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Game-planning the Guardians’ ALDS starters

How to attack each of the starters that Cleveland will throw at the Yankees.

Wild Card Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Cleveland Guardians - Game One Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The ALDS matchup is set with the Yankees taking on the Guardians after Cleveland swept the Rays in two games to advance beyond the AL Wild Card Series. New York named Gerrit Cole the Game 1 starter with Nestor Cortes and Luis Severino to follow. While the Guardians have yet to name any starters, it’s almost a guarantee the Yankees will see Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie, and Cal Quantrill in some order. (Quantrill is the best bet to go in Game since Bieber and McKenzie would be on short rest.)

Although the names in this trio don’t grab the headlines the way a Max Scherzer or Jacob deGrom might, there is plenty of quality that they can throw at the opposing team. Sure, the Yankees went 5-1 in the season series against the Guardians, outscoring Cleveland 38-14, but the postseason is another animal and we’ve already seen Bieber and McKenzie twirl their “A”-grade stuff these playoffs. Let’s dive into what the Yankees can expect from the starters they’re slated to face.

Bieber is the ace of the Guardians rotation and dominated the Rays in Game 1 of the AL Wild Card Series, going 7.2 innings while allowing a run on three hits and a walk against eight strikeouts. On the year, he finished eighth in fWAR (4.9), going 13-8 in 31 starts with a 2.88 ERA (132 ERA+), 2.87 FIP, and 198 strikeouts in 200 innings. Even though strikeouts were down this year, Bieber was among the league’s best at limiting walks and keeping the ball in the ballpark. None of these facts will worry Yankees fans, as I am sure we all remember the shelling he received in Game 1 of the 2020 AL Wild Card Series, giving up seven runs in 4.2 innings.

Bieber attacked the Rays’ hitters on Friday with a clearly defined game plan. He pounded the fastball at the top of the zone and low gloveside to get ahead in counts and then threw a steady diet of cutters and sliders low and away to righties searching for the swing-and-miss.

All eight of his strikeouts were with breaking pitches, and seven of the eight landed low gloveside or just below and out of the zone. Given the propensity of some righty Yankees hitters to chase the slider down and away, I don’t expect Bieber to deviate much from his plan against the Rays.

Triston McKenzie turned a corner starting in July and was the second-best pitcher (2.19 ERA, 3.4 fWAR) in baseball across the final three-plus months of the regular season. He finished the year at 11-11 in 30 starts, with a 2.96 ERA (129 ERA+), 3.59 FIP, and 190 strikeouts in 191.1 innings.

McKenzie possesses two elite pitches, the four-seamer and curveball. His fastball tied for the 11th-best four-seamer in baseball at -17 runs per Statcast’s Run Value metric, in part due to the top-end life he imparts on it — it exhibits the 11th-most rise vs. average of all qualified four-seamers in the game. The curveball tied for the ninth-best finish in Run Value at -9 runs, limiting batters to a .165 xwOBA while inducing a 45 percent whiff rate.

The right-hander was nails in the AL Wild Card clincher, going six scoreless giving up two hits and two walks against eight strikeouts. Given the quality of the pitch, it was no surprise to see McKenzie lean heavily on the four-seamer in all counts, and he was highly effective at commanding it at the top of the zone.

Once ahead, McKenzie mixed his pitches effectively, getting multiple strikeouts with each of the fastball, slider, and curveball.

Contrast this with when McKenzie blanked the Yankees on July 3rd, pitching seven scoreless allowing just one hit and one walk against seven strikeouts. Five of those seven punchouts came via the curveball, with the pitch deviling the Yankees hitters all day to the tune of a 63-percent whiff rate.

With all this in mind, I think the Yankees have to approach McKenzie with the explicit plan of trying to identify the breaking pitch early. Even though he has two plus-plus pitches in the fastball and curveball, he still throws his slider over 20 percent of the time, despite it grading out as the third-worst slider in baseball at -11 runs. He throws his fastball slow enough (just over 92 mph average velocity) that the Yankees can wait that split-second longer to try to pick up the spin on the slider or track the curveball as it jumps up out of his hand, similar to the curveballs thrown by Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Chris Bassitt. McKenzie will throw you more than a few mistake sliders, so the Yankees better be ready to punish if presented the opportunity.

Finally, we have Cal Quantrill, who did not pitch in the AL Wild Card Series but did face the Yankees once in April, when he allowed three runs on six hits and three walks in 6.1 innings. On the year, Quantrill was 15-5 in 32 starts with a 3.38 ERA, (128 ERA+), and 128 strikeouts in 186.1 innings.

Quantrill doesn’t miss bats and he won’t strike you out, but he’s in the top 30 percent of the league in walk rate, chase rate, average exit velocity, and hard hit rate. He throws a sinker-cutter mix over 80 percent of the time and will rarely mix in a changeup, curveball, and four-seamer.

The former Padres draft pick held true to this strategy in his early season start against the Yankees, burying the sinker in on the hands of the righties, alternating with throwing the cutter front-door for a called strike. When ahead in the count, he does a decent job of locating the cutter either on the gloveside edge of the zone or below the zone and away to righties.

Because Quantrill is essentially a two-pitch pitcher, if you’re the Yankees, I think you have to hunt either the sinker or the cutter and try to eliminate the other pitch. Chances are you’ll get a few in each at-bat, the key is being able to get off your “A”-swing when you get your pitch.