By: Dan Grant
It’s a marketing executives dream.
Toronto. Cleveland. The ALCS on TBS.
Generic TBS Announcer #1: ‘One’s a frozen wasteland in another country, where — I assume — hungry polar bears roam the streets and beer cans are hurled to settle any and all disagreements. The other is Cleveland, also known as ‘The Mistake By the Lake’. One time, the actual nearby lake caught fire. That’s a true fact. It’s barely even a city, more of a — how do I put this gently? — well, it’s a hellscape, Todd, I can’t say it any plainer.
Generic TBS Announcer #2: ‘ This is a real battle of the titans, Beck. [whispering] Which one does LeBron play for again?’
This conversation may have actually happened at some point this week — but who cares? The Jays are in the ALCS! Again!
Despite Auston Matthews being named Supreme Overlord of Toronto faster than anyone since Josh Donaldson or Vince Carter, there’s some insanely important baseball that’s about to take place, and it deserves our full attention.
Toronto and Cleveland kick off the American League Championship series Friday night, and despite some stupid game times (three 4:00pm Eastern start times? Come on MLB, get real), it has the whiff of a hard-fought series, full of gamesmanship. These are two teams with very specific strengths and weaknesses. Unlike the ALDS, where Cleveland faced a high powered Boston offense that sputtered and the Jays disposed of the smoke-and-mirrors
whiny babies Rangers, these teams appear evenly matched.
Here are your four keys to the series. We’re going back to basics on these sweet babies.
Cleveland has cruised into the ALCS despite missing their excellent 2 and 3 starters, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. It was rumoured that Salazar might return as a member of the bullpen for this series, but that now appears unlikely. Carrasco is out for the season with a broken pitching hand.
All in all, Cleveland are pretty shorthanded in the rotation behind 2014 Cy Young winner Corey Kluber. Trevor Bauer has good stuff but is maddeningly inconsistent: his career WHIP sits at 1.356 and he led the AL in walks in 2015 with 79. He cut that down this year — all the way to 70! Trevor, throw the ball over the plate buddy. Or don’t, I’m a Jays fan!
Behind Bauer, Josh Tomlin is a 31 year old with only 687 career innings under his belt, accrued in parts of the past seven seasons. He did just have his best year in the big leagues, but his 4.88 FIP isn’t particularly scary, nor is his 6.1 K/9. And… that’s it! Cleveland is so short that they’re starting rookie Mike Clevinger in Game 4, who despite delightful hair, has posted a 7.20 ERA in 25 innings pitched on the road this season. It should be noted that it’s rumoured Cleveland manager Terry Francona will potentially treat it as a ‘bullpen game’ and use a team of pitchers to try and get through the contest.
This makes some sense because the Cleveland bullpen is very good. They finished second in the AL in bullpen ERA, FIP and xFIP, and they didn’t add their best component until mid-season. I am purposely underselling the unholy terror that is Andrew Miller here, and shall not speak his name again, in the hopes that he might just go away. But as good as the ‘pen is, if the starters can’t get the ball to them with the lead, the Blue Jays have to feel pretty good about their chances.
For a final word on the battle on the hill, have a look at this interesting Eno Sarris piece over on Fangraphs. The gist is that the Cleveland offense has been pretty good all season, but they love to hit breaking and off-speed pitches at an almost historic level. The Jays pitching staff rates as the most effective fastball throwing (particularly sinkers) team in the American League, by a country mile. They’re good hitters over there, but they don’t like what Toronto has to offer, generally speaking. The Jays will once again rely on their deep, balanced starting rotation, something Toronto fans must feel pretty OK about these days.
With all that said, Cleveland’s offense isn’t long ball oriented, and they have other ways of generating runs. They do have a couple big boppers in Carlos Santana and Mike Napoli, but their real bread and butter is putting the bat on the ball and running like hell.
They led the AL in stolen bases with 134. The Jays, for comparisons sake, had just 54 and finished 13th out of 15. Cleveland also graded out as the top AL club (by a heck of a margin) in Fangraphs BsR stat, which essentially measures a teams overall base running effectiveness. The Jays finished 11th in the AL in this category, and were a net negative on the base paths.
So how will this play out? Well, Toronto pitchers struggled badly to hold runners on this season, and can essentially be stolen against at will, as detailed in this August Fagerstrom piece. 84 of 104 potential base-stealers reached safely against the Jays this season, the third worst mark in all of baseball. This is, uh, not good, particularly against Cleveland. However, you can combat it.
