Wild Card Round Preview: Yankees head to Cleveland

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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.

Their Story

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.

One last thing: Terry Francona will not manage Cleveland this series. He managed just 14 games this year due to blood clot and gastrointestinal issues. Sandy Alomar Jr. will take his place. Best wishes to Francona and his family.

Projected Lineup

  1. Francisco Lindor, SS (.258/.335/.415, 100 wRC+)
  2. Cesar Hernandez, 2B (.283/.355/.408, 108 wRC+)
  3. José Ramírez, 3B (.292/.386/.607, 163 wRC+)
  4. Carlos Santana, 1B (.199/.349/.350, 95 wRC+)
  5. Franmil Reyes, DH (.275/.344/.450, 112 wRC+)
  6. Tyler Naquin, RF (.218/.248/.383, 62 wRC+)
  7. Roberto Pérez, C (.165/.264/.216, 35 wRC+)
  8. Josh Naylor, LF (.247/.291/.330, 68 wRC+)
  9. Delino DeShields, CF (.252/.310/.318, 71 wRC+)

Bench:

  • Austin Hedges, C (.145/.231/.290, 43 wRC+)
  • Sandy León, C (.136/.296/.242, 56 wRC+)
  • Mike Freeman, INF/OF (.237/.302/.316, 67 wRC+)
  • Jordan Luplow, OF (.192/.304/.359, 80 wRC+)
  • Oscar Mercado, OF (.128/.174/.174, -12 wRC+)

Pitching Matchups

Game One, Tonight at 7:00 p.m. EDT:

Gerrit Cole (vs. Cleveland)

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.

Shane Bieber (vs. Yankees)

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.

Bieber.

Game Two, Tomorrow, 7:00 p.m. EDT:

Masahiro Tanaka (vs. Cleveland)

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.

Carlos Carrasco (vs. Yankees)

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.

Carrasco.

Game Three, time TBD (if necessary):

JA Happ/Deivi García (Happ vs. Cleveland)

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.

Zach Plesac (vs. Yankees)

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.

Plesac.

Bullpen

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.

Injury Report

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.

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3 Comments

  1. MikeD

    Picking the winner of a three-game series in baseball is almost foolhardy. Either team can win here. With that, here goes this fool: Whichever team takes game one will win the series in two games. There will not be a third game. Yankees in two. In a tight game, Cole and the Yankees come out ahead tonight, and Tanaka pitches a gem on Wednesday. Would I put money on it? Nah, but a fool’s gotta fool.

    • Smurfy

      Long shots to show, that’s my kinda bet! Wish I had more faith that they would flip on the pick ’em apart discipline, rather than wishing on homers.

  2. Gerreddardit Cole

    The Indians have the advantage in every facet of the game, Derek. And they just got their manager Tito Francona back so expect them to rally around him this series. And in a battle of wits Tito beats Boone every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Any advantage we did have with Cole is nullified by Bieber. And Carassco and Plesac are leaps and bounds better than Tanaka and Deivi/Happ. Our only chance is to out slug the Indians and that just ain’t gonna happen. We either strike out or hit into a DP almost every plate appearance. And this happens every October where the bats go cold and the home runs dry up once it gets colder and the opposing pitching gets better. If these games were in the Stadium we could maybe count on bopping a few to the short porch like Greg Bird did a couple years ago. Their pen is also demonstrably better. Expect Crapavino to hang a couple sliders and Green to give up plenty of dingers. I think the Indians win in 2, which at least gives us a quick and painless end to this miserable season and hopefully the end of Boone as manager.

    The baseball schedulers really screwed up putting this game at night against the debate. If we have our choice of which train wreck to watch we’re watching the debate. At least that will be entertaining.

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