The good news for the Yankees, in regards to the expanded playoff bracket, is that without it, their season would already be over. In losing four out of their last five contests, the Yankees would have finished two games behind the Indians for the second Wild Card spot.
The bad news, however, is that in this version of the playoffs, by earning the fifth seed the Yankees will play their entire Wild Card Series against the Indians in Cleveland. The Yankees finished the season 22-9 at home, but just 11-18 away from Yankee Stadium. Though a short playoff series plays to the Yankees’ strength of a front-loaded starting rotation, the Yankees offense hasn’t been nearly as potent on the road as it has been in the Bronx.
The Bombers have scored more runs at home than any team in the majors, also leading both leagues in OPS, wOBA, and wRC+. On the road however, the Yankees fell to 21st in runs scored, 25th in OPS, and 23rd in both wOBA and wRC+. The Yankees’ offense suffered a steeper drop-off from their home-to-road offensive production than any team in the majors. If they want to have a chance of taking two of three games from a stacked Indians squad, The Yankees will need to pack whatever “Secret Stuff” got them going at home on their trip to Cleveland.
Tuesday: Gerrit Cole vs. Shane Bieber
As luck would have it, the Yankees’ have drawn perhaps the only Game One starter that might be reasonably favored over Gerrit Cole. This is the closest the Yankees could possibly come, so far at least, to a make or break game regarding their nine-year, $324 million investment.
Though the variance of an 12-start season likely buffed his rate stats, Shane Bieber was downright filthy, completing the first MLB Pitching Triple Crown in 14 years. However, if we can divine anything from recent pitching trends, Bieber regressed to demigod status over his final four starts. In those games — two at home and two on the road — Bieber struck out batters like a Johnson (Walter or Randy), fanning 38 batters over 24 and two-thirds innings. However, he did allow three homers and seven earned runs over that span, leading to a 2.55 ERA; merely mortal in comparison to his season-long mark of 1.63.
Tempering Yankee fans’ limited optimism regarding facing the Biebs is that he pitched even better at home than he did on the road — including during the aforementioned stretch. At Progressive Field, Bieber struck out two batters an inning (18.0 K/9), and allowed just over a run per nine (1.23 ERA). Further, opposing hitters finished with a .477 OPS, a 37 OPS+, and zero home runs. Bieber’s one demerit is that he’s been hit relatively hard when hitters have been able to make contact (30th percentile exit velocity and 17th percentile hard hit percentage). However, they almost never do, considering his 0.807 WHIP and 41.1 K%. If the Yankee sluggers have any hope in Game One, it will be in getting to the bullpen before the game’s end — though they dealt too, collectively hurling the MLB’s fifth-lowest ERA among relieving corps.
Gerrit Cole finished his sub-par season (by his own remarkable standards) on an upswing. Over his last four starts, Cole seemed to have found his groove, striking out 34 batters over 27 innings while allowing just three runs, good for a 1.00 ERA. Peaking at just the right time, Cole looks like the guy the Yankees hoped to ink in December of 2019.
Keeping in mind that Game One affords quite literally the worst possible matchup for the Yankees, the trend-lines of each starter inspire at least a glimmer of hope.
Wednesday: Masahiro Tanaka vs. Carlos Carrasco
In contest two, Cleveland has already announced they’ll roll with resurgent veteran Carlos Carrasco. After missing most of 2019 beating Leukemia into remission, Carrasco seems to have knocked the rust off, regaining his best stuff and recording one of the better seasons in his 11-year career. If the Yankees hope to make the “Cookie” crumble, they might find some solace in the fact that a full run separated his 3.91 xERA and his 2.91 ERA. In his two career playoff starts, Carrasco’s been solid — including when he blanked the Yankees through five and two-thirds in the 2017 ALDS.
In the final year of his contract Masahiro Tanaka has pitched solidly, yet again, despite posting sub-stellar peripherals. Though Tanaka’s tenure in New York hasn’t quite lived up to his pre-2014 signing Cy Young candidate hype, he’s been nails in the playoffs over and over again, posting a 1.76 ERA across eight starts. Who knows exactly what gets his juices flowing, but hopefully Playoff Tanaka shows in Cleveland on Wednesday sans a playoff atmosphere.
Thursday: TBD vs. Zach Plesac (if necessary)
In case of a Game Three, Cleveland’s will start 25-year-old sophomore Zach Plesac. Another Indian overperformer, Plesac out-pitched his 3.39 xERA by over a run, as was the case last season. Like the karaoke version of Bieber, Plesac offsets the hard contact he gives up with a relatively high strikeout rate. Of his primary trifecta, a fastball-slider-changeup combo, none are particularly devastating, but he can throw all three for strikes. Plesac doesn’t give away free passes often, maintaining the fifth-lowest walk rate in the Majors this season. He’s certainly hittable, but he’ll make the Yankees earn whatever they can get.
Though yet to be formally announced, the Yankees would almost certainly go with J.A. Happ for a Game Three. Despite a rough start to Happ’s 2020 season — a 10.29 ERA through two starts — he finished strong, bringing that number all the way down to 3.47 by season’s end. Even without the ability to overpower hitters, Happ finished in the top quarter of all starters’ xERA, xwOBA, and barrel percentage. Turning 38 in October, with 14 playoff appearances including four starts, Happ is likely the safest option in the Yankee staff. Though Aaron Boone could reasonably consider rookies Deivi Garcia and Clarke Schmidt for this slot, neither has been so lights-out as to jump Happ in the playoff pecking order. More likely, they’ll serve as backup plans A and B in the case of an early hook. If and when the Yankees cross this bridge, they’d likely hope Happ’s veteran savvy can carry the game long enough to pass the baton to the pen.