Indians scouting report: What should worry the Yankees

The Indians arguably have the best starter (Shane Bieber over Gerrit Cole), best player (Jose Ramirez over DJ LeMahieu) and best reliever (James Karichnak over Aroldis Chapman) in their best-of-three series against the Yankees.

They have as good a starting three, with Bieber followed by Carlos Carrasco and Zach Plesac, as any AL contender, an unheralded but deep, successful bullpen and excellent infield defense.

The Yankees’ edge in this series is in length of lineup, but will that lineup play against the team that led the AL in ERA (3.29)? The ball really carries to right-center at Progressive Field, so watch the weather, the cooler the better for Cleveland’s pitching to temper an Aaron Judge or Luke Voit from going deep to the opposite field.

Game 1 in a three-game series is obviously vital, even more so when each team is firing its best weapon: Cole and Bieber. With the help of three experts (a scout and two executives), a scouting breakdown of what the Yankees should expect this week in Cleveland:

Bieber Fever

What does June 9, 2019, mean? That day the Yankees inflicted Bieber with perhaps his worst outing — five runs in 1 ²/₃ innings. Since then, he has a 2.39 ERA in 32 starts. The only starters with a better ERA in that period are Jacob deGrom (2.02) and Cole (2.11). This season Bieber was the majors’ best starter, becoming the first pitcher since Johan Santana in 2006 to win the majors’ pitching Triple Crown (wins, ERA and strikeouts).

His emergence as an ace allowed the Indians to more comfortably trade Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber and Mike Clevinger in the past 14 months. Cleveland’s staff, particularly its starters, are renowned for command and pitchability. But Bieber is the best. His fastball and breaking ball are both elite, and so is the righty’s precision. He doesn’t miss in the middle of the plate much (if at all) and his slider comes from the same arm slot with similar spin as his fastball before veering off the plate late.

Can the Yankee hitters have the discipline until two strikes to lay off the pitch away and hope it is a fastball or slider off the plate that gets them ahead, and just fixate on middle-in with the concept of driving the ball to right-center? This is the general hitting philosophy against Bieber, but it is so hard to execute (batters hit .167 against him).

Beating Bieber would be a huge psychological blow in a best-of-three and losing to him does not mean the series is over because the other Cleveland pitchers are good, but no one is close to Bieber.

The Cleveland Indians and Yankees will begin their MLB playoff series Tuesday.
The Cleveland Indians and Yankees will begin their MLB playoff series Tuesday.Getty Images

The Right Stuff

The Indians are lined up to start three righties vs. the Yankees, and Bieber has held righty hitters to a .565 OPS, Game 2 starter Carlos Carrasco a .638 OPS and — if necessary — Game 3 starter Zach Plesac a .526 OPS. Plesac walked just two of 114 righty batters and might have the best righty pickoff move in the majors — so baserunners beware.

Impressive rookie starter Triston McKenzie held righties to a .530 OPS against and becomes a multi-inning asset in this series. And Karichnak and his 95-mph-plus fastball and true power curve make him among the most important players in this series. He struck out an AL-high 48.6 percent of batters he faced. It was 30 of the 59 righties he faced, holding them to a .441 OPS. So when there is a stretch of Yankee righty power in a pivotal spot, expect Karinchak in the game.

Also, just considering the righty pitching strength, does Aaron Boone think about Brett Gardner’s lefty bat rather than Clint Frazier’s? Frazier hit righties well this year, but he became more of a groundball machine late in the season while Gardner’s offense perked up (he also homered against Bieber in that June 9, 2019, game). Also, the Yanks are not a strong defensive team. Frazier was better than last year in the field, but he can still be indecisive with the ball in the air or in his hand. Gardner provides better defense.

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No Tito

Terry Francona last managed the Indians on Aug. 16 and will not return for the playoffs. He has been dealing with gastrointestinal and blood clotting issues. Francona has managed the 19th most games in major league history and the sixth most playoff games, going 40-29.

Sandy Alomar Jr. did well enough in Francona’s absence to help steady the Indians after they lost eight straight in September to win nine of 11 to close the season and gain the home field with the No. 4 seed in the AL.

Francona, though, is renowned as among the best bullpen manipulators in the history of the game and this Cleveland bullpen is more matchup dependent than overpowering beyond Karinchak. Journeymen types such as Phil Maton, Nick Wittgren and, yep, that is still Oliver Perez getting outs with his multiple funky motions, all have pitched well in relief. This is a pen that will throw a lot of breaking balls early in counts to try to get ahead — closer Brad Hand tends to pitch backward, for example, his best-pitch slider early and a diminished but still effective fastball late. Don’t be surprised to see Hand in leverage situations even before the ninth inning.

But when and how to use these relievers is a skill. The Indians’ blessing is Carl Willis. Bieber is going to be the fifth Cy Young winner under his pitching coach tutelage (also CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez and Rick Porcello). Francona leaned on him, so will Alomar. But still, under this scrutiny, is there something lost not having Francona on the bench?

Ramirez is the Manny

Jose Ramirez might win the MVP because of how great he was late in the season. The third baseman’s final 11 hits were all for extra bases — seven doubles and four homers. He can hit anyone’s fastball — even Cole’s or Chapman’s. You really have to do all in your power to not let the switch-hitter face a lefty. The Indians’ lineup top four are all switch hitters — Francisco Lindor, Cesar Hernandez, Ramirez and Carlos Santana. It makes Cleveland difficult to match up against. You will want to turn Lindor and Hernandez to the right side, but then you have Ramirez doing the same (eight homers in 57 at-bats this year vs. lefties). Tommy Kahnle would have been useful in this series for the Yankees, with his changeup to deal with lefties, including even Ramirez to some degree.

All four switch hitters work the count — Santana, even in a down year (.199 average), walked (47) more than he struck out (43), and he remains a guy who wants the clutch moment. The pivot point in the lineup is DH Franmil Reyes hitting fifth. He is a bit of a wild card. He has a ton of holes in his swing, but he has Judge/Giancarlo Stanton power and a few hot days could change a series. Beyond him, the bottom of the lineup is weak and a key to this series is Yankee pitchers not wasting bullets with deep counts on the bottom half or letting it turn over the lineup regularly to the top.

The Yankees must avoid letting Ramirez beat them. The more the big at-bats are put into other’s hands the better path to win this series.

There is No “D” in Yankees

Cleveland is a sound defensive team, especially in the infield, including catcher Roberto Perez. Lindor got more chase happy this year and had a down offensive season, but his glove remains superb and his defensive advantage over Gleyber Torres is as big as any element in this series. The Yankees hit into a lot of double plays, but don’t convert them well on defense as opposed to the Indians, who do. Cleveland’s Tyler Naquin can really throw from right field.

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The more pressure that can be put on the Yankee catchers, especially Gary Sanchez, the better. Ramirez is not a burner, but is among the game’s smartest baserunners. He will steal a big base in a big spot if you don’t watch him. Will Lindor and Delino DeShields Jr. have a green light? Will Oscar Mercado receive pinch-running chances? Perez will try to drop a bunt for a hit if the infield is not alert. The Indians’ baserunners are good at moving up bases on balls in the dirt — so Sanchez will be challenged.

New York Post


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