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Predicting Indians lineups for the ALDS

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Where can the Indians find an advantage against Houston’s vaunted staff?

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

“Fucking, let’s go!”

We are all Terry Francona.

It’s been 17 days since the Indians clinched their third consecutive division title and the lack of meaningful baseball (in a year that sorely lacked a lot of meaningful baseball) is wearing on everyone. I mean, in the last 30 days Brandon Barnes has played in more games than Josh Donaldson (fewer plate appearances, but still).

However, our long walk through the desert of games of that matter is at an end. Friday afternoon, Corey Kluber takes the mound (likely) against Justin Verlander and the Tribe begins the wild and unpredictable hunt for the Commissioner’s Trophy. Just how should the offense lineup behind him, however?

Thanks in part to his time with the Tigers, several Cleveland batters have ample experience against Verlander. He may sit atop the fWAR leaderboards for AL pitchers, but several of Francona’s men know how to hit Verlander.

The top of the Cleveland order is untouchable: Lindor has led off 94% of the time; Brantley has hit second 72% of the time; and Ramirez has hit third 97% of the time. You can Sharpie those names at the top of any ALDS lineup as well, but especially against Verlander, as the trio has fared particularly well versus the righty: Lindor, 10/29, 1 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR, 4 BB, 2 K; Brantley, 22/76, 2 2B, 1 3B, 10 RBI, 5 BB, 8 K; and Ramirez, 11/27, 3 2B, 2 HR, 5 RBI, 5 BB, 1 K.

Beyond the top three, Melky Cabrera (11/41, 4 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR), Yan Gomes (11/41, 3 2B), and Donaldson (8/30, 1 2B) have fared decently against Verlander, whereas Edwin Encarnacion (4/35, 7 K, 2 BB), aside from two home runs, has not. But those home runs of Edwin’s maybe important. In 2018, Encarnacion’s isolated power 80 points higher versus right-handed pitching (.167 vs. .247); likewise, when Verlander is at home facing a right-handed hitter, his home runs per nine innings is highest (1.48) and strikeout rate is lower than overall (home = 37.6%, home vs. righties = 33.2%).

Starting Edwin in game one may be more of a move for consistency than match-ups, but elsewhere match-ups could rule. For instance, if Tito seeks to maximize the number of righties in the lineup Yonder Alonso and Jason Kipnis should start on the bench in favor of Yandy Diaz and Greg Allen, respectively.

With that in mind, my game one lineup would be:

Lindor
Brantley
Ramirez
Encarnacion
Donaldson
Gomes
Cabrera
Diaz
Allen

The Tribe has much less experience against the probable game two starter, Gerritt Cole, with no batter having faced him more than nine times. With a lack of individual experience to draw from, Francona and the braintrust may have to rely on splits, which again favors a right-handed heavy lineup.

However, rolling with Diaz and Allen in two straight games might not be a gamble the Tribe is ready for. Alonso and Kipnis are among the most experienced (for lack of a better word) against Cole anyway, with 9 and 7 plate appearances, respectively, and a few hits between them. There’s not much to go with except the players’ underlying talent, so my game two lineup looks like:

Lindor
Brantley
Ramirez
Encarnacion
Donaldson
Alonso
Gomes
Cabrera
Kipnis

As the series transitions to Cleveland, it seems likely that lefty Dallas Keuchel will take the mound. Kipnis would be a certainty in the lineup, as he has gone 7/24 with a double and four RBI in his career versus Keuchel. Likewise, Brantley and Donaldson have been successful against the southpaw, with 24 at-bats each and and OPS above .822 in those at-bats. Brandon Guyer could also see a start in right, as he’s batting .400 in limited experience versus Keuchel and his OPS+ against lefties is 90 points higher than against righties. Roberto Perez might see the start in this game as well, with Bauer a good possibility to start for Cleveland.

Game three lineup:

Lindor
Brantley
Ramirez
Donaldson
Encarnacion
Alonso
Guyer
Perez
Kipnis

Beyond those three starters, the Astros will likely use Lance McCullers and Charlie Morton and rookies Josh James and Framber Valdez in long (relative to the playoffs) relief or in a piggybacking role. Manager A. J. Hinch will choose his spots wisely for each, and keep the leash short as necessary; to force his hand Francona should have weapons ready to deploy.

For instance, both Alonso and Encarnacion have raked in small samples against McCullers, Alonso going 5/11 with two doubles and a home run and Encarnacion going 4/11 with a double and two home runs. Against Morton, Encarnacion also has a pair of home runs and Cabrera has gone 4/12 with a home run and no strikeouts. To a small extent (because of small sample sizes), the righty James and lefty Valdez have traditional splits favoring left- and right-handed hitters, which makes roster and lineup construction so important for the Tribe.

As of this writing, rosters and rotations were not final, leaving me some guess work in my estimations here. Francona and the Indians, of course, have scores of data available to aid their selection, and perhaps (certainly) things could look a lot different. Although we can be certain Lindor will be patrolling shortstop each game, perhaps we could see Encarnacion enter the game as an offensive sub or Diaz playing a starting role (finally free!). At this point, everything comes down to the players executing the chess moves the managers make. Hinch is a great manager, as he proved last year, but Francona has his bona fides as well. He’ll be working to deploy his pieces as best as possible to force Houston to make a corresponding move or the pitcher to make a mistake.

Mistakes, of course, will be the determining factor in a very short series between two teams with the best starting pitching in the game (22.6 vs. 21.7 fWAR for Cleveland and Houston, respectively) and the best bat-to-ball hitters in the game (both teams tied for the lowest whiff rate, 8.9%). Five games is short and something in this series is going to surprise all of us, here’s hoping Francona and his men come out on the good side of that surprise.