(4) Cleveland Indians vs. (5) New York Yankees
In advance of the Wild Card round starting today, we’re going to break down each series for you. In this article, we cover fourth-seeded Cleveland’s series against the fifth-seed Yankees, broken down by Liam Casey and Alex Kleinman, respectively.
Game Three (If necessary): Thursday, October 1st, TBD on ESPN – Zach Plesac vs TBD
Cleveland Indians (35-25)
Cleveland finished the season strong, going 8-2 in their last 10 games as they marched their way towards a 35-25 record, good for second in the American League Central division. In that 10-game span, they also swept the Chicago White Sox in a four-game series, which ended up being crucial, as the two teams finished with identical records behind the division champion Twins. With the better head to head record, Cleveland ended up as the four seed while Chicago will enter the postseason as the seven seed.
Offensively, the team is led by third baseman José Ramirez who has enjoyed another highly productive season. Ramirez slashed .292/.386/.607 with 17 homers and 10 stolen bases, and was poised for another 20/20 season had they played a full 162. Next to him on the diamond, shortstop Francisco Lindor had a bit of a down season by his standards. Lindor hit only eight home runs and stole six bases, and while his OBP (.335) was somewhat in line with his career norms, his AVG (.258) and SLG (.415) were not. DH Franmil Reyes has been quite effective in his first full year in Cleveland, hitting .275/.344/.450 while keeping his K% (28.6) consistent with his career numbers and increasing his walk rate to 10%. First baseman Carlos Santana has been a disappointment in his second year back in Cleveland, hitting a meager .199 with only eight home runs. At the keystone, César Hernández quietly enjoyed an effective 2020 after coming over from Philadelphia in free agency. The counting stats were nothing to write home about, amassing only three home runs, 28 runs, and 20 RBI, but his rate stats were solid, sporting a .283/.355/.408 triple slash in his age-30 season. The outfield continues to be a problem area for Cleveland, with the trio of Josh Naylor, Delino DeShields, and Tyler Naquin getting the bulk of starts from left to right, while Oscar Mercado had an incredibly disappointing sophomore season after flashing quite a bit of potential in his 2019 rookie campaign. It’s no better behind the dish, as Roberto Pérez, Austin Hedges, and Sandy León have all been highly ineffective at the plate. Cleveland will rely heavily on Ramirez, Reyes, Hernández, and Lindor to do the bulk of the damage in the top of the order.
On the mound is where this team really shines. Shane Bieber has been nothing short of the AL Cy Young, sporting a microscopic 1.63 ERA with the highest K/9 of his career at 14.20. Bieber has only improved since his rookie year in 2018, and he will be an absolute buzzsaw against the Yankees in Game One. Behind him, Carlos Carrasco has been incredible in his own right, throwing 68 IP of 2.91 ERA ball after a tumultuous 2019 which saw Carrasco diagnosed with leukemia. Zach Plesac will get the ball if a Game Three is necessary, and it’s well deserved. Plesac has made eight starts in 2020 around his demotion to the alternate site for disciplinary reasons, and in those 8 starts, threw 55.1 innings with a 2.28 ERA. Even after shipping Mike Clevinger off to San Diego, this team still lives and dies with its starting pitching.
In the bullpen, Cleveland deploys the reliable Brad Hand in the closer role. Hand has been one of the best relievers in baseball over the last four years and 2020 has been no different, with Hand recording a 2.05 ERA across 23 appearances. His K/9 is down a bit from previous years at 11.86, but he has also trimmed his walk rate to 1.64 instead of his career norms which are well north of 2.00. Along with Hand, Cleveland can lean on the pair of righties in James Karinchak and Nick Wittgren, who have both had excellent seasons. Wittgren made 25 appearances with a 3.42 ERA while Karinchak pitched in 27 games to the tune of a 2.67 ERA and a whopping 17.67 K/9. He is a bit wild though, sporting a 5.33 BB/9. Still only 25, Karinchak has the potential to become an elite reliever for Cleveland. Acting manager Sandy Alomar can also rely on the services of journeyman Óliver Pérez who has been enjoying a career renaissance, compiling one of his best seasons ever in 2020 with a flat 2.00 ERA in 18 innings pitched. Make no mistake, this team can pitch and will get high-quality innings out of both their starters and relievers.
