ALCS Preview: Toronto Blue Jays vs Cleveland Indians

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Toronto Blue Jays vs Cleveland Indians ALCS

Pete Hodges presents our Toronto Blue Jays vs Cleveland Indians ALCS preview which features two well-rested teams ready to fight for the World Series.

Unlike the National League, the first round of the American League playoffs was largely devoid of drama. The Wild Card Toronto Blue Jays went into Texas, taking Games 1 and 2 easily, before having to play ten innings in Canada to advance to the ALCS. The AL Central Champion Cleveland Indians shocked the Boston Red Sox by making a mockery of their aces in Ohio prior to ruining David Ortiz’s goodbye party at Fenway Park. These two clubs have flaws, but their strengths shone through in five-game series that turned into three-game sweeps.

The Pitching Matchups

Since both clubs wrapped up their respective series earlier this week, they were able to set up their rotations for the next round however they pleased. In Game 1, the Cleveland Indians turn to Corey Kluber. Their ace missed the last week of the regular season with a quadriceps strain, but tossed seven shutout innings – striking out seven – in Game 2 of the ALDS. (You can check out Ian York’s breakdown of Kluber’s repertoire here.) The former Cy Young winner made 32 starts this season with a league-leading ERA+ of 149. He’ll face off against Marco Estrada, who went into hostile territory in Game 1 of the ALDS and threw 8 ⅓ innings, allowing one run on four hits while striking out six. The late-blossoming righty held batters to the fewest hits per nine frames in the American League in 2016.

In Game 2 the Indians will turn to Trevor Bauer, who gave up three runs over 4 ⅔ innings in Game 1 of the ALDS before being saved by Cleveland’s excellent bullpen. Bauer did strike out six and avoided walking any batters. The 25-year-old did an excellent job keeping the ball in the park in 2016 (0.9 HR/9), but that trend will be difficult to continue against the hard-hitting Jays. Toronto will call upon 20-game winner J.A. Happ for Game 2. In his ALDS Game 2 start against the Rangers, the lefty scattered nine hits over five innings, striking out five and allowing only a single run. If his 2016 BABIP luck (.268) can continue for just another start or three, the Blue Jays could be having a very cold parade in November.

When Game 3 moves north of the border, it will feature Marcus Stroman’s first appearance since the Wild Card game on October 4, which will give him a full two weeks of rest. In that game, the sinker-baller threw six innings of three-run ball, allowing four hits and one walk while striking out six. He’ll be matched up with Josh Tomlin, whose five-inning, two-run performance was the final nail in the coffin of the Boston Red Sox’ 2016 season. Tomlin is thoroughly unexciting on the mound with three types of fastball hovering around 90 mph, but he doesn’t walk anybody. The righty posted the AL’s lowest rate of walks per nine inning (1.0), but his 1.9 HR/9 was nothing to write home about and could be a concern against Toronto’s lineup.

Toronto’s Game 4 starter will be Aaron Sanchez. The young righty is likely the best pitcher on the staff, but he has nearly doubled his innings pitched from 2015, and the Blue Jays cannot risk his career, even if it means a chance at the World Series. Sanchez was roughed up in Game 3 of the ALDS, giving up six runs over 5 ⅔ innings. The youngster only allowed three hits, but two of them left the yard and walking four batters only made matters worse. He has nothing to be ashamed of, though, as he led the American League in ERA (3.00) , winning percentage (88.2%), and HR/9 (0.7). Mike Clevinger is likely to take the ball for the Indians in Game 4, but manager Terry Francona said that he’s only “penciled in.” The rookie has not pitched since October 1, and he was a below-average pitcher in 2016 with an ERA of 5.23.

Luckily for Francona, he has a strong bullpen to fall back on. His first line of defense on the other end of the telephone is 6’6” left-hander Andrew Miller. The starter-turned-reliever-turned-closer-turned-setup-man-turned-Swiss-Army-Knife is there whenever, and for however long, Cleveland needs him. In the ALDS, Miller threw four shutout innings over two games. He struck out seven batters, walked two, and only allowed two hits. During the season, Miller posted a 310 ERA+ split between his time with the Yankees and the Indians. He struck out nearly 15 batters per nine innings, while walking just above one. Cody Allen serves as the closer for the Indians, manning the ninth inning and racking up the “important” numbers. Allen is no slouch himself, striking out 11.57 batters per nine innings. Bryan Shaw routinely bridges the gap between Allen and Miller when necessary; the righty has made at least 70 appearances in each of the last four seasons (which matches Francona’s tenure in Cleveland). Terry obviously trusts Shaw’s mid-90s cutter.

