No better time than tonight to win this series, am I right? The Yankees have to be feeling pretty darn good about themselves after crushing Shane Bieber yesterday. Cleveland comes back with another good starter this evening in Carlos Carrasco, but it’s hard not to be confident about the Yankees offense at the moment. Plus, we get to see Playoff Masahiro Tanaka. He carries a postseason 1.76 ERA into this ballgame.
(Deep sigh) Houston is the first team to advance in this postseason. They completed a two game sweep of Minnesota this afternoon. Somehow, it’s the Twins’ 18th straight postseason loss.
It sure looks like Tampa Bay (up 1-0) is on its way to the next round too. They’re up 8-2 in the sixth as of this writing. The Rays would be the Yankees’ next opponent, should the Bombers finish off Cleveland.
Tonight’s game starts at 7:08 p.m. EDT on ESPN, WFAN, and WADO. Enjoy the ballgame, everyone.
Forget about everything that went awry for the Yankees in the regular season. Was it a disappointing and mostly joyless 60 games? Yes. But why dwell on that now? Everything can change starting this evening as the Yankees take on Cleveland in the first game of a best of three. Here are the lineups:
New York Yankees (0-0)
DJ LeMahieu, 2B
Aaron Judge, RF
Aaron Hicks, CF
Luke Voit, 1B
Giancarlo Stanton, DH
Gio Urshela, 3B
Gleyber Torres, SS
Brett Gardner, LF
Kyle Higashioka, C
RHP Gerrit Cole
Cleveland Indians (0-0)
Francisco Lindor, SS
Cesar Hernandez, 2B
José Ramírez, 3B
Carlos Santana, 1B
Franmil Reyes, DH
Josh Naylor, LF
Roberto Pérez, C
Tyler Naquin, RF
Delino DeShields, CF
RHP Shane Bieber
News & Notes
Why Brett Gardner over Clint Frazier? Aaron Boone laid out three reasons: recent performance, defense, and adding a lefty to the mix. (Bradford William Davis)
It looks like JA Happ in Game 3, if necessary. (Bryan Hoch)
One surprise on the Yankees’ 28-man roster: Mike Ford. He basically took Clarke Schmidt’s place on the roster as everyone else is the same as the final day of the regular season. (Yankees PR)
The playoffs are here and games are to be played all day, but we have to wait just until 7 eastern for the Yankees series against Cleveland to begin. It’s a brief three game set that could be over as soon as tomorrow. There are no off days during series this postseason and all of this round’s games will be played at Progressive Field in Cleveland. Hopefully, the Yankees can celebrate there just like they did back in 2017. The winner of this series will take on either the Rays or Blue Jays in the ALDS.
Cleveland’s a strange team. A good one, but but also extremely flawed. They finished 35-25, second place in the AL Central, almost entirely on the back of the team’s elite pitching staff. Save for MVP candidate José Ramírez, the offense was almost nonexistent all season long. I guess you don’t need to score all that much when you allow just 209 runs (3.5 per game) all season, the lowest in MLB.
Just how bad is this offense? It was nearly Cleveland’s downfall just a couple of weeks ago. Through September 7th, the team was tied for first place in the division with the White Sox. By September 16th, they were six games out of first (behind Chicago) and holding on to one of the two Wild Card spots. Cleveland’s lineup tallied just 24 runs during an 8 game losing streak from the 8th to the 16th. That plummet wasn’t Ramírez’s fault, that’s for sure: the third baseman hit .348/.400/.652 during the skid. Everyone else let the team down. You can see the losing streak flat-line below:
As you can also see, Cleveland surged to finish the season in second place. They made up those six games by going 9-2 to end the year to tie Chicago, though Cleveland held the tiebreaker to claim second place. That run also included a four game sweep of the ChiSox. None other than Ramírez was right in the middle of that hot finish: he hit .436/.522/1.103 (316 wRC+) with 6 homers in the last 11 games to make his case for MVP. The rest of that team during that stretch? .203/.291/.314.
So yeah, you can talk about how great Cleveland’s pitching is all you want, but if it wasn’t for Ramírez, they are a Wild Card team at best right now. He couldn’t even get much help from Francisco Lindor (100 wRC+) or Carlos Santana (95 wRC+) this season.
