Cleveland, of course, was one of 76 teams (OK, four) the Yankees could have faced in the opening series depending on how the final day of the regular season shook out. A week ago, it seemed Minnesota was the most likely option, then over the past few days it was Chicago, then Tampa, then Chicago again. But the roulette wheel stopped on Cleveland and Cleveland it is.
There’s a bit of recent history between the two clubs: just three years ago, the Yankees overcame a 2-0 Division Series deficit to upset the Indians in five. Erstwhile first baseman Greg Bird provided one of the series’ signature moments off lefty-killer Andrew Miller:
But there have been lowlights as well, to be sure. Who could forget the saga of Joba Chamberlain and the midges during the 2007 ALDS?
So what about this year’s edition? And, more importantly, how can the Yankees ensure this encounter with Cleveland ends more like 2017 than 2007?
Well the first thing to know about Cleveland is they’re coming in hot, having won nine of their last 11. And their success is built upon their pitching staff, led by Cy Young front-runner Shane Bieber.
Bieber, who in all probability will square off against Yankees ace Gerrit Cole in Game One, is 8-1 with a 1.63 ERA (2.06 FIP) and 0.87 WHIP in 77.1 innings, with a major-league-leading 122 strikeouts and just 21 walks. Following him in Games Two and Three will be Zach Plesac and Carlos Carrasco, though Indians acting manager Sandy Alomar Jr., hasn’t yet indicated who will pitch in what game. Both have had excellent seasons: Plesac has pitched to a 2.28 ERA (3.39 FIP) with 57 strikeouts and a minuscule six walks in 55.1 innings; Carrasco, a year removed from a battle with leukemia, has thrown to a 2.91 ERA (3.59 FIP) with 82 strikeouts and 27 walks in 68 innings.
Cleveland’s starters are supported by one of the game’s best bullpens. They’re second in bullpen fWAR (3.4) behind the Tampa Bay Rays (3.5), despite having pitched 86.2 fewer innings; they’re fifth in bullpen ERA at 3.49; their bullpen is also tied for first in homers allowed per nine (0.85), third in BB/9 (2.99), and fourth in K/9 (10.58).
Faced with a superior pitching staff, the Yankees have one significant advantage to pin their hopes on: their hitters are simply better than Cleveland’s. By a lot.
Collectively, the Yankees have a wRC+ of 118, fourth-best in the league; Cleveland’s paltry 85 wRC+ was the fourth-worst in baseball. Their 57 home runs were tied for 27th, while the Yankees’ 94 were good for fifth-best.
Cleveland’s offense is led by switch-hitting third baseman José Ramírez, who mashed to the tune of a .287/.380/.597 slash line (good for a 158 wRC+) with 17 home runs. Francisco Lindor is rightly regarded as one of the premier shortstops in the game, but had a fairly pedestrian year at the plate by his standards (.264/.341/.424, 8 HR, 105 wRC+).
What’s key is that Cleveland only has two other hitters who had above-average years: slugger Franmil Reyes (110 wRC+) and light-hitting second baseman César Hernández (108 wRC+). No other player had a wRC+ over 90. That’s a lot of weak spots in the lineup and, as long as Yankees’ pitchers don’t let Ramírez (and to a lesser extent, Lindor) beat them, they should find pitching to Cleveland far more comfortable than Indians’ pitchers will find navigating the Yankees’ lineup.
If you squint, you might even be able to see cracks in Cleveland’s pitching staff. Bieber’s year is unimpeachable, so let’s not bother looking for holes there. Plesac, on the other hand, has struggled recently: on September 12 against Minnesota, the 25-year-old yielded five runs over seven innings, including three home runs; on September 24, his final start, he gave up four runs in 6.2 innings in Chicago. The game in between was a 7.2-inning shutout effort, but it came against the woeful Tigers. Against two playoff-caliber opponents, he proved vulnerable. The Yankees should be his stiffest test yet.
As far as Carrasco goes, he’s only given Cleveland more than six innings in two of his 12 starts, and walks batters at a slightly higher than average rate (9.6%) so the Yankees’ aim should be to work counts, drive up his number of pitches and hopefully have a few opportunities to do damage with runners on.
That brings us back to the Cleveland bullpen, which as mentioned above, is excellent. You’d really have to stretch to find any potential holes. That’s why I brought my yoga mat. Here goes nothing:
In very limited exposure to the Yankees bats, Cleveland’s ace closer Brad Hand has struggled. Collectively, current Yankees have logged 22 at-bats against Hand (I wasn’t exaggerating about the very limited exposure) and they’ve hit .475/.527/1.020. Again, most of these are individual samples of one or two at-bats, but if you’re looking for something to hang your hat on, you’re more than welcome to (just don’t make it a particularly heavy hat).
Another straw to grasp at is the fact that several of Cleveland’s bullpen arms appear to have outperformed their advanced metrics. For example, Nick Wittgren, whose 22 innings this season are second-most on the club, sports a nifty 2.78 ERA, but his FIP and xFIP are considerably worse (4.51 and 4.09, respectively.) This is also true of Adam Plutko (1.54 ERA, 4.13 FIP, 6.16 xFIP), Óliver Pérez (2.08 ERA, 3.07 FIP, 5.07 xFIP) and a handful of others.
Perhaps there are some hidden vulnerabilities that a lineup as deep as the Yankees can expose. Their fate will hinge on it. The Yankees’ pitchers should be able to do their job against a largely soft Cleveland lineup. The Yankees’ hitters must find a way to do just enough to take advantage.