MLB playoffs: Against good pitching, American League teams look for run-scoring edge

The Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, Oakland Athletics, and Tampa Bay Rays all have home run hitters in their lineups. But all four teams can score in other ways, too.

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    Grounds crew workers water the grass around a logo as the Boston Red Sox work out at Fenway Park, Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, in Boston. The Red Sox will face the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1 of baseball's American League division series on Friday.
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The best in the American League begin their quest Friday to get to the World Series as the MLB Divisional Playoff round begins. What players and storylines will decide the outcome of this year’s postseason?

The Detroit Tigers return to the playoffs in search of a title after being swept in last year's World Series, while the Oakland Athletics look to build on two straight postseason trips. The Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays also look to impress after missing out the previous season.

The best record in the league belonged to the Boston Red Sox, who rebounded with flair after posting their first 90-loss season since 1966. The Red Sox feature the most potent offense in the league, and bounce-back seasons for John Lackey and Jon Lester give the Sox enough balance to make a run this postseason.

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While their offense is statistically impressive, pay attention to the discipline Sox hitters exhibit at the plate. This year’s Red Sox team saw far and away the most pitches of any team in the league, 900 more than the second place Twins, and swung at the fewest pitches in the league, taking their bats off their shoulders only 43.6% of the time. Part of their success comes from strategy, but Mike Napoli will tell you the Sox are just being themselves.

“That’s just how guys are,” Napoli told Sports Illustrated. “Grind out at bats and pass it onto the next guy.” 

This uncanny ability to run counts high and chase starting pitchers early in games has paid off for an offense that might lack the star power of rosters like the Los Angeles Dodgers and Detroit have. If the playoffs are all about pitching, the Red Sox offense is the most prepared to go into this postseason and successfully put runs on the board.

From one of the most recognizable rosters in the league to one of the least, the AL West champion Oakland Athletics come into the playoffs featuring few household names. Yet despite this, the A’s were extremely impressive throughout the season, consistently pitching well and plating runs, finishing one game behind the Red Sox in the AL standings.

Josh Donaldson has been one of baseball’s breakout stars this season, and figures to lead the A’s offense this postseason, leading the team in batting average, runs and RBIs. More impressively however, was his 8.0 Wins-Above-Replacement (WAR), which was far greater than that of Miguel Cabrera and trails only Mike Trout’s for tops in the American League.

According to baseball-reference.com, WAR looks at the number of wins a team can expect with one player over his replacement.

"The idea behind the WAR framework is that we want to know how much better a player is than what a team would typically have to replace that player. We start by comparing the player to average in a variety of venues and then compare our theoretical replacement player to the average player and add the two results together."

Trout was no stranger to Donaldson’s value this season, telling MLB.com, “He plays the game hard. You don't see even an inning that he takes off. He plays great defense, and he's a gamer. He's stepping up big for them.”

A team that has made a living getting more from less, Donaldson and the A’s will be underdogs in their playoff series but that should not bother a team that is used to getting overlooked. Look for the A’s to put a good fight in and advance if they catch a few breaks.

The A’s opponent in the Divisional Round will be the Detroit Tigers, led by all-world hitter Miguel Cabrera and AL wins leader Max Scherzer. The Tigers’ offense finished not too far behind the Red Sox in most major statistical categories and their two big bats, Cabrera and Prince Fielder, are the most formidable one-two power punch in the league.

However, injuries to Cabrera caused the Tigers’ offense to sputter out in the final month of the season and the team managed only a 13-13 record in the month of September while only winning one out of four against playoff teams.

For all the press Cabrera and the offense gets, it’s the pitching staff that will determine whether the team makes a deep run in the playoffs. Scherzer and underrated star Anibal Sanchez highlight a staff that led all of baseball in quality starts, and excelled at keeping runners off base while consistently pitching deep into outings. Manager Jim Leyland says that this is the best and deepest pitching staff he’s ever had.

“I truly feel that I can start any one of my guys and I would feel comfortable,” Leyland told the Detroit Free Press. “But I think the kind of year Scherzer’s had, I’m sure somebody will find something wrong with this choice, but I think that’s kind of hard to argue.”

Keep an eye on former Cy Young award winner Justin Verlander, who had a disappointing regular season but pitched extremely well in September, posting a 2.27 ERA and striking out 48 in 39.2 innings pitched. If Verlander returns to his 2011 form and Scherzer and Sanchez remain their dependable selves, the Tigers might not need to score runs in order to advance to the AL Championship Series.

The Tampa Bay Rays continued their red-hot run Wednesday as they advanced to the Divisional Round after beating the Cleveland Indians in a dominant team pitching exhibition. Price’s performance in the Rays 5-2 win Monday against Texas in the 163rd game of the season demonstrated the star's ability to pitch lights out in meaningful games. Alex Cobb’s shutout two days later against Cleveland indicates that the staff is in the right mindset to pitch postseason games.

The difference maker for the Rays this postseason will not swing a bat nor throw a pitch. Manager Joe Maddon, the Rays skipper that’s brought the team to four postseasons, will be a factor to watch in their series against the Red Sox. Maddon’s heavy reliance on statistical analysis results in a manager making decisions that appear to go against the norm, but typically seem to work out for his team.

In Wednesday’s game against the Indians, right-handed hitting Ryan Raburn approached the plate for Cleveland prompting Maddon to take righty Joel Peralta out, and put hard-throwing lefty Jake McGee in. A shocking move at the time, it soon came to light that although right-handed batters favor lefty pitching, Raburn in particular had only batted .087 against fastballs over 95 MPH. Raburn struck out and once again Maddon looked like the smartest man in the stadium.

“We have extreme confidence in where we play people.” Maddon told Sports Illustrated, “Because we have extreme confidence in data. Everything we do is based on lots and lots of very good information.”

Maddon will be tasked with trying to strategize for the best, most patient offense in the majors, and it will be fascinating to watch his chess match with the Red Sox hitters. Throw in the fact that these teams do not like each other and you can bet that this series will be October at its best.

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