The lackadaisical days are done. Gone are the August and September curbstompings of the American League Central division, the merciless wrecking of divisional rebuild projects. As stated in Jacob Rosen’s While We’re Waiting post yesterday, the Indians had the biggest difference between their intradivisional record and out-of-division record. This is October baseball. It is a different animal altogether. Now is the time for the tightening of the belts; the preparation is more intricate, and while the game itself doesn’t change but the stakes sure as heck do.
With the long-term impact of moves being mostly written off, the in-game decisions and lineup changes become paramount. Suddenly, those high-ceiling-low-floor players that might not have been worth the trouble on July 17th can make or break a series, or even a championship. Those are the postseason Impact X-Factors.
We all know the big names, and we all know what they are capable of. Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez might have been silent through the ALDS in 2017, but in 2018, both made a ton of noise and either could potentially be voted MVP. Corey Kluber has had amazing postseason runs before, and definitely has the look of doing so again as he is vying for his third Cy Young award. But I’m not here to talk about them; our own Gage Will covered JRam’s August/September slump yesterday, and countless others will extol the praises of the other All-Stars. I’m here to talk about those that might not be in the forefronts of your minds. Players and positions who could turn the tide for the good guys when all is said and done.
Starting off with a collection of players is a bold move, but both Jason Kipnis and Greg Allen are deserving of this qualification. Kipnis—despite being a team leader and one of the longest-tenured Tribesmen—has been moved off his position and lineup spot for the second time in as many years. The acquisition of Josh Donaldson caused Kipnis to pick up the outfielder’s glove again and make like a John Fogerty song and head to center, not to mention down to ninth in the batting order. Some might rationalize Kipnis’ move down the order as his rightful place, and a .167/.259/.417 slash line in 27 plate appearances in that slot would back that up. While Kipnis has a higher ability to pop one of out of the park than most other hitters featured in the 9-hole, he is, more than likely, being relegated to hitting so low due to his pairing with Allen. The defensive whiz had the second highest stolen-base-to-caught-stealing ratio on the ballclub, making him the perfect bottom-of-the-order bats: someone to get on base and force pitchers to give Lindor, Ramirez, and Michael Brantley quality pitches. These two working in tandem have the possibility to turn a playoff series. Imagine a scenario as such: a second inning, two-run home run by Kipnis who is lifted in the 7th inning for Allen, who makes a diving stop to seal a victory in the bottom of the ninth.
It’s hard to not think of Bauer as we head to the playoffs, but the pitcher is coming into the American League Divisional Series against the Houston Astros with no defined role. Will he start Game 4 if it’s necessary? Will he be a stopgap reliever in Game 1 or 2 should starters Kluber or Carlos Carrasco get hit hard? The answers to those questions remain unanswered for now. Had Bauer been able to play out the full season and not miss time due to a stress fracture in his ankle, he easily would be starting at least one game,1 if not more, in this opening series. Alas, he may be able to impact more games with his current role. A workhorse who would welcome throwing in every game possible, Bauer could be used in Game 1 after Kluber on Friday then again in a possible Game 3 or Game 5 Monday or Thursday.2 With only 9.1IP over three games since returning from the disabled list, manager Terry Francona and the pitching coach Carl Willis must feel like Bauer is not stretched enough to start but feel secure enough to have him no the roster. Over those 9.1IP, Bauer hasn’t had his strikeout stuff (only a 6.8 K/9 compared to his 11.3 on the season) but has only allowed two earned runs in that timeframe. If Bauer is able to pitch five-plus innings in the ALDS, he could have more impact on more games than normal.
A roller coaster would be a welcome description to Cody Allen’s 2018 season, as with a roller coaster you have some ups to go along with the downs. Suffering through arguably the worst season of his career, Allen saw himself get removed from the closer’s role in late August. He then underwent a mid-September sabbatical that may or may not have helped the situation. Allen went on to pitch on September 15th and was not heard from again until September 24th. Upon his return, he would go on to pitch 2.2 innings over four games and give up five hits, two walks, and six runs in those outings. Allen has the ability to be a lights out, end-of-game option for Tito Francona to use. Whether we see Allen closing games out in the playoffs remains to be seen, but his impact will more than likely come in the 7th and 8th innings rather than the 9th. If he has righted the ship, he could team up with Andrew Miller, Brad Hand, and others to make the last few innings untenable for opposing teams.
Can the Tribe win a playoff matchup without these players producing? Yes, but it would take superhuman outputs from the stars (Lindor/Ramirez/Donaldson/Edwin Encarnacion on the hitting side, Carrasco/Kluber/Mike Clevinger on the pitching) to get the job done. Will all these Impact X-Factors step up and change the course of a series? Maybe. Will they all contribute at least something? Absolutely. What exactly those contributions end up being remains to be seen. All that’s left now is to play the games.