Indians-Blue Jays: Breaking down the ALCS
BY JUSTIN LADA
SENIOR WRITER
The Cleveland Indians weren’t supposed to have any shot to win a playoff game, let alone a series. But since they are welcoming the Toronto Blue Jays to town for the 2016 American League Championship Series, we might as well talk about it.


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The regular season tells us the Boston Red Sox were a better team than the Toronto Blue Jays. But the better team doesn’t always win in the playoffs, the hotter team does. And 
as hot as the Indians are (six straight wins dating back to their sweep the final weekend against Kansas City), the Blue Jays are rolling too (winning the Wild Card game and sweeping top seed Texas). The Indians took the season series, 4-3, winning two of four in Toronto and two of three in Cleveland. As we have learned (hopefully) the regular season is worth almost nothing in terms of using it to predict the postseason. So where can the Indians hold the edges to win a series against a team that’s much healthier than they are (again)?

Catcher:

Russell Martin had a wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) in the first half of 78, well below his career norms (100) but then bounced back to a 123 mark in the second half. Where Martin really gets great marks is his framing. He’s been worth 14.2 framing runs in 2016. That’s important because for whatever reason he’s seen a huge drop off throwing out runners (11% this year compared to a league high 44% in 2015). 61 of 72 runners have been successful in swiping a base against him this year. Fangraphs August Fagerstrom notes that the Blue Jays pitchers times to home have been to blame.

Roberto Perez on the other hand, has nabbed 13 of 26 attempted base stealers, including throwing out baseball’s Usain Bolt, Terrance Gore, twice. That was of course aided by quick times to the plate but Perez also gets high marks for framing as well (8.0 framing runs) despite a smaller sample size. Perez’s 58 wRC+ line isn’t quite up to par with Martin’s offensive performance from a bad first half. He did homer, single, and score the difference making run in Game 1 of the ALDS, but the catching edge goes to Martin because he has controlled the run game in the past and the Jays will at least look to emphasize that this series and Martin has been the better hitter over the year.

1st base:

Mike Napoli has been a huge boost for the Indians this year with all of his partying, rib crushing hugs of his manager, 34 homers and 101 RBI. Without his presence in the lineup and clubhouse, the Indians are not here today, maybe not even last week. His defense (-4 DRS, -4.4 UZR) hasn’t been as good as years past though he’s played every defensive inning at first this postseason over Carlos Santana (+1 DRS, 4.6 UZR) has been the superior defensive first basemen all year.

With that being said, Edwin Encarnacion gets a huge nod here. Despite that he only filled in at 1B most of the year and wasn’t great defensively, his 134 wRC+ bests Napoli asdo his 42 homers as does his .886 OPS. He’s dangerous at all points of the game while Napoli has just two hits so far this postseason and hasn’t homered (partied) since September 16.

2nd base:

Devon Travis is expected to be healthy for the ALCS. 100%? Well, that’s probably up for debate. He’s had a pretty nice year (109 wRC+, 2 DRS) when healthy. Ryan Goins was a bit of an unexpected hero last postseason and Darwin Barney was serviceable.

Jason Kipnis meanwhile, has had one of the better seasons at second base in the league this year by people not named Robinson Cano. He sacrificed power last year for average and found a happy medium this year, resulting in a 117 wRC+ with 23 homers, 15 steals and a DRS of 4. Kipnis, who has become the face of the Indians and their vocal leader, gives the the edge here.

3rd base:

Josh Donaldson is the reigning MVP and figures to be a top-5 vote getter this season as well. He posted a 155 wRC+ 37 homers, 99 RBI and manage 2 DRS despite battling injuries all year.

As well as Jose Ramirez has been this season (122 wRC+ 22 steals, 4.8 fWAR), no matter if the Indians played the Blue Jays or Rangers this round, he wouldn’t make it as the better third sacker. Advantage Donaldson and the Blue Jays.

Shortstop:

At one time, Troy Tulowitzki led the conversation for best shortstop in the game. He’s battled injuries to a 102 wRC+ and a .761 OPS. He did finish with 10 DRS, which was his best mark since 2011 (12).

The advantage here, and it’s not even close, is to Francisco Lindor. He posted a 112 wRC+, .794 OPS, 19 steals and 17 DRS.

