Mickey Lolich had a two-year peak. He pitched over 3,600 innings in the Major Leagues over parts of 16 seasons, but in only two did he post a sub-3.00 ERA, or any ERA more than 20 percent better than the league figure. In only two did he rate as one if the American League’s elite workhorses, and top strikeout pitchers. In only two did he win at least 20 games.

Those two seasons were 1971 and 1972. Lolich turned 31 and 32 in those two Septembers. In 1972, the Tigers team of which Lolich was the ace reached the American League Championship Series. There they faced the Oakland Athletics. Lolich made two starts, totaling 19 innings pitched. He allowed just 19 total baserunners and three earned runs. The Tigers split the two games in which he pitched, though, and lost in the full five games.

I wonder, a little bit, whether 2011 and 2012 were to Justin Verlander as 1971 and 1972 were to Mickey Lolich. Now, these aren’t the same guy. Verlander’s two seasons outstrip Lolich’s in nearly every aspect. Verlander is also younger. His two years came at ages 28 and 29.

Still, here we are. In 2013, Verlander went from baseball’s second-best starter to the Tigers’ third-best. His strikeout rate dropped only slightly, but his walk rate increased substantially. He remains durable, but the sheen of dominance is gone, probably for good.

I mention all of this for three reasons, listed below in increasing order of relevance to this piece:

1. Verlander signed a massive contract extension this spring, one that assumes he will maintain that marvelous peak. That contract was signed about a year ahead of the necessary decision point. Teams should stop doing this.
2. This is, to me, an interesting case study in how pitchers age, and how long they can sustain various levels of performance through different phases.
3. While Lolich couldn’t quite overcome the 1972 A’s, Verlander did conquer the 2012 version. Now it’s time for the A’s to face Detroit again,
and Verlander, at least, isn’t going to be swinging things the Tigers’ way.

That’s not where the differences from 2012 (nor the similarities to 1972) stop, either.

When the A’s are at bat…

For one thing, last season’s Athletics didn’t make enough contact to match up well with the strikeout-happy Tigers at all. In fact, they were hopelessly strikeout-prone, setting a (short-lived) single-season record for team whiffs.

These A’s aren’t those A’s. These are those A’s with a real, live middle infield. Jed Lowrie (.290/.344/.446, 91 strikeouts in 662 plate appearances) and Alberto Callaspo (.270/.350/.409, 25 K in 180 PA since arriving in trade from Anaheim) make a ton of contact, and it’s not empty. Both switch-hit, too, thinning the options for exploiting matchups with them.

Personnel improvements in the center of the diamond have helped the A’s win back some of the ground they gave away at the edges last time around. The center of the offense, though, is the pair of sluggers who play the edges of the diamond. Josh Donaldson’s emergence as a star makes their offense miles more dynamic. Brandon Moss adds top-tier power and ensures that good right-handed pitching can’t create a power outage.

Detroit doesn’t have much reliable left-handed pitching. The tragedy for Oakland is that, with righty-mashing catcher John Jaso out, they can’t stack the lineup with lefties as well as they otherwise might.

The Tigers’ starting rotation is a sensation. Maybe Verlander’s sun is slanting toward the horizon, but Max Scherzer will probably win the Cy Young Award this season, and Anibal Sanchez took home the AL ERA title. The better starter in each game of the series will be the one with an Old English ‘D’ on his cap. They’re counting on that being enough to win. The bullpen is thin, but strong enough at the back end to handle the fairly leisurely October schedule. Detroit just needs as-expected outings from their starters.

I think the A’s can disrupt that, though. I think they can score on the Tigers this time. Last season, they scored just 11 runs in the five games. If it goes that far this time, I think they could double that.

When the Tigers are at bat…

Oakland’s pitching staff will require more careful management than Detroit’s. I think they lined up their starters perfectly, if only by accident. Bartolo Colon, Sonny Gray, Jarrod Parker and Dan Straily will each get the ball in their turn. Gray stands out for an ability to miss many more bats than his cohort, but they all rely on limiting walks. Their outfield defense is a weapon as formidable as nearly any single pitcher.

Joe Sheehan has made a great point (more than once) about how Bob Melvin partitions his bullpen. Melvin separates his good relievers from his merely usable ones. Then, the first group gets all the key innings, and the others get the others. Billy Beans has left Melvin no shortage of guys who fall into Bin A, especially Grant Balfour, Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook. The long and short of it is that the pitching staff should consistently be in the best possible position in which to succeed.

That might not be enough, though. The Tigers have as strong an offense as anyone. Presumably, Miguel Cabrera will be fundamentally unaffected by the groin injury that followed him through September. Detroit didn’t rest him nearly as comprehensively as they could have down the stretch, the only acceptable explanation for which is that the problem is not terribly serious. Still, Cabrera slugged .333 in September, so his situation bears watching.

Around Cabrera, the Tigers still field a fine offense. It’s just that if he’s no longer lethal, they may be mortal. This series hinges, as the Tigers’ fortunes so often have the past three years, on whether Cabrera and Verlander are at the top of their games.

Prediction

I want to make one more call back to that 1972 ALCS. It concerns the way the Tigers got there. That season, a strike lopped off the first several games of the schedule. But when the season resumed, no standard schedule length was instituted. As a result, Detroit finished the season 86-70–just ahead of the Red Sox, at 85-70. The Tigers lost the very same number of games as the team they technically beat out.

What a farce, right? But consider this: the Tigers are 136-130 outside the AL Central since the start of 2011. They’ve achieved great records by playing exceptionally well (140-80) against a painfully weak set of divisional foes.

The A’s, who weren’t even good in 2011, are 161-135 over that span, outside the AL West. Within it, though, because the Rangers and Angels are quite a bit better than the White Sox and Indians, they went just 103-87.

Schedule imbalance poses a real threat to the competitive integrity of Major League Baseball. This series captures that. Detroit could well win three of five, but it wouldn’t change the fact that winning 96 games in the AL West is far more impressive than winning 93 in the Central. Baseball teams and their fans deserve a schedule that doesn’t call into question the outcome of a regular season so long it must be legitimate in order not to be called wasteful.

For now, though, I’ll try to choose between an apple and an orange. I think the home team will win every game of this series, so it’s Oakland in five.

Full playoff picks

Having finished my Division Series previews now, I offer my full playoff forecast:

Atlanta over LA, St. Louis over Pittsburgh. Atlanta over St. Louis.

Oakland over Detroit, Boston over Tampa Bay. Boston over Oakland.

Boston over Atlanta.

These are fairly wild ideas. I’m going against the grain in at least the Oakland and Atlanta series. But that’s how I see things.

Four games today. Let’s do this.

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