Way back in the day, the Yankees were considered the Indians #1 rival. From 1948 to 1956 the Indians and Yankees finished first or second in the AL in seven of those seasons. When the Indians were relocated to the AL Central after the 1993 season, that rivalry sort of died down since the two teams only played two series a year from then on. The Indians and Yankees have clashed three times in the postseason. In 1997, the Indians upset the heavily favored Yankees in the ALDS, 3-2. The following year, 1998, the Indians took a 2-1 series lead over the 116-win Yankees, before falling in six games in the ALCS. We all remember the midge series of 2007, where the Indians beat the Yankees in the ALDS, 3-1. Now the old foes face off again. On one side is the World Series favorite, the 102 win Cleveland Indians, on the other side, the Wild Card-winning, 91 win New York Yankees.
Welcome to what hopes to be the first of three Playoff preview articles. In this article, I’ll be looking at each team in five different categories: infield, outfield, starting pitching, relief pitching, and manager. I’ll provide you with a statistic called Wins Above Average (or WAA) for each category. WAA is just what it seems, it is the wins added by a player above (or potentially below) an average player. For context, a WAA of 0.0 is equal to about a WAR of around 2.0. I’ll then give an advantage score for each category, at the end I’ll add it up, see who wins the most categories and scores the most points. Finally, I’ll give a series prediction that may or may not fall in line with those numbers. Let’s get to it!
On the season, the Indians infield posted a WAA of 6.4, while the Yankees infield finished at -0.1. For comparison, that’s the difference between Jose Altuve (potential MVP) and Eduardo Escobar (not a potential MVP).
As I’m writing this, the Yankees have yet to officially release their ALDS roster, but looking at the Wild Card game, they used an infield of Greg Bird, Starlin Castro, Didi Gregorius, and Todd Frazier. Castro and Gregorius both posted an OPS+ of 106 this season, meaning that they’re 6% better than the average hitter at their positions. Both guys don’t really walk and really rely on contact to get on base. Playing in the bandbox that is Yankee Stadium has inflated their home run totals, as they hit a combined 82 home runs over the past two seasons. Both are right around average defenders. Frazier has continued his trend of striking out a lot, walking a lot, and showing good power. Chase Headley will likely back him up at third. The Yankees tried a lot of different guys at first this season, but now that Greg Bird is healthy, it looks to be his position going forward. Bird has occasional power, but with a batting average of .190 this season, it’s hard to see him as much of an impact. The Yankees never had one true DH all season, and even used Jacoby Ellsbury in that spot in the Wild Card game.
As for the Indians, it’s all about Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor. They combined to be 7.8 wins above the average player in 2017. As a duo, they had 172 extra base hits and created 268 runs. Jose Ramirez turned himself into an MVP candidate this season, he finished fourth among AL position players in WAR (6.9) and also became just the 17th player ever to hit 56 or more doubles. Lindor solidified himself among the game’s best shortstops. While his batting average dropped by about 30 points, his slugging increased by 80 points. Hitting 44 doubles and 33 home runs will do that. Ramirez and Lindor both provide exceptional defense up the middle. Carlos Santana turned in his best season at first base, both offensively and defensively. Santana led all first basemen in defensive runs saved (10), and although his counting stats might have fallen off a bit, he is still a guy who gets on base and hits for some power. Gio Urshela will man the hot corner, but is strictly there for defensive purposes. It’s always possible we see Jason Kipnis move back to second and see Ramirez move to third. Edwin Encarnacion will be entrenched at DH, and though his slugging was its lowest since 2011 (still above .500), he posted his highest on-base since 2011.
Advantage: Strong Edge Indians (+3)
The Yankees outfield WAA was the best in the AL (looking at you Aaron Judge), coming in at 8.6, the Indians outfield finished in the middle of the pack with a WAA of -0.3. That’s the difference between Aaron Judge and Matt Davidson.
In the Wild Card game, the Yankees used an outfield of Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, and Brett Gardner, while Jacoby Ellsbury was the DH. Aaron Judge really shows the difference in the outfield between the two teams, but for good reason. His OPS of 1.049, ranks between the likes of Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio in the all-time season ranks. His OPS+ on the season was 171, he hit nine more home runs than the next closest player and walked 23 more times than the next closest player. He is the MVP to many people. Once you get past Judge, things get a little murky. Brett Gardner had his usual Brett Gardner season, great defense and average offense; something that is very valuable in today’s game. Aaron Hicks was a surprise for the Yankees. He posted an on-base 30 points higher than his average, and his OPS+ was 45% better than his career average. He is a much better defender than Jacoby Ellsbury, and that’s why he gets the start in centerfield.
