Indians, Indians Playoff Chess

The Cleveland Indians Versus Justin Verlander

(Ben Margot | AP Photo)

The postseason has returned, and thus a more granular approach to discussing match-ups returns with it. On Friday afternoon, the Cleveland Indians will be facing a familiar foe; Cy Young Award candidate Justin Verlander of the Houston Astros. Verlander, a pitcher who is likely headed to Cooperstown, has reinvented himself in Houston at a spry 35 years old. The imposing right-hander posted his best ERA (2.52) and FIP (2.78) since his 2011 campaign. With a potent offense behind him, collected 16 wins as well.

Projected Indians Lineup

  1. Francisco Lindor SS (SW)
  2. Michael Brantley LF (LHH)
  3. Jose Ramirez 2B (SW)
  4. Edwin Encarnacion DH (RHH)
  5. Josh Donaldson 3B (RHH)
  6. Yonder Alonso 1B (LHH)
  7. Yan Gomes C (RHH)
  8. Melky Cabrera RF (SW)
  9. Jason Kipnis CF (LHH)

The projected Indians lineup is abstracted from tendencies, not necessarily how it should be optimized– a small detail. No matter its order; the Indians have mashed right-handed pitching (RHP) to the tune of a .777 OPS, which is good for third-best in Major League Baseball. The key components?

  1. They put the ball in play posting the lowest K% in baseball against RHP at 18.8%.
  2. Contact authority, the Indians are seventh in isolated power against RHP while also making contact at an elite rate.

Of course, Verlander is no ordinary RHP. Indeed few are his equal, and he brings with him a unique set of challenges beginning with fastball velocity. Despite being in his mid-30s Verlander has seen his fastball velocity tick back up to near peak velocity after bottoming out in 2015.

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball

Time to key in on his arsenal against LHP which he will predominantly face on Friday.

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball

The express will be elevated on the outer two-thirds and off the plate allowing to bury hitters using his curveball and slider down to left-handed hitters.

In looking for important Indians lineup pieces, hitters who can punish high-end fastball velocity is an important starting point. Below are the projected Indians lineup’s wOBA1 against fastballs with velocity at or over 95 miles per hour.

  1. Francisco Lindor SS (SW) .466 wOBA
  2. Michael Brantley LF (LHH) .265 wOBA
  3. Jose Ramirez 2B (SW) .373 wOBA
  4. Edwin Encarnacion DH (RHH) .386 wOBA
  5. Josh Donaldson 3B (RHH) .292 wOBA (minuscule sample)
  6. Yonder Alonso 1B (LHH) .345 wOBA
  7. Yan Gomes C (RHH) .265 wOBA
  8. Melky Cabrera RF (SW) .324 wOBA
  9. Jason Kipnis CF (LHH) .374 wOBA

Based on the above we can begin to flesh out how certain hitters will be attacked. In the postseason, pitchers often ramp up the usage of their best-offspeed pitch or breaking ball and lever down fastball use because secondaries are in general better at inducing swing and miss as well as poor contact. However, certain hitters will see particularly different tactics.

Francisco Lindor is a strong fastball hitter and struggles against curveball. The analytically savvy team like Houston will take advantage of the profile with a barrage of breaking balls against Lindor. Expect only a sprinkling of fastballs. The key for Lindor is spitting on breaking balls enough to induce a fastball in his nitro zone and punishing them– or based on the Astros likely heavy breaking ball approach, sitting breaking ball in a specific location.

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball

Lindor has exceptional plate coverage against fastballs. Best spot it on the inner half as he possesses the capacity to punish a Verlander fastball on the outer two-thirds and up. Lindor versus Verlander will offer one of the most compelling batter versus pitcher match-ups in the series. Lindor needing to force Verlander to leave a fastball up. Verlander needing to pitch Lindor out of balance and timing, which could anchor fascinating pitch sequencing. Verlander could be forced to go breaking ball first pitch or Lindor might sit dead red and swing first pitch. A fascinating game of cat and mouse awaits.

Of course, Yan Gomes and Michael Brantley, both poor against top-end velocity from right-handed pitchers, will likely be spoon fed fastballs until they prove they can punish the offering.

Verlander’s curveball, an elite offering when played off his high-spin fastball, is thrown almost exclusively below the strike zone.

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball

Predominantly buried in on the foot of left-handed hitters, Verlander will miss or leave it middle-outer third at times which requires a good breaking ball hitter to sit on a miss to this sector.

Cue Michael Brantley who has a .391 wOBA against curveballs from right-handed pitchers in 2018 and does a phenomenal job tracking breaking balls. Below is his nitro zone.

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball

Brantley has an exceptionally smooth swing which appears to be accelerated and arcing when he tracks a breaking ball to the bottom third of the strike zone. Brantley sitting curveball against Verlander due to his limitations against high-end velocity would be an interesting approach but potentially difficult to deploy because of Verlander’s high fastball usage, particularly when attacking hitters who struggle with peak fastballs like Brantley.

An aside, Gomes and Encarnacion are two others to track in terms of sitting curveball because each has had success against the offering in 2018.

Finally, Verlander’s third key offering is a tight slider with similar location targets as the curveball against left-handed hitters.

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Brantley, Alonso, and Donaldson have all shown the ability to identify and eat on sliders missed in this context. Watching Verlander’s breaking ball and fastball usage as compared to hitters strengths will be a compelling follow.

For the Indians, Verlander is a tough test and each hitter will have their individual flaws tested; the central question being who can force Verlander to make a mistake, and who can capitalize. Can Lindor sit breaking ball and force fastball up? Can Brantley force a breaking ball into a nitro zone? Will Verlander tie Brantley’s hands with heavy fastballs? Though, impossible to predict, these exchanges will play a key role in determining the outcome of Game 1 of the ALDS.

  1. Weighted on-base average which rolls in OBP while weighing the additional value of extra-base hits; anything over .340 is good, .320-.340 is acceptable. []