Several hours before the first pitch of the World Series opener in Cleveland on Tuesday night, a reporter opened the press conference with Indians Game Two starter Trevor Bauer by asking him what it was that he enjoyed about watching Game One starter Corey Kluber when he was at his best. Probably nine in 10 pitchers answer this question with some form of stock response, praising Kluber for the way he competes, his intensity on the mound, or his routines in between starts (Indians players love Kluber’s routines). Whenever nine out of 10 someones would say any one thing, Trevor Bauer is always that 10th guy.
“I like the two-seam fastball,” Bauer said, matter of factly. “That’s a pitch I’m fascinated with. A pitch I started throwing mostly by studying his, and figuring out exactly why it moves and all the science behind it. So I enjoy watching that because sometimes it moves a lot, and it’s really fun to see the reactions to it.”
Bauer spent blocks of time during the 2015 offseason watching film at 1,000 frames per second of Kluber’s two-seam fastball, studying its spin axis and the way Kluber achieves that spin and movement based on the way it comes off his fingers. That year, Bauer threw more than 350 two-seam fastballs, having thrown just seven in his career before learning it by studying Kluber. This year, the two-seam fastball trumped the four-seam as Bauer’s go-to offering, and he threw it more than any other pitch, turning himself into a completely different type of pitcher in the process.
On Tuesday night, we saw just why Bauer went to such lengths to mimic Kluber’s two-seamer, as it was the biggest reason Cleveland’s ace was able to carve up perhaps baseball’s best lineup, allowing just three baserunners in six scoreless innings while striking out nine, and turning Chicago’s biggest threat, Anthony Rizzo, into mush.
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The night before the 2016 World Series is set to begin in Cleveland, our playoff odds list the Chicago Cubs with a 66% chance to take home the trophy, which is a remarkably one-sided projection, given the nature of how baseball is played and how any series, let alone one played by two teams who emerged as champions of their respective leagues, often feels like nothing more than a coin flip. But our odds list the Cubs as 2:1 favorites over the Cleveland Indians, and FiveThirtyEight’s odds are almost identical.
These Cubs outscored their opponents by more than 250 combined runs this season, completing one of the most dominant regular seasons in baseball history, and they’re playing at nearly full strength, even improbably adding the slugging Kyle Schwarber, who’s been out since April 7 with torn ligaments in his left knee, to the their World Series roster. These Indians, admittedly, a great team in their own right, outscored their opponents by 101 runs — the fourth-best run differential in baseball this year, although a much more typical number — and are playing without a borderline ace pitcher in Carlos Carrasco, with a limited version of star pitcher Danny Salazar, with a drone-inflicted Trevor Bauer, and now apparently with a hobbled Jason Kipnis, too.
It’s impossible to fault the odds for saying what they do. The Cubs are clearly the better team, clearly in better shape. But a one-in-three shot is still a one-in-three shot, and this is a Cleveland sports town that just saw their Cleveland Cavaliers come back from a 3-1 NBA Finals deficit to dethrone the Golden State Warriors, at a time when the Warriors were being considered 40:1 favorites entering Game Five, so these fans probably don’t care too strongly for the odds.
What they would care for is an Indians championship. Here’s five keys to that happening:
This one can happen, starting tonight. Jon Lester is starting Game One for the Cubs, and we all know about Jon Lester’s little problem: he can’t throw to first. Like, really, he just can’t throw a baseball to first base. It might literally be the weirdest thing about an already weird sport, but for whatever reason, he can’t do it from a fielding position, and he just won’t do it from the rubber. The Kansas City Royals made this very clear when they stole seven bases on him and Derek Norris in the 2014 American League Wild Card game, and the Los Angeles Dodgers made this very clear when they toyed with him all throughout the Game Five of the NLCS last week.
But what’s funny about all that toying, as I wrote, is that they never actually ran. Thing is, Lester’s delivery is exceptionally quick to home, and catcher David Ross‘ pop times to second base are exceptionally quick, and as a pair, they can actually be rather difficult to successfully steal against, even given the lengthy leads Lester’s pickoff inability affords baserunners.
