After two thrilling games in Oakland, the Tigers head back to Detroit for what is now a best of three series with the season hanging in the balance. Despite the thrills and chills of the first two games, we are left to wonder where we might be if the Tigers had given themselves the best chance of winning. We are wondering, because the moves that were made, at least in Game 2, did not give them the best chance of winning.
Update: Since this article was written, the Tigers have announced that Jhonny Peralta will start in left field on Monday.
1. Get Jhonny Peralta in the starting lineup. The most obvious flaw is the fact that the Tigers have now gone 17 consecutive innings without scoring a run. Where is the offense? Well, your second most productive player this season is sitting on the bench. He was used once in Game 1, as a pinch hitter, and not used at all in Game 2, during nine innings of scoreless ball. Nine innings of sheer futility at the plate, with your second best hitter this season twiddling his thumbs is not a recipe for success.
Peralta still ranked second on the team in WAR for the season, despite missing 50 games. He has the third best wOBA, the third best slugging percentage, and is among the top three in every major offensive percentage ranking. He needs to be in the starting lineup, whether at shortstop or left field, or somewhere else. Get him in there.
I understand the concerns about Peralta playing left field in Oakland. In Game 1, we saw two balls get by a couple of good fielders, in Dirks and Cespedes. We don’t know what trouble Peralta might have had out there.
If you’re not going to put Peralta in the outfield, then put him back at shortstop, where he was the best overall shortstop in the league prior to his suspension. We all love the defense that Iglesias brings, but that does not replace the total production of Peralta’s bat with his steady, no range defense.
In order to be in the same conversation with Peralta, Iglesias needs to be at least somewhat productive with the bat. If he were able to sustain the line of .330 .376 .409 .785 that he had with Boston this season prior to the trade, he would be a valuable two way player. But if he is more like the hitter that he's been since coming to Detroit, .259 .306 .348 .654 does not justify leaving Peralta, or even Andy Dirks, out of the lineup.
If you really must have Iggy’s glove, then put him at third base and let Cabrera DH, with Martinez behind the plate. Or use Iglesias as a defensive replacement. Picture Iggy at third in the ninth inning on the ball that Cespedes hit into the hole, with Cabrera hugging the line. Iglesias would be playing off the line, and might have made a play, avoiding the whole disaster, making a hero of Alburquerque- and Leyland. Maybe.
Yet, if the Tigers were going to use Peralta at shortstop, the two games in Oakland with fly ball pitchers Verlander and Scherzer on the mound would have been a better opportunity to do that. The A's hit only eight infield ground balls in two games, with none in game two.
In any case, the added offense from Peralta comes in the form of hits, extra base hits and home runs which the Tigers have been lacking. Any extra defense that Iglesias may provide at shortstop might prevent an occasional ground ball single.
I suspect that we might see Peralta in the outfield for the next two games in Comerica Park, with a couple of ground ball pitchers on the mound, Doug Fister and Anibal Sanchez. Scherzer and Verlander are both fly ball pitchers, and Oakland is a tough venue for left fielders. We’ll see every left handed hitter the A’s have in the lineup once again.
2. Keep Don Kelly on the bench. In Peralta’s place on Saturday was Don Kelly, one of the worst hitting outfielders in the league, and a below replacement player for the past several months. Kelly is dead last on the team in average, on base percentage, slugging, OPS, and wOBA. In the second half, he has a batting line of .190 .273 .267 for an OPS of .540. He has a rWAR of -0.7 for the season.
If not Peralta, then Andy Dirks should be in left field. Dirks has not had a good season at the plate, but he has regained some of his 2012 form in the second half of the season, batting .278 .354 .395 for an OPS of .749 and a wOBA of.330. Over .200 points OPS is a significant difference.
Jim Leyland seems to think that Kelly is better defensively than Dirks. He isn’t. The defensive metrics for 2013 all show that Dirks has had a better season in the field. UZR, RZR, and DRS all show Dirks well above average and Kelly below average. These numbers even out over a longer period of time, which I think is a more accurate picture. In my view, both players are technically sound, above average left fielders with average arms at best, and they almost always make the right play. There is no significant advantage to Kelly that would justify putting the worst hitter on the team, and one of the worst hitting outfielders in the league, in the starting lineup of a game with any importance.
