The Indians head into tonight's decisive Game 5 of the American League Division Series presented by Doosan in something of a mini-slump, having watched their 2-0 series lead turn into a 2-2 tie, and a lot of that is because an offense that was so strong in the first two games (13 runs on 14 hits) has gone quiet over the last two (three runs on nine hits).
You can credit strong Yankees pitching from arms like Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka, surely. You can point to the right ankle sprain that prevented the dangerous Edwin Encarnacion from appearing in Games 3 and 4, certainly. But if the Indians are going to turn this around and emerge with a 3-2 series win as opposed to being the team that blew a 2-0 lead, they're going to need a bat to step up against CC Sabathia and the Yankees. So: Who is it going to be?
:: ALDS schedule and coverage ::
It says here that if anyone is going to step up, it's going to be Carlos Santana. It has to be.
It's not, to be clear, simply because Santana has the best career numbers against Sabathia of anyone in the Cleveland lineup, although it's true that he does. In 24 plate appearances against Sabathia, Santana has hit a scorching .524/.583/.714, though that comes with some serious caveats. For one thing, 24 plate appearances across seven seasons is hardly a reliable sample. For another, the ones back in 2011 came when Santana was in his first full season and Sabathia was still throwing 95 mph and finishing high in the AL Cy Young Award voting.
In the same way that we don't worry that much that Encarnacion went 0-for-3 against Sabathia in June 2007, when Sabathia was Cleveland's ace and Encarnacion was Cincinnati's third baseman, we're not worried about long-ago outcomes, where an "out" can as easily be a weak grounder as it can be a scorched liner saved by excellent defense. We're more interested in skill, and preferably recent displays of it.
• Shop for postseason gear
For that, we turn to Statcast™, which allows us to look at quality of contact, which combined with amount of contact (and walks) gets us a little closer to talking about how well a hitter can square up a pitcher. It's not perfect; we're still not talking about a ton of data here. But it gets us past outcome-based evaluations and into process-based trends, and since it goes back only to 2015, we are, for the moment, free of worrying about what happened many years ago.
That's what we're trying to get at, isn't it -- which Indian is best positioned to make strong contact against Sabathia? Based on what limited data we've seen over the last three years, it's Santana. We can show that with Expected wOBA, which takes exit velocity and launch angle, along with real-world strikeouts and walks, to see how valuable a hitter's plate appearances have been. (wOBA is just like on-base percentage, except it gives increasing credit for extra-base hits rather than treating all times on base equally.)
As you can see, most of these players have seen Sabathia just a handful of times, which is always the issue with this type of analysis. So, where do those numbers come from?
Let's take you back to the AL Wild Card Game for a second, where if you were to look at the box score, you would have seen that Todd Frazier flied out to center in the second inning. That's an out. Of course, it was much more than that; Frazier hit it 103.6 mph and a projected 401 feet, and the only reason it was an out is because Byron Buxton is fantastic. Frazier was out, but we still give him credit for the 89 percent hit probability, because he showed the skill in hitting Ervin Santana that hard.
That skill, that ability to square up a ball, is what's working for Santana here. He has whiffed only once against Sabathia, but he has hit four balls at more than 100 mph of exit velocity. He has put enough contact on the ball to send one 430 feet away at 107.4 mph, as he did in 2015:
Santana made enough contact to drive in two, with a 93 percent hit probability, in Game 2 of the ALDS:
And Santana showed enough patience to draw more walks than whiffs against Sabathia over the last three years, too.
The point is not to guarantee that Santana is going to be the Indians' batter who does damage against Sabathia, because baseball doesn't work that way; nothing is fully predictive. He could crush baseballs right into waiting gloves. He could get fooled by a new Sabathia trick. He'll certainly face pitchers other than Sabathia, too. But if there's anyone who's going to help Cleveland strike early, Santana seems the best bet. He has long been one of the Indians' best hitters in all situations, and he's almost certainly the club's strongest option against Sabathia in this one.
The data, after all, tells a positive tale.