ALCS Game 1 Preview: Tigers at Red Sox

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Anibal Sanchez and Jon Lester will kick off the festivities tonight as the Tigers and Red Sox begin the 2013 American League Championship Series.

Detroit Tigers at Boston Red Sox

Series: 0-0

Time/Place: 8:00 p.m., Fenway Park

SB Nation blog: Over the Monster

Media: FOX, Tigers Radio Network

Pitching Matchup: RHP Anibal Sanchez (14-8, 2.57 ERA) vs. LHP Jon Lester (15-8, 3.75 ERA)

Pitcher GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP FIP SIERA fWAR
Sanchez 29 182.0 9.99 2.67 0.45 1.15 2.39 3.10 6.2
Lester 33 213.1 7.47 2.83 0.80 1.29 3.59 3.97 4.3

Lester topped 200 innings for the fifth time in six seasons in 2013, averaging over 6 1/3 innings per start. He has made at least 31 starts in every big league season since battling cancer in 2006 and 2007, putting up a career 3.76 ERA and 3.71 FIP. He was right in line with those totals in 2013, posting a 3.75 ERA and 3.59 FIP. His strikeout rate dropped during a down season in 2012, but didn't quite return to the near-batter-per-inning rate he averaged from 2008 to 2011. However, a drop in his walk rate resulted in his highest strikeout-to-walk ratio since 2010, when he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting.

Fenway Park might be a hitter-friendly yard, but Lester -- along with Game 3 starter (for now) John Lackey -- has made it feel quite cavernous in 2013. Lester allowed a 3.09 ERA, 2.97 FIP, and 1.16 WHIP at home this season, along with a 3.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 starts. He allowed just six of the 19 home runs he allowed at Fenway this season, an even more impressive feat considering he faced right-handed hitters a whopping 78% of the time. Righties only had a 42-point advantage in OPS compared to lefties, but his peripherals -- namely an 8% drop in strikeout rate and a 2% increase in walk rate -- suggest that the divide should have been larger.

Lester will primarily attack hitters with his fastball, throwing a combination of four-seamers, two-seamers, and a cutter nearly 75% of the time. He tends to work inside against righties, throwing the cutter 22% of the time to them compared to 12% of the time against lefties. He usually follows this up with his big, looping curveball, throwing that about 20% of the time. He also like to throw his changeups on the outer half, using the off-speed pitch about 10% of the time against righties.

452657_r_fc__2013_40_14_2_20130928_medium

Against lefties, Lester uses his two-seamer more often, but tends to work on the outer half of the plate. He relies primarily on his mix of fastballs and the curveball against them, saving the changeup for righties.

452657_l_si__2013_40_14_2_20130928_medium

Both images via www.fangraphs.com

Here's a fun connection for you: Anibal Sanchez was signed by the Red Sox as an amateur free agent back in 2001. He was traded to the then-Florida Marlins -- along with some bum of a prospect named Hanley Ramirez -- for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell. Beckett and Lowell were key parts of their 2007 World Series team though, so the Sox faithful are hardly regretting this deal.

In Sanchez's lone career start against the Sox, he allowed seven runs on eight hits in 4 1/3 innings. Of course, that was his second career start way back in 2006, and quite a bit has changed since then. This season, Sanchez has held left-handed hitters in check, allowing them to hit just .247/.312/.364. I wouldn't be too surprised to see an extra righty or two in the lineup in attempt to neutralize Sanchez's excellent changeup, but righties have fared even worse against him. In 339 plate appearances, right-handers have a .544 OPS against Sanchez this year.

Question of the day: How will Phil Coke be used in this series?

It's no mystery at this point that Coke has struggled mightily in 2013. First, he was a closer. Then, a LOOGY. When he couldn't do either of those, he still got chances to work things out. Then, he went to the minors. Now, Coke's year -- resembling a Family Circus cartoon more than an actual baseball season at this point -- takes him to the ALCS, where he shined in 2012. If used properly (read: getting David Ortiz out and nothing else), he should be effective. If Jim Leyland tries to stretch him too far, things could turn sour.

Outlook

Before the season, I said that the Red Sox could be competitive if their pitching staff, led by Jon Lester, could keep teams in check while their offense carried the load. (I also said they were in rebuilding mode... oops). This has largely been the case all season long, if only because they had the most explosive lineup in baseball. If Sanchez can keep the Sox in check for six or seven innings, the pressure is on Lester to do the same. Given how he has pitched during the second half of 2013, he's more than capable.

Prediction

The Red Sox take Game 1 with a couple of late runs against the Tigers' bullpen.

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