The Toronto Blue Jays haven’t been to the World Series since 1993. The Cleveland Indians haven’t been to the World Series since 1997. An AL Championship drought is sure to end this year because those two teams face off in the American League Championship Series. The Blue Jays won that 1993 Fall Classic, while the Indians have not won one since 1948.
Since the second Wild Card was added in 2012, the Blue Jays are the fifth team to make it through the one-and-done Wild Card round and the ALDS to be one step away from representing the Junior Circuit in the World Series. By beating the Boston Red Sox, the Indians kept the Central Division streak of making the ALCS alive at six straight years. If the Indians had a healthy starting rotation, you can make a very strong case that these are the two strongest teams in the AL and you can probably make a pretty compelling case that they are anyway. This is the second time in the last three years that both ALDS series ended in sweeps. The last time prior to 2014 was 2009.
Former Indians President Mark Shapiro is now with Toronto and former Farm Director Ross Atkins is the General Manager, so it makes for a good series for media members looking for stories to write about. All we’re concerned with is who is going to win and in how many games will they do it.
Sports Interaction was the first book to post series odds and the Canada-based sportsbook had the Blue Jays -130. At time of writing, there were no other books with series odds, but given how the Cubs vs. Blue Jays matchup is the most likely per the odds and the +230 World Series odds for the Blue Jays and the +365 for the Indians at 5Dimes, it’s clear that oddsmakers view the Blue Jays as a fairly clear favorite.
Update: BetOnline opened Toronto -140 for the series and Cleveland +120. The last four teams with home field to be an underdog in the League Championship Series were all victorious.
Here is the schedule for the series:
Game 1 @ CLE: Friday Oct. 14, 8:08 p.m. ET (Estrada vs. Kluber)
Game 2 @ CLE: Saturday Oct. 15, 4:08 p.m. ET (Happ vs. Bauer)
Game 3 @ TOR: Monday Oct. 17, 8:08 p.m. ET (Tomlin vs. Stroman)
Game 4 @ TOR: Tuesday Oct. 18, 4:08 p.m. ET (Clevinger vs. Sanchez)
Game 5 @ TOR: Wednesday Oct. 19, 4:08 p.m. ET*
Game 6 @ CLE: Friday Oct 21, 8:08 p.m. ET*
Game 7 @ CLE: Saturday Oct. 22, TBD*
* - if necessary
Like I did last round, I’ll break the series down into four categories: Offense, starting pitching, bullpen, and intangibles (defense, manager, HFA, etc.).
These teams are stunningly similar in a lot of ways. Toronto finished the season with a .327 wOBA as a team and a 102 wRC+. Cleveland finished the season with a .326 wOBA and a 102 wRC+. The Blue Jays posted a .248/.330/.426 slash and the Indians hung a .262/.329/.430 slash. Toronto hit 221 home runs, but Cleveland still posted a higher slugging percentage. Cleveland had 19 more triples and 32 more doubles than the Blue Jays. The Indians actually scored more runs than Toronto as well, so the advantage that everybody expects Toronto to have may not be there.
The Blue Jays lineup is certainly more top-heavy. Edwin Encarnacion ripped 42 dingers and Josh Donaldson added 37 more. The Jays had six players with at least 20 home runs. The Indians had two guys with more than 30 home runs for the first time in a very long time, as Carlos Santana hit 34 and Mike Napoli hit 34. Jason Kipnis hit 23 dingers. The Indians were a team that thrived on the long ball for a little while during the season and certainly hit for some power in the ALDS, but their offensive value is mostly generated from having an exceptional baserunning team.
That may be one of the underlying keys to this series. Cleveland stole 134 bases in 165 attempts during the regular season. Toronto stole 54 in 78 attempts. Toronto was tied for dead last in caught stealings with just 20 on 104 stolen base attempts. Russell Martin only threw out 11 of the 72 runners that attempted to steal. The Blue Jays outfield was 23rd with 25 outfield assists and the Indians really push the issue going first-to-third and second-to-home. League average for catching runners was 29.35 percent. Russell Martin was at 15.2 percent.
That’s one way to really elevate an offense and that’s a dimension that Toronto doesn’t have in this series. It’s another reason why the gap between these two teams offensively isn’t as big as you might think.