The Indians will carry six outfielders for the series, Austin Jackson, Lonnie Chisenhall, Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, Jay Bruce, and Greg Allen. Brantley will likely just be held to pinch-hitting duties, which gives the Indians an amazing late game offensive advantage. Allen will likely be a defensive replacement and pinch-runner off the bench. Austin Jackson will likely patrol left-field (against lefties) or center for most of the series. His 126 OPS+ was an absolute revelation for the Indians this season. Chisenhall will likely see most of his time in left-field against righties. It should be noted that the Indians had the highest platoon advantage of any team this season. He hasn’t been the same since his calf injury he suffered before the All-star break, but he is one of the more consistent players. Jason Kipnis will be given the centerfield keys (at least until the later innings). He didn’t have to make too many plays in his brief sample out there, so his defense is still a mystery. He’s had a down year offensive, mainly due to injuries, but has picked it up lately. Jay Bruce will man right field nearly all series. (Had to cut Bruce a little short, let’s see if I can’t make this go a little quicker).
Advantage: Slight Edge Yankees (+1)
The Indians starters posted a WAA of 13.8, best in the AL, the Yankees sat in second place at 5.7 WAA. Yeah, that’s a pretty big gap. That’s like comparing Dallas Keuchel and Dylan Bundy.
Odds are the Yankees go with some combination of Sonny Gray, Luis Severino, CC Sabathia, Mashiro Tanaka, and Jordan Montgomery. Severino pitched (poorly) in the Wild Card game. He is the no-doubt ace of the staff, probably the third best pitcher in the AL. It remains to be seen when he will be able to pitch next. Just looking at the pitching leaderboards, his name consistently pops up. Sonny Gray was a near lock to go six innings every time he pitched. He’s no longer the ace he was in 2015, but he’s a solid two or three as his 123 ERA+ suggests. Tanaka had a terrible year given his skill, but still produced a 9.8 strikeout per nine. Sabathia’s peripherals suggest he is not the pitcher who posted a 3.69 ERA, but he is used to postseason pitching.
We all know the Indians story, by most metrics, this is the greatest rotation in MLB history. Trevor Bauer will go in Game 1, followed by Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco. Josh Tomlin’s name is currently written in pencil for Game 4. Bauer rebounded from a horrific start to the season, he got his ERA into the low fours, but his FIP suggests he is a much better pitcher than that. Corey Kluber is going to win the Cy Young and had an ERA+ of 202. He was 102% better than average, he was two Chris Archer’s put together. Carrasco often gets lost in the Kluber shuffle, but by all metrics, he was a top-five pitcher in the AL. All three of the pitcher finished with a 10.0 or better strikeouts per nine.
Advantage: Strong Edge Indians (+3)
The Indians bullpen posted a WAA of 6.7, once again, best in the league, but the Yankees weren’t far behind at 5.3 WAA. Basically the difference between Craig Kimbrel and David Robertson.
The Yankees bullpen is deep, and I mean deep. We all saw what happened in the Wild Card game. Aroldis Chapman Dellin Betances, David Robertson, Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle. Those guys combined struck out 13.5 batters per nine innings with a 2.36 total ERA. The worst pitcher of the bunch is actually Aroldis Chapman.
The Indians will counter with Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw, Joe Smith, Tyler Olson, along with Mike Clevinger and Danny Salazar. Comparing to the Yankees big five, the Indians relievers struck out 10.9 batters per nine innings with a 2.53 total ERA (Clevinger and Salazar not included). Clevinger and Salazar are the wild cards here, how will Francona use them?
Advantage: Slight Edge Yankees (+1)
We still have yet to find a way to analyze how good a manager truly is other than wins and loses. For Joe Girardi, from 2013 to 2016 the Yankees (according to run differential) should have won 323 games, they ended up winning 340. Girardi is in his 10th season in the Bronx, and even with George Steinbrenner gone, that’s still impressive. Then there is Terry Francona. As I said in my AL Awards ballot article, “The Indians made it to Game 7 of the World Series in 2016, then went out and got better. They won eight more games and increased their run differential by 153 runs, then there was the 22-game win streak.” The Indians were perennial 90-game losers before Francona, and now they’re the best team in baseball.
Advantage: Edge Indians (+2)
That brings us to our final tally. The Indians finished with a +8 (taking three categories), while the Yankees finished with a +2 (taking two categories). This will be a much tougher series than many think. Just based off run differential, the Yankees are actually the second best team in the AL, better than Houston and Boston. But this Indians team is just too deep. They truly don’t have a weakness. This is October though, and anything can happen.
Final Prediction: Indians in 4
— Chris Sladoje (@The_Doje)