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New York vs. Cleveland is an epic heavyweight bout

After dispatching the underdog Twins in the Wild Card game, the Yankees have set up a titanic matchup of great teams.

New York Yankees v Cleveland Indians Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images

The AL Wild Card game had a bit of a David vs. Goliath feel to it. Sure, that notion was quickly extinguished once the Twins grabbed a stunning 3-0 lead within minutes, but entering the game, the lines were clearly drawn: the vaunted Yankees were heavy favorites, with the Twins playing the underdog role.

That was a fair juxtaposition. The Yankees, even after a flash rebuild, will almost always have the look of a favorite, thanks to their New York ties and ample resources. The Twins scrapped into the playoffs as the second Wild Card, were coming off a 103-loss season in 2016, and play in a small market. It was easy to drum up an underdog story.

After eliminating the Twins, the Yankees will play another smaller market team in the ALDS, but the tenor is different. Make no mistake, New York vs. Cleveland features no plucky underdog. This is a heavyweight matchup of titans. This is Goliath vs. Goliath.

This is an absolute doozy of an ALDS, and that it's happening so early in the postseason speaks to the incredible quality of the teams at the top of the league this year. One could argue that the Indians and Yankees were the two best teams in the league based on pure performance this year, and it's easy to posit that each team features a roster that is particularly well-suited for October dominance.

Cleveland's bonafides are obvious. They won 102 games, 22 of them in a row at one point. They are awesome. Corey Kluber might win the Cy Young, Francisco Lindor is a superstar, Carlos Carrasco, Andrew Miller, Cody Allen fill out a historic pitching staff, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Ramirez mash, the list goes on. Their run differential, at +254, was tops in baseball. They very well may be the best team in the league.

The Yankees' weak (relative to the rest of the playoff field) win-loss mark obscures how strong a team they were throughout 2017. Their bullpen was dominant, their lineup ran deep with average or better hitters, anchored by stars in Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez. Their record said 91-71, but their +198 run differential (second only to Cleveland) suggested a 100-win team.

Drill deeper, and you can really see a case that this series features baseball's best. Baseball Prospectus' third order winning percentage, which adjusts for the sequencing of events and strength of schedule in estimating a team's true quality, pegs Cleveland and New York as MLB's top two teams. Cleveland had a .674 third order winning percentage, best in the league and fitting of a 109-win team, while the Yankees were at .644, equivalent to a 106-win team. That was second only to the Indians, better than the Astros, Red Sox, Dodgers, Nationals, and all the rest.

Of course, we care most about actual winning percentage, so if you're reticent to call this pair the league's best teams, I can't blame you. Still, even if you can’t accept that these two teams outplayed the competition across April through September, the Yankees and Indians might be better prepared for the specific brand of baseball played in October than the rest of the field.

The Yankees' performance on Tuesday night was a perfect demonstration of how dangerous they are in the postseason format. They sent out the AL's third-best starting pitcher in Luis Severino, but when he wavered, Joe Girardi was forced to go the bullpen after just one out. The bullpen, stocked with relief aces, ran a spectacular line: 8.2 innings, one run, three walks, 13 strikeouts.

With copious off days dotting the October schedule, Girardi can comfortably go to his elite relievers, of which he has several to choose from, at nearly any time, for nearly any length. Couple that with the fact the Yankees do have a few potential front-line starters in Severino, Sonny Gray, and Masahiro Tanaka, and you get a recipe for opposing hitters facing an elite arm in every at-bat of every playoff game against the Yankees.

And yet, they are playing the team that made the aggressive style of bullpen management sexy. It was Terry Francona's creative usage of Andrew Miller and Cody Allen last October that propelled the Indians to the AL pennant and contradicted any spurious notion that elite relievers couldn't just enter in any inning.

The Indians have strong relievers like Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith backing up Miller and Allen, as well as the specter of hard-throwing starter Danny Salazar shifting into a dynamo fireman role in the playoffs. That's without mentioning Carrasco, Mike Clevinger, and Trevor Bauer, all of whom have had career years and give Cleveland a deep rotation behind Kluber.

Not only that, both teams are powerful. The Yankees' 241 home runs led the majors, and they ranked fourth in slugging percentage at .447. The Indians' .449 slugging ranked one spot ahead in third. As much as commentators try to stress the importance of small ball in October, in truth, the power-based offenses featured by the Yankees and Indians may play better in the playoffs.

In an era with more whiffs, fewer base hits, better defense, and harder throwers than ever, it's more difficult to string together singles to form a rally. When October comes around and every pitcher throws 97 mph and every defender is perfectly positioned, it becomes imperative to take advantage of mistakes. Both of these teams are in position to do that, with offenses that drive extra-base hits and homers, rather than rely on a rally based on base hits.

Put together, the Yankees and Indians are a tremendous matchup. They played as well as anyone during the regular season. Their deep, talented rosters are perfectly constructed for October baseball. When they face off starting tonight, they should produce games that are as intense and thrilling and interesting (and long) as the game the Yankees and Twins gave us. Whichever team makes it through to the ALCS will have earned it, having fought through a shockingly magnificent pairing in the first series of the playoffs.