For Game 1 of the ALCS against the Tigers, the Red Sox will send lefty Jon Lester to the hill opposite Anibal Sanchez. There is little mystery about which match-up will be the focal point here. The Tigers have the best hitter in the game in Miguel Cabrera and Miggy squaring off against the Sox number one starter overshadows every other battle that will take place on Saturday night.
At first glance, Miguel Cabrera appears to be such a tremendous mismatch for Jon Lester that the Red Sox lefty would be completely justified in pitching around him to an extreme level. Cabrera destroyed left-handed pitching with a .368/.488/.722 line against southpaw over 164 plate appearances this season, for a wRC+ of 225. Of course, 164 plate appearances is a small sample, but that in itself is a testament to Cabrera's dominance since few managers are willing to expose lefties to the 2012 MVP late in games.
Like most pitchers, Lester was more effective with the platoon advantage in his favor, but his splits aren't really extreme. Against RHH, Lester allowed an OPS of .712, just slightly above league average. Miguel Cabrera is not your ordinary right-handed hitter, however, and in the limited number of times these two have faced off, Cabrera has owned Lester, going 10-19 with a home run, two doubles and five walks off the Sox starter. Player vs. player stats are hardly predictive, but based purely on their history against each other and their platoon profiles, Cabrera should be terrifying for Lester.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, Miguel Cabrera has not been Miguel Cabrera as of late. Over the last 30 days of the season, Cabrera hit a shockingly powerless .278/.395/.333 and he went 5-20 in the ALDS against Oakland with just one extra base hit. He made that one count, however, hitting a two-run home run to give the Tigers the lead and in the final Game 5. Yet, even on that hit, the effects of the groin and abdominal injuries seemed to limit the Detroit slugger.
As Rob Neyer pointed out after that shot, Sonny Gray made a huge mistake by coming up and in on Cabrera. Miggy is probably the greatest inside-pitch hitter of his generation. Even without the ability to full-integrate his lower body into his swing, he can still turn on a pitch inside and muscle it out as he did there. From catcher Stephen Vogt's positioning prior to the pitch, it appears that the pitch was meant to be low-and-in, but even that seems to be an unnecessary risk given Cabrera's current condition.
While Cabrera has been struggling with injuries, Jon Lester has been getting better and better since a stretch of bad games in June. After the All-Star break Lester posted a 2.57 ERA backed by a 2.77 FIP. Part of the improvement for the lefty has come with improved numbers against right-handed hitters. Prior to the break, Lester has struck out just under 17 percent of righties and walked 8.5 percent. After, including the postseason, his strikeouts against RHH are up over 20 percent and walk rate down to 6.8 percent. As we saw in Game 1 of the ALDS when Lester matched-up against another tough righty in Evan Longoria, this current incarnation of the Sox ace can be extremely effective working away, mixing fastballs, sinkers and change-ups to the outside.
In the past, the match-up of Jon Lester against Miguel Cabrera was one the Red Sox would have been wise to work around, but the two players are at opposite extremes as the ALCS kicks off. As Sonny Gray learned on Thursday, even a wounded Miguel Cabrera can be dangerous so Jon Lester still needs to be cautious when working to the Tigers. However if he keeps away from the inside of the plate and focuses on using his sinker on the outer edge, he has the ability to take away the biggest weapon in the Detroit lineup several times through the order in Game 1. Detroit will stack the top of the order with righty bats so Lester has to navigate a difficult path on his way to Miggy. If Lester struggles to get Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter out consistently, he won't have the option to pitch around Cabrera in the three spot. However, with the Tigers' star sapped of so much of his power and barely able to run, Lester will have an opportunity to get some key groundouts and double-play balls if he executes on the outer edge.