MLB Playoffs: 15 Things To Watch For In The 2012 World Series
15 Things To Watch For In The 2012 World Series
It's finally upon us.
After nearly seven months of baseball, we're now just days away from crowning a new World Series champion.
How fitting a match-up it is, too. In a season largely defined by the unexpected, there will be two teams who have been in business since before the turn of the 20th century, facing each other for the very first time: the Detroit Tigers, preseason favourites to win the AL West, the big spenders in the off-season who stumbled to find their groove for so much of 2012, taking on the San Francisco Giants, just one year removed from a World Series title, who survived a scandal and suspension of its best hitter for nearly half of the season to win the NL West from behind.
There are certainly compelling, contrasting narratives for both teams on their road to the 2012 World Series, just as more will emerge and in under 48 hours. There will be wall-to-wall analysis on the most miniscule of plays, and what each player on either team has managed to contribute to the big picture of things. It's the way big moments like this tend to be looked at – dissected to its parts, because each individual moment might just yield a key to success.
So how do you take guesses at what those might be before they've happened? Well, I suppose you'd have to take a look at the players on either team that you might call potential key-makers. With that said, here are 15 such individuals whose contributions in the upcoming days are probably going to be worth observing:
Where the Tigers will be talked about for their offensive prowess, the Giants will have an edge on the defensive side of things. We've seen it time and time again during the 2012 postseason: Brandon Crawford making one key run-saving play after another, and making it look damn easy. He might not do much in terms of hitting, but with the defensive ability to steal base hits, and put abrupt ends to offensive rallies in the most deflating of ways, Crawford's play will be something to watch out for. At least, every time that the ball is his way, anyway.
Jhonny Peralta might not be able to turn plays quite like his shortstop counterpart, but he's got one thing going for him that Crawford doesn't: his bat. You know who the best hitter for the Tigers have been this postseason? Yes, it's Peralta, who is hitting .343 with a .921 OPS to lead all of the starters on both teams. After struggling mightily to close out the season, Peralta has caught fire at the right time, and the sneaky pop in his bat could be a difference-maker.
Hunter Pence is a number of different things for the Giants: he's an awkward player who turns routine plays into strange events, he's a trade deadline acquisition-gone wrong, and he's also a big part of why the team will be playing in the World Series. It was Pence's 2-hit night, including a ridiculous thrice-hit ball off a broken bat that truly broke the St. Louis Cardinals' back in a game seven laugher. It was one of those hits that only makes sense in the context of it being a Hunter Pence hit, but now might be a good time to remember that this guy is just one-year removed from a .954 OPS season. Pence isn't as bad as he's been, and if he can find some of that old magic, we might just be looking at the most awkward World Series MVP ever.
If I'm Jim Leyland, there's a pretty good chance that I wouldn't use Jose Valverde in any situation with any amount of leverage in it. Knowing the type of manager Leyland is, however – I'd say there's a pretty good chance that the temporarily-outed closer will be in there in the late innings again, albeit with a shorter leash. The Tigers bullpen have not been a key strength for the team, and much of it could be attributed to this man. With the ALCS behind them, whether the Tigers wind up choosing to sink or swim with Valverde will be a compelling narrative to watch out for. This one could go either way.
After being comically blocked by Aubrey Huff for what seemed like an eternity, Brandon Belt was finally freed in 2012, and Giants might be able to reap the rewards of uh, making a sensible baseball decision that had been fairly self-evident for a while. Belt finished his season with a pair of .880+ OPS months, and with a .925 OPS performance in the NLCS, he gives the Giants a key offensive weapon headed in to the World Series. With a team where – let's be realistic here - maybe only a third of the hitters are legitimate dangers, that Belt could be a 4th will mean a world of difference.
The Tiger's $214 million man have been inconspicuously quiet this postseason thus far, but like the man that hits before him did in the ALCS, Prince Fielder could just be getting warmed up. This will be his first World Series, after all, and the man that the Tigers brought in to make a difference will be gunning to do just that when he finally steps on baseball's biggest stage. Ready the fireworks.
Yes, the Detroit offense won't be quite right without the latter part of their heart-of-the-order tandem clicking; but without Miguel Cabrera, they likely would not even be in the position to compete for the title. MVP or not, the Tigers are right when Cabrera is right – something that applies both offensively and defensively. We all know Cabrera can slug the ball, but as we've seen over the summer, Cabrera's glove can be an adverse difference-maker to the Tigers as well. Whether it will matter or not will likely be tied to his production at the plate, but it's certainly one side to Miggy that's be worth watching.
