Tonight’s matchup between Shane Bieber and Gerrit Cole is a battle of pitchers on different points of the same trajectory.
On one side you have Gerrit Cole, a 30-year-old who has established himself as one of the game’s best pitchers since hitting the spotlight with the Astros two years ago. He buries his opponents in a mountain of fastballs with a gentle coating of sliders and curveballs.
Once he was traded into the Astros’ analytics-driven organization his strikeout rate jumped from 23.1% with the Pirates in 2017 to 34.5% in 2018 where it has remained ever since; his fastball spin rate went from one of the lower end of the spectrum to one of the best overnight and it just keeps climbing.
Prior to this season, he transformed half a dozen great seasons into a massive nine-year, $324 deal with the Yankees to become their ace and attempt to lead them to their first World Series in 11 years.
Standing in the way of that hope is Shane Bieber — a product of a pitching development assembly line created by the Indians that has pumped out high-quality starters for as long as Cole has been in the game.
Several prominent Indians arms have benefited from the forward-thinking approach of the organization. None have benefitted more so than Bieber, who — in just his second full season as a starter — took home baseball’s old school triple crown (wins, strikeouts, ERA) and leads in just about every advanced measurement you can’t think of. He is unquestionably the American League Cy Young, and maybe even the MVP, but will it be enough to help him take home his first playoff win?
Bieber will be tasked with facing one of baseball’s best offenses in the Yankees. Collectively the Bronx Bombers finished 2020 with the fifth-most home runs in the majors (94), they strike out the eighth least (21.7%), and they have walked the most of any team in baseball (11.4%).
Even with their recent stumbles into the postseason, the offensive core of MVP candidate DJ LeMahieu, home run leader Luke Voit, and a pair of old friends in Gio Urshela and Clint Frazier is enough to concern even the mighty Shane Bieber and whoever comes out of ‘pen in the later innings.
Bieber, as well as most pitchers in the postseason, will have the added benefit of not playing the Yankees at all this season. Considering the kind of wild changes Bieber has made this year, he could be looking at an even bigger edge than others.
The Yankees have never seen the new “other” curveball that has helped him strike out a career-high 41.1% of his opponents. They’ve never seen his slider move with as much vertical break as it does this year, a full 4.7” more than the average slider. It’s fair to expect even the most formidable Yankees batters to stumble the first time through the order. The question will be whether or not they can adjust the second and potentially third time through the order.
The Yankees as a group were middle of the road against both sliders and curveballs, ranking 20th (-0.44) and 12th (0.29) in FanGraphs’ weighted pitch values, respectively. Instead, they primarily feasted on fastballs (5th), which Bieber can locate better than anybody in the league framed by the best defensive catcher.
Back on Aug. 9 against the White Sox back, a team that ranks just ahead of the Yankees in terms of hitting heaters, Bieber adapted by throwing just 26 four-seamers. He instead turned to his cutter 32 times and induced 14 swings and misses. He ended that start with eight strikeouts over 6.0 innings.
The Yankees lineup can be sliced and diced to find a hole here and there (they’re not great on the road, for instance), but no such stretches need to be performed for the Indians. Gerrit Cole throws a ton of high-quality fastballs and the Indians cannot hit fastballs — they rank 27th in baseball according to pitch values. That’s bad.
Cole allowed more than three earned runs only twice in 2020 — back-to-back starts against the Braves and Rays in late August. Even in both of those starts he lasted 100+ pitches and struck out 16 total batters. The Rays game was especially rough for Cole as he induced only 17 whiffs and 17 called strikes. Like the Indians, Tampa Bay is generally bad at hitting fastballs this season, but they employed the rare tactic of “don’t miss Gerrit Cole’s fastball” and it worked for them.
One interesting note about Cole is that he’s actually been hit harder than ever this year with a 46.9% hard-hit rate — among the worst in baseball — and he’s induced far fewer ground balls than he did in the past (37.4%, down from his 44.3% career average). And yet, the results have still been the same with a 2.84 ERA and expected wOBA on contact of .368, right in line with his career numbers. He’s forcing more balls up in the air by attacking more up in the zone, but they are mostly harmless pop ups.
Both pitchers will enter tonight’s game on an extra rest — Cole having pitched last Tuesday and Bieber on Wednesday.
The biggest keys for the Indians to come out of game one of the Wild Card on top will be the same as they have been all season: pitch well and find a way, somehow, to hit the ball. Being that the right-handed Cole is on the mound, there is a decent chance Tyler Naquin will get the start in right field and the switch hitters at the top of the line will switch to the left side of the plate, where everyone but José Ramírez and César Hernández have been below-average hitters this season.
Carlos Santana only has a 93 wRC+ and .669 OPS as a lefty, but it is miles better than the -24 wRC+ and .246 OPS and he has as a righty. He’s coming into this game off his best game of the season, going 3-for-4 with a home run and two doubles in the season finale against the Pirates. A sudden spark from Santana would go a long way towards extending the Indians lineup and giving them a chance to go up 1-0 in the series.