That being said, they’ll have a hard time throwing out Rajai Davis if he reaches first, and he’ll be starting against Lester. The Indians have already come right out and said they plan to test Lester, given the opportunity, and given their status as the AL’s best base-stealing team this year combined with Terry Francona’s hyper-aggressive postseason managing style, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Indians try and turn World Series Game One into a repeat of Lester’s 2014 Wild Card disaster, getting them Game One with a shot to put this thing away early if they can just…
I understand that “win baseball games” isn’t a particularly insightful piece of advice, but in this case, it seems compelling, as this very circumstance is a big part of what’s led to Cleveland’s improbable postseason run in the first place. Without Carrasco or Salazar in the rotation for the first two rounds of the playoffs, nobody thought Josh Tomlin was going to be able to handle the imposing lineups of Boston and Toronto, until he did, and everyone counted out the Indians when they threw Ryan Merritt into the fire against the Blue Jays, until he pitched the Indians into the World Series. With Corey Kluber potentially starting Games One, Four, and Seven, the Indians could realistically hope for two wins in games started by their ace, needing just two more by the rest of the pack to seal the deal.
These underpowered Indians starters were able to navigate Toronto’s overpowering lineup by picking a game plan and sticking to it, a game plan that might be similar to the one they employed against Toronto, which aims to…
The Cubs were arguably baseball’s best offense this year, and one defining characteristic of that offense is their love for fly balls. Only four teams hit the ball on the ground less often than Chicago, and guys like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Willson Contreras are looking to get the ball into the air almost every time they step to the plate, as that’s how they inflict the most damage. The Indians were able to keep the Blue Jays on the ground by throwing them a steady diet of breaking pitches, but the Cubs were one of the five best teams in baseball this year at producing against breaking pitches, according to our PITCHf/x run values (the Indians were No. 1 by a landslide).
Instead, the key to keeping the top of the Cubs’ lineup on the ground will have less to do with pitch selection and more to do with pitch execution, like pitching away from Bryant — the other half of Cleveland’s game plan against Toronto — and low and away from Rizzo.
That’s one key for Cleveland’s pitching, while one key for their hitting might be to…
In Lester, the Indians may find a subtle advantage in their ability to capitalize on his weakness in holding runners on first base. In Hendricks, the Indians may find a subtle advantage in their ability to excel against all pitches slow and/or bendy, but Jake Arrieta, to me, represents their most difficult challenge. What the Indians’ lineup really struggles against is premium velocity, and Arrieta is Chicago’s hardest-throwing starter, averaging more than 94 mph on his fastballs, which he throws roughly two-thirds of the time, a percentage that could even increase, given Cleveland’s struggles with the pitch. If guys like Jose Ramirez, Mike Napoli, and especially Tyler Naquin can catch up to Arrieta’s heat, it will go a long way toward neutralizing perhaps Chicago’s strongest starting pitching matchup against Cleveland.
So, run on Lester, get good outings out of Bauer and Tomlin, keep the Cubs’ balls in play on the ground, and jump on Arrieta’s fastballs. Those are all ways the Indians can get out to early leads, which, in actuality, is the single biggest key for the Indians to win the World Series, as early leads allow Francona to…
I’ve somehow gone more than 1,000 words without mentioning the MVP of the ALCS, Andrew Miller, who’s turning in one of the most dominant postseason pitching performances on record. The first step in the “How to Beat Andrew Miller Handbook” is “Don’t Face Andrew Miller,” and the best way to make that happen is to not let the Indians get out to a lead. The Indians turned into one of the best teams in baseball the moment they got a lead this year, and that effect has only been amplified following the midseason acquisition of Miller and Francona’s rampant usage of him in the postseason. When the Indians have carried a lead through five or six innings, Francona has turned to his two-headed bullpen monster of Miller and Cody Allen to work the remaining three to four innings, and the Indians have appeared almost unbeatable.
The finish line is within arm’s reach, and Andrew Miller’s arms are long as hell. With no more series remaining after this one and an entire offseason to recover, all bets are off with regards to how far Francona pushes Miller, and it wouldn’t be a surprise for him to turn the dial up a notch, even from the unprecedented usage we’ve seen thus far. Steps one through four are how the Indians can get the ball into the hands of Miller with the lead. Step five is how they can win the whole [damn] thing.
Even though run-scoring spiked to its highest total in seven years this season, these playoffs have been dominated by pitching like few others. With managers getting more out of their shutdown relievers than ever before and pitchers like Jon Lester, Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller, Marco Estrada, and Kenley Jansen turning in dominant appearances while shouldering heavy workloads, perhaps it’s no surprise that these playoffs include the lowest-scoring ALCS in history. And with a World Series matchup that features one of the best run-prevention units the sport has ever seen and a pitching staff that just held the Blue Jays and Red Sox to a combined 15 runs in eight games, the World Series seems likely to continue as a low-scoring, pitcher-dominated affair.
