The Indians went from fighting for their postseason lives to hosting the mighty Yankees for a three-game series at Progressive Field -- seemingly in the blink of an eye. And now, fans will be treated to what is likely the marquee pitching matchup of the Wild Card Series round.
Cleveland, which sat in the American League’s No. 8 slot earlier in the week, sealed up the No. 4 seed after rallying to beat the Pirates and seeing the White Sox lose to the crosstown Cubs. That sets up a redux of the thrilling 2017 ALDS (along with some classic postseason battles in the late 1990s) between the Indians and Yankees, with all eyes on two of baseball’s very best pitchers, Shane Bieber and Gerrit Cole, battling in Game 1.
With that all-important series opener looming tonight in Cleveland, here is a position-by-position breakdown of this exciting Wild Card Series matchup.
This is far from a heavyweight fight, based on what took place in the regular season. Roberto Pérez is highly respected in the Indians’ clubhouse and is obviously very adept at calling games for Cleveland’s league-best staff, but he finished the year batting .165 and hit the ball on the ground almost 65% of the time. Meanwhile, Gary Sánchez was so inconsistent that manager Aaron Boone has stated that he will platoon Sánchez with Kyle Higashioka on a “day-by-day” basis in October (Higashioka will in all likelihood catch Cole in Game 1).
Sánchez, however, is still the pick here. No one -- not even Sánchez’s own teammates in Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton -- have belted more homers with 110-plus mph exit velocities over the last three seasons. In other words, Gary can still be scary, and he can take over a series (and especially a three-game series) at any moment.
After walking like crazy to begin the year, Carlos Santana’s on-base percentage cooled and his absent power never really showed up -- though he did tally eight total bases while pushing the Indians to a big win Sunday. He can certainly work a tough at-bat for Yankees pitchers, but the Bronx Bombers happen to feature this year’s Major League home run champion Luke Voit (22 homers) at first base. Voit surpassed his 2019 dinger total in fewer than half the plate appearances, and it’s wild to think back to a year ago, when he had to beat out Greg Bird to even be New York’s first baseman.
The Yankees are the first team since the 1959 Braves to feature both the Major League homer champ and batting champ (that’s DJ LeMahieu, at .364), so yeah, they’ve got the upper hand on the right side of the infield. Don’t sleep on Cesar Hernandez, however, who was often the Indians’ most consistent hitter during some slow times for the Tribe offense -- especially before José Ramírez went on his breathtaking September tear.
Sizeable advantage: Yankees
Francisco Lindor and Gleyber Torres were both reasonable AL MVP picks coming into 2020, but each superstar is coming off a season he’d rather forget. Lindor’s .750 OPS was the lowest of his career, and Torres was even worse (including a sub-.150 slugging percentage against breaking balls). With both players struggling, prior work still suggests Lindor -- who can change a game with his bat, his legs or his glove -- should get the small benefit of the doubt.
Slight advantage: Indians
Well, hey, this is interesting. Gio Urshela ranks among one of the Yankees’ most impressive reclamation projects, a former glove-only infielder in Cleveland whose bat is now arguably more impressive than his work with the leather. Urshela, in fact, ranked among the AL’s best hitters in expected batting average (xBA), which combines expected outcomes from quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) with real-life strikeouts.
So, yes, Urshela is very solid at the hot corner. But, come on. Ramírez’s last 11 hits have gone for extra bases, and he raised his season OPS by 172 points over his last 16 contests. It’s hard to think of a more textbook case of a player going out and grabbing an MVP Award by sheer will than J-Ram. The Indians have the AL’s hottest hitter entering the playoffs.
The Indians’ outfield is the club’s Achilles heel -- not just this year, but for years running now -- and Cleveland finished the season with MLB's worst outfield OPS by a wide margin at .571, the worst mark of any team’s outfield unit this century. Cleveland would have a tough time matching up well with any outfield, but that’s particularly true against the Yanks.
