Despite a season that had as many downs as ups, if not more, the New York Yankees embark on the next stage of their quest for 28 tonight in Cleveland. The three-game set marks the first round of 2020’s expanded postseason.
Entering such a short series, the dynamic will almost certainly feel different than the typical first round of the playoffs, likely feeling akin to a cross between the Divisional Round and the standard winner-take-all Wild Card Game. Because of this, big performances from key players will cast an even greater shadow than normal. Let’s take a look at who fans should keep a close eye on:
The Yankees ace will get the ball opposite Pitching Triple Crown and presumptive Cy Young Award recipient Shane Bieber, who paced all of baseball with a 1.63 ERA, 2.07 FIP, and 14.2 K/9. Runs will be difficult to come by, even if the streaky Yankees lineup — which did, after all, lead the AL with 5.25 runs/game — is firing on all cylinders.
Fortunately, games like this are precisely why the Yankees paid Gerrit Cole the big bucks. In the pandemic-shortened season, Cole put up big numbers (a 2.84 ERA, 3.89 FIP, 11.6 K/9) that, while a step down from his otherworldy 2019, nonetheless will garner him some down-ballot Cy Young votes. If there’s one major complaint, it’s that he was highly susceptible to the long ball this year, as his 14 home runs allowed is tied with Matthew Boyd for the most in the league. Fortunately, for him, hitting home runs is something that Cleveland — who finished last in the AL with 59 — is not particularly good at outside of José Ramírez, who had 17 of those 59 on his own.
In a three-game set, winning the first game makes a big difference, and it’s up to Gerrit Cole to match zeroes with the best pitcher in baseball.
Are you sensing a bit of a theme here? The veteran right-hander is already announced as the starter for Game Two, and will be matching up against Carlos Carrasco in what will be a rematch of Game Three of the 2017 ALCS. In that game, with the Yankees down in the series 0-2 and facing elimination, Tanaka outdueled Carrasco, striking out seven and walking only one in seven scoreless innings, as the Yankees squeaked by to win 1-0.
Pending the results of Game One, Tanaka may very well have some feelings of déjà vu. Fortunately, over the course of his seven-year deal, Tanaka has done nothing but deliver in big spots, posting a 1.76 ERA and 0.783 WHIP with 37 strikeouts in eight postseason starts. Additionally, he has gone at least five innings in each start, and has given up more than two runs only once (Game Six of the 2019 ALCS).
No matter what, this game will an elimination game for somebody, and a tough challenge. Although not quite as dominant as Bieber, Carrasco is still in the upper-echelon of pitchers, and would be a reasonable Game One starter for a number of teams. Runs will, once again, be at a premium for the Yankees. Whether or not Tanaka can shut down the Cleveland lineup will go a long way.
Had this been a five-game set, this spot here would have been given to whomever was projected to start Game Three. However, not only have the Yankees not announced their Game Three starter, there’s also no guarantee that he even gets on the field, so it feels counterproductive to put him on a “players to watch for” list in the first place.
In truth, this spot could go to a lot of guys. Gary Sánchez, for instance, has a .786 OPS in the last 11 games of the season, and whose seven-game K% had dipped to around his career average — if he can continue that trend and continue putting the bat on the ball, he could get red-hot in a hurry. This spot could also easily go to either DJ LeMahieu or Luke Voit, easily the team’s two most important players in 2020. Even Clint Frazier, who has broken out both at the plate and in the field and would rank, had he reached the qualifying number of plate appearances, in the top 30 AL hitters in fWAR, has a compelling case to be in this spot.
At the end of the day, however, this is Aaron Judge’s team. He opened the season on a tear, hitting a home run in five straight games from July 29 to August 2, and prior to going on the IL he had hit nine home runs in just 17 games, posting an OPS of 1.101. Since returning from the IL for the second time on September 16, however, he has struggled to get to full speed, posting a .194/.326/.222 slash and has only one extra-base hit in that time (a double).
That did not stop Judge back in 2018, however: after he limped to the finish with a .220/.333/.341 slash in 11 games after returning from the IL, Judge went on a tear in the ALDS, hitting three home runs en route to a .500 OBP and 1.447 OPS.
No matter what, Aaron Judge has been, and will continue to be, an imposing presence in the lineup. For the Yankees to push pass Cleveland’s dominant rotation, they will need one of their big bats to come through with some big hits — in a lineup filled with guys who can change the game with one swing of the bat, there is perhaps nobody who does it better than Aaron Judge.