For the first time since 2007, the Cleveland Indians are guaranteed to play at least three playoff games. For the fifth straight season, the Red Sox either finished first or last in the American League East. The last time they won the American League East was 2013 and they won the World Series. The last time they won the AL East prior to 2013 was 2007 and they won the World Series that year as well. Even though the Indians have home field advantage for the American League Division Series, they are an underdog to the Red Sox for Game 1 on Thursday night and also for the series.
The Indians were able to put it together against Kansas City to sweep the Royals and surge ahead of the Red Sox, who were playing a Toronto team with everything to lose. The Indians did not have home field against Boston in the 2007 ALCS when they blew a 3-1 lead. The Red Sox went on to sweep the Colorado Rockies, which would have probably been the outcome had the Indians advanced. Aside from the Cubs, who have their best shots in decades to end their longstanding 108-year World Series drought, the Indians have the second-longest in Major League Baseball. They last won the World Series in 1948. They are 0-3 in the World Series since.
Here are the pre-series odds for the the AL pennant, and this series courtesy of BetDSI Sportsbook:
Boston Red Sox: +205/-170
Cleveland Indians: +384/+150
Here is the schedule for the series:
Game 1 @ CLE: Thursday Oct. 6, 8:08 p.m. (Porcello vs. Bauer)
Game 2 @ CLE: Friday Oct. 7, 4:38 p.m. (Price vs. Kluber)
Game 3 @ BOS: Sunday Oct. 9, 4:08 p.m. (Tomlin vs. Buchholz)
Game 4 @ BOS: Monday Oct. 10, TBD* (Bauer vs. Rodriguez)
Game 5 @ CLE: Wednesday Oct. 12, TBD* (TBD vs. Kluber)
* - if necessary; starting pitchers subject to change
Like I did last season, I’ll break the series down into four categories: Offense, starting pitching, bullpen, and intangibles (defense, manager, HFA, etc.).
You won’t find a better offense than the Boston Red Sox. Boston led all of baseball in wOBA (weighted on-base average) by seven points over the Colorado Rockies and they play in a hitter’s haven in Denver. The Red Sox also led the league in wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) with a 113 mark. That means that, as a team, they were 13 percent better than league average offensively.
The Indians, in these metrics, posted a .326 wOBA and a 102 wRC+. One dramatic different between the two was that the Indians struck out in 20.2 percent of their plate appearances and the Red Sox struck out in 18.4 percent of their plate appearances. Boston also had a slightly higher walk rate. The Red Sox also had a 16-point edge in batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Boston also hit 23 more home runs.
One area where the Indians had a huge advantage was in the base-stealing department. The Indians stole 134 bases and were only caught 31 times. The Red Sox stole 83 bases and were caught 24 times. We’ll see how aggressive the Indians are in the playoffs, where the risk/reward of getting thrown out is magnified by the lower run environment. It’s very possible that the Indians have to scale back the aggressiveness on the basepaths that has brought them so much success this season. Only the Padres and Diamondbacks rated better than the Indians in Fangraphs’s BsR metric that compiles baserunning runs above average.
The Indians offense sagged late in the season, as Francisco Lindor hit a wall during his first full season in the big leagues. Mike Napoli set a career high in plate appearances. The Indians also fell off dramatically in the power department. They only hit 20 home runs in September and the two games in October. Boston hit 38.
The Red Sox have a distinct offensive advantage in this area, but, variance in a five-game sample size can be the determining factor.
This is where the series could be decided. The Indians were dealt a raw deal. Danny Salazar had some elbow discomfort and could only be available out of the bullpen in this series. Carlos Carrasco was hit on the pitching hand by a comebacker and fractured his fifth metacarpal to end his season. Corey Kluber enters this series with a quad injury that pushed his timetable back 7-to-10 days and he’ll pitch Game 2 instead of Game 1.