With pitching potentially taking center stage for this year’s fall classic, so do the individual pitches themselves. And so, allow me to continue an exercise I’ve performed for each of the previous two World Series, in which I attempt to (somewhat) objectively identify the nastiest pitches we’ll see throughout this final seven-game series.
What makes a pitch nasty? Well, in part, the way it looks, which is informed by the combination of velocity and movement. So that’s half of our criteria right there. Dominant results also make a pitch nasty, and there’s no two better results for a pitcher than a swinging strike or a ground ball, so that makes up the other half of the process of these pitches being selected. Velocity, movement (horizontal + vertical), whiff/pitch, ground ball/ball in play, all relative to the individual pitch type and ranked based on the sum of four z-scores.
Jeff Sullivan wrote a post this morning about Jon Lester and the running game. He mentioned that I’d also be writing a post about Jon Lester and the running game, but with a greater emphasis on the numbers side of it. This is that post.
Before we get to the actual numbers, a note about Jon Lester himself. In a way, for much of his career, Lester almost been consistent to a fault. To the point where his greatness borders on boring, or forgettable. In nine years since taking on a full workload, he’s made between 31 and 33 starts in each season, always 191 and 219 innings. He had a three-year run of his ERA- being 71, then 73, then 75, and four of his nine FIP- have been between 73-76. His fastball has sat between 91.8 and 93.5 miles per hour — right at or below average — in each of those nine years. Lester’s had his two best seasons by ERA in the last three years, but even then, his FIP- figures have read: 75, 75, 82. Just consistent ol’ Jon Lester. Nothing remarkable here.
And yet, somehow, the longer Lester remains consistent, the more we realize he’s one of the most fascinating and unique specimens in the game. We realize he simply refuses to attempt a pickoff throw to first base, and that’s because when he’s forced to field a ground ball and make an overhand throw to first, he just literally can’t do it. The pitcher just cannot throw. We realize that he’s maybe the worst hitter, ever, like in MLB history. And so we watch each one of his starts with amazement, as the gifted, elite athlete is unable to hide his inexplicable ineptitudes, and as the opposition just… fails to exploit them?
Give the Dodgers credit. They sure as hell tried. Kind of. At the very least, they sure as hell put put all of Lester’s bizarre quirks front and center stage in their 8-4 NLCS Game 5 loss on Thursday night. It’s just, none of it mattered.
The Dodgers wasted no time letting Lester know that they knew. This was the first pitch Lester threw:
Congratulations, [National League champion], on winning the National League pennant and advancing to the World Series! By this point, no matter what happens, you’ve had a hell of a year. You fought through [early-to-midseason adversity], [previously unheralded player] stepped up and made a name for himself, [star player] cemented his status as one of the true greats in the world, and [famous front-office executive or manager] really has a group to be proud of here. This has truly been a run to remember.
And now you’ve got one more task before you can put a bow on this season once and for all: the Cleveland Indians. The Indians didn’t have as rocky a road as you did to get here; they swept the Red Sox in the ALDS, nearly swept the Blue Jays in the ALCS, and have won 10 of their last 11 games dating back to September 30. And, while there’s a lot of praise to go around for those victories, you and I both know you biggest individual challenge that awaits you in the World Series: the 6-foot-7 swamp monster that comes out of their bullpen the moment they get a lead by the name of Andrew Miller.
He just won the ALCS MVP. In this postseason, he’s thrown 20 scoreless innings, striking out 31 with just three walks. The last time he gave up a run was more than a month ago, on September 7. He’s recorded more than three outs in every one of his postseason appearances. In every game he’s pitched, the Indians have won. If you want this World Series, that might mean conquering Miller at least once, so, since you asked, I put together that comprehensive walkthrough you wanted. This wasn’t easy.
Because of course he did. This morning, I wrote all there was to know about Ryan Merritt, the 24-year-old, soft-tossing, non-prospect, left-handed pitcher who was set to start Game 5 of the ALCS for the Cleveland Indians with all of 11 innings of major league experience under his belt and the opportunity to end the Toronto Blue Jays’ season and clinch the American League pennant for Cleveland. The conclusion, based on all available data, film, and reports? “Probably, this isn’t going to go well for Cleveland.” The actual results? Shutout ball for 4.1 innings, perfect for 3.1, and a whole lot of champagne and cigar smoke in the visiting clubhouse at the Rogers Centre.
