It was the top of the ninth, and the Tigers were facing the greatest closer of all-time down by two runs. Down to his last strike, Miguel Cabrera fouled a Mariano Rivera cut fastball off his leg. Then, another one. On the seventh pitch of an at-bat that has instantly become Detroit legend, Cabrera hit a game-tying home run over the center field wall in Yankee Stadium.
Sure, the Tigers lost that game in extra innings, but they wouldn't have made it that far without their star slugger in the first place. This has become the mantra behind the Tigers' roster construction. Dave Dombrowski has put together a star-powered lineup in hopes of bringing home Detroit's first World Series title in 29 years, but has largely done so at the expense of speed and defensive skill. Meanwhile, Billy Beane has ushered in the next Moneyball era by piecing together a deep, versatile roster that works pitch counts and plays excellent defense. Which team reigns supreme? Let's take a look.
Defense? Who needs defense?
Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter comprised one of the best one-two punches at the top of an MLB lineup this season, scoring 189 runs between the two of them despite regressing from .360+ on-base percentages in 2012. Jackson also has a huge impact on the defensive side of the ball, ranking among the best center fielders in the game in most advanced metrics for the past four seasons. Hunter is no longer the elite defender he once was, but he's still a solid corner outfielder.
Stop me if you heard this one before: Miguel Cabrera had a really good year. Even after an injury-riddled September, Cabrera hit .348/.442/.636 with 44 home runs and 137 RBI this year. He won his third consecutive batting title, the first right-hander to do so since Rogers Hornsby. Is he healthy? Nope. Is he bad at defense? You bet. But he's the best hitter on the planet right now, and he will need to produce if the Tigers want to move on in the postseason.
Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez spent the month of September giving the Tigers fanbase a taste of what they hoped the entire season would look like. Prince had four home runs and a .933 OPS during the month, while Martinez's .850 OPS actually signaled a decline from the previous two months. The power will be especially crucial for these two base-cloggers, as the A's outfield is full of great arms.
It's still unclear how much playing tim Jhonny Peralta will get in left field this series, but you have to imagine that the Tigers will take Andy Dirks' .673 September OPS into account. Dirks is undoubtedly the better defender, but he's also probably not the elite outfielder that defensive metrics pegged him as in 2013. Meanwhile, no Tigers player fits the team's tagline ("if they hit...") more than Peralta. His bat was sorely missed throughout the second half, as the offense dropped off considerably after he was suspended.
Alex Avila had a monster second half, hitting .303/.376/.500 in 149 plate appearances. Is the 2011 version of Avila here to stay? We'd like to hope so, at least for the next month. Still, despite his resurgence, his overall numbers this year have some fans clamoring for Brayan Pena to get more starts.
Rounding out the Tigers' normal batting order will be the double play combo, Omar Infante and Jose Iglesias. Iglesias is the lone Tiger -- aside from Avila, maybe -- whose glove is the reason he starts on a regular basis. He only had a .259 batting average and .654 OPS since coming over from Boston, but he's the type of player that can turn the tide of a game defensively. Meanwhile, Infante has provided solid defense while hitting .318/.345/.450 at the bottom of the lineup this year.
Who makes the bench? We're still not sure at this point, but does it really matter? Don Kelly and Ramon Santiago will get spots, with Hernan Perez and Matt Tuiasosopo fighting for the presumed final roster spot. None of them provide much that the names above don't do better. Kelly will get a pinch hit appearance or two, but if any of these other guys are playing a lot, the Tigers are in trouble.
Unlike the Tigers, the A's have been an elite defensive club this season. They rank second in all of baseball -- first in the American League -- with a defensive efficiency percentage of .724. When adjusted for park factors, they were by far the best defensive team in the MLB. This is largely thanks to a team made up of moving parts. Josh Donaldson and Jed Lowrie were the only two players on the A's roster to top 600 plate appearances this season.
Speaking of Donaldson, the 27 year old came out of nowhere to have an MVP-caliber season in 2013. He wasn't particularly impressive in his first extended stint in the majors last year, and his numbers at Triple-A didn't blow anyone away, especially in the Pacific Coast League. He broke out in a big way this year though, hitting 24 home runs and a team-leading 93 RBI while playing excellent defense at third base.
Yoenis Cespedes is the name you've most likely heard. How much he plays is another question altogether. His ailing shoulder has reportedly improved some, but it's unclear whether it'll be enough to contribute in the field. (He reportedly jokes he'll throw left-handed if he must.) The A's representative in the Home Run Derby, Cespedes hit 26 longballs this season. He's suffered in other areas at the plate though, batting just .240 with a .294 on-base percentage. He also struck out 137 times.
The real strikeout king is Brandon Moss, though. He's the closest the A's get to a three-outcome players. With 140 Ks and 50 walks in 505 plate appearances, nearly 40 percent of the time he doesn't even put the ball in play. When he does, it goes a long way. He leads the team in home runs (30) and isolated power (.267) and is second in OPS (.859).
Other than CoCo Crisp (.779 OPS, average defense), the rest of the roster will be made up of players you likely haven't heard mentioned all that often: Jed Lowrie, Eric Sogard, Seth Smith, and for some reason two catchers in addition to Kurt Suzuki. Anonymous names, but players who get the job done in the field and did enough at the plate to help keep the A's at the top of the AL West. They might not have name recognition, but that doesn't mean they can be overlooked.
The bottom line
Honestly, this could go either way... and we're completely biased. The A's won more games than the Tigers this season with an inferior pitching staff, and their position players compiled more WAR. The Tigers have more holes and are one of the worst defensive teams in baseball, but the top of that lineup -- or even just Miguel Cabrera, really -- could give any pitcher nightmares. The A's depth and grind-it-out approach is a big reason why they have won the AL West the past two years, but in a short series I'm taking the stars.