AL Wild Card Series Preview: Cleveland Indians vs. New York Yankees

As the final day of the season dawned, there were no fewer than six possible matchups for this series, with the Twins, White Sox, and Indians all having paths to second place in the AL Central and the number four seed, and likewise for the Yankees and Blue Jays in the AL East and the number five seed. The Yankees fell to the Marlins, 5-0, their sixth loss in the past eight games, but because the Blue Jays blew a 4-1 lead and lost to the Orioles, New York finished 33-27, barely holding onto second. Meanwhile the Indians dug their way out of a 6-2 hole against the Pirates, and only when the White Sox’s comeback from a 10-1 deficit stalled at 10-8, with the tying run at the plate in the bottom of the ninth on a questionable called strike was this matchup set.

The Indians finished with the better record, going 35-25, but a slightly worse run differential (+39 versus +45), but how the two teams got there is very different. The Yankees led the AL in scoring (5.25 runs per game) and wRC+ (116) while ranking sixth in run prevention (4.50 runs per game). The Indians, on the other hand, tied for second-to-last in the AL in scoring (4.13 runs per game) and were second-to-last in wRC+ (86), but they were the stingiest team in the AL, allowing just 3.48 runs per game. As this series will be played entirely at Progressive Field, the Yankees’ offensive advantage may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

Worth noting: Indians manager Terry Francona has been sidelined by gastrointestinal and blood clot issues for most of the season, managing just 14 games, during which his team went 8-6. First base coach Sandy Alomar Jr. has been serving as acting manager since mid-August and will likely remain in that capacity through the postseason, though Francona has entered the bubble to keep that option in play. The team has gone 28-18 on Alomar’s watch.

Rotations

Indians and Yankees AL Wild Card Series Starting Pitchers
Name IP K% BB% K-BB% HR/9 GB% EV Barrel% ERA FIP WAR
Shane Bieber 77.1 41.1% 7.1% 34.0% 0.81 48.4% 89.3 7.2% 1.63 2.06 3.2
Carlos Carrasco 68.0 29.3% 9.6% 19.6% 1.06 44.3% 88.0 8.3% 2.91 3.59 1.5
Zach Plesac 55.1 27.7% 2.9% 24.8% 1.30 39.3% 87.8 9.9% 2.28 3.39 1.5
Gerrit Cole 73.0 32.6% 5.9% 26.7% 1.73 37.4% 90.9 9.1% 2.84 3.89 1.5
Masahiro Tanaka 48.0 22.3% 4.1% 18.3% 1.69 43.3% 88.5 9.1% 3.56 4.42 0.8
J.A. Happ 49.1 21.4% 7.7% 13.8% 1.46 44.4% 88.1 5.1% 3.47 4.57 0.6
Deivi García 34.1 22.6% 4.1% 18.5% 1.57 33.3% 89.4 9.4% 4.98 4.15 0.8

Even with a violation of team rules and health and safety protocols that led to both Plesac and Mike Clevinger being quarantined and then optioned to the team’s alternate site, with the latter ultimately traded to the Padres on August 31, the Indians boast an enviable frontline rotation led by Bieber, who’s in the running not just for the AL Cy Young but the MVP award as well. The 25-year-old righty won the AL pitching triple crown by leading the league in wins (8), strikeouts (122) and ERA as well as FIP, WAR, K%, and K-BB%. He’ll get the Game 1 assignment, with Carrasco and Plesac lined up for Games 2 and 3. The Indians’ path to victory rests primarily on the advantage they have over the Yankees here.

Bieber has flourished this year because his breaking stuff — a curve (or rather two curves, one a big bender and the other a faux slider, as Ben Clemens explained) that he throws more often to lefties than righties, and a slider that he throws almost exclusively to righties — has been downright unhittable. He held batters to an .095 batting average and .154 xwOBA against his curve(s), the latter good for the 91st percentile, and a 25.8% swinging strike rate (97th percentile); meanwhile, against the slider, batters hit .135 with a .277 xwOBA (51st percentile) and a 28.5% swinging strike rate (96th percentile).