Because, baseball. Because, 2016 Cleveland Indians. When Michael Brantley’s season was over before it began, Jose Ramirez simply stepped up and turned himself into Michael Brantley. When Marlon Byrd got hit with a season-ending PED suspension at the end of May, spreading an already-thin outfield even thinner, Tyler Naquin emerged as a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate. When Yan Gomes separated his shoulder and the Indians failed to land Jonathan Lucroy at the trade deadline, Roberto Perez stepped in and handled the pitching staff so well that most Indians pitchers, when asked about the rotation’s dominant run in the postseason, haven’t been able to wait for reporters to finish their questions before his name falls off their lips. And so, of course, when Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar each suffered season-ending injuries in the final month of the season and Trevor Bauer went all Victor Frankenstein and was betrayed by his own creation, Josh Tomlin and Ryan Merritt made it seem like no one was missing. Like this was how they drew it all up from the start.
And of course, saying Merritt pitched the Indians into the World Series makes it sound like an isolated effort, when in fact the bullpen threw as many innings in Wednesday’s 3-0 pennant-clinching victory as he did. If anyone, on their own, truly “pitched the Indians into the World Series,” it was ALCS MVP Andrew Miller, who threw another 2.2 scoreless innings, bringing his postseason total to 20, with 31 strikeouts and three walks. Miller, Bryan Shaw, and Cody Allen did as much of the work as the starter, as they have for much of the postseason, but there was no work to be done if Merritt didn’t keep the game in check and hand the ball off to the bullpen with a lead. Cleveland’s lineup did its part, and Merritt did more than his own.
Listen, we can all be adults here. We all understand what’s going on, in that none of us understand what’s going on. The Cleveland Indians are a few hours away from playing Game 5 of the ALCS, a game that could advance them to the World Series, and they’ll be handing the ball to Ryan Merritt in the first inning. Ryan Merritt, a 24-year-old who’s faced all of 37 batters in his major-league career, which began with a mop-up relief appearance against the Texas Rangers back in May of this year. Ryan Merritt, a lefty whose fastball sits at 87 mph and tops out at 90. Ryan Merritt, who has never appeared within the top 10 of an Indians prospects list.
I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m some Ryan Merritt expert. Who is? About 48 hours ago, I knew as much about Ryan Merritt as the rest of you. What follows is simply a collection of more or less public information compiled from data, film, and scouting reports. Let’s get to know Ryan Merritt.
The biographical information is always a good place to start. The Indians selected Merritt in the 16th round of the 2011 draft. That’s not a very high round! He was picked 488th overall. He doesn’t have a particularly imposing frame, at 6-foot-0, 180 pounds, though BaseballAmerica’s 2015 scouting report calls it an “athletic frame.” He cracked Double-A last year, and pitched well, to the tune of a 3.51 ERA and 3.25 FIP in 141 innings. In 143 Triple-A innings this year, he ran a 3.70 ERA and 3.82 FIP.
As Trevor Bauer walked off the pitching mound at the Rogers Centre and into the visiting dugout in the first inning of Monday’s ALCS Game 3, his right pinky finger bleeding and leaving a trail of blood behind him with each step — like a wounded Hansel in the forest — the home crowd in Toronto erupted into cheer and applause. Some were genuinely clapping out of the good nature of their heart, giving support to the wounded athlete who gave it his all. Some had perhaps more malicious intent, jeering at the outspoken pitcher whose jabs at the Blue Jays fanbase on Twitter have persisted for months. And some were likely just cheering as fans of the Blue Jays, believing their home team’s win expectancy had just risen now that Cleveland’s bullpen had been forced into action following just two outs and four batters.
What that last group of fans might not have realized is that, in a one-game scenario, the introduction of Cleveland’s bullpen into the game actually represented an advantage for the Indians. That the Blue Jays likely had a much better shot at putting up runs by facing Bauer two, or even three times, than enduring a barrage of well-rested Cleveland relievers in four-out spurts for the entire game. That, as far as Game 3 was concerned, Bauer’s bleeding finger was actually a blessing in disguise for the Indians.