Anyone who is an ardent fan of baseball knows that it is a funny game. It is probably the one sport where the best team not winning the World Series would be the norm.
The Cleveland Indians finished the regular season with the American League’s best record, so they get the winner of the wild card game as their opponent in the Division Series.
Unfortunately, the winner of that game, the New York Yankees, might just be the second best team in the AL.
The Indians led the league in run differential, outscoring their opponents by an incredible 254 runs. The Yankees were second, with a +198 mark, just slightly ahead of Houston’s +196.
It is not the ideal situation to play the second best team in the league in a best-of-five series.
Many people have focused on Terry Francona’s decision to start Trevor Bauer in game one, but we have always thought the even numbered games are most important in a series until the deciding game, and that may be Tito’s thought process in using ace Corey Kluber in the second game.
If Bauer wins the series opener, how great will it be to have Kluber going with a chance to take a commanding 2-0 lead.
And if the Indians lose game one, you have perhaps the AL’s best pitcher to tie up the series at a game apiece.
Another reason is Francona seems hesitant to use Josh Tomlin as a starter. If Kluber pitches game one, Tomlin would seem to be the most likely candidate to pitch a potential fourth game.
If Bauer goes in the first game, Kluber still would be the game five starter, and Bauer can go in game four, backed up by the bullpen, which has starters Danny Salazar, Mike Clevinger, and Tomlin as members.
There is no question the Yankees are a different team outside of the bandbox that is new Yankee Stadium, but amazingly, they pitch better at home too.
New York has a 817 OPS as a team at home, but that figure drops to 755 on the road. As a comparison, the Indians have a 782 OPS at Progressive Field, and a 793 OPS away from home, another reason the Cleveland tied Houston for the best road record in the AL at 53-28.
The Yankees also have a very good bullpen, perhaps second only to the Indians.
Just as Francona can shorten a game by going to Joe Smith, Bryan Shaw, Andrew Miller, and Cody Allen after five innings, Yankee skipper Joe Girardi can do the same with David Robertson, Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle, and Aroldis Chapman.
It will be very important for the Tribe to get an early lead in each game.
These games will probably be long. The two teams involved are one and two in the American League in walks, but the big difference is in strikeouts.
The Indians have a strikeout staff leading the AL in whiffs, and the Yankees rank 6th in the league in fanning. New York’s pitching staff ranks 4th in strikeouts, but Indians’ hitters are second to last in the junior circuit in whiffing.
The one decided edge the Tribe has is in the starting pitching. While Luis Severino is one of the sports’ best young starters, Francona has three of perhaps the top ten starters in the AL at his disposal.
It is very likely that this Yankee team is better than the Red Sox or Blue Jays teams the Indians met last year in the post-season.
Make no mistake, this series will be a challenge.