The 33-year-old Carrasco — who made a strong rebound from chronic myeloid leukemia — and 25-year-old Plesac finished in a virtual tie for 11th in WAR; the latter would have finished second in walk rate, third in ERA, fifth in K-BB% and eighth in K% had he not fallen 4.2 innings shy of qualifying due to his three-week absence. Among qualifiers, Carrasco was fifth in K% and swinging strike rate (15.1%) and seventh in ERA; his changeup and slider are both swing-and-miss pitches, with swinging strike rates of 19.2% and 17.6%. Plesac held batters to a .069 batting average and .133 xwOBA with the slider (96th percentile on the latter) with a 25.9% swinging strike rate, while for the changeup he limited hitters to a .125 average, .287 xwOBA, and 18.9% swinging strike rate.

A year after nearly winning the AL Cy Young award, Cole took a step back in 2020. He still finished third in the AL in K% and K-BB%, sixth in ERA and tied for 10th in WAR, but his home run rate was the second-highest mark among qualified starters, and he placed just 13th in FIP. Along the lines of what Clemens observed, he went from getting an insane 19.8% swinging strike rate on the heater last year to a more ordinary 12.5% this year, his average exit velocity on the pitch when batters made contact jumped from 90.1 mph to 92.6, and his xwOBA on the pitch spiked by 100 points (from .248 to .348). He pitched well down the stretch, posting a 1.00 ERA and 2.19 FIP over his last four starts, all against the Blue Jays and Orioles, and his curve and slider are still very effective. Nonetheless, he’s going to have to pitch at the top of his game to outdo Bieber, and if he doesn’t, the drop-off is considerable.

Tanaka, who will start Game 2, and Happ and García, one of whom will start Game 3, all struggled to keep the ball in the park as well, though the two veterans did manage to out pitch their peripherals by a similar margin. The 31-year-old Tanaka, who was limited to 10 starts due to a concussion, averaged just 4.8 innings per turn, and his splitter/slider combo wasn’t as effective as in years past. Happ, who was dreadful last year (4.91 ERA, 5.22 FIP) and complained about his vesting option after starting just three times in the season’s first month (during which he was even worse), did post a 2.45 ERA and 3.14 FIP in six starts totaling 36.2 innings from August 29 onward. He smothered lefties this year (.252 wOBA) and held his own against righties (.282 wOBA). García, who entered the year as a top-40 prospect, showed outstanding poise for a 21-year-old rookie but was lit for a .276/.304/.513 (.344 wOBA) line against righties, and gave up 10 runs in his final two starts totaling 9.2 innings. He may be better used in middle relief, particularly if a starter is forced out early.

Bullpens

Indians and Yankees AL Wild Card Series Bullpens
Team IP K% BB% K-BB% HR/9 GB% wOBA vs LHB wOBA vs RHB ERA FIP WAR
Indians 349.2 28.7% 6.7% 22.0% 1.29 42.4% .262 .309 3.17 3.64 7.9
Yankees 295.1 25.6% 6.1% 19.5% 1.55 40.4% .317 .318 4.24 4.19 5.3

The Indians had the league’s top bullpen by FIP (third by ERA) while posting the league’s highest strikeout rate and strikeout-walk differential and finishing in a virtual tie with the Rays for the lowest homer rate. Lefty closer Brad Hand was outstanding, posting a 2.05 ERA and 1.37 FIP; he didn’t allow a homer in 22 innings and rode his fastball/slider combo to eye-opening strikeout and walk rates (33.7% and 4.7%, respectively). He faced just nine lefties all year but held righties to a .174/.227/.275 (.221 wOBA) line. The star setup man in front of him is James Karinchak, a 25-year-old rookie whose 48.6% strikeout rate led all relievers. He boasts a high-spin fastball that averages 95.5 mph as well as a lethal curveball, both of which generated astronomical swinging strike rates (17.0% for the heater, 16.7% for the hook).

