ALCS Preview

Posted: 10/14/2016 by levcohen in Baseball

Before last year, the Toronto Blue Jays hadn’t made the playoffs since 1993, when they won their second consecutive World Series. And since Cleveland’s run of six division championships in seven seasons ended in 2002, the Indians are back in the playoffs proper for just the second time (not including the year they were knocked out in the wild card game in 2013). So this is a nice break from the ALCS games in Boston, New York, Dallas, and recently Kansas City. We’re guaranteed a World Series appearance from either Toronto or Cleveland for the first time since 1997. Who’s going to win?

The Indians need to win the first game of the season. They’re home, and more importantly they have ace Corey Kluber starting. Kluber is the best and most reliable starting pitcher in this series, which immediately gives Cleveland an advantage. I was surprised to see that Toronto’s righty-heavy lineup has actually been pretty solid against the right handed ace (.823 career OPS in 104 plate appearances). In fact, one of Kluber’s worst starts of the season came in Toronto, when he allowed 11 baserunners and gave up five runs in 3.1 arduous innings. But Kluber did bounce back later in the season with a quality start against the Jays, and he was fantastic against the stout Red Sox offense in the ALDS (seven shutout innings). Righties are hitting just .206 against him this year, and Toronto’s first six hitters are all righties. I don’t expect dominant performances in the two or three games Kluber starts, and the homer-happy Jays will likely take him deep at least once, but he’s certainly going to give them a great chance to win.

Games two through four will be started by Josh Tomlin, Trevor Bauer, and Mike Clevinger — unless the Indians decide to turn to Kluber in Game Four on short rest. The injuries to Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco really hurt the Indians here. Tomlin got hammered by the Jays in August, had a 4.40 ERA this season, and labored through five ultimately successful innings (2 ER allowed in a victory) against the Red Sox. The Blue Jays are hitting .295 against Tomlin, and I think more of that is in store in Game Two, as he gave up 36 homers in 174 innings this year and allowed righties to slash .299/.323/.522 against him.

Bauer would have started Game Two but cut his finger on a drone (bizarre but true) and will have to wait a game. Bauer acquitted himself well against the Blue Jays this year (13 innings, seven hits, two runs, five walks, 16 strikeouts), but he has a 6.33 ERA since September started and didn’t make it out of the fifth inning against Boston. He’ll be starting on the road, which is good news because his road ERA was more than a run better than his home ERA. I don’t think he’ll work deep into Game Three, which means that the bullpen will likely be stretched for the second consecutive game.

Clevinger is slated to start Game Four, which could be a disaster, but I expect Kluber to start on short rest unless the Indians are up 3-0. But Corey’s the only starter I trust on the Indians, and I’d expect to see a lot of innings from the bullpen. Luckily, the Indians traded for Andrew Miller in July, and Miller gives them a second shutdown option (along with Cody Allen). Miller and Allen combined to pitch seven out of Cleveland’s 27 innings in the ALDS and 68% of the team’s bullpen innings. Expect that to continue. Miller’s a lefty, but he’s actually been better against right handed hitters. And righties hit just .139 against Allen, who’s given up a single run in 19.2 innings since getting shellacked by the White Sox in August. The Indians are going to need a lot of good innings from Miller and Allen, because their non-Kluber starters just don’t match up to Toronto’s deep stable.

Unlike the Indians, the Blue Jays can roll out four starters they’ll be confident in. Marco Estrada will start Game One, and although he slumped down the stretch, he still ended the season with a 3.48 ERA and zoomed through 8.1 innings of one-run ball in the ALDS. He’ll be facing Kluber, which gives him little room for error, which makes the fact that the Indians have clubbed six homers in 57 career at-bats against him much more concerning. He gave up 23 homers in 176 innings, which isn’t Tomlin-bad but still makes me nervous.

After Estrada, Toronto will turn to 21-4 (including the playoffs) J.A. Happ. Happ shut down the Indians in his lone meeting against them this season, giving up one run on five hits in seven innings while striking out 11. The Indians have a career .286 slugging percentage in 112 career at bats against Happ. I think we can expect a solid performance from J.A., but he probably won’t pitch deep into the game. He averaged just six innings per start this year and threw over 100 pitches just 10 times.

I love Marcus Stroman, the likely Game Three starter. Even in an off year, he dominated the Indians twice this season, and he also closed the season pitching much better than he did to start it. The fact that he was the choice to start the wild card game against the Orioles speaks volumes, and he pitched really well in that game, exhibiting a devastating slider and allowing four baserunners in six innings. He also averaged nearly 6.5 innings per start, meaning that he’s a much better bet than Happ to last deep into the game.

Then there’s Aaron Sanchez, who was hit pretty hard in the ALDS. Sanchez was a Cy Young contender for most of the year and ended the season 15-2 with a 3.00 ERA. That’s a pretty darn good fourth starter. But he did give up six runs against the Rangers, as he looked inaccurate and nervous. Hopefully for Toronto’s sake he’ll be regular season Aaron Sanchez again this series, because regular season Aaron Sanchez is the best fourth starter in baseball.

The Blue Jays don’t need their bullpen as much as the Indians need theirs, but this is playoff baseball, and every bullpen is super important in October. Roberto Osuna is their Andrew Miller, and he’s been incredible in five innings thus far in the playoffs, allowing just one baserunner and striking out six. I’m less confident in Osuna than I am in either Miller or Allen, both because he’s pretty consistently been a good-but-not-dominant pitcher and because the Indians have hit three homers in 25 at bats against him. Homers have been a bit of a problem for Osuna, which is a worry in a series that I think is likely to have quite a few long balls. The rest of the bullpen has been good in the playoffs, too. Joe Biagini (3.06 ERA, 1.30 WHIP) and Jason Grilli (4.12, 1.29) are the other two late-inning options, and they’ve combined to throw 5.2 innings of shutout ball in the playoffs. Overall, the pitching edge has to go to Toronto, simply because the Indians are without their second and third best starters.

As for the hitting, it’s hard for me to pick against a lineup that has Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, and Jose Bautista hitting back-to-back-to-back. But the Indians actually had the more productive offense this season, scoring 777 runs to Toronto’s 759. The Blue Jays have scored 27 runs in four playoff games to Cleveland’s 15 in three games, and they definitely have more offensive talent. Both offenses are deep, but the Indians just don’t have the home run power that the three guys I mentioned above (along with Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, Michael Saunders, etc.) bring to the table. I mentioned earlier that I think this series will feature a bunch of homers. That kind of series plays to Toronto’s strengths. So does the fact that they’ll be able to tee off on Josh Tomlin at least once and maybe even Mike Clevinger. The Indians will keep this series close thanks to Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis, and the rest of the solid offense along with the three shutdown pitchers (Kluber, Miller, Allen), but Toronto’s depth and firepower will be too much to overcome. Blue Jays in 6.

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