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MLB.com Columnist

Lyle Spencer

Detroit has star power, but A's hardly paper Tigers

Detroit has star power, but A's hardly paper Tigers

Detroit has star power, but A's hardly paper Tigers

OAKLAND -- The Tigers are well known to men, women and children across the land. Kings of the American League jungle last October before encountering the Giants, all too briefly, in the World Series, they are loaded with star power and every other brand of power.

Watching them stretch before games, you're reminded of the Oakland A's Bash Brothers of the late 1980s and early '90s. These Tigers are big -- and bigger. They're intimidating just standing around in batting practice.

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Then you have the A's, the Tigers' opponents in the American League Division Series, which begins with Game 1 on Friday night in Oakland at 9:30 p.m. ET on TBS. They're back in the postseason as repeat AL West champs, trying to avenge a loss at home to Justin Verlander and Co. in the decisive Game 5 of last year's ALDS.

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The A's obviously are a nice team, but, frankly, not a great deal is known about them outside the Bay Area -- unless you're a true aficionado or have some of their players on your fantasy team.

The Tigers roll out Max Scherzer and Verlander in the first two games; the A's counter with Bartolo Colon and Sonny Gray. The Tigers unleash Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder at the corners of their infield; the A's give you Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss. So it goes. You can make a case that the Tigers have the edge at six of eight positions on the field.

To the average fan, this probably has the look and feel of a Tigers triumph.

So how did the low-profile A's win three more games than the Tigers (96-93), with better home and road records? How did Oakland produce more home runs than the Tigers and a better team ERA? Clearly, there's more substance to these A's than meets the casual eye.

While each starting pitching matchup seems to favor the Tigers, bullpens often decide postseason games. A's manager Bob Melvin hopes to exploit a rock-solid relief corps, featuring All-Star closer Grant Balfour and setup men Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook.

The A's 3.22 bullpen ERA was sixth best in the Majors and third best in the AL. The Tigers, at 4.01, ranked 24th in the Majors, 12th in the AL. Opposing teams batted .237 against the A's relievers, compared to .246 against those employed by Tigers manager Jim Leyland.

Former setup man Joaquin Benoit has done a solid job closing games, succeeding in 24 of 26 save situations. Drew Smyly is providing left-handed balance. But the edge in depth belongs to Oakland.

Scherzer, Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister were the mainstays of a Tigers rotation that had the best ERA in the AL at 3.44. They also led the AL in wins, innings, homer ratio and slugging percentage allowed. With Rick Porcello joining the big four, it's the fifth rotation in 35 years with five starters notching at least 13 wins each.

The A's -- ageless Colon and the kids -- were second in the AL in starting pitching ERA at 3.72. While Games 2-3-4 starters Gray, Jarrod Parker and Dan Straily lack the name recognition of Verlander, Sanchez and Fister, they've shown they're good enough to keep their team in games.

Colon, 40, sets the tone with his unflappable nature and ability to pound the strike zone with a moving fastball, the key to an 18-6 season. His 2.65 ERA was second in the AL to Sanchez's 2.57.

The 2005 AL Cy Young Award winner for the Angels, Colon was absent last October, serving a 50-game suspension for violating the Joint Drug Agreement.

A big Game 1 performance against 21-game winner Scherzer by the big man from the Dominican Republic would have the rabid Oakland crowd in a frenzy.

The Tigers were amazed last October by the mind-numbing volume and passion of the A's fan base. This time, with the return to the 2-2-1 format, after the Tigers seized a 2-0 lead at home last year, the A's will have the emotional lift right out of the chute. Colon was 4-1 with a 1.16 ERA in his final five starts. His postseason experience dates to 1998 with the Indians.

Another edge for the A's, along with home-field advantage, is found in their defense, according to new-school analytics.

Even though they committed 21 more errors than the Tigers, the A's scored higher than the Tigers in fielding efficiency and total zone rating, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

With their .708 percentage of balls in play converted into outs, the A's led the Majors. The Tigers, at .683, were tied for 10th. The A's were sixth in the AL in total zone rating, the Tigers 13th.

The argument can be made that Detroit's defense isn't as critical, given the record 1,428 strikeouts produced by the Tigers' power-rich pitching staff. A's pitchers were 23rd in the Majors in strikeouts with 1,183.

The Tigers are not the same team that disappeared in four games against the Giants in the 2012 Fall Classic. Torii Hunter was brought to the Motor City for his high-motor, along with his abundant offensive and defensive gifts. The man won't let his team go down quietly.

Victor Martinez gives the Tigers a left-handed weapon they'll need against the all-righty A's rotation, which will focus on keeping Austin Jackson and Hunter off base in front of Cabrera, Fielder and Martinez.

The A's get thunder up and down the lineup from a wide range of sources. Their best player is Donaldson, who has busted out in his third season as an elite third basemen.

Coco Crisp, the swift center fielder with surprising pop, is the A's veteran, tough-minded answer to Hunter. Thrown together masterfully by general manager Billy Beane over the past two seasons, this team plays closer to its physical potential than any in the game.

All this winning in Oakland is no accident. The talent is ripe. Now the A's are challenged to take the next step by subduing the latest version of the bash brothers, from Motown.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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