Three years ago, the current state of the Indians and Yankees were the same, but swapped — it was the Tribe who were one win away from advancing to the next round. With the first two games down, all the Indians had to do was win one of the next three and they would be off to the ALCS and a chance at their second World Series in two years.
That didn’t happen, of course, primarily because of the matchup we will be seeing tonight: Carlos Carrasco vs. Masahiro Tanaka.
Both pitchers were brilliant in Game 4 of the 2017 ALDS, but Andrew Miller allowed a run in relief (something he rarely did that year), and the Indians lost in heartbreaking fashion, 1-0. On the Yankees’ side of things, Tanaka pitched seven innings and only allowed three hits. Two of those base hits came from Jason Kipnis, who now plays for his hometown Cubs.
So what’s changed in three years? The Yankees for one are no longer a surprise playoff team. They were playing with house money in 2017 — a talented team coming into the season, but not one that many expected to reach the ALCS and come close to getting to the World Series. They took the core that emerged that year and built upon it, replacing the likes of Greg Bird, Starlin Castro, Didi Gregorius, Jacoby Elsbury, and Todd Frazier with Luke Voit, DJ LeMahieu, Gleybar Torres, Giancarlo Stanton, and a re-energized Gio Urshela.
The Indians, on the other hand, have mostly the same lineup but now with José Ramírez replacing the batless Urshela at third base, Cesar Hernandez over Kipnis at second and they lost offensive firepower in Michael Brantley, Jay Bruce, Yan Gomes, and the surprising Austin Jackson.
Tanaka himself has become a more complete pitcher since then, dropping his walk rate to 1.4%, and is park-adjusted ERA- from 109 to 81. He’s not an ace, he might not be as good as Carlos Carrasco, but the 31-year-old righty throws junk out there and it’s going to be trouble for the Indians. His slider took over as his primary pitch in 2017, and since then it’s steadily increased in usage peaking at 37.8% in 2020.
Over his 10 starts in the shortened 2020 season, Tanaka only held his opponents scoreless twice, and both of those were abbreviated five-inning outings. But he has also allowed more than four runs only once and finished with an ERA of 3.56. He’s a nightmare matchup for the current Indians lineup.
None of his pitches are remarkable by any measurement, yet he throws so many that start in the zone and dart out that it’s difficult to hit him. Since that fateful ALDS game in 2017, no other pitcher has induced more swings outside the zone than Tanaka (37.3%), and only a handful work out of the zone as much as he does (40.8%). If the Indians are going to succeed and live for another day, they’re going to have to chase or walk. A lot.
This season the Indians were ninth in outside contact rate (62.9%) and they chased 28.3% of the time, seventh least in the majors. The problem is, they are also awful at hitting sliders, which anyone who has watched them for 60 games can attest to. As a group, they ranked 22nd against them (-0.61) according to FanGraphs’ weighted pitch values.
Tanaka’s tendency to play outside the zone also means that he rarely goes deep into games; he’s pitched more than six innings just once this season. With the Indians being one of the most patient teams in baseball, and featuring human pitch soaker Carlos Santana in the cleanup spot, maybe there’s hope they can get to the Yankees bullpen earlier than they did last night. If they can, they’ll be facing a group that ranked 15th in ERA (4.51) and is full of inconsistency outside of Zack Britton.
Josh Naylor, whose 4-of-4 game last night would have been a bigger deal if the Tribe weren’t blown out, could be a secret weapon again for the Indians tonight. His biggest strength has always been not missing and making contact on balls out of the zone — he did so 78.3% of the time in 2020. He may have sat out more regular-season games than he should have, but it’s a no-brainer to put him into the lineup tonight. In fact, we will probably see the same lineup that was trotted out last night with them facing another righty.
The Indians will turn to Carlos Carrasco to save their season, which isn’t a terrible proposition. Cookie took back to the No. 2 rotation spot when Mike Clevinger was traded to the Padres, and he fits like a glove. Cookie’s season was in doubt from the onset due to the ongoing pandemic and his recent bout with Leukemia, but the 33-year-old was extra cautious — as were most of his teammates — and he was able to play through the entirety of 2020.
His strikeout rate reached 29.3%, the third-highest of his career, but he has always walked more batters than he ever has since becoming a full-time starter. His changeup usage spiked from previous seasons, up to 28%, just about as much as he used his slider. Overall, if the Indians want to continue playing baseball, they’ll need Carlos to be at his best, including his changeup, which doesn’t have quite the same drop it used to but can still be effective.
I would say that he has been great in most of 2020 so they should not worry, but that didn’t work for Shane Bieber, so who knows. There’s only one way to find out.