The Division Series round is finally complete and the League Championship Series can now commence. It starts in Cleveland on Friday night with the Toronto Blue Jays visiting the host Indians. Despite having home field advantage, the Indians are an underdog for the series in the -140 range, which would imply about a 58 percent likelihood that Toronto claims its first AL pennant since 1993.
For those looking for a full series preview, you can find that here. As far as this article, it’s time for a picks and analysis piece for Game 1. After a dramatic Game 5 in the Dodgers vs. Nationals series, in which Dave Roberts pulled out all the stops to use Rich Hill, Julio Urias, and Clayton Kershaw, we turn the page to the next round of games.
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Toronto at Cleveland (-135); Total: 7.5
Fall has officially set in on the shores of Lake Erie. Unlike last week’s matchups against Boston, the cool chill of the impending winter is in the air. The ballpark should play a lot more neutral in this series, even with a home mid-afternoon start time on Saturday. It’ll be Marco Estrada against Corey Kluber in tonight’s tone-setting game.
As you read in my series preview, this season is ridiculous in terms of how even these two teams are. The Blue Jays do have a rotation edge, but they shouldn’t have it tonight, at least not on paper, against Cy Young Award finalist Corey Kluber. Kluber posted a 3.14 ERA with a 3.26 FIP and a 3.50 xFIP during the regular season with 227 strikeouts in 215 innings. He actually got some run support this season, so he posted an 18-9 record.
Kluber is a big matchup for the Indians in this series. They basically have to win every time he pitches to have a chance. Theoretically, this is the best matchup for Kluber to draw because of how right-handed-heavy Toronto is. Righties only batted .203/.261/.354 against Kluber with a .266 wOBA. Among qualified starters, Kluber’s .266 wOBA against was the 14th-best out of 97 starts during the season. His K% was the seventh-best mark. Toronto, as a team, was tied for eighth in wOBA against righties, with, ironically, the Cleveland Indians.
Toronto was second in pull-side contact against righties at 43.1 percent. That can help Kluber in this start. Kluber throws a steady diet of cutters and curves on the outer half. Teams have success against Kluber when they can hit those pitches with authority to the opposite field. Toronto pulled a lot of pitches against righties. Furthermore, Toronto right-handed batters pulled the ball 44 percent of the time, which was second behind the Minnesota Twins. Their 24.4 percent opposite field percentage was 20th. In that respect, Kluber should be in good shape here if he’s locating down and away to the dangerous right-handed bats. The Blue Jays were 29th in batting runs against curveballs at -15.5, so that’s another feather in Kluber’s proverbial cap.
The Cleveland Indians were 10th in runs above average against changeups this season, but that’s the pitch that they’re going to have to handle in order to beat Marco Estrada. Since Estrada made some adjustments to pitch through back pain, he’s gone back to using his changeup over 30 percent of the time. He had a couple of starts in September where his changeup usage was down and he was hit around the ballpark.
The idea for the Blue Jays was to keep Estrada on something like regular rest, so that’s why he gets the Game 1 nod. Estrada posted a 3.48 ERA with a 4.15 FIP during the regular season. Regression started to hit as the injury became too much to handle and his BABIP, which was on pace to be the best BABIP allowed in over a century, started to climb. He righted the ship late in the season. On a cool, crisp night in Cleveland, Estrada’s fly ball style should play up nicely. He also has a terrific defense behind him.
From a bullpen standpoint, both of these units have had a lot of time to rest. We know how aggressive Terry Francona has been with his primary relievers if given the opportunity. It’s something that can have long-term ramifications in the series, but he wants to get wins when the chance is there and that’s the way to play it. With a Toronto lineup filled with right-handed bats, guys like Zach McAllister and Jeff Manship actually become usable as bridges to “The K-Team” of Dan Otero, Bryan Shaw, Andrew Miller, and Cody Allen.
The Blue Jays are a little bit thinner here. That’s a worry because Estrada had some struggles working deep into ballgames late in the season. Joe Biagini is the primary setup man, but Roberto Osuna can work multiple innings if need be. Brett Cecil will be a big weapon in this series for the Jays against the left-handed and switch-hitter-heavy Indians.
Ultimately, in this game, the leans would be to the Indians and to the under. This is basically a must-win game for the Tribe. They may be forced to use Corey Kluber on short rest for the first time in his career in Game 4 if they face a series deficit and Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin are next on the pecking order for Games 2 and 3, respectively. Terry Francona knows this and he’ll be hyper-aggressive with his bullpen if he gets the chance.
Obviously the Blue Jays want to win as well, but Kluber is an excellent matchup to go against the Blue Jays. Estrada had some significant reverse platoon splits thanks to that changeup, so it’s possible that Francona opts to throw Brandon Guyer in the starting lineup. Because the Indians bullpen has an edge, the -130 seems reasonable if these starters cancel out.
Also, if anybody knows any good breathing techniques for this Indians fan to try out, please hit me up @SkatingTripods.