ALCS Preview: Toronto Blue Jays and Cleveland Indians
One would think the MLB was praying for a Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox ALCS for TV ratings and more. Instead, they got the total opposite with the Toronto Blue Jays and Cleveland Indians. For the TV side of things, it’s a less than ideal matchup with a Canadian team and a small market Cleveland team. For the MLB, it definitely does not have the hype of the team with the best record in the American League and a continued season for the legendary David Ortiz. Outside Toronto…sorry, CANADA and Cleveland, only die-hard fans would know this series could make to be one of the better ALCS’s in recent history. Two hot teams separated by a 4-5 hour drive clashing together.
Let’s take a look at the season series between these teams:
June 30th – July 3rd at Toronto: Split 2-2
August 19th-21st at Cleveland: 2-1 Cleveland
As you can see from these two series, apart from the dominating outing from Carlos Carrasco and the July 3rd 17 run game from Toronto, all of these games could have gone either which way. 4/7 games between these two teams were decided by 1 run. A hit there or a hit here by one of these ball clubs and they could have taken the season series 5-2 or better. They played each other tough.
Fast forward to today (October 12th, 2016), two days away from the beginning of the ALCS and both of these teams are coming off of sweeps. Cleveland swept the Boston Red Sox and Toronto taking all 3 from the Texas Rangers. Both of these teams are coming in extremely hot. Toronto scored a total of 22 runs in 3 games against Texas while only allowing 10. Cleveland scored 15 and allowed 7 runs.
Let’s take a look at how these teams shake down from each side of the ball.
The Indians bring their 4th ranked offense (according to Fangraphs) into this series. As a team, the Indians hit .262/.329/.430 and 102 wRC+. They were first in the AL in stealing bases with 134. The Indians don’t tear the cover off the ball offensively but Carlos Santana smacked 34 home runs as did Mike Napoli. Francisco Lindor is their best player with a 6.3 fWAR on the regular season. The kid is a gem with the glove. Tyler Naquin is a candidate for ROY and had a great season vs. Toronto.
The Blue Jays have handled Mike Napoli, Tyler Naquin and Jason Kipnis quite well in the 7 meetings between the teams in 2016. They’ve also somewhat handled Francisco Lindor. 3 key pieces of the Indians offense Toronto has largely kept in check. Santana is hitting .321 with a .424 OBP against Toronto and Jose Ramirez is hitting .313. Preventing Santana and Ramirez from doing damage will go a long way to the Blue Jays success in this series as historically, they’ve handled Napoli and Kipnis.
With the Indians leading the AL in stolen bases, the Blue Jays seem to be a favourable matchup pitching wise. Toronto is last in the AL in average pitcher release speed at 1.60. Taking advantage of that could make Cleveland a nightmare to deal with on the basepaths. One thing the Indians do struggle with is the fastball. The Indians have a low wFB and tend to struggle against left-handers. Advantage J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez.
The Key: Jose Ramirez is having a phenomenal season. With a slashline of .312/.363/.462 and a wRC+ of 122, Ramirez has been a sparkplug for the Indians offense. He has also stolen 22 bases. If Ramirez keeps doing what he’s been doing all year, the Indians will be fine offensively.
Toronto has the 6th ranked offense in the MLB. They had a slashline of .248/.330/.426 and a 102 wRC+. The Blue Jays offense was good in 2016 but compared to 2015, many people feel they underperformed. Maybe they did a tad but it was completely unrealistic to expect the team to do what they did in 2015. After almost missing the post-season entirely, the Blue Jays offense may have awoken. Who knew it would take Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish to ignite this offense. They’ve hit the cover off the ball in the playoffs.
The Blue Jays do feature what TBD broadcaster Brian Anderson referred to as murderers row when referring to Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Russell Martin, and Troy Tulowitzki. While that remains true, a massive key for the Blue Jays in the playoffs is the fact the bottom half order with Kevin Pillar and Ezequiel Carrera is getting on-base and hitting with RISP to turn the order over for Carrera and Devon Travis.
Against Cleveland in 2016, Tulowitzki has torn the cover off the ball with a .409/.481/.727 slashline with 2 home runs and 6 RBI. Russell Martin also boasts a .300/.344/.600 slashline with 3 home runs and 8 RBI against Cleveland. Donaldson is also having quite a successful season against Cleveland pitching. Toronto has hit Cleveland pitching better than Cleveland had Toronto.
The Key: There are two key offensive players for Toronto in this series. Josh Donaldson is one of them. With an already successful season against the Indians and a .500 batting average so far in the post-season, Donaldson has been a catalyst in sparking the offense. The other key is Ezequiel Carrera. Whether leading off or batting 9th, Carrera has also been a sparkplug for the Blue Jays offense. Every October, the most successful teams have that one guy who steps up BIG and comes out of nowhere. Maybe that someone is Carrera.
