October 14, 2016
ALCS Preview: Blue Jays vs. Indians
The Red Sox were the best team in the American League during the regular season and the Rangers had the best record. If the idea was to have a series that best encapsulated the 2016 season on the junior circuit, though, this is about the best we could have hoped for. Both the Blue Jays and the Indians bear the marks of a long season, and both have holes that would be notable and somewhat glaring even if they’d had perfect health. The two best teams left in the postseason, by a wide margin, are playing for the National League pennant. This has been an odd, sloppy slugfest of a season in the AL, and these are the perfect clubs to finish it off.
Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv, WARP)
The Blue Jays’ offense was a monumental disappointment for much of this season. The team that bashed opponents’ brains in throughout 2015, and especially in the second half, finished 22nd in TAv in 2016, despite more or less the same lineup. From September 1 on, they batted a collective .236/.334/.358, which is how they went from AL East favorites on Labor Day to scrapping for the right to play in the Wild Card game by the time the calendar turned to October. In four postseason games, though, they’ve scorched the weak Baltimore and Texas pitching staffs to the tune of 19 extra-base hits (10 of them over the fence), reminding everyone how dangerous they can be.
The bruising playoff Jays are probably closer to the real Jays than the punchless ones who slogged through September, but it’s worth noting that the Indians are unlikely to be so easily knocked around the park—even given their injury-thinned roster. There’s a real disadvantage in having six right-handed hitters at the top of the lineup, and perhaps especially so against the Indians: Corey Kluber (.209 TAv allowed against RHB in 2016), Andrew Miller (.169), Cody Allen (.171), Dan Otero (.192), and Bryan Shaw (.220) are Death on Righties, and could pitch to those six great right-handed hitters in 70 percent of their plate appearances during this series.
The Indians don’t have that kind of platoon vulnerability problem. Their best lineup has four righties, three lefties, and two switch-hitters in it, and the four guys who largely make or break the offense (the top four in the lineup above) go switch-left-switch-right. On the other hand, Cleveland’s lineup is weaker at almost every spot, in a head-to-head sense, which is why they finished 23rd in TAv this season. They might be a bit better than that in terms of true talent, but the chance that these hitters will take over the series is considerably smaller than the chance that Toronto’s will do the same.
The X-factor: no other playoff team runs like Cleveland. They steal a lot of bases at one of the league’s best success rates, and take the extra base pretty well, too.
Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv, WARP)
Both teams will generally hope they don’t have to lean on anyone coming off the bench to make a big contribution. Devon Travis’ knee injury could force Barney into action, and Guyer has real utility as a pinch-hitter if the Jays bring on one of their lefty relievers to face Naquin or Chisenhall. Upton is 31 now, but still has defensive value at the corner outfield spots, and the one offensive skill that has seemed to come with him to Toronto since they traded for him in July is a proclivity for mashing southpaw pitching.
The rest of the group comprises guys who have shown utility in the past, but rarely (or never) pieced it together. Crisp doesn’t quite fit that bill, but it describes him now: he’s a broken-down hitter and was caught five times in 15 steal attempts this season.
First observation: sweeping the Red Sox was huge for the Indians. Doing so allows Kluber to start Game 1, and on six days’ rest. Kluber matches up well with Toronto, and gets to pitch against them first in Cleveland (Park Factor for RHB: 98) instead of in Toronto (Park Factor for RHB: 108). If he can give them the kind of innings they’re hoping for, he can also generate a trickle-down effect: using Miller and Allen in traditional roles in Game 1 would make it easier to stretch them in Game 2, and avoiding using Otero, Shaw, and the rest would keep them fresh (and improve their expected performance in later games).
Next observation: DRA thinks the Jays are doing it backward when it comes to their starters, putting their two lesser lights at the front of the line for potential second starts in the set. Estrada and Happ are precisely the sorts of pitchers whose skills might not be fully captured even by advanced pitching value metrics, but Stroman and Sanchez probably are genuinely better. On the other hand, taking park factors into account again: Cleveland (Park Factor for LHB: 122) is the best left-handed hitter’s park in baseball. Estrada (.215 TAv allowed to LHB in 2016) and Happ (.219) are much better equipped to keep the Tribe’s left-handed bats under wraps in those first two games than are Sanchez (.236) and Stroman (.255).