While Cleveland and the Yankees did not meet this season, there is some playoff history here. The two teams squared off in the 2017 ALDS, in which Cleveland jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the series before dropping three straight to the Bombers. Cleveland returned to the postseason in 2018, losing in the ALDS yet again, this time being swept at the hands of the Houston Astros. This was the team’s last appearance in the playoffs, and I’m sure they’ll look to right the ship against New York.
New York Yankees (33-27)
The 2020 Yankees exhibited a serious case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde syndrome, ending the season with a 33-27 record that is simultaneously both disappointing given their sky-high preseason expectations and impressive considering their multiple prolonged slumps. While the potential behind this roster is immense, it is difficult to predict which version of the Yankees will appear in this postseason.
Overall, the Yankees had one of the best offenses, averaging 5.25 runs per game behind a team wRC+ of 116 (fourth-best for both metrics). Their pitching staff, on the other hand, was league average, finishing with a 4.35 ERA/4.39 FIP (14th and 12th best, respectively). The Yankees’ overall run differential of +45 was the seventh-best in the entire league. Arguably the worst aspect of this team was their defense, finishing the year with 1 DRS (17th best), a UZR/150 of 0.9 (13th best), and 47 errors, tied with the Pirates for the most in the league.
There were some very pleasant surprises this year. Giovanny Urshela continued upon his fantastic 2019 by hitting .298/.368/.490 with a 133 wRC+. His great arm strength at the hot corner led Urshela to 6 DRS and a UZR/150 of 14.4, making him one of the five best third basemen across the league in 2020. Clint Frazier found himself with regular playing time due to an injury-depleted roster, and he became one of the Yankees best all-around players, hitting .267/.394/.511 with a 149 wRC+. He made a complete defensive turnaround from his rough performance in the past to become an above-average outfielder (2 DRS and 12.6 UZR/150). Let’s not forget the phenomenal DJ LeMahieu, who became the first player in MLB history to win a batting title in both the AL and NL by hitting .364/.421/.590, good for 177 wRC+ and a league-best OPS of 1.011. Luke Voit led the Yankees’ quest for home run dominance, hitting a league-leading 22 homers alongside 59 runs, 52 RBIs, a .277/.338/.610 line and a 153 wRC+.
As for pitching, Gerrit Cole turned in a great first season in pinstripes. He started the year slightly missing his spots, which led to a career-high 1.7 HR/9. Although his performance through July and August was a “slump” by his standards, he still posted a 3.91 ERA, 60 K: 12 BB, and an opponent’s OPS of .776 over 46 IP. But he went into another gear in September, with 27 IP of 1.00 ERA dominance, recording 34:5 K:BB with an opponent’s OPS of .432. The Yankees’ likely starters for Games Two and Three (though Game Three hasn’t been officially announced), Masahiro Tanaka and JA Happ, also had solid seasons. Tanaka had a 3.56 ERA and 1.17 WHIP over 48 IP, while Happ rebounded from a below-average 2019 to a 3.47 ERA and 1.05 WHIP over 49.1 IP. The Yankees bullpen was pretty solid, with Zack Britton being the team’s best reliever, pitching to a 1.89 ERA and 1.00 WHIP over 19 IP. Aroldis Chapman, who dealt with an injury, pitched well in his limited regular-season time, with a 3.09 ERA and 0.86 WHIP over 11.2 IP with 22 K: 4 BB.
Not everything was glitz and glamour for the Yanks, as they suffered some serious disappointments. Gary Sánchez looked lost for almost the entire season, hitting just .147/.253/.365 with 64 Ks in 178 PAs. Adam Ottavino could improve upon a phenomenal 2019 as he posted a 5.89 ERA and 1.582 WHIP over 18.1 IP. The Yankees bench could not replicate last year’s magnificent fill-in performance. Mike Tauchman, Miguel Andújar, and Mike Ford were all net negatives for the Yankees lineup, hitting below an OPS of .650/OPS+ of 85. Even though the Yankees lacked last year’s depth, they still had a persistent injury problem.