Ah, Marco Scutaro - the baseball version of fine wine. Like a reverse Hunter Pence, the 36-year old newly-minted NLCS MVP found a hell of a good time for a career-revival, posting his best career numbers upon joining the Giants. His ridiculous .500/.533/.607 triple-slash in the NLCS was so un-Scutaro-like, that it almost makes total sense in the context of the Giants. After all, it's performances like that that helped them to their 2010 World Series title. If Scutaro can put together an encore performance, he'll not only gain folk hero status in San Francisco, but they might just have to turn his name into a dictionary entry.
If his counterpart is like fine wine, I suppose you could say that ALCS MVP Delmon Young is like a good burbon: singular in its purpose, rough around the edges, but damnit – it gets the job done. That's what the Tigers' designated-hitter have done over his last four games, hitting .389 with a 1.199 OPS. Young might have been a below-replacement level player in the 2012 season, and his legs might not be moving so well these days, but as long as he can get the job done – limitations and all – the Tigers will keep slotting him in the outfield in San Francisco.
Tim Lincecum was the Giants best pitcher in the NLDS; but, when he was given another chance to start, Timmy was just the 2012 Timmy again – uneven, frustrating, a pitcher who couldn't quite find his zone. Redemption could, once again, lie in the bullpen, where Lincecum can work at a different mental pace, and pitch like he's shown to be capable of. After all, if you can get nine dominant innings out of Lincecum in the series, does it really matter whether they all come in one game? It's maybe a little silly to think of a two-time Cy Young award winner as the Giants' secret weapon – but Timmy might just be it.
The Tigers bullpen are not the most trustworthy bunch these days. With Valverde being in one of those Valverde funks, and Joaquin Benoit not being particular effective over his four appearances in the 2012 postseason thus far, the pressure falls very squarely on Phil Coke, who is as good as the incumbent closer headed into the World Series, as far as I'm concerned. He's worked the most of all the Tigers relievers, and with just four hits and a pair of walks allowed in seven and one-third innings, he's been the best go-to guy, too. As good as their starting pitching has been, the Tigers can't avoid going to their bullpen forever. Coke will be a difference-maker, if only by necessity.
Madison Bumgarner isn't quite right. His fastball velocity is down, and his slider isn't biting that way it's supposed to. Right or not, though, the Giants' will call on him before this thing is over; that is unless Bruce Bochy wants to turn around and hope for encore miracle performances from Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong. If and when that call comes, Bumgarner will need to channel some of that magic himself and avoid another blow-up. As good as they are at doing it, playing comeback in a series probably isn't an optimal way to try to win it - a dominant performance from Bumgarner will go a long way to making sure that scenario doesn't get repeated.
A major reasons why the Giants pitchers will have to be even more perfect than usual is that the Tigers staff are simply dominant right now. To compound things, Max Scherzer, who has long been an inconsistent talent, finally seemed to put things together in the second half of 2012, and is firing an all cylinders after a ten-strikeout performance in the ALCS. With 18 strikeouts in eleven innings in the postseason, the only thing that might be going against Scherzer right is that he probably won't go too deep into games. Rested and ready, it'll be interesting to watch what kind of leash Scherzer will be given in the World Series, especially considering that the Tigers won't want to overuse their relievers.
Matt Cain's long road to establishing himself as a bona fide ace in baseball was completed by the time he'd thrown his perfect game; if he were to lead the Giants to their second World Series title in three years, his status would be cemented. Cain had been somewhat uneven over his first trio of postseason appearances in 2012, but got it done when the stakes were the highest in game seven of the NLCS. That Cain might only get to pitch once in the World Series means he'll have to take that same mentality with him the next time he takes the mound.
It's almost silly now to think that before this season, Justin Verlander was known as a poor post-season pitcher. It's a tag that he shed emphatically this year - with 25 strikeouts over 24.1 innings in three starts, and giving up just ten hits and a measly pair of runs over that span, Verlander might just be on the verge of putting together one of the all-time playoff performances from a starter. After all, he's the reason why the Tigers have made it this far, and why they'll go in as the favourites: for the Giants to win the World Series, they have to beat Justin Verlander twice - and that's perhaps the highest wall you could put in front of an opponent in baseball right now.