All that isn’t to say that Ramírez is the savior for this team. It definitely needed a bunch of pitching stars to be a winning club. Shane Bieber, tonight’s starter, is probably going to win the Cy Young Award thanks to a 1.63 ERA in 77 1/3 innings. A couple of other starters had big years too: Carlos Carrasco (2.91 ERA) and Zach Plesac (2.28 ERA). Noticeably missing? Mike Clevinger, who had a 2.90 ERA in 53 starts from 2018 through 2019. Cleveland was so deep in pitching that they could afford to trade him away at the deadline. They were also able to afford sidelining Clevinger and Plesac earlier in August as a result of breaking COVID-19 protocols. Again, this team seems to develop pitching out of thin air (hence the Yankees hiring away Matt Blake).
By the way, it’s not just a formidable rotation either. The bullpen is nasty, too. As a group, Cleveland’s relievers ranked 4th in WPA, 5th in ERA, 1st in FIP, and had the 6th-fewest meltdowns. The team’s relief ace is James Karinchak, who struck out 53 batters in 27 innings this season (48.6 percent strikeout rate). Closer Brad Hand went 16-for-16 in save opportunities this year and fanned 33.7 percent of batters himself. And those aren’t even the only two guys with big strikeout numbers. Phil Maton (33.3 percent), Triston McKenzie (33.1 percent), and Nick Wittgren (28.6 percent) figure to play a big role in relief too.
So, back to the team’s recent run of play to wrap this section up. Cleveland’s (sort of) riding high into this series with the Yankees. I say sort of because the team will need more than its high caliber pitchers and Ramírez in this series. Keep in mind that this team’s 9-2 finish included 7 games against the Tigers and Pirates. Beating up on bad teams is important, but it’s certainly a far cry from even a struggling Yankees club.
Tonight’s start is a big reason why the Yankees signed Cole to a $324 million deal. It’s pretty dang nice to go into Game One of any series with a top-5 pitcher in the sport, something the club hasn’t been able to do since the CC Sabathia days. Cole comes into this ballgame on fire: his last four starts, all with Kyle Higashioka behind the plate, were terrific. He pitched to a 1.00 ERA in 27 innings and allowed just one homer. Can’t wait to see him bring it tonight.
Cole’s opponent is all too familiar with the 30 year-old righty, and not for good reasons. Cleveland batters own a .089/.159/.128 batting line against Cole, many of whom were also on the team when Cole dominated them in the 2018 ALDS.
I already sung Bieber’s praise earlier, but I’ll note it again here. The 25 year-old righty had a 1.63 ERA and 2.07 FIP in 77 1/3 innings this season, including a ridiculous 14.2 strikeouts per nine. He should have a Cy Young Award on his mantle by year’s end. If you think the Yankees are happy to have Cole going in Game One, you can bet that Francona is thrilled to give the ball to Bieber to counter.
The Yankees have had some success against Bieber in the past, but it wasn’t the 2020 version of Bieber. That’s not to say he wasn’t good before, because he was (3.72 ERA and 3.29 FIP in 329 innings entering this season). Last year, the Yankees knocked Bieber out of a game in the second inning in Cleveland. The Bombers tallied five hits, five runs, two walks, and a homer (Brett Gardner) against Bieber. Hopefully we see some semblance of that tonight.
Playoff Tanaka is everyone’s favorite Tanaka. He’s got a 1.76 ERA in 8 postseason starts (46 innings), including a gem against Cleveland in the 2017 ALDS. You may remember that as the Greg Bird homer off Andrew Miller game, but it was also Tanaka’s brilliant performance that helped keep the team alive while down 2-0 in the series.
Regular season Tanaka was very good this year. Weird to think that it could be his final year in pinstripes, but that’s a discussion for another time. In 2020, Tanaka had a 3.56 ERA in 48 innings. His last start of the year against Toronto didn’t go so well, but he’s been reliable otherwise.