Clint Frazier or Brett Gardner are the likely starters for New York in left, with Mike Tauchman providing valuable depth. Frazier in particular was key for the Yankees’ offense while sluggers Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton were sidelined with injuries, not only hitting well but improving mightily with his glove, too. Plus, Frazier will have extra motivation as a former Indians farmhand who was traded to New York. The Indians have largely split left field between Jordan Luplow (.663 OPS) and Josh Naylor (.621 OPS).
Delino DeShields still features elite footspeed and rates as an above-average defender by Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OAA) metric, but his .252/.310/.318 slash line is not going to put much fear into the hearts of Yankee pitchers. Aaron Hicks didn’t have his best season, either, but he gets on base enough (.379 OBP) that he figures to be a part of more rallies.
Well, on one side there’s Judge, quite possibly the AL’s best two-way player when he’s healthy and still a humongous threat even when he’s not (which might be the case right now, as he works his way back from a calf injury). Judge was likely the AL’s MVP frontrunner before he got hurt, and he can obviously still be the headliner of this series with a couple swings of the bat.
On the other side there’s Tyler Naquin, who finished the year hitting .218 and entered Sunday in contention for MLB’s worst defensive outfielder by OAA. No need to spend any more time on this one.
Huge advantage: Yankees
The Indians have one of the game’s most powerful swingers in Franmil Reyes, who has ranked within MLB’s top 10% in average exit velocity in each of the last two seasons and proved again with his homer to dead-center field Sunday why he’s such a tantalizing player. But Reyes was too quiet for too much of this shortened season, whiffing on nearly 40% of his swings and finishing with a .450 slugging percentage that is still short of the damage he’s capable of inflicting.
The Yankees have their own high-whiff, high-reward slugger in Stanton, of course. Stanton’s health is always a big question mark, and he homered just once after coming off the injured list in mid-September. But, like Judge and Sánchez, it’s just too easy to see Stanton taking over this very short series with a couple gargantuan blasts to the back seats.
Small advantage: Yankees
Have we mentioned Game 1 will feature Shane Bieber against Gerrit Cole? That can’t be mentioned enough. Though Cole lost last year’s AL Cy Young Award race to teammate Justin Verlander, most will agree that he finished 2019 as planet Earth’s best pitcher (and the $324 million contract he signed right afterward confirmed that). Meanwhile, Bieber earned this year’s MLB pitching Triple Crown after splitting the AL wins title and pacing the sport in ERA and strikeouts, and he’s probably the consensus pick for Earth’s best pitcher now.
After the most heavyweight of heavyweight battles, Cleveland has to like how it matches up for Games 2 and 3. Yankees righty Masahiro Tanaka always raises his level in October, but he wasn’t sharp in his regular-season finale against Toronto. He’ll likely face Cleveland’s beloved veteran Carlos Carrasco (2.91 ERA), who very quietly turned in another excellent season. It remains to be seen whether Yankees manager Aaron Boone will go with veteran J.A. Happ or toolsy rookie Deivi García in Game 3, but Indians youngster Zach Plesac would probably have the upper hand on either choice. Hitters finished with a microscopic .069 average against Plesac’s signature slider (4-for-58), making it the most dominant full-time offering in baseball outside of Brewers reliever Devin Williams’ “Airbender” changeup.
Small advantage: Indians
Performance outweighs reputation here, because the Yankees’ vaunted bullpen actually comes into this series with a lot of question marks. Its three biggest stars -- Zack Britton (is his hamstring ready to be tested under October stress?), Aroldis Chapman (can he still dominate with diminished fastball velocity?) and Adam Ottavino (5.89 ERA, 1.58 WHIP) -- might carry the biggest question marks of all.
The Indians’ bullpen might not feature the same name recognition, but it finished the season with the Majors’ fourth-highest FanGraphs WAR total and fifth-best ERA (the Yankees were 16th). James Karinchak hit a few road bumps in September, but he still might be the best reliever you’re not familiar with, finishing 2020 with an incredible 53 strikeouts in 27 innings. You’ll see him come on for the game’s biggest at-bats, and then the Tribe will still have MLB saves leader Brad Hand (2.05 ERA, 0.77 WHIP) waiting in the wings.