Final observation: the Jays’ rotation is much deeper than Cleveland’s. That’s not what we’d have guessed in August, when this matchup seemed likely but figured to include Carlos Carrasco and/or Danny Salazar, and didn’t figure to include Sanchez (at least as a starter), but it’s where we are. Tomlin has a big reverse split that won’t help him at all in this series. Clevinger is a fringy playoff starter, at best. If Kluber and Bauer falter, Terry Francona is going to be asking his relief aces to run all the way through the lineup a time or two again.
Relief Pitchers (IP, ERA, DRA, WARP)
These lists assume:
Here, the Indians have a clear advantage. Now, their challenge will be to avail themselves of it. Francona’s brilliant, heavy use of Allen, Miller, and Shaw turned the ALDS in his team’s favor. It won’t be as easy to do so this time around. The series doesn’t promise as many open days. There will be no rainouts through at least the first five games of this set. As we discussed earlier, the dominance of the top four Cleveland relievers over right-handed hitters is a huge potential factor, but the starting pitchers will have to keep them in it long enough to make that matter.
On the Toronto side, you can pretty well read the innings totals for the second half of their projected bullpen and see the story. There are four pitchers John Gibbons can truly trust, and if his starters ever fail to get him far enough into a game to ride those guys, the contest goes up for grabs. On the other hand, the stability of the Toronto rotation might actually allow Gibbons not to have to reach past the big four. If Liriano and Benoit end up healthy enough to join the roster, it’s anyone’s guess how effective they could be, but they’d help to even the scales.
Francona allows his speedy team to be aggressive on the bases. The Indians will steal, and even double-steal, when the opportunity presents itself. Few AL managers pinch-hit more liberally than did Francona this season; Guyer and Naquin will fill that role if the matchup opportunity arises. Obviously, too, one of the big storylines in this series will be whether and to what extent Francona can continue to get the most out of his best pitchers. In Games 3 and 4 in Toronto, with relatively weak pitchers on the mound, he needs to be proactive and quick with the hook.
Gibbons hasn’t had the kind of depth to pinch-hit much, but he will use pinch-runners (Barney and Upton are strong options to have on hand) when he feels they can make an impact. He’s also notable for hardly ever handing out intentional walks. If a big at-bat is coming up and he has an unfortunate matchup locked in, he might still elect to ask his pitcher to make a big pitch and get a big out. It’s both fun to watch, and often the right strategic thing to do.
Both teams are above average in the field. It could come down to which pitching staff can better induce the batted balls that match their fielders’ strengths. The Indians’ infield is stellar, on both ground balls and low or short liners. Their outfield, though, is porous, which could be a problem against the fly ball-oriented Toronto lineup. (Of course, the name of the game is really just to keep those fly balls in the park, a tall enough task given who these Jays hitters are.)
Toronto’s defense is more balanced, with Kevin Pillar ensuring that fans of the batting team learn to hold their breath a bit when a promising fly ball leaves their player’s lumber. The Indians are good at putting the ball in play, so they will force the Jays to play well in the field. Toronto’s is a somewhat aged and banged-up unit, so that could pose problems.
There’s no sense betting against superior talent, in October. Truthfully, there’s no sense betting at all in October, and this series is a great exemplar of that. But if one must bet, it’s best to do it on the better players. Those belong, in this matchup, to the Blue Jays. They’re deeper in both the rotation and the lineup, and won’t have to stretch players too terribly beyond their usual roles. They can be downright dominant when things are clicking, as we saw at times even during their inconsistent regular season. Francona is probably a better manager, and definitely has shinier buttons to press (Miller! Allen! Big steals!), and that could turn the tide.
So could Cleveland’s home-field advantage (although--soft factor siren--it seems like Rogers Centre is an unmatched environmental advantage in these playoffs, an intimidating madhouse that also happens to accentuate some of the things the Jays do well). A fully healthy Cleveland team, or one that successfully landed Jonathan Lucroy back in July, is a favorite in this series. This version, up against a fresher and more balanced Toronto club, can’t be. Blue Jays in six games.