It’s remarkable that Carrasco pitched at all this year, let alone pitch so well. He was diagnosed with leukemia last year and doubted that he’d ever pitch again. Instead, the righty delivered a 2.91 ERA in 12 starts this season. He may not be Bieber on the mound, but he’s certainly no break for the Yankees.
Carrasco happened to face Tanaka in Game 3 of the 2017 ALDS. He acquitted himself well too: 5 2/3 frames of shutout baseball. That said, a lot of Yankees hitters haven’t seen much of Carrasco before. We’ll take a repeat of the last time Carrasco faced Tanaka in the playoffs though, even if it’s a nailbiter like that one.
There’s no indication of who would start the third game of this series for the Yankees, though it’s obviously down to either Happ or García. The former would be on an extra day of rest, while the latter on a regular turn.
Happ had a pleasantly surprising 3.47 ERA in 9 starts this season and a 2.34 ERA in his final 7 starts. Meanwhile, Deivi was awfully impressive as a rookie. He may have finished with a 4.98 ERA, but that one bad start in Boston ballooned it. Despite just being 21, there’s no doubt that he’d be up for the task. The guy looks unflappable on the mound. That isn’t to say Happ isn’t deserving, because he’s pitched well enough to start this postseason. That awful performance against the Red Sox in the 2018 ALDS still lingers, though.
Yet another Cleveland starter with a sub-3 ERA. Plesac made 8 starts this season around a time out following his COVID-19 protocol transgression. He had a 2.28 ERA and 3.39 FIP and never failed to pitch fewer than six innings in a start. In fact, six of his eight starts were 6 2/3 innings or longer.
Plesac pitched well against the Yankees last year in his one career appearance against them, but that lineup did not include Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton. It did include Kendrys Morales (lol). Plesac’s better than he was a year ago, but the lineup he’s facing will also be more tough.
RHP: James Karinchak, Nick Wittgren, Phil Maton, Cam Hill, Adam Cimber, Triston McKenzie, Adam Plutko, Aaron Civale, Cal Quantrill
LHP: Brad Hand (closer), Óliver Pérez
I already gave a snapshot of this bullpen’s dominance earlier in this preview. Everyone’s obviously rested with yesterday’s day off.
Cleveland has no major injuries to report. RHP Jefry Rodriguez is the one guy on the injured list. He didn’t pitch this season due to a shoulder strain. He wasn’t expected to play a big role, anyway.
You can’t predict baseball
Three games is hardly enough time for the better team to emerge, but it’s hard to dispute that the Yankees are the more well rounded team in this matchup. Cleveland may have the edge on the mound, but it’s not like the Yankees are slouches in that department. And really, the Yankees staff should be able to shut down this lineup given what we’ve seen from Cleveland in 2020. How the Bombers’ offense fares against Cleveland is another question. We know how talented the Yankees bats are, but this year’s inconsistency has been maddening. Nonetheless, the Yankees look like a better team on paper and should win this series. Some weird things can happen in a short series like this, though.
With just 2.5 weeks left in the season, the Yankees are almost certainly going to hold homefield advantage in the ALDS. They hold a five-game lead on the Twins and would need a genuine collapse to be playing in Minnesota.
But it is time to start thinking about potential opponents to roll into the Bronx on Oct. 4 for the American League Division Series. With the Red Sox all but eliminated, there are four realistic first-round opponents: The Twins, Rays, Athletics and Indians.
If the Yankees finish with the AL’s second-best record, they get the Twins. If they beat out Houston, they place one of the latter three teams.
Do any of these teams pique the fear index? Not really. The Yankees should win a series against any of these teams. But which is the most fearsome? That is what I want to find out. Let’s peruse the question, shall we?
Minnesota Twins Fear Index: 2 out of 5
The story of the Minnesota Twins has been home runs. They’ve hit 276 of them this season and broke the 2018 Yankees’ record … before the 2019 Yankees tied them last night. They’ve been rewarded by the juiced baseball for shoring up their roster in free agency. While these Twins have very little postseason experience, those home runs should carry over into October.
In two series with the Bombers, they lost two of three both times, though they were both tightly contested series. It’s hard to forget the slugfests in Minnesota. The Twins were able to get to the Yankees’ late-inning relievers, though they did most of their damage against Domingo German, CC Sabathia and J.A. Happ.
