed per 9 -- (earned and unearned runs scored)
That's a pretty stunning display of well-above average offense against slightly better than average pitching. Mark Buehrle didn't face the Rangers this year, but of the other five pitchers, only Josh Timlin had any success at all, allowing just 2 runs in 7 innings pitched. What's interesting about his outing is that he struck out four and walked three in those seven innings, meaning he went against type by walking and striking out more batters than he normally would. All the other pitchers saw their supposed strength – a lack of walks issued -- used against them as they only walked 8 batters in 52 innings but got lit up by the ones that swung the bat.
The line-ups have been announced and based on the line (Detroit -130/Texas +120) my model not only thinks the wrong team is favored, it thinks an investment in Texas, with implied odds of winnings of 45.5%, has about an 8% edge. But the model assumes an average performance from Fister. It doesn't know that, based on the above analysis, Texas is a terrible match-up for him. Based on that, I think Detroit is a significant underdog tonight and must try to beat Texas in a high scoring affair. Either that or Fister needs to pitch against type.
Detroit manager Jim Leyland may have known all this as, in this series, he chose to start Max Scherzer, a hard throwing right hander who misses bats and can strikeout even the hard to strikeout Rangers, in Game 2. This ensured Leyland would get two starts out of him even if it meant using Scherzer, a fly ball prone pitcher, in the hitter friendly home of the Rangers while Fister, a groundball pitcher who therefore doesn't really need the advantages of the pitcher friendly Comerica Park, got to pitch Game 3 in Detroit. Leyland probably knows that to win the series, he needs four or five starts from the only two strikeout pitchers he has in Verlander and Scherzer and it almost worked. Had the Tigers gotten out of Texas with a split, they'd have a fighting chance. But now they're fighting for their playoff lives with what appears to be exactly the wrong kind of pitcher to neutralize the Rangers' bats.