As we’ve seen over the past couple years, the qualities that help qualify a team for postseason play won’t necessarily help as much in the postseason. The teams left after the regular season must transition from a 180-day test of depth and endurance to a weeklong series matched against a single opponent. In this case, what worked against the American League in general may not work against the New York Yankees.
The Yankees’ strength is first and foremost scoring runs. They have both patience (.366 OBP) and power (.463 slugging percentage); they rank first in the AL in both categories. They can even steal a base (123, fourth in the AL). Even by Yankees standards, this year’s offense is one of their best. Alex Rodriguez is the headliner, but Jorge Posada is also having an incredible year, hitting .338/.426/.543 as a switch-hitting catcher. If their offense can get a lead, the combination of Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera makes coming back late difficult.
So how do the Indians match up against the Yankees, and how can they win this series?
To me, the heart of this series is the matchup of the Indians’ very good starting pitching versus the Yankees’ great lineup. Because of what the Indians’ pitchers do (or, more exactly, what they don’t do), I believe that they’ll succeed where others have failed.
The Indians’ pitching staff has been remarkably good at throwing strikes. Tribe pitchers walked the fewest batters of any AL staff. C.C. Sabathia, Cleveland’s ace, has been especially economical with his pitches (walking just 37 in 241 innings). Paul Byrd (scheduled to pitch game four) is also stingy with walks, though he has much less margin for error than Sabathia. Rafael Betancourt, the Indians’ top setup man, has walked just nine batters all season. In other words, the Indians staff is built to take away what the Yankees offense runs on: the walk.
But the Indians rotation doesn’t just throw strikes: It prevents runs better than anyone else. Tribe starters rank first in the AL in ERA and innings pitched, even with three projected starters missing time due to injury or ineffectiveness. Sabathia, who the Yankees haven’t seen in three seasons, is one of baseball’s best pitchers. Fausto Carmona, his ill-fated stint as closer behind him, went from reliever to sixth starter to Cy Young candidate in the span of 12 months. Jake Westbrook, former Yankees farmhand, has posted a 3.44 ERA in the second half of the season. Byrd has been a nice innings eater, an improvement over his disappointing 2006 season.
While the Indians missed out on the eight-day ALDS, they can take advantage of facing the Yankees’ third and fourth starters. After their top two starters, the Yankees don’t really know what they’ll be getting, whether it be Roger Clemens or Mike Mussina. Clemens has made just two starts in September, his most recent one was on the 16th, and hasn’t been able to go very deep into games; the last time he pitched seven innings or more was July 23rd. Mussina ended the season with a decent September, but his last start against the Orioles (5 IP, 11 H, 6 ER) doesn’t exactly instill confidence that he’s turned his season around.
Because the Indians’ starters have gone deep into games, the primary relievers in the Tribe bullpen come into the postseason rested and effective. Betancourt, perhaps the American League’s best reliever, has been consistently good for several years now, but he got some help this season. Rafael Perez, a starter turned reliever, has rendered left-handed hitters helpless (to the tune .145/.209/.241). Perez isn’t just a left-handed specialist, though; he’ll go multiple innings in an appearance. Jensen Lewis has emerged down the stretch as the key sixth or seventh inning reliever; he blanked Detroit for three innings on September 18th. If given a lead, the bullpen, including (gulp) Joe Borowski will more times than not keep it.
The Indians are a bit above average in most offensive categories, but thanks to their pitching, didn’t need to have a lot of offense to win. That need may change for this series, but there are some reasons to believe that the Indians will be able to get even better production than their averages indicate.
Run production has been down from 2006, but the offense has gotten better towards the end of the season. Gaping holes were filled with the additions of Franklin Gutierrez (for Trot Nixon), Asdrubal Cabrera (for Josh Barfield), and Kenny Lofton (for an injured David Dellucci). In a nice bonus, all three of the replacements are better defensively than the players they supplanted.
Travis Hafner, who signed a large contract extension during the season, hasn’t had a season worthy of the money he’ll soon be getting; he’s hit an unPronk-like .266/.385/.451 in 2007. But there is hope: he hit .316/.414/.551 in September. Victor Martinez has hit well all season, posting career highs in slugging percentage, home runs, and doubles. Thanks to a platoon scheme with Ryan Garko and Kelly Shoppach, Victor’s played more first base this season, keeping his bat in the lineup while keeping him rested.
What the Indians do have is power throughout the lineup: five hitters have over 20 home runs, and seven have hit at least 10. Hitting one out is the easiest way to score against playoff pitching (the pitcher only has to make one mistake), and the Indians will have players throughout their lineup who can take advantage of that one mistake. Jhonny Peralta has hit 16 of his 21 home runs at Jacobs Field, so the home field advantage should help him.
To win against the Yankees, you need to play from out in front; the New York offense and back end relief is much too difficult to attempt to play catch up. To that end, the Indians are well equipped to combat these strengths. Their starting pitching is a decided advantage, and they have a bullpen that can keep a lead, at least until the ninth inning. Add in home field advantage and the “short” ALDS schedule, and you can begin to understand why the Indians should win this divisional series.