As a team, they have a 117 wRC+, trailing just the Yankees and Astros. Their 4.07 staff FIP is fourth-best in baseball and their 4.17 ERA is eighth.
However, here’s why the Twins are better on paper than in playoff series: They’re shorthanded. Byron Buxton is out for the year. Nelson Cruz is dealing with a wrist injury. Max Kepler has had multiple injuries in his breakout season.
Meanwhile, their best pitcher in the second half, Michael Pineda, was suspended for PEDs and is done for the year. The rest of their starting pitching has struggled in the second half and their bullpen might not hold up in October. Starter Kyle Gibson is dealing with an intestinal issue and returns to the team Thursday.
You can throw out the Yankees’ postseason history with the Twins. Most of that involves players long since retired and this Minnesota team actually gets strikeouts and hits homers. However, the Yankees have a clear advantage on Minnesota when they aren’t using their back-end starters.
Tampa Bay Rays Fear Index: 0.5 out of 5
On paper, the Rays have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. They’re second only to the Dodgers with a 3.63 ERA and lead MLB with a 3.67 FIP and 22.6 fWAR. They strike people out at a high rate and the team boasts Charlie Morton at the head of their rotation.
However, they’re thin going into the stretch run. Morton has a 4.52 ERA in the second half. Though he’s matched up well with the Yankees, he would be the Rays’ best Wild Card Game starter, so they might not see him more than once. Meanwhile, both Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell are on the mend from injuries and neither will be fully stretched out in all likelihood.
Tampa Bay’s bullpen has held its own this season … except against the Yankees. Colin Poche, Diego Castillo, Emilio Pagan, the Yankees have hit all of them. While deadline acquisition Nick Anderson has been electric in Tampa, the Rays’ depth won’t confer them the same advantage in October. It’s hard to imagine a team bullpenning its way through 3-4 games in a series and surviving.
As for their lineup, it’s fine. Austin Meadows and Tommy Pham are both above-average players and the team sports a collection of good but not great hitters. They don’t stack up with the rest of the AL contenders.
The Yankees beat them 12 out of 17 so far this year. Considering that track record, the Rays’ injured pitching staff and the lack of homefield advantage at Tropicana Field, Tampa Bay is undoubtedly the team the Yankees would most want to face. A series loss to Tampa would be a terrible look.
Oakland Athletics Fear Index: 2.4 out of 5
Over the past few weeks, the A’s made their case as a team to fear. They took four of six from the Yankees and could have easily won the two games they lost. They showed off their offense led by Marcus Semien and Matts Chapman and Olson. Those same players anchor an impressive defensive infield.
Oakland’s pitching staff also is at full strength. Sean Manaea has had two fantastic starts since coming off the injured list and is able to make full appearances. He’s already a prime candidate for a Wild Card Game start, should they get there. They can follow him with Mike Fiers, Tanner Roark and Homer Bailey, each of whom has a win over the Yankees this year.
Meanwhile, their bullpen has holes. The Yankees beat Liam Hendriks in last year’s Wild Card Game and in their series finale before Labor Day. For manager Bob Melvin, it’s been Hendriks, Yusmeiro Petit and a cadre of sub-par options. Rookies A.J. Puk and Jesus Luzardo could be a boost.
Coupled with holes at the bottom of their lineup, the Athletics certainly have exploitable weaknesses for the Yankees to beat. The Bombers took two of three in the Bronx and would only need to play twice in Oakland at most. As they stand now, the A’s are probably the top ALDS competition.
Cleveland Indians Fear Index: 2* out of 5
Cleveland sports the best rotation of these four teams with Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber as a 1-2 punch. Zach Plesac and Adam Plutko don’t hold up quite as well as Oakland’s veteran back end, but the chance to use their top two for the majority of a series carries significant weight.
This team also features Francisco Lindor, one of the more dynamic players in baseball. He can change a series and is a player you can’t let beat you. Carlos Santana has had a career-year in the middle of the lineup and deadline acquisitions Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes extend the lineup.