The primary relievers in front of him are righties Nick Wittgren and Phil Maton, both of whom struck out plenty of hitters while walking relatively few, though the former is vulnerable to the long ball (1.52 HR/9). Maton, Adam Cimber, and Cal Quantrill are the best bets to come in and generate groundballs, while the now-39-year-old Oliver Pérez, who’s on his ninth life, is the sage lefty who did excellent work against batters of either hand. If you’re looking for a secret weapon, the best bet is Triston McKenzie, a rail-thin (6-foot-5, 160 pounds) 23-year-old rookie righty who struck out 33.1% of all hitters in his 33.1 innings, and held righties to a .143/.229/.286 line in 70 PA.

The Yankees’ bullpen, which has generally been dominant in recent years, has not been at its best in 2020. As a group, the unit ranked just ninth in the league in strikeout rate and ERA, 10th in walk rate, and 12th in FIP and homer rate. The one thing they were particularly good at, besides underachieving, was generating groundballs, with a league-high rate. Injuries and health issues contributed to their struggles, with Tommy Kahnle lost to Tommy John surgery, Aroldis Chapman missing nearly four weeks due to COVID-19, and both Zack Britton and Jonathan Loaisiga making short stays on the Injured List as well.

Chapman posted his highest strikeout rate since 2014 (48.9%) and his lowest average exit velocity of the Statcast era (83.1 mph), albeit in just 11.2 innings. That said, his 2.93 FIP was his highest since 2011 and he did get touched for a pair of homers, with a rate (1.54 per nine) about triple that of his previous pinstriped work. Worth noting is that he pulled a splitter out of his pocket late in the year; in a key spot, that could come in handy.

Britton (1.89 ERA, 2.61 FIP) was the unit’s most consistent reliever and its designated worm killer; he didn’t allow a homer and generated a 71.7% groundball rate in his 19 innings. Adam Ottavino was lit up a few times and finished with unimpressive numbers, but struck out 10 while walking one over his final 5.2 innings, mainly in low-leverage work; we’ll see if he’s restored to the circle of trust or if the likes of Loaisiga or Chad Green get the call in higher-leverage work instead.

Chapman and Britton are both lefties, and while I expected the team would would bypass starter Jordan Montgomery for a bullpen spot given that he was lit for a .404 wOBA against righties, I’m updating this to note that he made the final roster. Worth noting is that righties Garcia – the best guess here for a secret weapon this side of Chapman’s splitter — and Luis Cessa were both effective against lefties, with wOBAs allowed of .260 and .206, respectively.

Offenses

On paper, this looks like a mismatch:

Indians and Yankees AL Wild Card Series Offenses
Team HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR
Yankees 94 .247 .342 .447 116 8.2 52.9 -8.2 9.9
Indians 59 .228 .317 .372 86 -0.2 -38.5 5.5 6.7

The Yankees ranked second in the AL in homers, the Indians dead last, and the gaps across the board in rate stats are sizable. Given how heavily both pitching staffs lean in terms of handedness, it’s worth noting that the Yankees, who besides switch-hitter Aaron Hicks have only one left-handed regular — left fielder Brett Gardner, who has largely been supplanted by Clint Frazier lately — were even stronger against righties (.254/.350/.463, 122 wRC+) relative to the Indians (.225/.320/.365, 85 wRC+). That said, the Yankees’ offense wasn’t much to write home about away from Yankee Stadium, hitting a meager .220/.317/.350 (86 wRC+); there’s no short right field porch in Cleveland, though Progressive Field’s 325 feet down the right field line is still on the shorter side as current ballparks go.