It’ll be up to Trevor Bauer to pick up the slack. There’s some hope for Bauer, who seems like a big-game type of guy that is bored by the monotony of the season. On the other hand, he’s facing a prolific lineup that will make him work for every out. In 28 starts and seven relief appearances, Bauer hung a 4.26 ERA with a 3.99 FIP and a 4.13 xFIP. His raw arsenal is really impressive, but his consistency leaves something to be desired. He’s shifted from his philosophy on how fly balls are better than ground balls to pitch to the Indians defense, since the outfield is kind of a mess. We’ll have to wait and see how he fares, but there’s a reason that the Indians are a -140 underdog in Game 1 and why Bauer would be an underdog to Clay Buchholz in Game 4.
Corey Kluber has a good shot to win his second career Cy Young award this season. He’s always been an advanced stats darling and he’s had another great season this year. Kluber worked 215 innings during the regular season with a 3.14 ERA, a 3.26 FIP, and a 3.50 xFIP. Kluber struck out 227 in 215 innings. Kluber does run into problems with teams that are willing to take his sinker/cutter/slider arsenal to the opposite field. The Red Sox will be that team. Given the quad injury and the lack of work leading up to Game 2, he’s in a dicey spot.
Josh Tomlin will take the hill in Game 3. Tomlin at Fenway is something that will keep Indians fans up at night, but he’s got a bulldog mentality and he won’t be scared off by the moment. It’s just a matter of how poorly his arsenal will play on that given day. Tomlin doesn’t walk people, so he doesn’t make his own problems. He just doesn’t have the stuff to throw it past people and has razor-thin margins for error. He hasn’t walked a batter since August 25 and pitched well over his last four starts, but the Indians aren’t facing the Royals or White Sox here.
Rick Porcello has a great shot to win Cy Young Award, since he has those 20 wins that old-school voters love. Porcello finished with a 3.15 ERA, a 3.40 FIP, and a 3.89 xFIP. Like Tomlin, he’s a guy that doesn’t issue walks. Unlike Tomlin, the stuff is better and he managed 189 strikeouts in 223 innings. Because of the Indians’ ability to use switch hitters, they’ll send eight lefties out at Porcello, but he held lefties to a .224/.260/.339 slash this season, which is unusual for a sinkerball pitcher.
David Price had a weird year. With his last start, he managed to finish with an ERA below 4.00, so that was good for him. He struck out almost a batter per inning and continued to showcase elite control, but his command was spotty throughout the season. He allowed a career high in home runs with 30. He still has significant upside in this tournament format, where he only needs to be dominant once or twice to be successful.
Eduardo Rodriguez and Clay Buchholz appear to be the starters for Games 3 and 4, but that’s subject to change if the Red Sox want to throw Porcello on short rest for Game 4. Rodriguez has been one of the best pitchers since July 16 when he was recalled. He’s struck out over a batter per inning with a 3.24 ERA and a 3.48 FIP. The Indians haven’t seen much of him, which could be a detriment to their chances. Buchholz is the weak link here, as a guy that is wholly reliant on his defense at this stage of the game.
Given the pitching injuries and Rodriguez’s emergence, the Red Sox have an edge here in this category, although it’s not as big as people think.
It’s really unfortunate for the Indians that the bullpen is their biggest strength and they have run into a team that can basically match them in that area. To be fair, the full-season Indians numbers include only a couple months of Andrew Miller, who is one of the best bullpen weapons in all of baseball. With Miller and Cody Allen working the late innings, the Indians are in great shape. Bryan Shaw is a good matchup righty if he’s used properly by Terry Francona and Dan Otero has been a viable medium-leverage option.
The Indians are going to rely on Mike Clevinger out of the bullpen and he could be the wild card. If Bauer or Tomlin get in trouble early on, it could be Clevinger that gets the call. He has electric stuff, but the makeup in pressure situations has been lacking. We’ll have to see how that dynamic plays out, but guys like him, Zach McAllister, and Jeff Manship could play a role in this series given the pitching injuries.