But there’s that asterisk above. That’s for Jose Ramirez. With him in the lineup, Cleveland probably surpasses the Athletics as a threat. He had just returned to MVP candidate form before he broke his hand in August. I’d assume he’s out for a potential ALDS, but that hasn’t been confirmed.
As with the other ALDS opponents, the Indians have outs at the bottom of their lineup and a creaky bullpen. Brad Hand has blown five saves and the rest of the pen relies on pitchers like Tyler Clippard. Can he hold up in October? Hmmm.
The Yankees should be overwhelming favorites in any first-round series. They’ll either be hosting a banged-up Twins squad — the most-likely scenario — or will be playing a team that used its best starter or band of relievers in the Wild Card Game. We saw in 2017 how exhausted the Yankees were from that one game and it nearly lost them the ALDS. The Bombers get the rest advantage this year, and they’ll have the talent advantage, too.
With an off-day looming Monday, the Yankees host the Indians for four games in a series more important for the opposition than the Bombers.
Their Story Thus Far
At 72-49, Cleveland heads into the Bronx just a half-game behind the Twins in the AL Central. That’s remarkable after trailing by 11.5 games a couple months ago, though the Indians were heavily favored before the season. After taking two of three in Minnesota, Cleveland dropped two in a three-game set with the Red Sox.
This isn’t the same Indians team that beat the Yankees two of three in early June. Thanks to called-up relievers and a healthier rotation, Cleveland was able to trade Trevor Bauer at the trade deadline to infuse their roster with talented outfielders, namely Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes, in addition to prospects.
Even with an improved lineup, this is a team based around its pitching. Cleveland has the league’s best ERA-, are tied for second in FIP- and are third in pitching fWAR. In two of the Yankees next three series, they’ll face some of the best pitching in baseball between the Indians and Dodgers.
The Indians have three pitchers who could return soon from the IL as starter Corey Kluber and relievers Tyler Olson and Dan Otero are all on rehab assignments. Former Yankee A.J. Cole, OF Jordan Luplow and RHP Danny Salazar each are on the 10-day IL.
Meanwhile, the 60-day IL is packed. RHPs Cody Anderson, Jefry Rodriguez and Carlos Carrasco join 3B Christian Arroyo and OF Bradley Zimmer (as well as Kluber and Otero) with long-term injuries.
The good news is that Carrasco, who has dealt with chronic myeloid leukemia, has been cleared to face hitters. Truly wonderful news.
Player Spotlight: Jose Ramirez
At the 2018 All-Star break, Jose Ramirez was a top-three MVP favorite and the engine behind the Indians’ offense. However, from that All-Star Game through June 30 this season, Ramirez was a bad hitter. Over 619 plate appearances in that span, he hit .216/.334/.369 with an 85 wRC+.
His swoon really started at the end of last season and continued into this year as he posted just a 46 wRC+ in April and cratered against this June. Ramirez’s agent stated that Ramirez had been trying to beat the shift and go the other way instead of taking advantage of pitches on the inner half of the plate as before.
Now, he’s back to being himself. He’s hit .313/.338/.667 with 12 homers and a 150 wRC+ since the beginning of July. Though his walks haven’t quite returned, he’s back to being a tremendous positive for the Indians.
Ultimately, that changes the complexion of Cleveland’s lineup. Utilizing the additions of Puigs and Reyes alongside a resurgent Ramirez, the Indians aren’t just a Lindor and Carlos Santana-led operation anymore. The team has a starting nine and formidable offense that could make the team scary come October.
Francisco Lindor, SS (.303/.358/.522, 123 wRC+)
Oscar Mercado, CF (.270/.317/.429, 91 wRC+)
Carlos Santana, 1B (.287/.410/.536, 143 wRC+)
Yasiel Puig, RF (.263/.313/.484, 101 wRC+)
Jose Ramirez, 3B (.246/.317/.438, 92 wRC+)
Roberto Perez, C (.223/.309/.450, 93 wRC+)
Jason Kipnis, 2B (.256/.318/.406, 85 wRC+)
Franmil Reyes, DH (.242/.296/.508, 103 wRC+)
Greg Allen, LF (.238/.295/.385, 74 wRC+)
Off the bench, the Indians features backup catcher Kevin Plawecki (63 wRC+), outfielder Tyler Naquin (97 wRC+) and infielder Mike Freeman (95 wRC+).
