While both National League Divisional Series will be going to a decisive Game 5 tonight, the Tigers and Rangers have each earned a berth to their league’s Championship Series. We’ll take a look at how these two teams match up to try to determine which club will represent the AL in the World Series.
Each of these clubs featured one of the more prolific offenses in the AL. The Rangers scored the third most runs of any AL team over the course of the season, while the Tigers scored the fourth most. However, the gap between them is larger than that statistic might indicate. The Rangers were the only team that was able to keep up with the big-money clubs in New York and Boston, as their 855 runs were only 20 behind the league-leading Sox. After the Rangers, there’s a large gap, as the Tigers scored 787 runs to finish fourth in the league. Advanced statistics suggest the gap between the teams’ offenses is a little smaller, as the Rangers’ wRC+ of 113 outpaced the Tigers by only 4%.
The Rangers’ offense got big production from some surprising places this year, while several of the players who carried the team to last season’s World Series have taken a step back. The team’s leader in offensive value was catcher Mike Napoli. Napoli spent 2010 splitting time behind the plate in Anaheim with Jeff Mathis. This offseason, Napoli momentarily went to the Blue Jays in exchange for Vernon Wells, although the deal was more about losing Wells’ massive contract and less about actually acquiring Napoli from the Jays’ perspective. Napoli was sent packing once again almost immediately, this time in exchange for closer Frank Francisco. Napoli’s taken advantage of his new opportunity in Texas, putting up 5.6 WAR in only 113 games through an impressive 178 wRC+. Napoli hit 30 home runs in 432 plate appearances during the regular season. The next lowest PA total for a 30-homer hitter was 525, nearly 100 chances more than Napoli. If you picked Napoli to lead the AL in slugging this year, well… I don’t believe you.
I discussed Ian Kinsler in my AL MVP post, but he deserves another mention, as he’s been incredibly valuable on both sides of the ball and had the most prolific offensive year of his career by a longshot. His 7.7 WAR was the best mark on the club. Adrian Beltre’s 5.7 WAR led the team’s position players other than Kinsler, and his 134 wRC+ was second only to Napoli. In his first season in Texas, Beltre earned the first installment of his big multiyear deal signed last offseason and then some, putting up big offensive numbers and playing the premium defense at the hot corner we’ve come to expect from him. It’s rare that 4.2 WAR is considered a letdown, but Josh Hamilton produced less than half as much this season as his MVP campaign in 2010. While his numbers may not make him an MVP candidate again this year, he’s certainly a dangerous hitter. After a season of unrest between Michael Young and his front office that ended with him requesting a trade, Young gave the Rangers some serious reasons to retain him. Young gave the team positional flexibility and another big bat in their deep, potent lineup. The Rangers were the only team in baseball with five players who produced 20 or more runs above average on offense, and that’s not even counting Nelson Cruz, who had a big down year after a breakout 2010.
While the Rangers do have a better lineup, the Tigers aren’t exactly slouches. Led by Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers have a number of big bats in the middle of their lineup. Alex Avila’s breakout season was interrupted by a deep slump down the stretch and during the divisional series. The Tigers will have to hope he can bounce back during this series and continue to cement himself as one of the best catchers in baseball. Victor Martinez, acquired last offseason to protect Cabrera, has been effective in that role, as his 130 wRC+ this season tied a career high. Delmon Young, acquired on a waiver trade, has been a force in Detroit’s lineup over the final stretch of the team’s regular season, then set a franchise record with three ALDS home runs. However, he left Game 5 with an oblique strain after his first inning home run. If the injury is significant, Young could be done for the postseason. The Tigers will be hoping it’s only a minor ding. Jhonny Peralta led all AL shortstops with 120 wRC+. Peralta put up a career-high 5.2 WAR in an outstanding season.
C.J. Wilson is the clear ace of the Rangers staff. Wilson will hit free agency this season, and it’s been speculated that they’re likely to lose him to another team. Wilson’s 3.29 SIERA was 10th in the AL. He’ll be followed by Derek Holland, Colby Lewis, and Matt Harrison. Holland had something of a breakout this year, putting up 3.6 WAR. He was behind only Neftali Feliz among the Rangers’ top pitching prospects in 2009 before joining the big club, and may be beginning to realize some of that potential. Harrison also had a pretty big breakout campaign, putting up 4.2 WAR in 30 starts after never topping 0.7 in his previous three seasons in the majors. Harrison is one of two Rangers who successfully moved from the bullpen to the rotation this season, as Alexi Ogando’s success as a starter has been a big storyline for this team. Ogando has been moved back to the bullpen for the playoff. He performed admirably throughout the Rangers’ series against the Rays, culminating in a spotless eighth inning of Game 4 setting up Neftali Feliz for the series ending save. Ogando and Harrison’s success may pave the way for Feliz to move to the rotation next season, but the Rangers won’t begin to discuss that decision in earnest until the end of their playoff run.
Across the diamond, Justin Verlander put together one of the best seasons from any pitcher in recent memory. His last start of the season gave him a shot at being the first 25 game winner since Bob Welch in 1990. Not much else needs to be said about the Triple Crown winner, other than that the Tigers will pitch him as many times as they possibly can in this series and every time they do he will almost certainly give them a chance to win. Verlander will be followed in the rotation by Rick Porcello, as the Tigers used both Doug Fister and Max Scherzer in their Game 5 victory. Porcello and Scherzer are both young guys with big stuff, but who haven’t seen the results to match their potential yet. Both put up 2.7 WAR this season, Fister may end up being the most important acquisition by any team at this year’s trade deadline, although Hunter Pence will certainly give him a run for his money. Fister has produced 5,6 WAR this season, including 2.4 and a 2.63 SIERA in 70.1 innings with Detroit. These starters will hand the ball to the Tigers’ impressive bullpen, led by Jose “Papa Grande” Valverde. Valverde certainly has a tendency to make the ninth inning a bit of an adventure, but he’s 51-for-51 in save opportunities this season after closing out the ALDS in New York.
Home field advantage, which the Rangers clinched over the Tigers on the final day of the season, could be a huge deciding factor in this series. In the bandbox in Arlington, the Rangers’ potent office could take over games and simply out-mash the Tigers. However, in the expansive Comerica Park, the Tigers’ pitching will have a decided advantage. I think the Tigers will win at least two of their three home games, and I will be very surprised if Justin Verlander doesn’t give his team a fairly good chance to win at least one of the games in Arlington. If the Rangers can take the other three games in Arlington, that would likely set up a Verlander vs. Wilson Game 7 in Texas for all the marbles. In a deciding game, with the team on his back, it’s hard to bet against the best pitcher in the American League, so I’m going to take the Tigers to advance in what should be a thoroughly entertaining series.