One of the worries for the Indians heading into the series against Boston was how right-handed-heavy the pitching staff was. The Red Sox led MLB with a .348 wOBA and a 113 wRC+ against RHP. The Blue Jays and Indians tied for seventh with a .328 wOBA against righties and a 103 wRC+. The Indians actually had higher slash numbers across the board in that split and they’ll see four right-handed starters from the Jays. Toronto will also see four from the Indians.
As surprisingly as it is to say, I believe that the offenses are a wash. The Blue Jays have the higher upside because of the power potential at the top of the lineup, but the Indians have a significant baserunning edge. They couldn’t use it much against Boston, but still found some little spots to take extra bases. They’ll put the pressure on Toronto in this series.
People don’t realize just how good this Blue Jays starting rotation is. The Blue Jays posted the best starting rotation ERA in the American League and also had the most innings pitched from their starters. That’s a rather remarkable achievement given that Toronto has to face Boston, New York, and Baltimore 57 combined times, including a bunch of games in parks like Fenway, Yankee Stadium, and Camden Yards. It is especially remarkable because the Blue Jays were fifth in K%, trailing the Rays, Indians, Red Sox, and Yankees. They held opponents to a .235 batting average.
It’s also only fair if I point out that the Blue Jays had the biggest ERA-FIP discrepancy in the American League. Their 3.64 ERA was accompanied by a 4.07 FIP. It’s very clear that the defense played a big part in things for the Blue Jays. They also did a masterful job of limiting home runs, posting the lowest HR/9 in the league at 1.08.
By FIP, xFIP, and SIERA, the Indians had a better rotation, but the games are not played on paper and the Indians don’t have the same starting staff that they had throughout the regular season. Carlos Carrasco was celebrating the ALDS win in a cast. Danny Salazar will return in this series as a reliever. With the ALCS, the Indians will probably need a fourth starter. That’s where the biggest weakness comes in.
Toronto is going to keep Marco Estrada as close to his normal routine as possible, so he’s the Game 1 starter. Estrada has a dominant changeup and it’s why he’s been able to lost historically-low BABIPs in recent seasons. He finished the regular season with a 3.48 ERA and a 4.15 FIP. He added some strikeouts this season, but also added to his walk rate. He should be reliable, as he has been throughout the season, because lefties struggle with that changeup. Lefties only batted .189/.270/.332 against him in 382 plate appearances.
We’ll see how John Gibbons plays the rest of the series with JA Happ, Marcus Stroman, and Aaron Sanchez. Stroman and Sanchez are ground ball wizards, with GB% of 60.1 percent and 54.4 percent, respectively. They don’t miss a ton of bats, but they miss enough to get by. Sanchez was an elite-level starter during the season and Stroman’s ERA didn’t indicate just how good he was.
On the Cleveland side, Corey Kluber will work Game 1 after having a strong start in Game 2 of the ALDS. Kluber’s velocity was down a little bit and his control was a little bit suspect at times, but he’s a Cy Young candidate for a reason. Kluber finished with a 3.14 ERA and a 3.26 FIP. He struck out well over a batter per inning. Righties only batted .203/.261/.354 with a 131/28 K/BB ratio this past season in 449 plate appearances.
The biggest key to the series is Trevor Bauer. With seven games and a more condensed schedule, Terry Francona will not be able to leverage his best starter (Kluber) and two best relievers (Cody Allen and Andrew Miller) in the same manner. He’s going to need some length and some production from Bauer. Bauer has been extremely vocal over the last several weeks and insists that he wants the ball and wants it on short rest in these games, so it’s time for him to back it up. Bauer had a 4.26 ERA with a 3.99 FIP and a 4.13 xFIP in 28 starts and seven relief outings.
He was decent in his first taste of playoff baseball, as the ball was unusually jumpy in Cleveland for Game 1 last week. He gave up three hard-hit balls and every one of them did damage. Bauer actually has reverse platoon splits this season. Lefties batted .236/.305/.385 and righties hit .253/.333/.399. His two-seamer wasn’t as effective to the righties since he likes to throw it with comeback run under the hands of lefties and that means it’s out over the plate against righties.
