Last Updated: 2017-10-04
The prize for being the top seed in the American League is home field advantage. This year, that may not be worth the trade-off. The Cleveland Indians, by virtue of finishing one game ahead of the Houston Astros, will have to face the New York Yankees, who bested the Minnesota Twins in the AL Wild Card Game. Being at home is great, but being the most dangerous AL team and facing the second-most dangerous AL team is not a great prize.
We don’t have a series price just yet for this one, but I would expect the Indians to be a clear favorite, possibly in the -160 to -170 range. You have to respect their starting rotation, even if the Yankees could very well have the stronger of the two bullpens.
Here is the schedule for the series and the pitching probables:
Game 1 @ CLE: October 5, 7:38 p.m. ET; Gray vs. Bauer
Game 2 @ CLE: October 6, 5:05 p.m. ET; Sabathia vs. Kluber
Game 3 @ NYY: October 8, TBD; Carrasco vs. Severino
Game 4 @ NYY: October 9, TBD; Tomlin vs. Tanaka
Game 5 @ CLE: October 11, TBD; TBD vs. Kluber
Both teams are making some surprise decisions with their rotations, which, hey, I’ll have to defer to the decision makers here. They know more than me.
These two teams finished the season neck and neck offensively. The Yankees slashed .262/.339/.447 with a .336 wOBA. The Indians slashed .263/.339/.449 with a .336 wOBA. The Yankees had a 108 wRC+ to Cleveland’s 107 wRC+. Both teams were comparable on the basepaths as well, per Fangraphs’s BsR metric, which had the Yankees at 10.6 runs above average and the Indians at 9.9 runs above average.
Here’s where the difference lies in this series. The Indians had the second-lowest strikeout rate in baseball at 18.5 percent. Sorting from low to high, the Yankees ranked 18th at 21.8 percent. Both teams had identical 9.7 percent BB% marks. The Indians had one of the best pitching staffs in MLB history because of the number of strikeouts that they generated. That is one big edge that the Indians have in this series.
Another possible benefit for the Indians is that they have a lot of switch hitters and were second in baseball in percentage of plate appearances with a platoon advantage. That means a lefty facing a righty or a righty facing a lefty. With New York’s right-handed-heavy bullpen and rotation, if CC Sabathia does not get a start, the Indians will have the upper hand in that regard.
That being said, the Yankees ranked second in wOBA in righty/righty plate appearances this season with a .337 mark. Only Houston was higher at .359. The Yankees did strike out in 24.8 percent of those plate appearances, though, so that will undoubtedly be the matchup to watch. Cleveland’s contact-based offense against the high-risk, high-reward offense of the Yankees. To me, in a playoff series with specialized pitching, this would give the Indians the edge, albeit a small one.
This is where the Indians must win the series. This is where the Yankees must hold on tight. Cleveland’s starting staff is much deeper than New York’s. With Luis Severino unavailable until Game 3, that is a tough blow for the Yankees and is one of the advantages that the Indians do have from New York’s need to win the Wild Card Game. Severino starting Game 3 means that he cannot pitch Game 5, so that is a big boost to the Indians.
The Indians have made a lot of waves this week with the decision to use Trevor Bauer instead of Corey Kluber in Game 1. Some believe that the Indians are overthinking it. Some believe that it is a wise risk with a potentially significant reward. As an Indians fan, I’m very invested in this decision, so allow me to break it down for you from my perspective. There are a few advantages to using Bauer first. One is that the Indians will have a full bullpen at Bauer’s disposal. The second is that, if they advance, they might be able to steal a Kluber start and save it for the ALCS. The third is that Bauer becomes a short rest option in Game 4 if the Indians are facing elimination. If not, he is an insurance policy if the team has to use Danny Salazar and/or Mike Clevinger before then.
On the other hand, the Indians run the risk of losing in four games and Kluber would get one start. Rain is also in the forecast for Friday, which would potentially push Kluber on short rest in Game 5 as well. It is a decision that wasn’t made lightly.
From a depth standpoint, Carlos Carrasco is the strongest #3 in the league. If Josh Tomlin doesn’t get the ball in Game 4, Danny Salazar has a lively arm. I like Sonny Gray, but his advanced metrics are not great since he joined the Yankees and got away from the safety net of Oakland. He’s seen a big drop in command and a bit of a drop in control. He looks to be a depreciating asset right now.
