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Yankees 2017 Potential Playoff Opponent: Cleveland Indians

Fresh off their historic streak, the Indians would likely be the Yankees’ toughest opponent in the AL.

Minnesota Twins v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

If the Yankees do win the Wild Card game on Tuesday, they are either going to be facing the Houston Astros, or the team currently in question, the Cleveland Indians. The Indians have the best team story of the season: they now have the longest World Series drought at 69 years, and they had the longest winning streak in modern baseball at 22 games. They have some of the best and most dynamic players in all of sports—Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, and Corey Kluber, to name just the cream of the crop.

Even though the Yankees have their strengths, the Indians are one of the only American League teams that is easily more talented on paper. They are the only team with a higher run differential than the Yankees, they are one of only two teams (including the Red Sox) with a lower bullpen ERA-, and they have the best rotation in baseball. They do match up rather favorably, though, and while it would be a total slog for sure, it is still worth walking through how each facet of their game matches up.

The Lineup

On paper over the aggregate, these two clubs look remarkably similar on offense. The Yankees have hit a collective .262/.339/.448 (108 wRC+), and the Indians have hit a collective .264/.339/.450 (106 wRC+). While the Yankees have a couple of superstars (Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge) surrounded by a competent supporting cast, the Indians are stacked with four or five well-above-average hitters.

That could be an advantage in a short series, as a more well-rounded lineup could be more balanced, while the Yankees are probably toast if Judge and Sanchez both slump. While the Indians’ Lindor, Carlos Santana, Austin Jackson, Edwin Encarnacion, and Ramirez all have a wRC+ over 119, the Yankees have three—Judge, Sanchez, and Aaron Hicks.

Overall the Yankees have a higher fWAR, and I’d say they have the better top tier hitters. With Judge literally on fire right now, and despite the fact they are nearly identical on the aggregate, I give the advantage, for now, to the Yankees.

Advantage: Yankees

The Rotation

2017 Yankees: 881.2 innings pitched, 8.90 K/9, 2.78 BB/9, 4.03 ERA (4.22 FIP)
2017 Indians: 926.2 innings pitched, 10.06 K/9, 2.49 BB/9, 3.58 ERA (3.43 FIP)

There really isn’t a question which rotation is better, even with the Yankees’ more recent acquisition of Sonny Gray. By DRA, the Indians are the best starting team in baseball as well; the Yankees are at sixth overall.

The Indians are nearly four wins (by fWAR) higher than the second-best team, and that is only amplified in a short series. While Trevor Bauer is close to league average with good peripherals, the best one-two punch goes to Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, who have a 3.43 and 2.27 ERA, respectively. I’m perfectly fine with Luis Severino and Gray being the Yankees’ one-two, but considering the wild card game stress tossed in, there’s no chance they have the starter advantage.

Advantage: Indians

The Bullpen

While the Indians have the best rotation, the Yankees probably have the best bullpen, with a catch. The Yankees have the lowest relief DRA in baseball, and the most fWAR. Their core of relievers—Tommy Kahnle, Chad Green, Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, and Dellin Betances—is formidable. The issue, of course, is whether one of them flops, and how they’re going to be utilized.

The Indians, on the other hand, have a slightly less talented bullpen, but there is really no question when these pitchers will be used. Cody Allen is their closer, and he is still great, and they also have Andrew Miller, who we are extremely familiar with. Bryan Shaw (3.55 ERA) will get his work too, and old friend Nick Goody has also earned his place as well.

They don’t have the same depth, that’s for sure, but Miller and Allen, with a lead, are about as automatic as you can get. Where they could get into trouble is when their middle relief becomes exposed; if they don’t have a set lead, manager Terry Francona may have to conserve Miller, forcing their lesser pitchers to the front. This isn’t to say Dan Otero or Zach McAllister stink, but they are not even close to the same. If you weigh those things—depth with questionable consistency/usage, and a solid three but weaker depth—my money is on New York. When a series drags on, your fifth and sixth most valuable reliever becomes even more important.

Advantage: Yankees

This is not the matchup I would want in a five-game series. With two amazing starters, they are a team that could absolutely bulldoze the Yankees, and they literally just did that a month ago. Heck, the Indians did that to a bunch of teams this past month, and if you’re a team that can win 22 straight, there’s no stopping you from doing something like that again. I think the Indians are the favorite with home field on their side, but anything can happen, and if last year told us anything, it’s that they’ll at least give us an exciting show.