The Blue Jays’ bullpen is a horse of a different color. Roberto Osuna anchors the ‘pen, but it falls off sharply after him. The 21-year-old skipped Double-A and Triple-A to join the bigs and hasn’t looked back. His ALDS performances surely strengthened his special place in the hearts of Toronto fans as he threw four innings over three appearances, allowing no runs, giving up just one hit, and striking out six. The righty made solid steps forward in his second season in MLB, improving his K/9 (9.97 from 9.69) and his BB/9 (1.70 from 2.07). Former Pirates and Braves closer Jason Grilli serves as a setup man, but his 4.12 ERA in 2016 leaves a lot to be desired. The main culprit of the high ERA is likely his 4.88 BB/9, which can’t be erased by his 12.36 K/9. One bit of good news for the Jays’ bullpen is that Francisco Liriano appears to have recovered from his concussion after being hit with a line drive by Carlos Gomez in Game 2 of the ALDS. The left-handed former starter provides much-needed help when he is on, even if he is learning on the job.

The Offenses

The Toronto Blue Jays fuel their offense with power, as they had the fourth-best ISO in the AL (one point behind Boston). The big thumpers in the middle of the lineup are capable of stringing together extra-base hits in a hurry, so it is imperative for the pitcher not to let the bottom of the order get on base … as the Rangers learned on multiple occasions.

Second baseman Devon Travis, the usual leadoff man, missed the second and third games of the ALDS, but will likely be good to go for the ALCS. This will cause further complications for the Indians pitching staff, as it kicks the speedy Ezequiel Carrera back to the 9-hole. Though Carrera is a light-hitting option, he is red-hot coming off a 6-for-16 performance in the ALDS. Travis’s return also puts utility infielder Darwin Barney back on the bench.

Travis is followed by the trio of Josh Donaldson (reigning AL MVP), Edwin Encarnacion, and Jose Bautista, who have combined to hit 759 career home runs. After that gauntlet, a pair of Gold Glove/Silver Slugger winners in catcher Russell Martin and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki await. Michael Saunders at designated hitter and Kevin Pillar at center field round out the lineup.

The Jays’ bench will feature the aforementioned Barney as the likely lone infielder, as the Jays may need to turn to outfielder/pinch-runner Dalton Pompey’s speed off the bench at some point. Dioner Navarro serves as the very capable backup to Martin at catcher. Melvin Upton Jr. is Saunders’s platoon mate at DH.  Since Cleveland’s starters are all right-handers, Upton will have to wait to face Andrew Miller, against whom he is 5-for-12 with three home runs. One of those came on July 3, when Upton was on the San Diego Padres and Miller was still a Yankee.

The Indians’ offense may not seem like much at first glance, but it actually outscored the big thumpers from Toronto in 2016 — perhaps because they struck out 116 fewer times. On most days, Francona leads off with his best hitter, DH Carlos Santana. The 30-year-old hit 34 home runs and posted a .370 wOBA this season. He is followed by Jason Kipnis, who had his best season in the power department (23 HR, .193 ISO), though his OBP was down nearly 30 points from last season’s .372. Francisco Lindor, who took a slight step back from his rookie season, is still a star in the making and a threat in the 3-hole. Playoff veteran Mike Napoli bats cleanup and, although he is as susceptible to the K as ever (30.1 K%), he hit a career-high 34 taters in 2016. Third baseman Jose Ramirez provides a power/speed combination after Napoli, and Lonnie Chisenhall is a steady, professional hitter following Ramirez. Coco Crisp showed that he can still punish a bad pitch, as he smacked a decisive two-run homer off the Red Sox’ Drew Pomeranz. Rookie Tyler Naquin can steal and hit for power hitting eighth, and Roberto Perez may never have to buy a beer again after his Game 1 performance in the ALDS.

The Cleveland bench features a minor dilemma in that it carried two reserve catchers in the ALDS, but someone may need to go with the possible return of pitcher Danny Salazar. While Chris Gimenez played the part of the good backup for the last half of the season, Opening Day starter Yan Gomes worked hard to recover from a finger he broke in mid-July and managed to make two plate appearances in the final regular-season game

The only infielder on Cleveland’s bench is journeyman Michael Martinez. He’s capable of backing up second, third, and short as well as filling in around the outfield. Rajai Davis will get at-bats in the leadoff spot when Happ makes his start, and will see time if the Indians need a pinch runner. Brandon Guyer is the last man on the bench, and could see pinch-hit opportunities against Liriano or Brett Cecil.

Series Outlook

The teams are evenly matched on offense, and the pitching is closer than it seems at first blush. Kluber is a front-line ace and Toronto’s pitching, with a league-lowest BABIP of .283, seems like it’s fueled by a lot of luck (see Happ’s start in Texas). Toronto’s bullpen beyond Osuna is also an area of concern. Liriano has the capability to shut down any team if his slider is on, but if it’s not, then he’ll have serious issues. In the end though, Cleveland’s lack of depth will come back to bite them. The injuries to Salazar and Carlos Carrasco will haunt this team, coming as they did during a season in which Detroit and Kansas City underachieved. I predict that this is Toronto’s year: the BABIP gods will continue to favor them as they will win in five.


Follow Pete on Twitter @PeterWHodges

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