Cleveland has excellent team speed, but there are really just four main perpetrators- former Blue Jay Rajai Davis led the way with 43 steals during the regular season, while Jose Ramirez chipped in with 22, Francisco Lindor had 19 and Jason Kipnis had 15. If Toronto can shut down even two of those four it would go a long way towards keeping the hectic Cleveland running game under control. Davis, who had just a .306 OBP and struck out 106 times during the season, and Kipnis, who whiffed 146 times, would be the most likely targets, since Lindor and Ramirez are bat controlling contact demons from outer space.
Toronto has a slight advantage here, in that their two best defenders (Kevin Pillar and Troy Tulowitzki) play premium defensive positions. The Blue Jays defense is strong around the horn as well, with Josh Donaldson possessing strong range, Edwin Encarnacion playing an average first base, and Ezequiel Carrera rating as a plus defender in both right and left field. They also have the distinct advantage of having former Gold Glover Darwin Barney on the bench, who rated as a plus defender (per Defensive Runs Saved and UZR) at three separate positions this season.
Cleveland’s defense is mostly fine, with a couple notable exceptions. On the plus side, they have the sublime Francisco Lindor, who rated a +17 in DRS this season, second only to Angels wizard Andrelton Simmons (+18) at the shortstop position in the AL this season. For what it’s worth, Troy Tulowitzki finished third (+10).
However, they also let both Tyler Naquin and Rajai Davis patrol the outfield, sometimes at the same time, which should terrify fans of a team that hasn’t won the World Series since 1948 and is known for finding creative ways to lose. Davis was a -5 in centre and a -3 in left this season, but those both pale in comparison to Naquin, who somehow managed to post a -17 in centre, despite playing only 799.2 innings out there. For reference, a full season for an everyday player is roughly 1300-1350 innings. That made Naquin the fourth worst defensive player in all of baseball, in roughly three-fifths of a season. Yikes. It’s a good thing he’s a hell of a hitter. We may have another ‘Say Nay Kid’ on our hands, eh Ian?
I couldn’t resist.
So do Lindor and Naquin cancel each other out with their weird yin-and-yang 17 numbers? Not really. Cleveland has a lot of solid if unspectacular defenders, and finished as a cumulative plus in DRS — their final number? Freakily enough, +17! You can’t make this stuff up.
Toronto finished a +28 in the same category however, and doesn’t have anyone nearly as bad as Naquin or Davis taking the field regularly — Jose Bautista (-8) and Michael Saunders (-6 in RF, -5 in LF) are more of a one or the other proposition, and Bautista has looked (relatively) stronger in the field since his return to full health. The Jays can field a Carrera-Pillar-Upton outfield that’s far superior defensively, though you’ll probably see some Saunders at DH against Cleveland’s righty heavy rotation, meaning Bautista will be taking the field.
Toronto’s lineup is deeper than Cleveland’s and has a much higher ceiling. As evidenced by the eight home runs hit by seven different players (none of whom was Josh Donaldson) during the ALDS, the Toronto lineup can kill you from top to bottom.
With that said, Cleveland’s top five of Santana-Kipnis-Lindor-Napoli-Ramirez is very strong, and probably underrated by anyone who hasn’t watched the team this season, myself included. They sometimes plop Davis at the top of that quintet and shift Santana to the five hole, between Napoli and Ramirez, which lengthens their lineup if they can get the speedy Rajai on base. The high risk/high reward Naquin (30% K rate) and the flaccid Lonnie Chisenhall and/or Brandon Guyer have filled out the lineup, along with defensive catcher Roberto Perez, who took over for the injured Yan Gomes mid-season and hasn’t relinquished the role. While Cleveland isn’t known for their offense, it’s a solid line-up from top to bottom, and in fact is one that finished second in the AL in runs scored with 777, and fourth in wOBA at .326. Despite not being known as an offensive powerhouse, they get the job done.
Every Toronto fan knows the Jays personality by now. They’re a team of extremes. They led the AL in walk rate (10.1%) but finished near the bottom in K rate (12th), while still managing to slug 221 homers (3rd) and post a .327 wOBA (3rd). The 2015 Blue Jays showed just how effective that formula can be, and the best version of that team reared its head against Texas in the ALDS. Can they do it again?
It’s going to come down to this: Toronto’s pitching needs to limit Cleveland’s speedsters from hitting the basepaths, while the Jays offense inflicts maximum damage against their starting pitchers and wears out the bullpen. That’s the recipe for success. Follow it, and a World Series souffle shall come out of the oven, piping hot.
Should be easy enough, right Gibby?