Yankees vs. Indians Series Preview and MLB Playoff Picks

After a spirited win in the American League Wild Card Game, the New York Yankees will move on to face the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS beginning on Thursday. The Indians have been the hottest team in baseball over the last month and a half. They’re also the odds-on favorite to win the World Series.

Starting on Thursday, the Yankees find themselves in an unfamiliar position: as the underdog. This five-game set will be broadcast live on Fox Sports 1 and MLB Network.

Starting Pitching Matchups

Terry Francona shocked the baseball world when he announced that Corey Kluber wouldn’t pitch until Game 2 of the ALDS, and Trevor Bauer would make the Game 1 start.

Bauer has had a strong second half, maturing greatly over the last year, but the right-hander didn’t have the easiest go of it in the postseason last year, allowing eight runs in 13.2 innings. Sure, the drone incident played into some of those numbers, but Bauer did not pitch well.

Starting him in one of the first two games does make some sense in that he’s 10-4 with a 3.93 ERA at home and 7-5 with a 4.54 ERA on the road. Getting him a start at Progressive Field is probably a good idea. Still, getting the nod over Kluber feels like a case of over-managing.

For the season, Bauer went 17-9 with a 4.19 ERA and 1.367 WHIP. In the second half, he was 10-2 with a 3.01 ERA. His WHIP is still higher than you’d like, as he does allow base runners, but he’s been able to limit the damage since the break.

Bauer figures to match up with Sonny Gray for the Yankees. The right-hander was acquired from Oakland for this very reason. He was just 4-7 in his 11 starts since putting on the pinstripes, but his 3.72 ERA tells a better story. He’s thrown well, but he has gotten little support on offense or defense.

Gray doesn’t have much postseason experience, but what he does have has been good. He made two starts in the ALDS back in 2013, allowing three runs on 10 hits in 13 innings over two starts. Those are strong numbers, but he’s still looking for his first postseason win.

New York’s best chance for a win may be in Game 1 given that matchup. After that, the big boys step in. Kluber dominated in the postseason last year and is the likely Cy Young Award winner. At 18-4 with a 2.25 ERA and 0.869 WHIP, Kluber leads the league in most significant categories. He really pitched well down the stretch, going 11-1 with a 1.79 ERA in the second half and 5-0 with a 0.84 ERA over the season’s final month.

After pitching Game 2, Kluber will be lined up to get the start in Game 5 should the series go that deep.

In Game 3, Carlos Carrasco toes the rubber for the Indians. He’ll bring an 18-6 record and 3.29 ERA to the mound. While Bauer starting at home was important given the splits, Carrasco went 11-2 with a 2.65 ERA in 17 road starts, making him a logical choice for the first game back at Yankee Stadium.

The final starter in Cleveland’s four-man postseason rotation is Josh Tomlin. The right-hander is the anti-Indians starter. While the rest of the bunch tally strikeout rates north of 10 per nine innings, he thrives more on weak contact and a very low walk rate. His overall season numbers leave plenty to be desired, but like the rest of the staff, he’s throwing well right now. He’s 5-0 with a 3.19 ERA in his last nine starts. He hasn’t taken a loss since June.

In addition, Tomlin threw well in the postseason last year. He now comes in with experience and postseason success. That cannot be understated.

For the Yankees, it’s hard to tell which way Joe Girardi will go with the rest of his rotation. Luis Severino lasted just two-thirds of an inning in the Wild Card Game and could conceivably come back and pitch in Game 2, making him available for Game 5. When he’s on his game, he’s still the Yankees’ best pitcher. He was 14-6 with a 2.98 ERA in the regular season. He struggled against the Minnesota Twins in the regular season, too, but he delivered a pair of quality starts when matched up against Cleveland.

Whether Severino goes in Game 2 or Game 3, he’ll have a tough matchup against either Kluber or Carrasco.
The other two starters for the Yankees will be C.C. Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka in some order. Sabathia has the better numbers, but Tanaka has the better stuff when he’s on his game.

Sabathia finished the year 14-5 with a 3.69 ERA. He’s been consistently good as he’s re-established himself as a quality big-league pitcher. The veteran southpaw is not the same guy he was early in his career, but he knows how to pitch.

