Entering their American League Division Series date with the Yankees, the Guardians are undeniably underdogs.
Cleveland has the youngest team in MLB, with the fourth-lowest payroll in MLB. The Guards got to October by winning a division in which no other clubs finished above .500. Aaron Judge hit 62 home runs, all by himself? Well, the Guardians -- all of them combined! -- hit just 127, barely more than twice as many.
But Cleveland has a really interesting -- and increasingly confident -- club, built in a style we are not accustomed to seeing on the postseason stage. And, fresh off their sweep of the Rays in the Wild Card Series round, the Guardians are looking at the juggernaut Yankees as another fun challenge in their wild and widely unexpected ride.
“We're confident in ourselves, we're confident in each other, we continue to pull for each other, and everybody continues to kind of just count us out,” Cleveland ace Shane Bieber said. “But when you're playing with house money, there’s something special about it.”
A potential problem is that the Yankees can neutralize some of the things the Guardians do well -- some of the things that make them special. Cleveland's lineup succeeds with the best contact rate in baseball, putting pressure on opposing defenses. But the Yanks’ pitching staff allowed the fourth-lowest opponent contact rate in MLB (74.3%), while their defense turned in the second-most defensive runs saved (63). When these two clubs met in the regular season, New York went 5-1 and outscored Cleveland, 38-14.
But we are here to tell you that the Guardians can beat the Yankees. No, not just because of the, “Anything can happen in October!” cliché, but because they really can.
Here are seven reasons -- six real and one dumb -- why.
1) José all the way
While perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Guardians is that they advanced to this point in a season in which a franchise-record 17 rookies debuted, their established, homegrown superstar José Ramírez remains the center of their universe. And he just so happens to be a bit of a Yankee killer in his career.
Among all players in history to have at least 200 plate appearances against the Yankees in the regular and postseason, Ramírez ranks in the top 10 – and first among active players – in OPS:
- Ted Williams, 1.103 (1,351 plate appearances)
- Hank Greenberg, 1.077 (824)
- Alex Rodriguez, 1.047 (400)
- Geronimo Berroa, 1.028 (244)
- Ken Griffey Jr., 1.009 (599)
- Curt Blefary, 1.007 (245)
- Manny Ramírez, 1.000 (973)
- Oscar Gamble, .992 (210)
- José Ramírez, .990 (234)
- Mike Trout, .989 (216)
Furthermore, among all players with at least 50 regular season and postseason plate appearances in this version of Yankee Stadium, Ramírez’s 1.256 OPS ranks No. 1.
Ramírez has a 1.052 OPS in his career against Gerrit Cole and a 1.228 OPS against Game 3 starter Luis Severino. He is 0-for-7 with four strikeouts against Game 2 starter Nestor Cortes, but, generally speaking, this would seem an opportunity for him to shine. Ultimately, the Guards go as Ramírez goes (a 1.018 OPS this season in wins, .657 in losses). And if he’s going like he typically has against this team, they’ll be in good shape.
2) A Clase of their own
If there is one area in which the Guardians have an obvious edge over the Yankees going into this series, it’s the bullpen. Cleveland had the lowest relief ERA in MLB in the second half, and its relievers pitched 10 1/3 scoreless innings in the Wild Card round. Granted, this is an area where edges can disappear overnight. But right now, it’s a clear one, and that’s primarily attributable to the Guards having something the Yankees do not – a closer.
Emmanuel Clase and his wipeout 100-mph cutter and 92-mph slider are forces of nature right now. He led the Majors with 42 saves and 67 games finished this season, alongside his sparkling 1.36 ERA, 0.73 WHIP and 7.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
And here’s an important point: The schedule sets up in such a way that the Guardians can maximize their Clase advantage early. As he showed in Game 1 against the Rays, when he got the last four outs, Clase is capable of giving the Guards multi-inning outings. And with two off days before the start of the ALDS and, oddly, off days in-between Games 1 and 2 and then between Games 2 and 3, manager Terry Francona can comfortably turn to Clase for extended opportunities again.
3) The defense never rests
We mentioned earlier that the Yankees have a pretty darn good defense, and it’s also an important calling card for Cleveland, which ranked third – right behind the Yanks – in defensive runs saved (60). Second baseman Andrés Giménez (13 Outs Above Average), center fielder Myles Straw (13) and left fielder Steven Kwan (8) all ranked in the top-30 in all of MLB in OAA. Evidence of how the Guards’ gloves can impact a game was on display in the clincher against the Rays.