Outfield:

In short, Michael Saunders had an underrated offensive year while he wasn’t good defensively. Kevin Pillar isn’t much of an offensive threat but is possibly the best defensive centerfielder in the game. Jose Bautista is still a masher but isn’t great in right field. Ezequiel Carrera is serviceable after all these years. Melvin Upton (84 wRC+) had an overrated offensive year.

Rajai Davis, normally good against lefties, was better against right handers (79 wRC, 90 wRC+ respectively) but did lead the league in steals (43) at the age of 35. Tyler Naquin got off to a hot start offensively but cooled off once the league adjusted and was abysmal in center field (-17 DRS). Coco Crisp had a huge hit in the ALDS and has been the only hitter better with runners in scoring position than Jose Ramirez, but has largely been average to below average. His arm might be the worst among any outfielder in baseball in the last 20 years. Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer (103 wRC+ and 122 wRC+ respectively) have been a great platoon in right field. Given Pillar’s defense and Saunders/Bautista’s offense, the Blue Jays have this edge, too.

Starting pitching:

Health has an effect here and while Corey Kluber is probably the best pitcher who will start a game in this series, the Blue Jays health of Marco Estrada, J.A Happ, Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez give the Blue Jays a clear edge over Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin and Mike Clevinger’s two/three innings of relief. The Indians pitching did exactly what they wanted in the first round but need things to go even more as planned this round. Though ZiPS gives Bauer the edge in Game 2, the Blue Jays have the pitching edge in all matchups not covered by Kluber and Bauer.

Relief pitching:

Roberto Osuna is one of the five best closers in the American League. That’s where the Blue Jays edge lies as far as the bullpen. Osuna is a little better than Cody Allen. But Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw and Dan Otero combined with Allen are the stronger unit than Osuna, Jason Grilli and Joe Biagini. Brett Cecil is also their only capable left hander and didn’t have a great ALDS when called upon.

Managing:

The entire baseball world has fallen in love with Terry Francona’s liberal usage of Andrew Miller and riding his bullpen to a sweep. Not that John Gibbons hasn’t pushed the right buttons, but Francona is the media darling right now, and for good reason.

Offense:

The Indians scored 78 more runs this year than the Blue Jays despite 221 homers compared to the Indians 185. What that says is these offenses, while both good, are very different. The Indians aren’t reliant on the home run ball to score but if the Blue Jays get hot, they can make the fireworks explode early and often. We’ll call it a push.

Defense:

The Blue Jays had the better DRS as a team (28 to Indians 27). The Indians are stronger at the keystone combos while the Blue Jays hold the edge in centerfield. We’ll call catcher a push, at least defensively, and call defense a push.

Pitching:

Probably fair to give the Blue Jays a slight edge here overall because their starting pitching depth and the Indians cannot ride their bullpen studs as hard as they did in the ALDS. Unless they sweep, the Indians will have to be a little more conservative with their usage of Miller and Allen (threw over 150 pitches in two appearances in the ALDS) because of the schedule. Without the three-games in a row format, we could call this a draw, too, but because of that schedule, the team with more starting pitching depth right now has the edge.

The Indians will win if: They exploit the Blue Jays pitchers slow times to home and Martin’s subsequent struggles to throw out runners. Davis’.272 OBP in the second half is not a good indicator for the Indians, who will need him to reach base to utilize his speed. Kipnis, Lindor, Ramirez and even Santana and Chisenhall can pick their spots to run, but Davis can change the game with his speed, should he get on. The Indians could win without Davis doing much offensively, but they have a much better chance if he does.

Napoli and Santana get things going. They combined for four hits in the first round and just one extra base hit and zero RBI. The Indians deep, productive lineup had different heroes each game and that’s how they have to win. But at some point they will need these two to bring something to the plate. If they do, the Indians offense could go run for run with one of the most powerful offenses in baseball.

Francona pushes the right buttons. In addition to getting the Indians to turn this series into a track meet, getting 7+ innings from Kluber in a Game 1 win, getting Bauer into the 6th in Game 2 plus letting the big 3 log more innings in that one with the off day the next day would hopefully put the Indians up 2-0 headed to Toronto. He’ll have squeeze six innings from Tomlin in order to preserve some juice from the bullpen in Game 4. If Kluber gives them another great start in Game 5, the Indians would have an off day and then all hands on deck for either Game 6 and 7.

The Blue Jays will win if: Their bullpen continues its dominance (0 runs allowed in four games, all wins). If the Blue Jays can win the non-Kluber starts by the Indians and the bullpen does its job in all those possible 5 games, it might be too much for the Indians to overcome.

