We certainly can't assume that Justin Verlander will beat the Giants in Game 1 of the World Series. But let's assume Justin Verlander beats the Giants. Can they still find a path to victory?
Tuesday, I pointed out that, historically speaking anyway, there's been no special advantage for a World Series team that swept its League Championship Series, as the Tigers did this year. Which isn't the same as saying the Tigers don't have one or more other advantages.
First, though, it's only fair to mention that neither of these clubs was a powerhouse this season. The Giants finished with the fifth-best run differential in the National League, the Tigers with the seventh best in the American League. Both teams added an every-day second baseman during the season, and both sparked their clubs down the stretch. The Tigers also added a fine starting pitcher in Anibal Sánchez, while the Giants stuck with their same starting five all season long. The Giants did add Hunter Pence to their lineup, but he didn't nearly make up for the loss of Melky Cabrera (even if the Giants actually scored more runs without Cabrera than with him).
Both teams finished sixth in their leagues in scoring, but that's a little misleading because the Tigers played half their games in a pretty good hitter's park -- relative to their league, anyway -- while the Giants played half their games in a really tough park for hitters. On balance, it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Giants actually hit better than the Tigers this season.
Unfortunately for the Giants, they are not at all built for the games in Detroit. There will be a Designated Hitter in those games, and the Giants' options against Detroit's all-righty rotation are essentially limited to switch-hitting Héctor Sánchez and lefty-hitting Aubrey Huff. The only problem there is that neither of those guys have hit much lately, and by lately I mean in the calendar year 2012. Or '11. Unless you count Sánchez's Spring 2011! in the California State League.
The good news for the Giants is that they can stack their lineup against all the Tiger righties; leaving aside those lousy DH options, they will have five switch- or left-handed hitters in their lineups, with the only exceptions being Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, and Marco Scutaro.*
* By the way, if you're interested in betting on a sure thing, bet that Scutaro's run, which is now nearly three months long, will hit a wall against the Tigers' starting pitchers. Great story, but nothing lasts forever.
All that said, the Giants actually fared just as well (slightly better, actually) against left-handed pitchers as right-handed pitchers this season. On the other hand, the Giants ranked 15th in the National League in strikeouts, which might mean they're less vulnerable to the Tigers' power pitching than most teams would be. They do make contact, and they will draw their share of walks. So, they've got that going for them.
What they don't have going for them is Justin Verlander. And (again) unfortunately for the Giants, that cuts both ways. In the first game of the World Series, the best pitcher in the major leagues will start for the Tigers, while the Giants will start Barry Zito.
This season, 88 pitchers threw at least 162 innings. Among those 88, Zito ranked 82nd in Wins Above Replacement.
* That's according to FanGraphs. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Zito was 81st. Much better.
On paper, this must rank among the great Game 1 mismatches of all time.
No, they don't play the games on paper. But yes, that's where the smart money goes.
So if I told you that when the World Series started, the Giants would have to win four out of six games, what would you think? Because it's not easy. If the Tigers win Game 1, they have nine paths to three more wins. If the Giants lose Game 1, they have only six paths to four wins. And assuming that Verlander is slated for Game 5, four of those six paths include beating Verlander. With (presumably) Zito or Tim Lincecum going for the Giants. In Detroit.
There are, of course, so many wild cards in all of this. There are 50 players on the World Series rosters, and roughly 45 of them have measurable chances of turning around the Series with a brilliant or dreadful performance. Most obviously, we still don't have any idea what Jim Leyland will do with late-game leads? Will he return to José Valverde? Will he insist on deploying Phil Coke, even against the Giants' good right-handed hitters?
But the biggest wild card of all is Madison Bumgarner. During the regular season, he was just as good as Matt Cain. In his last three starts, though -- one in late September, and two in this postseason -- Bumgarner's given up 14 runs in 12 innings. He's slated for starting duties in Game 2 and, if that goes well enough, Game 6. If Bumgarner pitches like he pitched for most of 2012, the Giants have a fighting chance. If he doesn't, they're probably sunk shortly after leaving port.