As our old friend, Jason Lukehart, pointed out on Twitter, if not for the expanded playoffs, Cleveland’s win on Sunday would have eliminated the Yankees from the postseason. Now, rather than packing for home, the Yanks have to pack for a three-game set on the balmy shores of Lake Erie.
The prospect of playing the Bronx Bombers is always a bit of a daunting proposition, even if in 2020 they’ve looked a little less than their best. Finishing second in the AL East with a 33-27 record was a letdown, but their offense has been solid all season, finishing 7th in fWAR (9.9) and 4th in wRC+ (116) among all MLB teams. Of 15 players with at least 50 PA, nine were above league-average offensively (>100 wRC+), with Gary Sánchez a notable exception with an uncharacteristically poor season (69 wRC+).
For how good their offense has been, however, those numbers have come primarily at home. Within the confines of Yankee Stadium, the Yankees have been other-worldly. DJ LeMahieu’s MVP candidacy is almost entirely based upon his home numbers, especially his 256 wRC+ and .505 OBP. Likewise, Luke Voit has been a monster at home, crushing balls to the tune of a .417 ISO. Even the dismal Sánchez has looked serviceable at Yankee Stadium, with a .721 OPS and 98 wRC+. Part of the team’s success came from pulling the ball 43.6% of the time; that said, just pulling the ball to the short porch in right in New York has not itself led to the offensive explosion, as almost all of of the team’s home runs would leave the park even at Progressive Field (as seen below).
When the Yanks do hit the road, however, those high-flying offensive numbers crash to the ground. Similar pull rate (42.3%) yielded much less success on the road, to the tune of .668 OPS and .130 ISO as a team. LeMahieu and Voit are the greatest culprits of the home/road discrepancy, both batting below league average offensively with 98 and 91 wRC+, respectively. But the struggles on the road continue throughout the lineup, with Aaron Judge, Sánchez, and Gleyber Torres all posting OPS less than .700 and wRC+ more than 11% worse than league average.
Furthermore, home or road, none of the teams that the Yankees faced this season had even close to Cleveland’s talent in terms of pitching. The Tribe’s pitching was best in the majors this year, with 11.4 fWAR (1.6 wins greater than second-place Milwaukee) and 3.73 FIP. The best team in the eastern divisions was the Rays, with 7.1 fWAR and a 3.94 FIP; the rest of the competition the Yankees faced had FIP ranging from 4.42 to 5.19.
Part of the Yankees’ offensive success has come from drawing walks. When looking at plus stats (like wRC+, where 100 is league average and above is the percentage better), they lead the league with a 125 BB%+ and have the sixth best K%+ at 91. Cleveland pitchers, however, excel at neutralizing those exact strengths. The team’s three starters for this series, Shane Bieber, Carlos Carrasco, and Zach Plesac, have K%+ of 177, 126, and 119 and BB%+ rates of 78, 107, and 38, respectively. With the exception of Carrasco’s walk rate, those three are very well set up to face this New York squad. As are James Karinchak (209 K%+), Brad Hand (145 K%+, 51 BB%+), and Phil Maton (143 K%+, 69 BB%+).
Of course, as good as Cleveland’s pitching has been, their offense makes the Yankees look a lot better by comparison. By wRC+, the Yankees are 30% better than Cleveland overall. Over the last week, however, the Tribe has found its footing while the Yankees have floundered. Cleveland hasn’t exactly been a juggernaut, but the team has bested the Yankees in almost every category: OPS (.738 vs. .684), ISO (.186 vs. .098), wOBA (.318 vs. .309), wRC+ (97 vs. 95), and so on.
Momentum does not perfectly translate to success in the playoffs, but the playoffs have never seen a three-game series before either. Entering uncharted territory, it’s at least in Cleveland’s favor to have found steady success the last week of play to go along with the team’s absolutely dominant pitching.
Anything can happen and, as we’ll surely see, it just will.