Tanaka is less of a sure thing. He could hang a complete game shutout on the Indians or get knocked out in a couple frames. The right-hander has been up-and-down all year. The splits, however, greatly favor starting him at Yankee Stadium where he went 9-5 with a 3.22 ERA compared to his 6.48 road mark.

Positional Breakdown

The Yankees outscored the Indians by 40 runs over the course of the regular season, though it’s the Indians with the better team OPS at .788 compared to New York’s .785.

Given those numbers, it becomes pretty clear these are two balanced offenses. Breaking things down further, the Tribe had the slight edge in their second-half numbers, but these teams were Nos. 1 and 2 in baseball in runs scored in September. Once again, the Yankees eked out a couple more runs with the Indians sporting a marginally better OPS.

Overall, these two offenses are very close. The Yankees have more homers and lead baseball in the long balls, but the Indians have plenty of power themselves and were double machines, particularly in the latter part of the year.

Position-by-position, the Yankees have the advantage behind the plate. Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez are better receivers than Gary Sanchez, but Sanchez is the much better bat.

On the infield, Greg Bird had a nice final couple weeks and is the real wild card here. Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius are dynamic up the middle, while Todd Frazier and Chase Headley are both capable at third.

Francisco Lindor was the best player on the field for much of the 2016 postseason. He’s a truly elite talent, and Jose Ramirez has joined him in that category in 2017. With Jason Kipnis not being, well, Jason Kipnis, there is a hole in the infield, but Carlos Santana has had another strong season at first.

In the outfield, Aaron Judge is the headliner. He had a big performance in the Wild Card game and has been swinging a red-hot bat over the last month. He’s great. Brett Gardner is a nice player, too, while Jacoby Ellsbury and Aaron Hicks are solid depth options.

Cleveland’s outfield cannot offer anyone that comes close to matching Judge when he’s on his game, but the Tribe do have more depth. Kipnis has been getting looks in the outfield and is fighting for at-bats with Michael Brantley, Jay Bruce, Austin Jackson, Lonnie Chisenhall and more.

Then, when you add in the DH, the Indians have a nice advantage with Edwin Encarnacion.

Bullpen Analysis

The ‘pen is where this series gets exciting. Yes, the Yankees and Indians are neck-and-neck on offense, but the gap is even smaller when it comes to their respective relief corps.

The Yankees did have to get 8.1 innings out of the ‘pen on Tuesday, which diminishes the unit heading into the series. Even with a day off on Wednesday, it’s hard to imagine David Robertson would be available for Game 1. Despite that, there’s still depth.

We saw Robertson, Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle and Aroldis Chapman against the Twins as the unit rolled through most of the game being nearly unhittable. The four arms we saw are a big part of what makes this team so dangerous, but the key difference-maker could be Dellin Betances.

Betances has been the team’s bullpen workhorse for years, but he has struggled with his command. He’s always been a high walks guy, but it’s gone to a new level recently. He threw ball four to 44 batters and hit 11 in 59.2 innings. He had a rough September, too, allowing six runs in 9.2 innings.

New York still has plenty of depth with or without Betances, but Girardi will need to go to him during the ALDS, and he needs to produce.

On the other side, the Indians are going with a short bullpen to get an extra position player on the roster, but the structure of the rotation will allow Bauer to pitch out of the ‘pen for the final few games of the series while Tomlin will be available for a couple innings in the first two games.

Beyond that, the Indians still have the duo of Cody Allen and Andrew Miller that allowed them so much postseason flexibility last year. They also have, arguably, a better supporting cast around them this year.

Quick Pick: Indians over Yankees in Four

Cleveland is probably the most balanced team right now, and it has the motivation to win it all after just missing out a season ago. We saw the strength of the New York bullpen in the Wild Card game. That’s a huge asset in a short series, but the Indians have the same strength. In fact, these two teams stack up very well in most areas.

Their offenses have produced nearly the same number of runs while their bullpens are the two best in baseball. The one area that the Indians stand apart from the Yankees is in the rotation. While putting Bauer in for Game 1 is a risky move, the rotation is still much deeper than New York’s. The Yankees have options to match up with Bauer and Tomlin, but Kluber and Carrasco are better than Severino and company.

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