Division Series Opponent: The Guardians!
by Cary Greene
October 9, 2022
This past Friday, when the Wild Card round of the MLB playoffs began, it seemed very much like the Rays would be able to sneak past the Guardians and set up a confrontation with the Yankees in the Division Series. However, if there’s one thing that a seasoned baseball fan comes to realize as time goes along, it is that predicting the game of baseball is extremely difficult. After watching Saturday's 14-inning marathon in its entirety, I have little doubt that Yankees fans are in for a thrilling Division Series against the Guardians!
After stifling the pesky Rays offense in Game One behind their ace, Shane Bieber and their All-Star third baseman José Ramirez, the Guardians were poised to break through and eliminate the Rays on Saturday and they did just that!
Though only the Tigers hit fewer home runs than the Guardians this season, Guardians rookie Oscar Hernandez clubbed a pitch he was looking for, a Corey Kluber breaking ball, over the 19-foot left field wall and into the seats to seal the deal and advance his team to the second round. The Guardians play a stingy brand of baseball that made for a very intriguing pitching-centric game-two matchup with the Rays. Unbelievably, the Rays managed only a single run in 23-innings against Cleveland’s stellar pitching.
During Saturday’s game-two matchup, a rarity occurred as it marked the first time in MLB history that a game was tied 0-0 entering the 14th-inning. Both the Guardians and the Rays tend to play tightly contested games.
Obviously, the Guardians calling card is their pitching. They have all the ingredients and given their team ERA+ of 110, so make no mistake, the Guardians stack up well enough, though a pinch short, with World Series champions of the past, who since 1903 have averaged an ERA+ of 113.31. Could the Guardians be the team no one saw coming out of the American League? Well, to stake that claim, they’ll have to focus on dismissing one opponent at a time and with the Rays safely kiboshed, it's time for the upstart Guardians to take on the vaunted Yankees.
Having punched their ticket to the Bronx this Tuesday, the Guardians are a ball club that this year stole the third most bases in MLB and also had the third best success rate. This ability to impact games on the base paths combines with their contact oriented approach and an unwillingness to strike out. The Guardians had the fewest strikeouts of any team in MLB this season (1,122). Though the Guardians aren’t especially good at drawing walks (they were 24th in MLB this season), they do make solid contact as they were sixth in the League in Hits (1,410) and 12th in On-Base-Percentage (.316). The Yankees will need to be very cognizant of these Guardians' strengths in the upcoming series.
There appears to be three keys to the Yankees beating Cleveland. The first is that the Yankees need to limit the Guardians gap-to-gap style of hitting and a rangy outfield configuration of Aaron Judge, Harrison Bader, and Oswaldo Cabrera may be helpful in doing just that. The second key will be to keep the Guardians off the bases as much as possible and thereby stunt their opportunities to deploy and maximize what is truly a devastating running-game. The last key is of course that the Yankees offense needs to show up in force and put runs on the board. If the Yankees can score in batches, the Yankees pitching will have far less pressure.
What the Yankees don’t want is to be lured into close games that drag on, from inning to inning, with very little scoring. Guardians gave up the 15th most home runs in the league this season (giving up 172 home runs), where as the Yankees offense was easily first in this department, as the Bombers slugged 254 dingers overall. A recipe for success might be for Yankees batters to hunt mistakes, as they did in the thrilling 2020 Wild Card series with Cleveland.
We can point to the Yankees owning a 5-1 record against the Guardians this season as proof that the Yankees are capable of advancing and having home field advantage in a 5-game series would seem to be another advantage that might tip the scales in the Yankees favor.
Lining-Up the Starters:
Considering that Shane Bieber pitched this past Friday, throwing 99-pitches, Guardians Manager Terry Francona may want to resist starting him on four-days rest to open the series. This could give the Yankees advantage number three, as Aaron Boone has a well-rested rotation to counter with.
Francona meanwhile may prefer to start Cal Quantrill in Game One to oppose Cole. Then, after Wednesday’s off-day, he will likely go with Beiber in Game Two and then after Friday’s off-day, he could deploy Triston McKenzie in Game Three as the series shifts to Cleveland.
If this thinking proves to be right, the Yankees would have a big advantage in Game One, with Aaron Boone likely starting Gerrit Cole. The Guardians are only batting .163 with a .243 OPS off of Cole this season so leading with Cole actually does make sense, but there’s two other reasons why I like the strategy.
In Game Two, the Yankees might go with Nestor Cortes Jr and then follow with Luis Severino in Game Three. Keep in mind, there is a weird “off-day” sandwiched between Game One and Game Two, and then another one between Game Two and Game Three as the series shifts from Yankee Stadium to Progressive Field in Cleveland. The first thing I like about leading with Cole is due to the way these off days are positioned, because it allows the Yankees to come back with Cole on regular rest for Game Four (in Cleveland). That makes things pretty tough on the Guardians if the series goes that long.
The second thing I like about leading with Cole is that, if necessary, Cortes might get the call in pivotal Game Five at Yankee Stadium, with Severino in the bullpen in an “all-hands-on-deck” situation. I have more faith in Cortes and or Sevy in a winner-take-all Game Five scenario than I do Cole for six-innings and then having to let the Yankees bullpen decide the series (nothing against Cole).
