With both Toronto and Cleveland dispatching their ALDS opponents in short order, here we are with a couple of teams looking to end long championship droughts. While the series certainly looks to be a tightly contested one, there can be only one winner. Here, we’re going to take a look at the reasons why the Indians shall emerge victorious and appear in their first World Series since 1997 and take a crack at winning the damn thing for the first time since 1948.
We’ll get started with the one area where Toronto holds the advantage with their starting rotation. It’s difficult to really gage the Indians’ starting rotation based on their numbers throughout the year, what with Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar both on the shelf. While there were rumors that Salazar might be ready to help out in the bullpen, he’s still not healthy enough. Cleveland has Cy Young winner and 2016 AL FIP leader Corey Kluber for Games 1 and 4 and, theoretically, a Game 7 on short rest, if necessary. Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin will start Games 2 and 3, and Bauer, with his 0.98 HR/9, looks particularly well-suited to stifle the Blue Jays’ offense, who have relied heavily on home runs. The fourth starter looks to be Mike Clevinger “and friends” which means that we’ll see a lot of the bullpen in that game, but spending time against Cleveland’s relievers isn’t something that the Blue Jays should be looking forward to.
We already saw what Cleveland’s manager Terry Francona was willing to do with his bullpen in the series against the Red Sox. When you have Andrew Miller (1.45 ERA, 1.68 FIP and 14.9 K/9 in the regular season) on your roster, your bullpen is off to a pretty good start. After all, you can make the argument that Miller was actually an even more valuable reliever this year than Zach Britton, and he’s the potential Cy Young candidate. But it doesn’t just start and end with Miller, either. As a whole, the Indians’ bullpen was one of the best in baseball by most metrics. They were 4th by ERA, 5th by FIP, 2nd by WPA and 7th by RE24, whereas Toronto’s bullpen was 9th, 19th, 15th and 24th, respectively. Bryan Shaw, Dan Otero and Cody Allen were the only other relievers used in the ALDS, but Cleveland’s bullpen is fairly deep and Francona’s willingness to think outside the box in terms of bullpen use to keep his team in games is definitely an asset in October.
And keeping the Indians in games is something the lineup does with aplomb. While they may not have the star power in the lineup that Toronto does, the Indians’ offense ranked second in the AL in runs scored (4.83 per game). While Toronto’s rotation was the best in the league in terms of stinginess with home runs (1.06 HR/9), that rate isn’t quite as scary when you consider that Cleveland’s offense doesn’t rely as heavily on the longball and was 18th in MLB with 185.
One thing of particular interest in how Cleveland’s offense performed so well relative to expectations was noted by Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs: they were the best team in baseball in taking advantage of platoons. While none of the Blue Jays starters have truly egregious platoon splits, every little advantage helps in the playoffs. The lack of platoon splits is not something that’s true of the Blue Jays’ bullpen, so if the Indians are able to get to Toronto’s bullpen early, expect them to take full advantage of it.
Another area where Cleveland should be able to take advantage of a weakness on the part of Toronto is on the basepaths. Russell Martin has only been able to throw out runners 15% of the time this year, by far his career worst. Compound that with the fact that the Indians led the AL with 134 steals and also led the league with a 81.2% stolen base success rate, and you have a recipe for the Indians to gorge themselves on extra bases. The Indians are also a top-ten MLB team in both strikeout rates and walk rates, so they’ll likely have opportunities to do so. The Blue Jays may lead the league in ground balls (47.6% GB rate), but, again, expect the Indians’ speed to turn some of those ground balls in hits.
The Indians’ defense was also one of the best in baseball (4th best by UZR), and that will certainly come into play if the pitching staff is able to keep the ball inside the park, which may end up being the determining factor in the series. One final note is that, given how tough the series is to call, the fact that the Indians have home field advantage could end up being a big deal, too.