Thursday (7:05 PM ET) Chad Green/Bulk Reliever vs. Adam Plutko (vs. Yankees)
The Yankees get lucky to avoid All-Star Game MVP Shane Bieber this series, but they haven’t had much success against his alternates. Plutko carries a 4.68 ERA in 65.1 IP and worse peripherals, sporting a 5.95 FIP thanks to few strikeouts and 17 home runs, or 2.3 per nine. Still, the right-hander held the Yankees to just two runs in a quality start in June.
In that June win, Plutko allowed a home run to Didi Gregorius in the first inning and shut down the Yankees from then on. Gregorius’ homer was one of just four balls hit above 90 mph in the start as Plutko induced plenty of weak contact. That’s been his calling card this season: Limiting walks and hard-hit balls.
The right-hander attacks with a four-seam fastball in the low-90s about half the time while working in a slider, changeup and curveball. The curveball has a high-spin rate and teams with the slider as his best out pitches.
Friday (7:05 PM ET) Masahiro Tanaka (vs. Indians) vs. Adam Civale (Never faced NYY)
Civale is just three starts into his career. Despite being a lesser prospect on the back-half of the Indians’ top 30, he’s off to a dazzling start, allowing just two runs in 18 innings while striking out 18 and issuing just four walks. He’s yet to surrender a home run.
Fangraphs’ Brendan Gawlowski broke down Civales’ repertoire, which features a high-spin fastball of different shapes and a strong curveball. The 24-year-old righty used two-seam sinker and cutter a combined two-thirds of the time, using them to play off each other at the top of the zone. Meanwhile, he also has a changeup, slider and curve he uses at least 8.5 percent each.
In the past, it always seemed like the Yankees were mowed down by pitchers they’d never seen before, though that almost always proved false. Now, with a lineup that typically wears down pitchers of all shapes and sizes, they should be game for this new challenge.
Plesac has been another pleasant surprise as a 24-year-old rookie for Cleveland this season. Coming up at the end of May, the righty has made 14 starts and has a 3.27 ERA, well outpacing his 5.03 FIP. Just as with Plesac, he had the Yankees’ number in June to hand New York a loss.
In that start, he gave up two early runs on a Clint Frazier double and Aaron Hicks home run. After the Hicks dinger in the third inning, he retired 14 of his final 15 batters faced.
With just OK stuff (see below) and middling peripherals, it would appear Plesac has gotten a little lucky this season. He’s mostly a fastball-changeup-slider pitcher, going to his 94-mph four-seamer half the time.
With Kluber and Carrasco on shelf and Bauer across the state, the fourth-year starter is the old man of the staff right now at 28-years-old. Despite missing significant time with injury this year, he’s been a rock for the team when on the mound.
Among pitchers with at least 250 innings since the start of 2018, Clevinger has the 11th best ERA at 3.10. He strikes out 35 percent of batters he faces, third-best among starters, and has cut down his walks the last two seasons to 8.2 percent. Already decent at keeping the ball on the ground, he avoids home runs as well, making him a complete starter.
Clevinger’s mid-to-upper 90s fastball is his primary offering alongside a low-80s slider, each of which get plenty of whiffs. His curveball and changeup have also been decent, though it’s the former two pitches for which to look out.
Here’s the breakdown of the Indians’ bullpen by handedness:
RHPs: Adam Cimber, Tyler Clippard, Nick Goody, Nick Wittgren, Hunter Wood LHPs: Brad Hand, Oliver Perez, Logan Allen
Hand is the Indians’ All-Star closer while former Yankees Clippard and Goody work ahead of him, as does the former Marlin Wittgren. Despite taking a defeat to the Red Sox, Wittgren has emerged as a strong option for Terry Francona this year.
Meanwhile, the submariner Adam Cimber works best against righties while Oliver Perez handles southpaws. Acquired from the Rays before the deadline, Hunter Wood looks like he’s in a long relief role, while Logan Allen made his Cleveland debut in long relief Wednesday after coming over in the Bauer deal.