It’s not easy to make a case for the Indians to advance in this year’s playoffs. For starters, the competition is formidable — Boston may be the third seed, but it’s the best team in the American League.
Also for starters, in the other sense of the word, Cleveland’s greatest strength has turned into a crisis. Carlos Carrasco is hurt. Danny Salazar is hurt. Corey Kluber might be hurt. Trevor Bauer isn’t hurt, which is good, but he profiles best as a back-end starter and is being thrust into a Game 1 playoff start, which isn’t. You get the point.
The Red Sox have the talent, the farewell-season story line, and the projections in their favor. The Indians — well, they know how to work a platoon and take an extra base. They’re advantages, albeit ones that stand out less for their sex appeal than for their status as Cleveland’s only advantages in the series.
They’re not much. But they might be enough to help the Indians steal the series. We’re just a year removed from one AL Central team leveraging “little things” to win the title, after all.
One such “little thing” is the platoon advantage. In the regular season, Indians hitters faced an opposite-handed pitcher 70 percent of the time, the highest rate in baseball. Intuitively, it makes sense that it’s better for a batter to face an opposite-handed pitcher than a same-handed one — that’s why switch-hitters choose to hit opposite the pitcher and why the LOOGY role exists.
Under manager Terry Francona, though, the Indians have taken this principle to the extreme: Cleveland has ranked first or second in the majors in platooning percentage in each of Francona’s four years with the team.
It’s unclear how much this tactic might boost the Indians’ chances in a short playoff series. Platoons generally convey their advantage in small fractions of runs that add up over the course of a season, and they are by no means a panacea in one-week doses. Sometimes it’s a left-hander who mashes the big hit off Clayton Kershaw.
But in Cleveland’s case, it’s simple to see how the team’s platoons might help. In the outfield, Francona generally plays left-handed hitters Tyler Naquin and Lonnie Chisenhall against righties while subbing in the right-handed Brandon Guyer and switch-hitting Coco Crisp — both midseason trade acquisitions — against lefties.
In one corner outfield spot, for instance, the difference between Chisenhall and Guyer was especially pronounced this season, as Guyer barely cracked the Mendoza Line against righties while hitting like the best player in baseball against lefties, slashing .336/.464/.557. So the exchange makes sense. Considering that Rick Porcello and David Price have performed 86 and 71 points of OPS worse, respectively, against opposite-handed batters in their careers, the outfield swap gives Cleveland a boost on paper.
Once Cleveland’s hitters reach base, moreover, the group’s speed provides an additional edge. FanGraphs calculates a statistic that counts the runs a team gains or loses because of its baserunning (BsR), combining stolen bases, caught stealings, extra bases, double plays, and more into one all-encompassing number. By this measure, the Indians’ running was worth an additional 17 runs this year — the best mark in the AL, more than 50 percent higher than Boston’s second-place number.
Seventeen runs over the course of a season might not seem like much, but that’s not an easy mark to reach. It places this year’s Indians in the top 25 in the wild-card era, with Cleveland’s success on the base paths stemming from two main sources: steals and extra bases on balls in play.
The Indians topped the AL leaderboard in both total stolen bases (134) and stolen-base success rate (81 percent), giving the team a rare combination of volume and efficiency; in the last decade, the 2014 Royals were the only other club to lead the league in both categories. Rajai Davis racked up 43 steals — 13 more than anyone else in the AL — and with the veteran outfielder pacing the group, four different Indians collected 15 or more steals, while no other playoff team had more than two such players.
Boston has already expressed concern about controlling the Indians’ running game, with manager John Farrell admitting it is influencing the Red Sox’s playoff roster selection. The last time the two teams played, José Ramírez stole second and nearly nabbed third later in the inning, and Davis succeeded in a theft of third. In an earlier game between the two, Chisenhall and Francisco Lindor swiped a base apiece.
Red Sox starting catcher Sandy León, who didn’t play at all against Cleveland this year, could help, as he threw out 41 percent of attempted base stealers this season. But aggression on the base paths is one way to fulfill one of the sport’s favorite October sayings — you have to manufacture runs — and the Red Sox, of all teams, shouldn’t need a reminder of the effect a speedster can have on a series.
The Indians compound their stolen-base superiority with an uncommon level of aggression on hits, which led to Cleveland taking an extra base — moving first to third on a single, second to home on a single, or first to home on a double — more than any other AL team. With Boston’s outfield trio catching most fly balls that enter Fenway’s airspace, it’s imperative that the Indians take advantage of the few that do fall.
Not many players in the playoffs have game-breaking speed, but the Indians boast two of the best. In individual BsR this season, Davis ranked second in the majors and Ramírez fifth, with the two combining to contribute more than 18 extra runs from their running alone. BsR is a cumulative, counting stat, but Davis managed a high number despite not being eligible for the batting title — among players with as many plate appearances as he collected this year, he posted the seventh-most BsR per plate appearance in the wild-card era.
Ramírez, meanwhile, has played four different positions this year, but he’s been entrenched as the starting third baseman since the end of July, with only one off day in the past two months. His whole game took a giant leap forward this season — not counting the totals he posted during a 12-at-bat cup of coffee in 2013, he set career highs in all three rate stats and finished third in the majors with 46 doubles — but his fleetness of foot might represent the most outstanding way he could contribute to an October surprise.
Zooming out, it’s clear that the Indians are this series’ underdog, but they’re still a capable, well-rounded team that fares well in all facets of the game. Given their relative strengths over the rest of the playoff field, they could forge a remarkably similar path to the title that Kansas City did a year ago.
The resemblance is striking. Cleveland finished with a 94–67 record and sat in first place every day after June 4; last season, Kansas City went 95–67 and did the same every day after June 9. The Indians rotation, like the Royals’ last year, includes a solo ace and not much else; their bullpen features a slew of strikeout pitchers from the middle innings on. They hail from the AL Central and must face a big-market team full of young sluggers in the first round. And they’re aggressive on the bases and will put pressure on opposing fielders in the late innings.
That’s not to say that the Indians are this year’s Royals. But there are worse ways to go about emulating the defending champs than to run like hell and hope for the best.