As the Orioles prepare to play the Detroit Tigers for the first time ever in the postseason, here are 10 talking points to break down their meeting in the American League Division Series beginning Thursday night:
1. The outcome of the regular-season series between these clubs is irrelevant.
It’s generally unwise to make too much out of a six-game sample anyway, but the Tigers’ 5-1 mark against the Orioles during the regular season included taking two of three in Detroit the first weekend of April and a three-game sweep at Camden Yards in mid-May. Even if Detroit easily disposes of Baltimore and sweeps the Division Series, what happened between these clubs more than four months ago isn’t a good predictor when you acknowledge how much change each roster has undergone since then.
2. The Detroit rotation has the better pedigree, but the Orioles posted a superior starter ERA this season.
Yes, the Tigers have the bigger names and former Cy Young Award winners in David Price, Max Scherzer, and Justin Verlander, but the Orioles’ starting pitching ERA of 3.61 ranked fifth in the AL while Detroit’s 3.89 starter mark was only 10th. Consistency has been key for Baltimore as all four projected starters in the Division Series carry an ERA of 3.65 or better. Meanwhile, Verlander, the 2011 Cy Young Award winner and Most Valuable Player in the AL, has been the weak link for Detroit with a 4.54 ERA this season. On paper, the Tigers have the edge in Games 1 and 3 with Scherzer and Price scheduled to pitch, but Games 2 and 4 will be much more interesting with Verlander struggling all year and Rick Porcello posting a 6.20 ERA in five September starts after throwing a career-high 204 2/3 innings this season.
3. Baltimore led the majors in home runs, but Detroit scored 52 more runs over the course of the year.
The Orioles’ offensive identity is clear as they’re very dependent on the home run and ranked 11th in the AL in on-base percentage and 13th in walks, which aren’t promising numbers when you’d prefer not see Detroit starters pitching deep into games. The Tigers also allowed the second-fewest number of homers in the AL this season. In contrast, the Detroit offense was second in the majors in runs scored, first in batting average, and second in on-base percentage. For an Orioles staff that’s been very effective without striking out many hitters (10th in the AL), location is always important, especially against a lineup as consistent as the Tigers. Anything can happen in a short five-game series, but the Orioles would benefit from the ball carrying at both Camden Yards and Comerica Park.
4. The Orioles have a clear advantage in the late innings.
The Orioles ranked third in the AL in bullpen ERA (3.10) while Detroit ranked 13th with a 4.29 ERA and saw its bullpen nearly derail the season on a number of occasions. Baltimore’s late-inning trio of lefty Andrew Miller, submariner Darren O’Day, and closer Zach Britton is as good as any you’ll find in the postseason while the Tigers have held on tight with 39-year-old closer Joe Nathan, who sports a 4.81 ERA and has blown seven saves in his first year with Detroit. The X factors that could make the bullpen better for Detroit are usual-starter Anibal Sanchez — who is back from injury — and Joakim Soria, who has closer experience and has posted a 1.35 ERA since returning from the disabled list earlier this month. But if manager Brad Ausmus blindly trusts Nathan and even setup man Joba Chamberlain, he’s really rolling the dice.
5. The Tigers’ speed on the bases will be an issue for Orioles catchers.
Unlike the station-to-station Orioles who stole fewer bases (44) than anyone in baseball, Detroit isn’t afraid to run and ranked fourth in the AL with 106 steals. However, 36 of those came from outfielder Rajai Davis, who is currently nursing a groin injury that could limit him in the Division Series. The Tigers’ speed will force manager Buck Showalter to take pause when choosing between Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley behind the plate. Joseph has thrown out 40 percent of runners attempting to steal this season while Hundley has gunned down only 19 percent. The problem is Joseph is currently mired in an 0-for-30 slump and has been more erratic behind the plate down the stretch, which could indicate late-season fatigue.
6. The Baltimore defense is substantially better than Detroit’s.
Even without two Gold Glove winners for much of the season, the Orioles have still played defense at an extremely high level, committing the third-fewest number of errors in the AL and ranking third in defensive efficiency, according to BaseballReference.com. Meanwhile, the Tigers committed 14 more errors than Baltimore and ranked next to last in the AL in defensive efficiency. The Tigers also had five players — Davis, first baseman Miguel Cabrera, regular designated hitter Victor Martinez, outfielder Torii Hunter, and third baseman Nick Castellanos — with a defensive WAR (wins above replacement) of -1.0 or worse while Baltimore didn’t have a single player with a defensive WAR worse than -0.9, per BaseballReference.com.
7. Camden Yards was a more pitcher-friendly venue than Comerica Park this season.
Historically, Oriole Park at Camden Yards as been a pitcher’s nightmare while Comerica has played pretty evenly to pitchers and hitters alike, but 2014 has painted a much difference picture in Baltimore as Camden Yards has ranked 22nd in runs and 20th in home runs using ESPN’s park factors. Run scoring and home runs hit have been down at Camden Yards this season, which might be explained in part by the mild temperatures experienced in the area this summer compared to most years in which the ball tends to fly out in the summer months. Orioles pitchers allowed fewer homers and posted a lower ERA at Camden Yards than they did on the road while it wasn’t until the final month or so that Baltimore hitters finally started feasting at their home park, finishing the season with three more homers at home than on the road. Will this make a dramatic impact on the ALDS? Probably not with the cooler temperatures of October anyway, but it’s something to remember as analysts constantly mention the comfy dimensions of Camden Yards this October.
8. Defense at third base is an issue for both clubs.
The Orioles’ concerns at third base have been discussed extensively recently with Ryan Flaherty the most likely to handle the bulk of the work at the position during the ALDS, but Detroit has dealt with its own issues at the hot corner with Castellanos, who posted a respectable .700 on-base plus slugging percentage as a 22-year-old rookie but is a much better fit in the outfield. His 15 errors don’t appear to be a major concern on the surface, but fielding metrics show very limited range and his defensive WAR of -2.7 is the worst mark on the Tigers. As a result, Castellanos is frequently replaced by utility infielder Don Kelly in the late innings. While Castellanos has more potential with the bat than any of the Orioles’ current options at third base, it will be interesting to see if defense at the hot corner has a significant impact for either club at some point during the series.
9. It will be intriguing watching a rookie manager match wits with a seasoned skipper.
Always respected for his baseball mind as a longtime major league catcher, Ausmus will be making his postseason managerial debut against Buck Showalter, who is making his fourth playoff appearance and second with the Orioles and carries 16 years of major-league experience as a manager. With Detroit’s bullpen being so inconsistent, how far Ausmus is willing to push his starter on any given night will be a factor to watch. In contrast, Showalter has so many trustworthy bullpen pieces that he won’t hesitate to call to the bullpen sooner rather than later in a tight game. As mentioned before, third base has likely provided some restless nights for Showalter, but there isn’t too much mystery with the lineup beyond that. How the inexperienced Ausmus manages his pitching staff will be one of the big stories of the series.
10. Beware of bad blood.
While the Orioles’ 1-5 record against Detroit in April and May might not mean much, there was some bad blood between these clubs earlier in the season that’s worth keeping in the back of your mind. On May 12, Bud Norris was pitching a terrific game into the eighth before surrendering a two-run homer to Ian Kinsler to give the Tigers a 4-1 lead. Norris responded by plunking the next hitter Hunter in the ribs, which prompted the pitcher’s ejection as both benches and bullpens emptied before order was restored. Verlander retaliated two days later by throwing a fastball behind slugger Nelson Cruz, which brought a warning to both sides. You certainly hope that cooler heads prevail with those events taking place so long ago and the high stakes of October now in front of both clubs, but you never know for sure.