The Yankees' batting average on balls in play (.276) and contact rate (74.3%) were both the fourth-worst in MLB this season. If they’re going to beat the Guards, they’re going to have to hit the ball over the wall.
Speaking of …
4) Limiting the long ball
As tends to be the case with New York (AL) teams, this Yankees squad is oriented around the home run. They scored an MLB-high 50.8% of their runs via homers this year. And that can be a good thing, given that teams went 25-2 last postseason in games in which they outhomered their opponents.
But this Guardians pitching staff has proven itself capable of limiting the long ball’s effects. For one, with the bullpen having taken shape over the course of the year, Guards pitchers are tied for the sixth-best opponent home run rate in MLB, going back to the All-Star break (0.96 homers per nine innings).
Cleveland’s pitchers also tend to put themselves in a position in which opponent home runs aren’t as damaging, because they have the fifth-best walk rate (7.3%) and WHIP (1.15) in MLB this season.
Oh, but you might have heard there’s one guy on the Yankees who hits a ton of home runs. So let’s talk about him.
5) Overruling the Judge
You come to us for astute baseball analysis, so here it is: Aaron Judge is important to the Yankees.
How important? Well, Judge was credited with 163 runs created on a Yankees team that scored an AL-best 807 runs. That means this one single dude was basically responsible for 20% of the offense.
Neutralize Judge, and you can neutralize the Yankees. That’s of course way easier said than done; but in the brief history this crop of Cleveland pitchers has against Judge, they’ve done a better job of that than most. Judge is 0-for-5 with two walks against Game 1 starter Cal Quantrill, 1-for-8 with a homer, a walk and three strikeouts against Game 2 starter Bieber and 0-for-3 with a strikeout against Game 3 starter Triston McKenzie. And, he's 0-for-2 with a walk against Clase.
These are tiny and likely meaningless samples, but, again, if nothing else we know that this is a pretty good Cleveland pitching staff capable of executing a game plan, even against the biggest threat in baseball.
6) Momentum, fearlessness and other assorted buzzwords
Hang a meatball or three to Judge, and none of this stuff matters. But this series will be a particularly interesting test of the new playoff format. Because if there is anything the young Guards have going for them in this matchup, it’s momentum. They didn’t just win a division; they absolutely steamrolled the Twins and White Sox and everybody else in their path in September/October -- a month in which their 24-10 record was second only to that of the Astros. In playing and beating the Rays over the weekend, the Guards were able to keep that momentum going, while the Yankees will have been idle for five days before this series starts.
Maybe the rest works in the Yankees’ favor, but this format builds in the “rest vs. momentum” conversation that typically would only come up when a team would sweep the LCS round and then wait for their World Series opponent. And the less time the Guardians have to reflect on their surprising accomplishments this season, the better. With an average roster age of 25.9, they are a great example of not knowing what they don’t know, and benefiting from it. That’s how they’ve won an MLB-high 30 games in their last at-bat and 12 when trailing after seven innings. They don’t give a you-know-what, and that loose and pressure-free style can play up in October.
Bonus) The midges!
Finally, we have a very ridiculous storyline that already spread after those pesky little products of Lake Erie swarmed FirstEnergy Stadium, home of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, on Sunday. Silly though it may be, one cannot deny the timing.
The midges typically show up in the summer months. Yet every so often, they fly off in search of a mate in the fall. In 2007, they famously descended on the ballpark then known as Jacobs Field in the middle of Game 2 of the ALDS between New York and Cleveland, and Joba Chamberlain bugged out when the Yankees training staff sprayed him with insect repellant that only attracted more midges.
The Yankees have probably learned their lesson on how to handle such an onslaught. It was interesting to note, though, that this new crop of midges began to make its presence known on the windshields and walls in downtown Cleveland on Saturday night, shortly after the Guards confirmed their date with the Yankees with a triumph over the Rays. So while the bugs likely won’t directly impact any outcomes -- and, in fact, probably won’t even live long enough to attend Game 3 on Saturday, when this series shifts to Progressive Field -- we at least know they will have gone to their graves rooting for the Guards, which has to count for something.