The Indians are without two massive arms for the ALCS. They were able to get by with just 3 starters in the ALDS but who is their 4th starter? The Indians are missing both Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar for the ALCS. That forces Mike Clevinger to take the reigns as Cleveland’s 4th starter. Ahead of him will be Kluber in Game 1, Trevor Bauer in Game 2, and Josh Tomlin in Game 3.
Historically, Kluber has struggled against the Blue Jays. Against teams where Kluber has made at least 5 starts, his 5.34 ERA against Toronto is the highest of any team. In Toronto on July 3rd, Kluber was rocked to the tune of 5 runs in just 3.1 innings but was much better his second start around. In 2 appearances, 1 being a relief outing for Bauer, he has held the Blue Jays in check to the tune of a 1.38 ERA. Josh Tomlin has allowed 4 home runs to the Blue Jays in 2 starts this season.
The way the Indians have the rotation set for this series, one would say Kluber could throw on short rest in game 4 and again in game 7 but the way I see it breaking down is:
- Game 1 and 5- Corey Kluber
- Game 2 and 6- Trevor Bauer
- Game 3 and 7- Josh Tomlin
- Game 4- Mike Clevinger
Now, having Josh Tomlin start a Game 7 likely isn’t a proposition many feel confidently in. With the rest day on Thursday after Game 5, Kluber could pitch out of the bullpen if need be in Game 7 for an inning or two combined with Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw, and Cody Allen.
The Key: I want to say Corey Kluber as if the Blue Jays beat him in Game 1, I can see Toronto winning the series in 5 but my key for Cleveland is Trevor Bauer. Bauer has shut down the Blue Jays offense this season in his 2 appearances and despite a 4.26 ERA for the season, Bauer has struggled mightily in the 2nd half to the tune of .264/.342/.449 and a 5.36 ERA. If Kluber wins Game 1, Bauer has the opportunity to continue to shut down the Blue Jays offense like he has this season go to Toronto up 2-0.
The strength of the Blue Jays in 2016 was the starting staff. EXCUSE ME? Can you say that again? The strength of the Blue Jays in 2016 was the starting staff. Yes, if you told anyone that that would be the case at the beginning of the season, they’d likely be somewhat shocked given the question marks that did surround this rotation. The Blue Jays used just 7 starters all year. Marcus Stroman, J.A Happ, Marco Estrada, Aaron Sanchez, and R.A Dickey. Throw in 2 spot starts from Drew Hutchison and those are the only guys used in the rotation all year long.
In the American League, the Blue Jays boasted the leagues best rotation. Quirky but fun stat about this staff is that they led the MLB in innings pitched with 995.1 innings all without a complete game. Happ was the closest at 8.2 innings. The Blue Jays got quality starting pitching every turn through the rotation. Some key performers included J.A. Happ who won 20 games, Aaron Sanchez who led the AL in ERA at 3.00, and Marco Estrada who led the AL with an BAA of .202.
The Blue Jays have just announced their starting rotation and it shakes down as follows:
- Game 1 and 5 – Marco Estrada
- Game 2 and 6 – J.A Happ
- Game 3 and 7 – Marcus Stroman
- Game 4 – Aaron Sanchez
Limiting Sanchez’s innings has been a key all season which is why I think he starts Game 4. That would put him available out of the bullpen for Game 7 behind Stroman. Stroman hasn’t started since the Wild-Card game and I had thought it would make more sense to start Stroman in Game 2 and Happ in Game 3, but with this staff, it really does not matter. The Indians are among the leagues worst hitting teams against the fastball. Advantage all of the Blue Jays starters who love to throw the fastball.
The Key: As mentioned above, the Indians offense struggles against the fastball. Advantage J.A Happ who throws a ton of fastballs and lives off the fastball for his success. Happ wasn’t his normal dominant self in his Game 2 start vs. Texas but he limited the damage and is among the leagues best with RISP. In my books, I have Happ starting Games 3 and 7 making him the key for the Blue Jays rotation.
The Indians were hoping to have Danny Salazar available to them out of their bullpen. They learned yesterday that they will not have that happen and will be left off of the ALCS roster. That leaves 4 key arms at their disposal in my mind. The first is obvious. It’s left hander Andrew Miller. Manager Terry Francona has according to some being revolutionary in the way he has used Andrew Miller out of the bullpen. Miller has been used as early as the 5th inning to bridge the gap from starter to closer Cody Allen.
Miller as a lefty can stymie an offense. But without Salazar, how will the Indians use him with the 2-3-2 format? In my mind, there is no way Francona can use Miller for multiple innings in back-to-back games or even for 1 inning in 3 straight. The format could see Miller pitching 4/5 days in a row. Though he doesn’t ever appear to get tired, one would be concerned at Francona potentially overworking Miller. Advantage Blue Jays as the Andrew Miller effect may not be as great as a shorter ALDS.