The Red Sox bullpen has a lot of unique arm slots and quirks. Everybody knows about Craig Kimbrel and his punchout prowess. He’s a terrific late-inning option, even if he’s shown some control problems this season. Brad Ziegler is murder on right-handed hitters with his submarine arm slot. Robbie Ross Jr. is a failed starter turned dominant LOOGY. Koji Uehara is an uncomfortable at bat with all of his movement.
With Drew Pomeranz’s problems in the starting rotation and possibly the injury that was hidden from the Red Sox by the Padres, it looks like he’ll go to the bullpen. He could be a great long relief option or a guy to come in for a big spot against a lefty.
The Indians still have a slight edge here given that their season-to-date bullpen performance only includes two months of Andrew Miller, but it would have been a much bigger weapon against somebody like Texas or Toronto.
Defense is something that isn’t looked at enough by handicappers or fans. In a maximum five-game sample size, it could prove to be very significant. The Indians don’t have a huge advantage in this area, but they do have one. Boston actually leads 48-17 in defensive runs saved, but the Indians have a large edge in the zone and range metrics. They Indians had a 5.4 UZR/150 compared to a 4.1 mark for the Red Sox. Park factor certainly matters here, as the Indians played in some more spacious parks, especially at home.
The defensive metrics are really different for both teams. The Red Sox excel in the outfield. Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. are two very good defenders, which is why the Red Sox finished second in defensive runs saved in the outfield with 42. The Indians do not have a good outfield defense. They finished -11 in defensive runs saved.
On the infield, however, the Indians have a massive advantage. Indians shortstops (Francisco Lindor) combined for 17 defensive runs saved and the second-best UZR/150. Red Sox shortstops (Xander Bogaerts) finished -10 defensive runs saved and with a negative UZR/150. The Red Sox had a counting advantage at third base in DRS, but lost in UZR/150 by a sizable margin. Dustin Pedroia had a small edge over Jason Kipnis at second base. At first base, the Mike Napoli/Carlos Santana tandem was on par with the Red Sox. The Indians have a slight edge behind the plate.
This is probably a wash, depending on the batted ball distribution of this series. The Red Sox outfield will be a plus at Progressive Field, but the Indians outfield won’t be as big of a negative on the road.
The managers are clearly an interesting discussion. Terry Francona will be asked ad nauseum about his past gig as the Red Sox manager. He and John Farrell are close friends and Francona even accompanied Farrell to one of his cancer treatments last year. Both managers seem to leverage relievers well. Francona’s willingness to give up outs with sacrifice bunts may end up being an issue in this series, but there really doesn’t seem to be a big gap here.
The Red Sox were only 15-54 when they scored four runs or less. The Indians were 23-53. Lower run environments in the playoffs mean closer, lower-scoring games. The Indians have been better equipped for those throughout the season, although the pitching injuries don’t help in that area. When the Indians allowed four runs or less, they were 83-16. The Red Sox were 74-30.
Series Prediction: Boston in 4
Full disclosure for those that don’t know, I am a diehard Indians fan, so maybe this is my idea of a reverse jinx. Unfortunately, the starting pitching injuries for the Indians are so much to try to overcome. They’re in a position where they effectively need two good starts from Trevor Bauer and that’s a lot to ask against this Red Sox lineup.
The Indians manufactured a lot of offense. They hit for power over the first five months of the season, but their aggressiveness on the bases was huge. They stole bases, went first-to-third, went first-to-home, and did a lot of the little things that add up to big things. Boston’s defensive strength in the outfield includes speed and great throwing arms. It may hamper that aggressiveness and getting caught stealing in the playoffs gets really magnified. It’s a delicate balance and one that may tip the scales in the wrong direction.
Reluctantly, I’ll go against my team and look at Boston on the -170 series price. If you wanted, you could take a +150 position on Cleveland in the event that Bauer and the Indians win Game 1. Boston probably wouldn’t be plus money at that point, but they’d likely be -115 or -110 and far more reasonable. Also, rather than lay the -170, playing an exact outcome in four games at a sportsbook offering that prop would make a lot more sense and would be better bang for your buck.