The idea of using CC Sabathia in Game 2 is, well surprising. But, you have to think about it like this. All starting pitchers, except for the aces have a short leash in the postseason. The chances of Sabathia being followed by Chad Green in the third or fourth inning are extremely high. That also forces Terry Francona to make some decisions about lineup construction, especially with some defensive changes coming later in the game. This chess match is fantastic. The Yankees also get to limit Tanaka, who may not be a great fit against the Indians and may not have to use him at all.
I’m going to include this in the starting pitching category because it seems highly relevant there. The Indians are so much better defensively at the catching position that it isn’t even funny. Roberto Perez and Yan Gomes combined to be among the league leaders in caught stealing percentage and do a fantastic job presenting pitches for the umpires. Gary Sanchez is a butcher behind the plate. His offense is beneficial, but in a series like this, where the details really matter, that catching end could end up being very significant. Stealing strikes was a huge boost for the Indians pitching staff last postseason and that potential is clearly there in this series.
There is one team out of the 10 that made the playoffs that can boast a better bullpen than the Indians. It is the Yankees. Now, we can nitpick on a pitcher by pitcher level. Are the Yankees truly better with how Dellin Betances wrapped up the season? Does Andrew Miller’s multi-inning capability swing the balance in Cleveland’s favor? To me, I’d take the Yankees bullpen. Now, like I mentioned, the Indians are a hard team to match up with from a platoon standpoint and everybody in front of Aroldis Chapman is right-handed. That could help the Indians, but these are guys that have the stuff to get hitters from both sides of the plate out.
The Indians need Bryan Shaw from the last four weeks over Bryan Shaw from the middle of the season. Joe Smith needs to have pinpoint command on the outside corner. Tyler Olson has to succeed in his matchup spots. All in all, I think the Indians bullpen is exceptional. On the other hand, the Yankees have a massive wild card in Chad Green, whose stuff rivals anybody in the Majors. Tommy Kahnle is a very underappreciated commodity. The Yankees have guys like Kahnle and Adam Warren that can go multiple innings alongside Green.
One thing that could help the Indians is that Joe Girardi said that David Robertson and Chad Green may need two days off. That would put them in line to be available on Friday, not on Thursday in Game 1. That’s the biggest spot of the series for the Indians because they’ll have Corey Kluber for two starts the rest of the way if they can get Game 1.
As hard as it is for me to admit this as an Indians fan, I’d give a modest edge to the Yankees. I’m not sure how healthy Andrew Miller is. I don’t know if the workload has caught up to Cody Allen, who has had bouts of bad control this season. The Yankees get the nod here.
I’m not a huge Terry Francona fan, which seems ludicrous to outsiders that have seen what the Indians have done. That being said, up until the World Series, he made a lot of correct decisions and pushed a lot of the right buttons last postseason. I have to respect that. The Indians also had a brilliant gameplan with advance scouting reports in last year’s playoffs and I have no doubt that will be the case again.
I also like Joe Girardi. The fact that Girardi went to Robertson in a high-leverage spot in the third inning may have won the Yankees the Wild Card Game. It was smart. It was savvy. It was aggressive, but it was the right move. I think Girardi can match wits here with Francona and has the bullpen horses to do it.
The Indians are using Jason Kipnis in center field, which could be disastrous. The trade-off is that Jose Ramirez plays a more natural position at second base and he is above average defensively. Gio Urshela is elite defensively at third base. The Indians will change this dynamic around late in games, so we’ll have to see how that plays out. The Indians were a better defensive team than the Yankees, though not by a large margin. That could be a factor in this series, especially with a limited number of balls in play possible from both sides.
Series Pick: Cleveland Indians
This one will not be easy. The Indians swept the Red Sox and beat the Blue Jays in five games last season en route to the World Series. They may lose more games than that in this series. I think we’re looking at a nip and tuck, back-and-forth series here. I don’t love a series bet one way or the other, at least not right now. If the Indians lose Game 1, I’d be inclined to look at them to win the series with two Corey Kluber starts and a Carlos Carrasco outing, who has been brilliant this season. There will be value in that.
This is going to be the most exciting series of the first round. Both bullpens are so dynamic and both managers will be playing chess. Whoever gets checkmate will have earned it in this series. As an Indians fan, I’m terrified, but this is what the playoffs are supposed to be about.