A while back, August Fagerstrom noticed a near-historic aspect of the Cleveland Indians’ offense. They do really well against breaking and offspeed pitches. They led the non-Colorado division of baseball in slugging percentage against those pitches, and they had one of the most extreme splits as an offense against fastballs, as opposed to breaking/offspeed pitches, in the history of baseball. That’s quite a strength.
Of course, it’s a strength that belies a relative weakness on the other side. Take a look at how the Indians ranked in production against fastballs when judged by pitch-type values in the American League this year.
Cleveland had the seventh-best strikeout rate in the American League. They walked more than any AL team other than Boston, Houston, and Toronto. Their weighted and park-adjusted offense was fourth in their league. Overall, they were a good offense. But they weren’t great against fastballs.
And normally, that might be fine. Everyone has their own way of being good, and this just happens to be the way the Indians are good. But let’s take a look really quickly at the starting rotation of the Toronto Blue Jays, Cleveland’s opponent in the ALCS — because there’s something that Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, and J.A. Happ (and even Marco Estrada, in his own weird way) have in common: really good fastballs. Oh, and yup, there they are.
Welp. There are plenty of good fastballs coming to town, and the Indians prefer the bendy, slower pitches.
It’s interesting that these fastballs are so different and yet so excellent. The Blue Jays’ fastballs have been great this year despite a relatively mediocre showing on thei efour-seamers, with which they produced just the 11th-best value mark as a staff — and only 12th-best if you consider just the starters.
The script gets flipped a little if you look at sinkers, though. The rotation recorded the fourth-highest average sinker velocity in the American League, and their sinkers were the fastest relative to their four-seamers, too. If you look at full staffs, the same picture emerges, generally, though the Rangers have a slightly bigger pro-sinker velocity gap.
So the Blue Jays love their sinkers. Their sinkers, as a staff, have more sink than any other in baseball. They are the third-fastest, too. Combine velocity and sink, and it’s tough to barrel up. Their sinkers allowed the lowest launch angle in baseball this year.
Are the Indians just screwed, then? Their Achilles heel shot by the Jays’ sinker arrows? They may have a hard time lifting those sinkers, at least, and so that suggests a difficulty in hitting home runs.
That was never a main strength for this Indians squad, though. They were 18th in baseball at hitting home runs, 10th in the American League, and last among the remaining playoff teams. Rather, they’re generally a speedy team (fastest in the AL and fastest remaining team when judged by base-running runs) that makes the most of its line drives (when judged by batting average on balls in play). Toronto pitchers did allow a decent exit velocity on their sinkers (second-fastest in baseball), so even if the Cleveland batters are unable to produce much loft with their batted balls, they might have a decent opportunity to string together some ground balls that find their way to the outfield and then use their speed to score runs.
It’s not how most playoff teams are succeeding this year — teams are relying on the home run to score runs this October, and the Indians themselves have hit five homers in three games, good for second-best — but it could be a way for Cleveland to succeed despite this bad matchup.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.