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New York Yankees vs. Cleveland Guardians: ALDS Preview

The Yankees’ October journey begins with a date with Cleveland.

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MLB: Cleveland Guardians at New York Yankees Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with ALDS start times for Games 3, 4, and 5.

After a week to rest, the Yankees are about to set off on their journey through October. With their 99-63 regular season, they secured the second seed in the American League, allowing them to calibrate their rotation ahead of the ALDS. They’ll square off with the Cleveland Guardians, who slipped by the Rays in the Wild Card round despite scoring just three runs across 24 innings.

On paper, the Yankees line up well with this Cleveland squad. The Guardians had to fire their top starters, Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie, in the Wild Card round, meaning McKenzie will likely only be able to start one game in this series. Bieber can make his first start of this series on regular rest, but would need to work on short rest were he to make a second appearance.

The Yankees also have a sizeable advantage on offense. While the club’s lineup is certainly top-heavy, it still features the best player in baseball this season in Aaron Judge, and a group that managed an aggregate 115 wRC+ on the season. Cleveland’s offense finished 2022 a hair below average with a 99 wRC+, and is obviously coming off a miserable (small-sample) showing against Tampa Bay. José Ramírez isn’t to be trifled with, and the likes of Steven Kwan and Andrés Giménez have had quality seasons with the bat, but the Cleveland lineup simply has little star power outside Ramírez, as well as a lack of depth.

The Yankees are favorites to win this series, but as ever, anything can happen in October. Let’s see how the two sides match up on a game-by-game basis.

*if necessary

Tuesday (Game 1): Gerrit Cole vs. Cal Quantrill (7:37 PM ET)

With Cleveland’s top pitchers still resting after the Wild Card round, the Yankees are gifted a dream matchup to start the series. For all his inconsistencies this year, Gerrit Cole is still a front-end starter, who should be able to confidently attack this middling Cleveland lineup. Cal Quantrill, conversely, offers a prime target for the Yankee offense.

The 27-year-old right-hander had a nominally successful season, navigating 186.1 innings with a 113 ERA+, but his overall profile doesn’t support such solid surface numbers. Quantrill excels in terms of preventing walks, but otherwise doesn’t impress, running well below average velocity and spin rate figures, as well as unintimidating contact quality numbers. He’s a two-pitch hurler whose two primary offerings, a sinker and cutter, don’t really square up with the meta game of modern pitching.

Against cutters this year, the Yankees as a whole have produced a strong .335 wOBA, and a .326 wOBA versus sinkers. Quantrill doesn’t possess the kind of low-and-away slider than some Yankees hitters (and hitters in general) struggle with.

On the other side, the Guardians wouldn’t seem to have the type of hitters to punish the mistakes within the zone Cole has made this year. Only Ramírez hit more than 20 home runs in 2022, with the Guardians as a team posting the third-lowest ISO mark in the league. If Cole can go after Cleveland’s hitters early and often, he could get the Yankees off on the right foot in this series.

Thursday (Game 2): Nestor Cortes vs. Shane Bieber (7:37 PM ET)

Game 2 brings a much tougher test for the Bombers. Shane Bieber is fresh off a dominant Wild Card start, one in which he allowed just one run and three hits across 7.2 innings. While he’s come down from his Cy Young heights, Bieber still managed exactly 200 innings this year with a 132 ERA+, with 198 strikeouts against just 36 walks.

Bieber features a true four-pitch mix, with a four-seamer, curveball, slider, and changeup all receiving at least 17 percent usage. His breakers in particular have long befuddled hitters, and it’s easy to see why:

While Bieber doesn’t generate eye-popping spin on his breaking pitches, he still gets good drop on them. He also hides the ball well, and can adeptly locate his breakers away from right-handed hitters. We’ll see if that poses a problem to Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and the like. (For more on the Yankees’ possible game plan against Bieber and company, check out Peter’s post from yesterday.)

All that said, Bieber physically isn’t the pitcher he was at his earlier prime. Bieber cannot generate anywhere near the velocity he could even two years ago, barely breaking 91 mph with his average four-seamer. Expect him to rely heavily on secondary pitches against the Yankees, because coming into the zone with his low-grade brand of heat could spell disaster.

