By: Brian Chapman
Over the weekend the Tigers lost three games in a row to the Angels, scored a total of two runs and scared half of the fan base into underground bunkers until Dave Dombrowski trades for a bat. To some it was a big July series that proved that the Tigers can’t hit against great teams like the Angels. Of course a month ago, the Tigers hosted the A’s and brought out the brooms and no one was concerned. The A’s have the best record in baseball, the Angels are second and the Tigers are third. Therefore, I don’t think it makes sense to request a knee jerk reaction after three measly games. I’d rather look at the bigger picture.
The October picture.
When (not if) the Tigers get to the playoffs, which opponent should they fear most? The A’s team that they’ve beaten five of seven times this year and each of the last two years in the playoffs, but has the best record in baseball or the Angels team that they’ve beaten just three of seven times this year and has the second best record in baseball, but hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2009? I say brush aside any talk of panic after losing to the Angels because Oakland is a superior and scarier team for the Tigers than Anaheim.
The Angels have gone from mediocre to World Series contender in one year for one reason. The pitching staff has made huge strides forward. Even with Jered Weaver no longer performing like a top ten pitcher in the game and CJ Wilson not living up to his $77.5 million contract, the pitching staff’s ERA has dropped over half a run and is now playoff caliber. Swapping out Joe Blanton and Jerome Williams for Tyler Skaggs and Garrett Richards are two big reasons for their progress. The bullpen has improved as well with the additions of Huston Street and Jason Grilli in midseason trades and Joe Smith during the offseason giving them the ability to shut the door in the late innings.
That said, Anaheim’s staff has nothing on Oakland’s. The Angels jumped from the bottom third to middle of the pack in pitching. Oakland was near the top and remains there with baseball’s third best ERA and second best opponent’s batting average. As solid as Matt Shoemaker and Tyler Skaggs were over the weekend and as strong as the resumes of Weaver and Wilson are, I’d rather see them in the playoffs than Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, Jeff Samardzija and either Jesse Chavez or Drew Pomeranz. These are all No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 caliber pitchers who can rack up strikeouts with Gray and Samardzija as true big game pitchers. And coming out of the bullpen, the A’s have no weak links in Fernando Abad, Luke Gregerson, Dan Otero, Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook. All five have sub-3.00 ERAs, all can pitch late in games and all but Doolittle have been lights out against the Tigers in 2014.
The Angels lineup has some pretty big names led by Mike Trout who is the front runner to win the AL MVP in 2014 (and should have won it in 2012 and 2013.) The other two big names came to Anaheim via free agency in Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton and I’m sure the fan base is happy that both are finally healthy. When they are right, Pujols and Hamilton are arguably the best hitters in all of baseball. The problem is that even though they are healthy right now, neither is hitting at his pre-Anaheim level. Pujols hit in the .330s as a Cardinal and is in the .270s this year. Hamilton was an MVP and Triple Crown contender just a few years ago, but has just five HR and 29 RBI in 2014. Even with quality role players like Howie Kendrick, Cole Calhoun and Erick Aybar and the second most runs scored in baseball, I still fear the Oakland lineup more.
Josh Donaldson may not be an MVP candidate in 2014 (and he shouldn’t have been one last year), but he has good power and I can’t imagine he’ll still be hitting in the .240s at the end of the season. Donaldson, Brandon Moss and two-time homerun derby champ Yoenis Cespedes may not have the name recognition that Trout, Hamilton and Pujols have, but they’re hammering more out of the yard this year as a trio. The rest of Oakland’s lineup features a good mix of speed and clutch hitting to match what Anaheim can offer, but if Pujols and Hamilton are banged up, struggling or both, Anaheim’s lineup will have a tough time striking fear into the hearts of opponents like the Tigers.
Angel’s manager Mike Scioscia has a World Series ring and certainly has more playoff success than Oakland’s Bob Melvin, but I think Oakland’s desire as a team to beat the Tigers after two painful home losses in Game 5s of the ALDS in the last two years is more concerning than Scioscia’s experience. Scioscia hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2009. Oakland’s playoff memories (and wounds inflicted by Justin Verlander and the Tigers) are still fresh and they want more than just a World Series appearance. They want to beat the Tigers.
Even though they’re not in the same division, the A’s probably consider the Tigers to be their biggest rival right now. How else can you explain trading for two starting pitchers immediately after getting swept by Detroit? I also consider the A’s to be the Tigers biggest rival right now (not any of their mediocre Central Division foes) and in a good rivalry eventually both teams win. Even though it’s more fun to face your rival, there’s probably more respect and fear when you face them, regardless of previous results.
When looking at the American League playoff picture, Tigers are actually in good position right now and probably shouldn’t fight for home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Whether you’re like me and you fear the A’s more or you worry more about the Angels because they just beat the Tigers three straight times and won the season series, you probably fear both of those teams more than any team that will come out of the AL East. As it stands right now, the Tigers will finish with the third best record in the AL, but the second best among AL division winners and face the winner of the AL East in the ALDS. Meanwhile the second place team out west will be forced to survive the Wild Card game before taking on the AL West winner.
The MLB playoffs are always a crap shoot so I’m certainly not overlooking Toronto or Baltimore, but avoiding an AL West powerhouse until the ALCS has to be the preferred path at this point.