CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – If you stack up the available starting rotations and star power of the two clubs involved in the upcoming American League Championship Series, you might think the Toronto Blue Jays hold the advantage over the banged-up Cleveland Indians in the best-of-seven matchup.
But baseball rarely, if ever, is decided by looking at the tale of the tape. Just ask the Boston Red Sox.
Instead, baseball can become truly fascinating when the inner matchups within the contest take place. It could be a hitter’s ability against a certain type of pitch, an outfielder’s chances of holding a runner to single instead of a double, or something as simple as driving up a pitch count or grinding out at-bats.
That chess match is one of the greatest elements of the sport.
In the MLB postseason, even the smallest advantages can determine who moves on and who goes home. And with that in mind, here are three elements that might help determine the ALCS series, which begins on Friday night at Progressive Field.
1. Indians’ base running vs. Russell Martin
Cleveland’s desire to be aggressive on the bases is a secret no more.
The Indians led the American League in steals (134), but their ability to take the extra base on hits, passed balls or wild pitches — or as we witnessed in the Indians-Sox series, Roberto’s Perez’s willingness to tag up on a lazy fly to left field — makes them a dangerous club whenever somebody reaches base.
That aggressive and smart base running was a big reason Cleveland led the AL in Fangraph’s comprehensive base-running statistic (BsR).
With that in mind, Russell Martin’s ineffectiveness in controlling the run game this season could be one of the most important things to watch in this series.
Martin was near the bottom of the league in caught-stealing percentage (15.3), successfully throwing out just 11 of the 72 would-be base stealers in 2016. And while he was one of the better catchers in that category last season — he nailed 44.4 percent of potential base stealers in 2015 — the Jays were not one of baseball’s better clubs in pitch-release times, adding to Martin’s challenges this season.
With base running creating a potential advantage for Cleveland in this series, former Blue Jays outfielder Rajai Davis, the AL’s leading base stealer in 2016, might become a bigger factor in this series.
“I definitely think we can take advantage,” Davis said. “If they don’t hold us tight enough or close enough, guys are going to be looking to get 90 feet closer. It’s easier to score from second base than from first. If we can get into scoring position, I think we’re going to try to take advantage of that opportunity.”
And if there is an exploit to be found in Toronto’s pitchers, look for Indians first base coach Sandy Alomar Jr. to find it. The former catcher has been vital to Cleveland’s stolen base success in 2016.
“He’s very knowledgeable,” Francisco Lindor said of Alomar. “He’s very aware of his surroundings. He knows. He played in the big leagues for a long time. He’s been a coach for a while. He knows his things.”
Despite what the numbers say, the Blue Jays, however, still have faith in Martin’s catch-and-throw ability.
“If they want to try to steal, go ahead,” Marco Estrada, Toronto’s Game 1 starter, said. “Russ, you know, he’s got a cannon. He’s quick releasing it, he makes accurate throws. It makes my job that much easier. I don’t really have to think about who’s on first that much.”
2. Blue Jays’ hitting tendencies
Josh Donaldson. Jose Bautista. Edwin Encarnacion. Troy Tulowitzki.
The names alone are imposing. Their production can be intimidating. But they aren’t invincible. And there are tendencies to watch and holes to exploit for Tribe pitching.
There are a few similarities to the team swept in the ALDS, the Boston Red Sox, and Jays hitters. Toronto possessed the ninth-highest run total in baseball this season. The Red Sox were baseball’s best. The Blue Jays hit 13 more homers than Boston in the regular season.
They both like to look at a ton of offerings, with Toronto and Boston looking at more pitches per plate appearances than any other club in the American League this season.
But the biggest difference begin to emerge the deeper you dig in the numbers, as Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway indicated.
“They’re not going to sit around and take a first-pitch strike,” Callaway said. “You can’t just groove a first pitch to them. You’ve got to throw quality strikes right out the get-go, and then make sure you stay ahead. That’s going to be the challenge, making sure you throw quality strikes early and see what happens after that.”
Toronto swung at more first pitches than Boston in the regular season, but the Blue Jays were still pretty selective, swinging at the third-fewest first offerings of any AL club.
Of those pitches to lead off a plate appearance, a great deal of success came on fastballs, hitting .350 and slugging .591 against first-pitch fastballs as a team in 2016.
Oh, but don’t hang a breaking ball either: Toronto, who has proven to be an excellent mistake-hitting club, hit .374 and slugged .605 against off-speed pitches in 0-0 counts.
While Boston was more prone to spot teams a first-pitch strike, Toronto, who had the AL’s highest walk rate this year, will jump on one they like and are capable of doing a load of damage when they do, which makes execution of those pitches that much more vital.
“We want each and every at-bat to be as difficult on them as possible,” Josh Donaldson said, “to where hopefully it kind of keeps grinding at them and grinding at them, and then we’re able to have a big inning.”
But there is hope. Once ahead in the count against the Blue Jays’ talented group, there are more ways to conceivably put them away. While Boston made more contact than any AL team this year, Toronto made contact 76.2 percent of the time, 11th-lowest in the AL.
And they also led the AL in most called third strikes (27.7 percent) by a wide margin.
The Jays’ strikeout rate was eighth-highest in baseball (21.9 percent), compared to the Sox, who struck out 18.4 percent of the time in 2016, a noticeable difference when attacking Toronto’s dangerous bats.
Overall, despite being a patient group who likes to walk, avoiding the grooved first-pitch strike against Toronto is crucial. But once ahead in the count, there is far more swing-and-miss in the Blue Jays’ bats, and execution of the secondary pitches will be at the forefront of importance.
“We’re also not afraid of swinging at the first pitch and being aggressive when we need to be,” Bautista said. “I think we’re one of the teams around the league that adjusts well from opponent to opponent and from pitcher to pitcher on how they try to get us out. Hopefully, we are successful in our execution of whatever game plan that we develop.”
3. Getting into Toronto’s pen
The Blue Jays don’t get nearly the credit they deserve for the production of their starting rotation.
The quarter of hurlers the Indians will face in the series — Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez — is as good as any playoff rotation, and their performance as a team rotation over in the final two months (August: 3.76 ERA, September/October: 3.27 ERA) proves that.
But Toronto’s bullpen was a different story, particularly in the final month of the 2016 regular season.
After posting a 3.38 ERA and 3.18 FIP as a pen in August, the Jays’ relievers had the 25th-highest ERA (4.80) and 22nd-highest fielding independent pitching mark (4.46) in baseball in September and October.
While Cleveland’s bullpen emerged as one of the best in the Majors over the final two months, it’s clear that some holes in the Jays’ pen could exist, making it far more important to drive up their starters pitch counts and get into their relievers as early as possible.
To Toronto’s credit, their relievers have allowed just a pair of runs over 14 innings thus far over four postseason games.
How the AL’s second-highest run-scoring club in 2016 fares against the Blue Jays’ relief hurlers late in games will likely be a large determining factor in the best-of-seven series.
Conversely, the Jays know that if they want to win the series, they’ll likely need to have success against the talented back-end of Cleveland’s pen at some point. And while facing a guy like Andrew Miller is rarely a favorable matchup for a batter, Toronto won’t shy away from trying to find any weakness to exploit.
“At some point, those guys are going to come into the game,” Bautista said. “We’ve got to put some runs on the board against them, and hopefully we do it right away… The more runs and taxing pitches we can put on those guys early, it’s going to make it more difficult for them in a not-so-short series.”