Toward the end of August, the Cleveland Indians put the baseball world on notice that they, and not the Los Angeles Dodgers, were the team to beat.
Manager Terry Francona watched his team win 22 straight games — an American League record — allowing them to secure the AL’s top postseason seed. Cleveland’s hitters created runs at a rate that was 7 percent higher than the league average, the third-best in the majors, with a pitching staff that allowed 177 fewer runs than expected based on men on base and outs left in the inning — the best performance of any pitching staff in major league history.
So it is no surprise the Indians are now the World Series favorites (a 19.7 percent chance) heading into their ALDS matchup against the New York Yankees. But that doesn’t mean we won’t see an upset that sends the Bronx Bombers through to the next round.
For the Yankees to have a chance, Manager Joe Girardi needs to take advantage of his bullpen’s depth early and often, similar to what he did in the wild-card game against the Minnesota Twins.
The Yankees’ bullpen struck out better than 29 percent of batters faced this season, the highest in the majors, with an ERA that was 24 percent lower than the league average (3.34). Chad Green and Dellin Betances rank fourth and sixth, respectively, for their individual strikeout rates. Closer Aroldis Chapman ranks 16th.
In a five-game series over seven days, pitch counts become less of a factor, and Girardi has the luxury of using his relievers as much as he needs to. Green, in particular, has shown an ability to be productive even if asked to pitch multiple innings. The second-year pro posted a 1.83 ERA with 103 strikeouts in 69 innings, and he has pitched at least two innings in 27 of his 52 career appearances. The results in those outings: 115 strikeouts in 84.2 innings pitched, with a minuscule 2.76 ERA. No reliever allowed fewer runs than expected (27.4) than Green in 2017.
Betances is an elite setup man, combining a four-seam fastball and a curveball to keep hitters off balance. And the right-hander is effective against hitters batting from both sides of the plate, with left-handed batters still without a home run against him this season.
|Betances vs LHB in 2017||120||0.121||0.277||0.163|
|Betances vs RHB in 2017||141||0.159||0.362||0.262|
Betances also keeps batters from making solid contact on the ball — only five balls hit against him were classified as being hit on the barrel, giving him the fifth-lowest rate in the majors among pitchers throwing at least 1,000 pitches during the regular season.
Then there is Chapman, whose pitches topped 101 mph or more 166 times this season alone, almost double the amount produced by the rest of the major leaguers.
Chapman’s pitching repertoire contains three pitches, but it’s that four-seam fastball that is a nightmare for opposing hitters. Averaging 100.1 mph, batters managed a mere .193 average against with 48 strikeouts in 145 at-bats ending on the pitch. Cleveland’s weighted on-base average against pitches 95 mph or faster was .316, the 16th-best mark in the majors; it was .341 (the second-best) against everything else.
Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson and Adam Warren also provide Girardi flexibility from the bullpen.
Kahnle truck out almost a third of all batters he faced this season (31.3 percent) while stranding 81.5 percent of runners. Robertson sent an even higher rate of batters back to the dugout (38.6 percent strikeout rate) with more than half of the balls put in play against him resulting in groundballs, helping to get his batting average against on balls in play down to .182, the lowest on the team. Warren, like Betances, also limits quality at-bats, yielding just five barrels on 947 pitches (0.53 percent) this season.
“We have a really healthy respect for their bullpen, and they showed exactly what they can do,” Francona told David Lennon of Newsday.
According to FanGraphs, Cleveland has a 59 percent chance of moving on to the ALCS, but that could quickly drop if they aren’t able to overcome the Yankees’ use of the best bullpen in the majors this season.
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