The Yankees’ lineup simply doesn’t offer pitchers many places to hide, and as a group, their 4.08 pitches per plate appearance ranked second in the league; they’ll wear down opposing starters, though it’s worth noting that the Indians’ 4.14 P/PA led the league. Gary Sánchez, who hit a dismal .147/.253/.365 (69 wRC+), is the only Yankees regular with a wRC+ below 100, and now that the team is at full strength, they can field lineups with a 124 wRC+ or better at every spot except catcher and shortstop (Gleyber Torres, 106). They boast the AL batting champion, DJ LeMahieu, who hit .364/421/.590 (177 wRC+) overall, as well as home run leader, Luke Voit (22, to go with a .277/.338/.610/153 wRC+ line).

While Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton were limited to a combined 51 games and 208 PA due to leg injuries (a recurrent right calf strain for the former, a left hamstring strain for the latter), they’re both available now. That said, after having been eased back into regular work with frequent off days, Judge has hit just .205/.326/.231 without a homer in 46 PA, Stanton .200/.300/.400 with one homer in 40 PA. While it’s tempting to blame the team’s 2-6 finish on their slumps, the Yankees did reach double digits in runs five times in their final 13 games once both sluggers were activated.

As for the Indians, their lineup is best described as “patchy.” Just four regulars finished the season with a wRC+ of 100 or better. Third baseman José Ramírez (.292/.386/.607, 163 wRC+) had an MVP-caliber season, and designated hitter Franmil Reyes (.275/.344/.450, 112 wRC+) and second baseman Cesar Hernandez (.283/.355/.408, 108 wRC+) were plenty solid, but shortstop Francisco Lindor disappointed on the offensive side (.258/.335/.415, 100 wRC+) even if he was on a 4.6-WAR pace overall.

On the other hand, Carlos Santana (.199/.349/.350, 95 wRC+) was a let down, and their outfield was a black hole, combining to hit .196/.270/.304 for major league-worsts in wRC+ (54) and WAR (-1.0). Thanks to the presence of the switch-hitting Hernandez, Lindor, Ramírez and Santana as well as frequent platooning in the outfield, their hitters had the platoon advantage a whopping 73.9% of the time, 11.9 percentage points higher than the second-ranked Twins (the Yankees were second-to-last at 43.8%). Against righties, the Indians are most likely to go with an outfield configuration of Josh NaylorOscar MercadoTyler Naquin. Lefty-masher Jordan Luplow figures to draw a start at one corner if Happ starts; squinting at small samples, he’s the only other Indian besides Ramírez, Lindor, and Hernandez who exceeded a 100 wRC+ down the stretch, hitting for a 160 wRC+ in 36 PA in September. On that subject, the team hit for just an 83 wRC+ against lefties (.229/.303/.380), so it wouldn’t be a surprise if Yankees manager Aaron Boone calls Happ’s number for Game 3, if there is one.

Defenses

By the advanced metrics, the Indians had the far superior defense of the two teams, leading the AL in Defensive Runs Saved (29) and ranking third in Ultimate Zone Rating (8.8) while the Yankees were ninth in the former and 11th in the latter (1 DRS, -4.4 UZR). Hernandez (6 DRS, 3.6 UZR) and Lindor (2 DRS, 5.4 UZR) were particularly good, Torres (-9 DRS, -4.4 UZR) and Hicks (-7 DRS, -3.8 UZR) particularly bad. The two teams were middle-of-the-pack in defensive efficiency (Indians .701, Yankees .695), but the Indians’ catching tandem (Roberto Pérez and deadline acquisition Austin Hedges) was better than the much-maligned Sánchez behind the plate.

A year after leading the majors in days lost to the IL to an absurd degree, the Yankees ranked third in that department this season, losing the likes of Luis Severino and James Paxton for most if not all of the season, while every regular besides Hicks, Voit, and Sánchez spent time on the IL at one point or another. They survived thanks in large part to their depth, but in a short series, that matters less, and the Indians’ rotation trio presents a daunting challenge. Anything can happen in two or three games, but the guess here is that the top-to-bottom strength of the Yankees’ lineup — even given concerns about their small-sample home/road splits in this weird season — will mitigate the Indians’ pitching advantage, while helping Yankees pitchers find some easy outs, and that will be enough for New York to squeak through.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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emh1969
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emh1969

Great summary Jay! Been looking forward to reading this all day.