There’s also closer Cody Allen who by fWAR, has been one of the best relievers in the MLB the past few seasons. He does have a control problem but is an electric arm for Francona to use to close out a game. The other two are Bryan Shaw who leaves runners on base 80% of the time and Dan Otero who is kind of the bridge guy between the starter and Miller or Miller to Shaw and Allen. Unless it’s a blowout, I would confidently say the only 4 relievers you see out of the Cleveland bullpen in this series is Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw, and Dan Otero.
The Key: It’s obvious. Andrew Miller can change the landscape of this entire series on his own. If Bauer or Tomlin are pulled with 2 runners on in the 4th or 5th, it’s a safe bet Miller is entering the ball game. The most high leverage situations will see Andrew Miller coming out of the Indians bullpen. Want proof to how dominate he is? How about a 10-1 record, 41.5 K-BB %, .159 BAA, 95.7% LOB, 1.45 ERA, 1.68 FIP, 1.18 xFIP, and 2.9 fWAR. Dominate.
The Blue Jays bullpen was looking very strong before Joaquin Benoit got injured with his torn calf. We all know what happened to Benoit and it really could play a big role in what transpires in this series. In the Blue Jays stumble into the playoffs, the bullpen all but fell apart. Jason Grilli was taxed and was getting hit HARD especially by left handers. Roberto Osuna was overworked and wasn’t his normal dominate self.
Despite the bullpens struggles, the bullpen has somewhat righted the ship since the start of the post-season. Osuna has been fantastic, Grilli looks rejuvenated and Brett Cecil has gotten some key outs when needed. Joe Biagini has been the Blue Jays unsung hero pitching 3.2 innings, allowing just two hits and striking out 3. He has been a feel good story all season long and it’s continued into the playoffs.
Like I did with the Indians, I’m going to list the 5 Blue Jays that John Gibbons truly has at his disposal for this series. Osuna and Grilli are locks, obviously. Joe Biagini is a lock for the 6th or 7th inning. Brett Cecil is the lefty specialist. The one man in the bullpen that could be used much like the Indians have used Andrew Miller, is Francisco Liriano. Liriano was hit by a comebacker off the head in Game 2 but is set to be on the ALCS roster on Saturday. I think Liriano and Biagini will be the two relievers used first by John Gibbons in high leverage situations and have the ability to give Gibbons multiple innings.
The Key: Francisco Liriano is my key out of the Blue Jays bullpen. Though Liriano does not have the same command as Andrew Miller, Liriano’s stuff is among the best in the league. When he’s locating, he has no-hit type stuff. If Liriano is all set and ready to go, him being a lefty who can strike hitters out or get a key ground ball when needed, Liriano will be a crucial part of Gibbons bullpen. Expect Liriano to be used in key spots early, although with the Blue Jays starting staff, we won’t see Liriano until the 6th or 7th.
Offense: Advantage Toronto, but slightly. Toronto features more power than Cleveland’s lineup, but Cleveland gets on base and adds the speed element to their game that Toronto does not. The key will be to minimize Cleveland’s run game. Toronto’s bats are scorching hot right now.
Starting Pitching: Advantage Toronto, heavily. Cleveland is down 2 of their top 3 starters in Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar which forces Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin to play key parts in the rotation. When looking at the pitching matchups for this series, the only advantage Cleveland has is when Kluber starts. Every other matchup strongly favours the Blue Jays. If the Indians want to move on, they need to take advantage of every Kluber start, which could be 3 times. However, Kluber has a 5.34 ERA against Toronto for his career which is the highest against any team he’s made at least 5 starts against.
Bullpen: Advantage Cleveland, heavily. The Indians bullpen is much stronger than the Blue Jays. If the Indians can make it a bullpen game, Cleveland has a very good shot at winning this series. The way Terry Francona uses his bullpen makes it a shorter game for Cleveland than it does Toronto.
Prediction: Toronto in 5 games. I think this series will be very close like it was during the regular season. Toronto has the experience of playing in the ALCS just last season. None of the home grown Indians players like Jason Kipnis, Jose Ramirez, Carlos Santana, and Corey Kluber have ever played in the ALCS. In fact, unless I am correct, the only two Indians players that have been in an ALCS is Mike Napoli and Andrew Miller.
Toronto also has a massive advantage in starting pitching behind the Kluber-Estrada matchup. If Toronto can take Game 1, this series will be over in Toronto next week Wednesday. If Kluber wins, I can see this going 6 games but Toronto’s offense is red-hot and the starting pitching is too good. The Indians do seem to have some magic to them this year, but I think it runs dry in the ALCS.
Blue Jays advance to the World Series in 5 games.