For the Cleveland Indians, step one is complete, and it’s good to be king of the American League. As their reward for their phenomenal regular season, they will continue runnin’ down a dream against the winner of a do-or-die wildcard affair between the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees, set for Tuesday evening. As Tom Petty so eloquently proclaimed, the waiting is the hardest part. Naturally, a breakdown of each team and which opponent proves to be a better matchup for the Indians is in order.
The Indians were 12-7 against the Twins and 5-2 against the Yankees in 2017. These records are irrelevant. Narratives about the style of games between the teams are also inconsequential. Quite simply, there is not a big enough sample size, even in the nineteen games against the Twins, to draw any reasonable conclusions about how they matchup against the Indians. A more productive exercise would be highlighting trends concerning each team’s hitting and pitching abilities.
Twins Offense – You Got Lucky
There is much ado about the Twins offensive surge in the second half of 2017. Throughout the second half, the Indians were generally considered one of the best hitting teams in baseball. As a team, the Twins slash line was virtually identical following the All-Star break.
It was a remarkable turnaround for Minnesota. A middle of the road offense (95 wRC+) in the first half of 2017 had transformed itself into an offensive juggernaut. It was not without a bit of fortune, though.
Weighted on-base average (wOBA) is a premier hitting metric because it incorporates the value of walks and differentiates the value of extra-base hits. The Twins posted a 0.346 wOBA in the second half, behind only the Indians (0.347) and Cubs (0.351). Another beauty of wOBA is its sister metric, expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA). xwOBA is useful in that it derives probabilities of hits based on launch angles and exit velocities.
To go along with the third highest wOBA in the second half, the Twins offense posted a 0.319 xwOBA, which was good for 12th in MLB. This xwOBA is formidable, but the disparity between results and expected results tells us the Twins bats were aided by luck more than most teams during this time frame.
Yankees Offense – Swingin’
The Yankees finished with 108 wRC+ as a team in 2017. This was behind only the Houston Astros, and slightly ahead of the Cleveland Indians. An undoubtedly dangerous offense that led baseball in home runs is not an ideal playoff matchup. While Indians pitching limited home runs better than anyone else, playing a couple games at dinky Yankee Stadium means all bets are off in that department.
In contrast to the Twins offensive disparities between each half of the season, the Yankees were consistent. They essentially matched the Twins second half slash line throughout the course of the whole season, even during the prolonged second-half slump of Aaron Judge, who will be the Rookie of the Year Award winner and has a legitimate case for being the most valuable player in the AL.
Aaron Judge is also ramping back up at the perfect moment. His bat has the ability to change the outcome of a series with a couple timely home runs. The Indians would much rather roll the dice against a lineup consisting of Brian Dozier and a hobbled Miguel Sano.
Twins Pitching – Even The Losers
A casual look at the numbers and one would wonder how this team managed to maneuver its way into a wildcard spot. The team fWAR leaderboard on the pitching side is all playoff teams from spots one through eight. The Cubs were a respectable 12th. The Twins? 22nd!
The team acquired Jaime Garcia in July to help quell these pitching concerns but sold him off to the Yankees days later after a rough patch. They also unloaded their bullpen ace in Brandon Kintzler to the Washington Nationals. The remainder is a rejuvenated Ervin Santana, an improved Kyle Gibson, and a promising Jose Berrios.
Santana has the ability to shut down a lineup or two but beyond him, there is not much to offer. Jose Berrios struggled a bit in the second half. Kyle Gibson is still Kyle Gibson. Trevor Hildenberger and Tyler Duffey are respectable bullpen arms, but not worthy of being mentioned with elite relievers. The Twins pitching staff is objectively subpar in comparison to other playoff teams.
Yankees Pitching – Fooled Again
Luis Severino may only pitch once in a potential ALDS, but Sonny Gray and Masahiro Tanaka have both shown the ability to pitch at premier levels. The Yankee bullpen is the only one in MLB with a legitimate claim to being more intimidating than the one in Cleveland. The Yankees staff was one of two teams to surpass the Indians staff’s ability to induce whiffs.
The threat posed by Yankee arms is real, even for the lately invincible Indians team. In the variance-laden playoffs, seeing Chad Green, Dellin Betances, Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, and Tommy Kahnle from innings five through nine is not appealing. The Yankees bullpen had six relievers with at least 11 strikeouts per nine innings. No one else in baseball had more than three. If that is not jarring enough, Luis Severino was basically Carlos Carrasco in 2017, and Sonny Gray’s changeup could be nightmare inducing for Tribe lefties.
Baserunning/Fielding – I Won’t Back Down
It would be a mistake to present this article without acknowledging the Twins advantage in these two areas. As far as baserunning is concerned, Paul Molitor’s bunch finished first in baseball in Fangraphs’ BsR metric. The Yankees, comparatively, were much worse. In other words, the Twins were much more efficient in taking the extra base when available and avoiding costly outs on the basepaths.
Fielding metrics similarly favored the Twins but in a more marginal sense. UZR and DRS were slightly more favorable of Minnesota, thanks to an advantage in outfield arms and aversion to errors. Yankees fielders have slightly better range metrics as a group but were prone to more mishaps.
Tom Petty Says…
Indians fans should root for the Twins, despite the handful of home losses to Minnesota in 2017. Their pitching staff would be the Indians saving grace in a playoff series. There’s something in the air with this Indians squad, and the Yankees have a much better chance of sending them back to square one in 2018. Free fallin’ out of the playoffs in the first round is not in their plans.