If you want to point to the two infield hits that Kelly got on Saturday, they’re all yours. I wouldn’t depend on that kind of production going forward. You can also point to the "sacrifice" grounder to the right side that moved Infante to second base in game two. Some might call that a "productive out." No doubt Leyland was happy with getting that from Kelly- just as you would be if your pitcher were batting. How’d that turn out? About the same as a bunt.
Starting Dirks or Peralta in place of Kelly may not have saved the Tigers from Sonny Gray, but using Kelly was not the percentage play, and it never will be the smart move. I like Kelly as a utility sub, in strictly a defensive capacity, but he should not be starting in the playoffs, under any circumstances.
3. Show some plate discipline. Quit hacking. After you get done giving credit and tipping your hat to Sonny Gray, think about not swinging at everything that moves. Gray’s Pitch f/x shows that during the season, he had thrown 65% fastballs, but recorded 40 Ks on breaking balls to only 17 with his fastball. It’s tough to lay off a good looking pitch with two strikes, but the Tigers kept falling for the same trick, and kept tipping their caps.
The Tigers attacked Bartolo Colon in the first inning of Game 1 by being aggressive, first pitch swinging, with much effectiveness. Colon adjusted and Oakland shut the Tigers down for eight innings. The Tigers never adjusted back. Sonny Gray did the same in Game 2 as the Tigers hacked away, struggling to hit the ball out of the infield. Even the hits they got have generally been on the ground, either in the infield Kelly and Iggy style, or through the infield a la Cabrera and Avila.
Austin Jackson was up there hacking at a 3- 0 pitch after Infante had walked on four pitches in the same inning and Gray was having trouble finding the strike zone. He struck out on ball four- an outside pitch, and Iglesias was thrown out stealing to end the Tigers’ biggest threat. Hunter and Cabrera were up next, but they never got to bat that inning.
Just four times during game two did Tiger hitters see more than five pitches in a plate appearance. One was Jackson’s fifth inning fail. Three of the four were strikeouts. Just once did a Tiger work the count more than six pitches, when Victor Martinez grounded out in the second inning on the eighth pitch. The hacking cough is choking off the offense
4. Use the best relievers in high leverage situations. The Tigers lost a 1-0 game on Saturday while their best relief pitcher never got in the game. Joaquin Benoit was being held back, waiting for a "save situation." This defies logic. While the Tigers could not win the game without closing out the A’s with a lead, it’s also true that they would never see that situation if they didn’t shut Oakland down in the ninth inning.
When Leyland went to Alburquerque for the ninth inning and he inevitably put runners on base, that was the time for Benoit to come in and save the day. Aside from Alvarez, who is on the team only because he throws left handed, Alburquerque is the pitcher most likely to implode. He escaped one inning after Donaldson missed a few hanging sliders, but the implosion is inevitable with wild thing on the mound.
Alburquerque has the best K rate on the team at 12.86 K/ 9, but he also has the highest walk rate at 6.24 BB/ 9. Keep using him in critical situations, and it’s a matter of time before it bites you. When there is no margin for error, I wouldn’t.
If not Benoit, then where was Jose Veras, the former closer? And why wait until the bases are loaded with a left handed hitter coming up to put Porcello in the game? Porcello has some of the worst numbers on the team vs left handed hitters.
Leyland has a tough job, armed with half a bullpen and an insatiable desire to go for the perfect match up with each hitter, but he’s got to make better use of what he does have. Saturday’s game was lost without using the best available relievers because he was waiting for a more narrowly defined situation to use them.
5. Don’t let Cespedes beat you. Yoenis Cespedes is the hottest hitter in the Oakland lineup over the first two games. He provided all the offense on Friday with a two run homer off Scherzer on a low fastball. He also tripled in that game, and returned to get two hits including a lead off double in the ninth inning to start the rally and score the winning run. Again, he hit a pitch over the plate below the belt from Alburquerque.
Cespedes does not do nearly as well on the high heaters and he will chase breaking pitches off the plate when he’s been set up. Tiger pitchers have done a magnificent job of keeping the Oakland offense in check, with the exception of Cespedes. He hasn’t been this good all season, so let’s not give him fat, happy pitches to kill us with.
All this being said, the Tigers are alive and well, despite the lack of offense and despite missing half a bullpen. Their amazing starting pitching has kept them in both games, with two more ACES lined up. They need to make use of what they have on the roster to give these guys some run support, and they need to use the good relief pitchers they do have for as long as they can.