There’s no need for panic in the Motor City just yet. Although the Detroit Tigers trail the Texas Rangers 2-0, there’s still a chance to salvage the series. In order to do that, the Tigers will have to go through Colby Lewis. While Lewis may have been the biggest surprise of the 2010 season, he fell to Earth this season. Lewis still managed to post 2.3 WAR in 2011, but he also displayed some pretty significant weaknesses. If the Tigers want to get back in the series, they are going to have to exploit those deficiencies.
After posting a career-best HR/9 rate in 2010, Lewis’ old bugaboo came back to haunt him this season. Among all qualified pitchers, Lewis posted the second worst HR/9 rate this season — just behind Bronson Arroyo. That’s a particularly troubling problem considering the Tigers have one of the best home run hitters in baseball in Miguel Cabrera. Still, the Tigers might not be able to take advantage of Lewis’ propensity for the long ball.
The Tigers ranked 11th in MLB with 169 home runs this season. While that ranking doesn’t seem to give the advantage to either side, it’s a bit misleading. Due to injuries, the Tigers will be without Brennan Boesch — who was fourth on the team with 16 home runs this season. It’s also unclear whether Delmon Young — who hit eight home runs after joining the team in July — is completely healthy. After hitting three home runs in the ALDS, the Tigers would love to see Young continue his power-hitting ways against Lewis. Despite those loses, however, the Tigers still have a formidable power-hitting trio in Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila.
While much has been made about Jim Leyland’s lineups this post-season, this could be the game where Leyland’s tinkering pays off. Lewis was significantly worse against left-handed batters this season. Lefties hit .274/.343/.486 against Lewis in 2011. On top of that, Lewis’ walk rate and home run rates are much higher versus lefties. Due to his struggles, Lewis posted a terrible 5.25 FIP against left-handed hitters this season.
Leyland could really take advantage of Lewis’ struggles by stacking the lineup with lefties. If Leyland is aware of the trends, expect Wilson Betemit and Andy Dirks to be in the starting lineup tonight. Hell, maybe Don Kelly will get another opportunity to make Leyland look good.
While playing the lefties seems like a good idea, there’s no guarantee it will lead to success. The Tampa Bay Rays tried a similar strategy against Lewis in the ALDS to no avail. In his one start against the Rays, Lewis gave up only one hit over six innings. While that hit was a home run, it came from Desmond Jennings — a right-handed batter. Still, taking advantage of the splits seems like the best strategy against Lewis.
The Tigers may face an uphill battle, but they can get themselves back into the series with a win tonight. While Lewis was still a useful pitcher in 2011, he displayed some significant weaknesses. By taking advantage of those weaknesses, the Tigers could give themselves an edge before the game even begins. Lewis may have avoided struggles in the ALDS, but the Rays’ strategy was sound. The Tigers would be wise to replicate that strategy tonight.
Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.