In 2020, almost every important player spent time on the 10-day IL. This includes Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, who combined to play just 51 games. When those two were healthy though, they hit pretty well, with Judge hitting .257/.336/.553 for a 140 wRC+ and Stanton going .250/.387/.500 for a 143 wRC+. Other key contributors with short-term injuries included Gleyber Torres, LeMahieu, Britton, and Chapman to name a few. I forgot to even mention Luis Severino, James Paxton, and Tommy Kahnle, who are currently on the 60-day IL and were essentially absent the entire season.
These aforementioned issues put a damper on the Yankees’ electric start, in which they won 16 of their first 22 games. The injuries piled up one after another, and soon the Yankees found themselves in a brutal 5-15 slump that brought their overall record to .500 on Sept. 8. Just as many fans considered the possibility the team would suffer their first losing season since 1992, the Yankees turned things around. From Sept. 9 to 19, the Yankees went on a 10-game winning streak powered by a revitalized lineup that averaged 8.5 runs per game and slugged their way to a wRC+ of 175, easily the best in the majors during that stretch. They combined this dynamic hitting with excellent pitching, recording a 2.30 ERA/3.01 FIP (third and second-best, respectively).
But just as quickly as their fortunes had turned before, the Yankees fell back into old habits, finishing the season on a 2-6 stretch. The biggest issue was that the Yankees’ big bats fell silent during this stretch. From Sept. 20 through the end of the year, Stanton, Judge, Torres, and Frazier combined to hit a paltry .146/.296/.191 with no home runs, five RBI, 11 runs, and 32 strikeouts to 18 walks in 108 PAs. In the words of a former Yankees manager, it’s not what you want, especially right before the postseason.
Out of all the AL playoff matchups, I find this one to be the most difficult to predict. The Yankees are certainly not a dream matchup for Cleveland, but it’s the hand they’ve been dealt. The Game One matchup between Bieber and Cole will be must-see TV, as two of the best starters in the AL will look to give their teams an early lead in the series. I could very much see this being a low scoring affair, but given Bieber’s dominance and Cole’s propensity to give up the long ball, I could very much see Cleveland gaining a quick 1-0 lead.
The rest of the series is anyone’s guess. Carrasco has been phenomenal while Masahiro Tanaka has been electric in the postseason. LeMahieu and Voit are two of the best hitters in the league, but the Yankees offense has had a tendency to go cold at the absolute worst moments. If Ramirez, Reyes, and Hernández can continue to hit as they have, and if Lindor can get on a hot streak, this team will be a wrecking crew.
Ultimately, I think Cleveland’s deep starting pitching outlasts that of New York. It will take some work though, as the New York bats won’t go quietly. I see Cleveland taking this two games to one. Cleveland in 3.
– Liam Casey
Cleveland have arguably the scariest rotation of any postseason team, and most of the Yankees’ bats have gone cold at the worst possible time. I believe this series will be dominated by excellent pitching and subpar hitting from both teams, which should lead to some extremely intense pitching duels.
The biggest X-factor for the Yankees is whether or not they will draw walks and hit with RISP to keep up the pressure on Cleveland’s pitching. The Yankees cannot rely on the home run-or-bust method as Cleveland pitchers have the third-lowest team HR/9 (1.14). The Yankees will win if Judge, Stanton, Torres, and Frazier can bust out of their end-of-season slumps and practice good plate discipline to draw walks early and often against Bieber, Carrasco, and Plesac.
Someone other than Ramírez needs to step up and hit home runs for Cleveland because the Yankees starters have documented issues with giving up the long ball. If Reyes and Santana can put their power on display, then they will win the series.
My prediction: Game One will be an extremely even matchup, but I give the edge to the Yankees seeing how Cole has pitched much better than Bieber in the month of September. Cleveland will claw back with a win in Game Two thanks to the MVP candidate JoRam, who has a career 1.738 OPS in 15 PAs against Tanaka. And finally, I believe the decisive Game Three will go to Cleveland whose stout pitching will keep the Yankees’ offense muzzled. Cleveland in 3.
– Alex Kleinman
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)