The Yankees will feel good about matching Bieber with Nestor Cortes. The left-hander shook off a brief midseason slump to flat out shove down the stretch, allowing a measly .131/.195/.206 slash line to opponents over the season’s final two months. He hasn’t yielded more than three runs in a start since early July. Cortes is in top form, and would’ve been a reasonable choice to start Game 1 of this series.

Saturday (Game 3): Luis Severino vs. Triston McKenzie (7:37 PM ET)

Another quality matchup, with McKenzie coming off an outstanding outing in his first career playoff start, shutting out the Rays for six innings. The 6-foot-5, 165-pound righty had a breakout 2022 campaign on the whole, staying healthy and producing a 129 ERA+ over 191.1 innings.

McKenzie presents a straightforward three-pitch mix: four-seamer, slider, curve. He gets the most out of a 93-mph heater, using his excellent extension to get the pitch up on hitters faster than they expect:

McKenzie’s fastball is reminiscent of Cortes from the right side, with both getting good ride on the pitch and seemingly deceiving hitters to produce whiffs.

His best pitch, though, might just be the curve. Per Statcast’s run value numbers, it’s always been McKenzie’s most effective offering on a rate basis, with opposing hitters never producing better than a .154 wOBA against it over the course of a season. McKenzie expertly wields the pitch at the bottom of the zone:

McKenzie has historically leaned on his fastball, using it about 60 percent of the time for his career. It’s easy to wonder if, much like Bieber, he’d do well to emphasize his potent breakers a bit more against the Yankee lineup.

The Yankees will counter with Luis Severino, with righty looking energized and ready to go during his three-start return from the injured list in September. He dominated in his final outing, no-hitting Texas over seven innings and walking just one.

Severino, as much as he fairly protested his placement on the 60-day IL, truly appears as though he’s benefitted from the prolonged recovery period he received this summer. His four-seamer absolutely exploded out of his hand against the Rangers, averaging 97.8 mph, his highest mark in any start over the last four years. This version of Severino could have as much upside as any pitcher on the Yankee staff, and it’s a luxury to be able to trot him out in Game 3 of a playoff series.

*Sunday (Game 4): TBD vs. TBD (7:07 PM ET)

The circumstances of a potential Game 4 will remain up in the air for some time, but we can speculate as to which way each team could go. Cleveland’s simplest route would be to trot out Quantrill for a second go. The schedule of this Division Series would allow Quantrill to start on full rest, though we’ll see how the Guardians feel about giving him two appearances in this series. They could trot out Quantrill for a second star, or be forced to turn to a fourth starter, likely Aaron Civale or Zach Plesac.

With off-days on Wednesday and Friday, the Yankees would have the option to bring back Cole on full rest here. They also could start Jameson Taillon should they enter with a 2-1 lead, opting to preserve Cole for a pivotal Game 5 or an ALCS Game 1. There are numerous tactical angles for Aaron Boone and Co. to consider here, and we’ll likely have to see how the series plays out before they make their decision.

*Monday (Game 5): TBD vs. TBD (7:37 PM ET)

Cleveland’s choices in a winner-take-all game are less than optimal. Bieber would be the highest-upside selection, though he’d be on short rest, a situation he’s never faced in his major league career. If Cleveland were forced to turn to a fourth starter, the task would likely come down to Zach Plesac or Aaron Civale.

Civale, who didn’t make Cleveland’s Wild Card roster, suffered through injuries and ineffectiveness this year, producing a miserable 78 ERA+ in 97 innings. He has a stronger track record, with a 104 ERA+ across 2020 and 2021, and his peripherals aren’t as poor as his top-line run prevention numbers. Still, he’s not who Cleveland would want with their season on the line.

Plesac was available out of the bullpen but did not pitch against the Rays. He ran an 89 ERA+ in 131.2 innings this year, and has basically profiled as a fungible fifth starter the last couple seasons. Again, the Guardians would prefer he not see the field in a high-leverage spot.

For the Yankees, Cole would be on tap if he didn’t go in Game 4. If the Yankees did start Cole in a Game 4, then Game 5 would likely become an all-hands-on-deck kind of contest.

Cortes would be in line to start the game on three days’ rest, with Boone ready to go to his bullpen at a moment’s notice with the season hanging in the balance. With luck, the Yankees will win the series quickly and avoid this scenario, but the team should be well-equipped to handle a Game 5. Even with the boatload of injuries the team has seen hit their bullpen, Boone will still have a deep reserve of relievers to choose from, many of whom can go multiple innings.