It’s easy to envision the Detroit Tigers winning the American League Championship Series. Heck, if right-handers Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander pitch to their abilities, the series might not even be close.
Much has been made of the Boston Red Sox’s transformation in character, and the Sox are indeed a tough-minded group. But the Tigers possess similar intangibles. And their offense is potentially even more explosive.
So, why am I picking the Red Sox?
It’s simple: They hold home-field advantage at Fenway Park, where they had the best home record in the American League. And they can beat opponents in more ways.
* Offense. The Red Sox scored more runs than the Tigers during the regular season, hit more homers, drew more walks. They also succeeded in 86.6 percent of their stolen-base attempts, the second-best rate in the live-ball era, which began in 1920. The Tigers threw out just 18.5 percent of runners attempting to steal, the second-worst rate in the majors.
It has been a long time since the Tigers were hot offensively — they averaged 3.73 runs in September, 11th in the AL, then batted .235 with a .620 OPS against Oakland in the Division Series, scoring only 17 runs in five games.
* Defense: The Tigers are strong up the middle when Jose Iglesias is at shortstop, but for the season they were the fourth-worst in defensive efficiency, a statistic that measures the rate at which balls in play are converted into outs.
Advanced metrics depict the Red Sox as somewhat average defensively, but none of their defenders is as big a liability as Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera or first baseman Prince Fielder. The Sox should bunt as often as possible on the physically compromised Cabrera.
* Pitching: If I had my choice of any starter in this series, I’d probably pick Verlander, Scherzer and Sanchez before Jon Lester, the Red Sox’s ace left-hander. But Lester has been brilliant since the All-Star break, and righty Clay Buchholz is rounding into form. Righty John Lackey figures to be overmatched by Verlander in Game 3. Jake Peavy vs. Doug Fister looms as a tossup in Game 4.
The Red Sox’s bullpen, meanwhile, rates a slight edge due to the back-end combination of lefty Craig Breslow and righty Koji Uehara. The Tigers, outside of Drew Smyly, lack effective counters for the Red Sox’s left-handed hitters — and Smyly was less effective in the second half than in the first. Phil Coke, who will be activated for this series, likely is not the answer — left-handed hitters had a .760 OPS against him in the regular season.
OK, enough “analysis.” These things rarely proceed how the supposed experts think they will. And the Tigers’ 3-0 victory over Oakland in Game 5 of the DS — featuring a two-run homer from Cabrera and eight shutout innings from Verlander — was a classic example of how the Tigers’ MVP/Cy Young types can dominate a game, if not a series.
This is the Tigers’ third straight trip to the ALCS and fourth in eight years, yet they have not won the World Series since 1984. Maybe this is their time. Maybe their elite players are about to get hot. But the Red Sox are so well-prepared, they always seem ready with answers. They lost three straight games on five different occasions during the regular season — but never four straight.