Josh Tomlin will pitch Game 3 and then the Indians will have a decision to make. Will they use Mike Clevinger in Game 4? Will they start Danny Salazar for two innings and then go to Clevinger and additional relievers? Will Cody Anderson make the roster over Clevinger? Will Corey Kluber go on three days rest? Given that Kluber had a quad issue late in the season and decreased velocity in his ALDS start, that seems unlikely.
It’s a shame that the Indians don’t have a healthy Carlos Carrasco, who would have been a terrific matchup for the Tribe against the Jays. Given the uncertainties in the Indians rotation, the Blue Jays clearly have an edge in this department. They have four legitimate starters that they can go to. The Indians maybe have two, if you combine Tomlin and Bauer. It’s incredible to think that this Indians team was built on starting pitching and it’s not even an edge in the ALCS because of injuries.
Terry Francona has an edge over John Gibbons here in this series. With the right-handed-heavy Blue Jays lineup, Bryan Shaw and Dan Otero play up in the late innings and guys like Zach McAllister and Jeff Manship actually become reliable options. Obviously everybody knows about the back-end of Cody Allen and Andrew Miller by now. Miller’s effectiveness will not be diminished by facing righties, since he gets everybody out at a similar clip. He’s actually been better against righties with that disgusting back-foot slider.
The Blue Jays dodged a bullet that Roberto Osuna was able to come back in the Texas series after leaving the Wild Card Game with an injury. Overall, the Toronto bullpen is a little shaky. Joaquin Benoit tore his Achilles prior to the postseason and he was one of their most reliable relievers down the stretch. Jason Grilli has been erratic, although he has missed his fair share of bats. Brett Cecil is a great option against lefties and he’ll be used extensively here in this series for Toronto. Joe Biagini has developed into a good setup man.
The Blue Jays have a starting rotation edge, but the Indians have a pretty good bullpen edge here, largely because of their depth. If the Blue Jays can get length from the starters, then this could become a little bit of a moot point. We’ll also have to see how Francona leverages his arms in a longer series with a different format. He was fortunate that the Indians finished off the sweep after the rainout, otherwise the ALDS could have been very interesting.
Toronto’s bullpen is top-heavy, given the composition of this series and the Indians lineup. It feels like the Indians have enough depth to patch something together if need be and it’s hard to find a better back-end than Allen and Miller, so they do get a checkmark in this category.
I feel like the Indians have a pretty clear managerial edge in this series. Terry Francona has been here many times over and this is fairly new to John Gibbons. This is only the second year that Gibbons has participated in the postseason. We’ll have to see how he leverages relievers and how he constructs his lineups.
I’ve taken issue with Francona’s Rajai Davis/Jason Kipnis top of the order against lefties and that’s what we’ll see against JA Happ, but Davis’s lone skill, stealing bases, plays up in this series so it’s not as egregious of a blunder as it would be in a different series (or like it was against David Price).
The Indians got a lot of outs via the strikeout in the ALDS, but their defensive prowess was on display in a big way in Game 3, as Jose Ramirez made two excellent plays to save the win. Once again, these are two very good defensive teams. The Indians trailed by 11 in defensive runs saved, but they held a big edge in UZR and UZR/150.
Outfield defense is the biggest difference. Kevin Pillar is one of the game’s best defensive outfielders. The Indians clearly don’t have a guy like that. Josh Donaldson is exceptional at third base. Francisco Lindor is one of the game’s best defenders. Toronto may have a slight edge here because of Pillar, as the teams are pretty similar on the infield.
Cleveland has home field advantage, but there will be a pretty big Toronto contingent in this series with all four possible games falling on the weekends. The Indians won’t have that same edge on the road, as Clevelanders aren’t going to travel en masse. I’m not sure that there’s a big advantage either way in this series.
Series Pick: Pain
No, literally, lots of pain for me, win or lose. As an Indians fan, I’m expecting this series to be extremely stressful and take years off of my life. As you’ve seen, these two teams are extremely similar in my eyes. Each edge seems to be counterfeited by an edge in a different area for the other team.
If I had to make a pick, I would say that Indians fans get their hearts ripped out at home in either Game 6 or Game 7. Toronto’s starting rotation depth is probably the biggest advantage of any in this series. The Indians have that great baserunning edge, but they need to get on base in order to use it. Just know that your beloved author will be on a steady diet of Xanax and hard liquor for nine days.