Should be a great series, highlighted by the game one matchup featuring last year’s Cy Young award winner vs this year’s.

I would say that one possible advantage for the Yankees is that they hot rights particularly well (wRC+ of 122) and the Indians have a very righty-heavy pitching staff (Perez and Hand are the only lefties).

As for Cleveland’s offense…yeah it’s bad. Real bad. But Luplow and Naylor have hit better over the past 10-12 games which gives me a little hope. In general, though, the offense only goes about 6 deep at best. In fact, there are their wRC+ for batting order positions 7-9: 21, 38, 45. Ouch!

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

My general take on reverse platoon splits is that they don’t really exist over the long haul unless someone can prove a physical reason for it, so I was intrigued by the idea that an entire team managed to have a reverse split.

So I went and looked; they only had about 500 PAs against lefties the whole season, compared to about 1700 vs righties. To be fair, you usually face more righties than lefties but the Yankees were in the Top 5 of PAs against righties and the bottom third against lefties.

Then I went to go see which lefties started against them. They got Blake Snell twice, Ryu twice (they totally lit up Ryu one of the times, FWIW) Patrick Corbin, and Max Fried, with some good performances by Robbie Ray and David Peterson too. The closest thing I could find to a pushover was John Means, who did not have a good year. But even Keegan Akin had a 3.27 FIP this year (one time he shut the Yankees down; the other time he didn’t even make it out of the first innning).

There are a lot of good right handed pitchers they faced too (Nola, Wheeler, Scherzer, Glasnow), but when you get to beat up Asher Wojciechowski and Ryan Weber and Touki Touissant and Colten Brewer you can look pretty good. So while it’s certainly good news for the Yankees that they managed to hit their shots, I don’t think this is going to be predictive against Cleveland.

emh1969
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emh1969

Oh I agree but this is really Jay’s fault. His article was so good that it didn’t leave me much to add. And I wanted to write more than just “Great article Jay!”. So I went with the one interesting tidbit that I could find. So yes, definitely Jay’s fault!!! 🙂

Anyway, looking at the 6 Yankees who hit really well against righties this year, Stanton, and LeMahieu have typically hit much better against lefties. Judge has hit slightly better against lefties. And Voit, Frazier, and Urshela have shown no platoon split (though obviously in shorter careers).

emh1969
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emh1969

BTW, looking at it the other way, teams loaded their lineups with left-handed hitters against the Indians. In fact, the Indians faced nearly as many left-handed hitters (1010) as they did righties (1154). And the strategy completely flopped. Lefties had a .271 wOBA against Cleveland pitchers. Where rightes had a .303 wOBA.

So the Yankees hitters had a reverse team platoon split. As did the Cleveland pitchers…

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

This is Ben Clemens’s line from the other day, but it’s one of those things I think sometimes fans (and sometimes the teams they follow) haven’t yet internalized: Just because a guy is better when he gets to face opposite-handed batters doesn’t mean he is good. Yes, if you have Joc Pederson on hand you platoon him and get a bunch of runs but Matt Adams, despite early-career promise, has only a 105 wRC+ against right handed pitchers since 2017. JD Davis has a 110 wRC+ against righties, plus has the advantage of putting up a 123 against lefties. You lose ground if you platoon JD Davis with Matt Adams.

Cleveland has a pretty good solution to this which is to place a very high value on switch hitters, or at least the solution was good until all of them except J-Ram collapsed…well, I guess Cesar Hernandez was pretty good too. But having someone who is bad at hitting same-handed pitching is not necessarily a good platoon candidate.