They can score more than one run per inning. The Indians didn’t allow the Red Sox to score more than one run an inning all series. They held the best offense in baseball to seven runs in three games. The Red Sox hit three solo homers in Game 1 then didn’t leave the yard again. The Blue Jays live and die by the long ball. If the Indians can limit them to solo homers, they’ll have a good chance. The Blue Jays will need guys on to take advantage of their longball tendencies.

If they control the run game. That and the bullpen are the two very decided advantages the Indians have in this series. Whichever team exploits or shuts down these key factors will move on to play for the World Series. If the Blue Jays pitching staff holds the Indians in check and give Martin time to throw out base stealers, the Indians will have to rely on their aggressive base running (league best 17.1 BsR) and the Blue Jays bad outfield arms to take extra bases. August Fagerstrom also noted the Blue Jays lack of outfield guns.
Things I’ll be watching for:

Andrew Miller can get righties or lefties out but the Blue Jays aren’t left handed heavy. Saunders is their only left handed offensive threat. This might change how Francona uses him a little. Maybe he can feel more comfortable going to Otero and Shaw early in games if he needs to and allow Miller to put out fires as needed or shift him towards the seventh or eighth inning. As always, situation, not role, will dictate Miller’s usage.
Coco Crisp cannot and should not play the outfield in Toronto. That outfield is big and his arm is a noted weakness. Davis’ speed (if he gets on base, as noted) against the Blue Jays running game issues is something the Indians need to take advantage of each game.
Marco Estrada’s changeup is his bread and butter but the Indians are a good offspeed hitting team. It could be a good matchup for Naquin to help the offense again.
The Indians are one of the most patient teams in baseball https://twitter.com/krisviIIanueva/status/786282053448982528) 
and the harder they work the Blue Jays starters and get deep into their bullpen, the better chance they’ll have to put up runs.
The Blue Jays are also an extremely patient team.(league best 632 walks drawn). That’s especially important for Bauer and Tomlin. Bauer can’t afford to walk guys and neither can Tomlin. Tomlin took advantage of the Red Sox being too patient and getting ahead 0-1. The Blue Jays advance scouts will have reported that back and the deeper they get Tomlin into counts, the better chance they’ll have to swing from their heels. Tomlin is going to need to find the right balance of getting ahead and not giving them first pitch strikes to hammer.
Bauer’s best career start came against the Blue Jays: 8IP, 13K, 2ER in the Indians dramatic 9th inning August win. He also threw five shutout innings against them in July in the 19 inning game that gave the Indians their 14th straight win. Regular season results don’t mean anything this time of year, but Bauer is a smart pitcher and will use what worked to his advantage.
If the Blue Jays can get Francisco Liriano back into the bullpen, he could be the equalizer. He’s not Andrew Miller, but he’s a better southpaw option than Brett Cecil. He could force the Indians to make multiple moves (pinch hitting for Naquin/Chisenhall) or turn around Crisp to the right side (worse as a RHH despite his heroic HR in Game 3 of the ALDS). He can also give them length from the bullpen as well.
Games 1 and 2 will be imperative for the Indians. If they can get another 7+ innings from Kluber, Francona can use Bauer and the bullpen the same way that he did in ALDS Game 1 to try to take a 2-0 lead to Toronto. A 1-1 split gives Toronto a very big advantage, especially if they can beat Tomlin and the bullpen gang in Game4. The Indians would need Kluber to be stout again and then have to win Games 6 and 7. Wins in Games 1/2/5/6 seems to be the Indians best formula.
The Indians haven’t lost a playoff game in 3 years. Of course, they hadn’t won one in 9 years until last week. But if they do lose a game, how this unit responds will be paramount to their chances to moving on. Sure, they could sweep. But in the event something that crazy doesn’t happen, how this mostly young club reacts to a postseason loss or a backs-against-the-wall type situation is unknown.

Again, I won’t make a prediction like last round, other than this will be a fun series. These two teams, while built very differently right now, are very even. The Indians do have home field advantage but the 2-3-2 format gives the Blue Jays an advantage if they steal one of the first two in Cleveland. My prediction is that this series will have more than two games in Cleveland, but no idea who wins. But watch, if you can bear it. It will be fun, even if it is agonizing at times.
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​POSTED 10/14/2016 00:39