The Guardians On Offense:
Though the Guardians are basically a league average team offensively, with their team OPS+ of 102 being only 2-points above League-average, it’s a big mistake to think the Guardians' offense isn’t good enough to win it all. Keep in mind, the Braves, last season’s World Series champs, had an ERA+ of 114 last season (a bit better overall than the Guardians 110 this season) and an OPS+ of only 98, which was one-point above the 2021 League average of 97. Indeed, the Guardians are very close to having what it takes to win it all.
What the Guardians need is for their offense to get hot enough to provide enough run support for their pitching, which is absolutely coming together at the right time of year so far, to be able to suppress opposing offenses just enough to do what the Guardians like to do, which is to play close games and win the majority of them.
If the Guardians offense doesn’t heat up, they will likely struggle to score against quality postseason pitching, which the Yankees will no doubt have on full display. The Yankees ERA+ this season was 119 (third in MLB) and the Yankees bullpen has actually been coming together nicely down the stretch. Though the Yankees do lack a clearly defined closer, any number of Yankees' relievers are pitching well of late and Johnathan Loaisiga heads this list.
The Guardians squeaked past the Rays because of elite pitching. Each game was a typical, low scoring Guardians “pain-session” and also a typical low scoring Guardians game. Typically, the Guardians like to execute their organizational strategy of run-suppression, outstanding base running and timely hitting. Against the Yankees and in similar fashion, they’ll likely need to keep the Division Series a very low scoring affair if they plan on advancing to the American League Championship Series.
Due to the extra-innings “ghost-runner” rule being null and void for the postseason, if the Yankees get lured into long stretches of little to no scoring, the potential exists for some long, low scoring games between the Yankees, who hope their offense can prevent this from happening, and the Guardians, who are perfectly content to drag games on and on until they can manufacture the winning run.
Yankee pitchers will need to minimize the potential damage that Guardians All-Star third baseman José Ramirez can inflict. He’s clearly the Guardians' top offensive threat. Aside from Ramirez, second baseman Andres Gimenez (.837 OPS with 17 HR and 69 RBI’s this season), Game Two Wild-Card series hero Oscar Gonzalez, Steven Kwan and Josh Naylor are the most dangerous players in the Guardians lineup.
The Guardians Biggest Vulnerability:
One thing to watch out for is that Guardians were 12th in the league against right-handed pitching with a .717 OPS while being dismal against left-handed pitching, where they ranked 28th with a .646 OPS. This is a very significant stat that normally throughout history would spell impending disaster for a Yankees opponent, but Brian Cashman apparently doesn’t fully understand how important left-handed starters are to a team that plays home games in a ballpark that favors them. I’ll stop beating around the bush. I know Brian Cashman may have felt that Jordan Montgomery wouldn’t make the Yankees postseason roster, but it sure would be nice if he was around for this series as he could have combined with Nestor Cortes to form a pretty formidable mountain for the Guardians to have to scale. J.P. Sears might have also been quite valuable coming out of the bullpen, seeing as how Zack Britton’s comeback from TJS has been shut down. I’m not sure how Cashman could justify dumping not one, not two, but three left-handers at the deadline, each who could have helped end what is now a 12-year championship drought and counting.
Monty had a 3.11 ERA in 63.2 innings for the Cardinals, holding opposing batters to a .232 Average and a .656 OPS.
Sears posted a 3-3 record with a 4.69 ERA as a starter for the A’s but the Yankees were considering using him out of the bullpen down the stretch and right about now, he could be very useful.
Ken Waldichuk had a .493 ERA with the A’s as a starter and like Sears, he may have been valuable to the Yankees in the bullpen.
The Yankees will likely go with a bullpen that includes a few lefties at least, certainly Lucas Luetge and Aroldis Chapman will likely both make the cut. Granted, the Yankee bullpen has been ravaged by injuries this season, but since September 1st, the bullpen as a whole has been pitching a lot better than it was in July and August. What Will the Yankees Bullpen Look Like:
With 9 spots to fill here and factoring in injuries and ineffectiveness, here are the relievers, listed in order, who deserve a spot in the playoffs bullpen. Considering September to end of season performance, the Yankee bullpen will live or die with Jonathan Loaisiga, Scott Effross, Lou Trevino, and Lucas Leutge.
Getting Ron Marinaccio and Wandy Peralta back would be a big boost. It would be huge.
Given the lack of left-handness that plagues the Yankees' bullpen and factoring in that Chapman has been effective in September and October, and factoring in Jonathan Loaisiga’s increased effectiveness, it would appear that in order, Miguel Castro, Domingo German, and possibly Albert Abreu would be replacements for any relievers deemed unavailable.
Lou Trevino - 2.53 ERA down stretch, team’s best bridge reliever
Ron Marinaccio - questionable - 2.70 ERA down stretch
Scott Effros - 0.00 ERA down stretch, might be used as the closer (per Boone)
Clay Holmes - questionable - 3.55 ERA down stretch
Lucas Leutge *LHP - 2.61 ERA down the stretch
Wandy Peralta - questionable - 2.70 ERA down stretch but hasn’t pitched since Sept. 18th
Clarke Schmidt - 3.54 ERA down the stretch
Albert Abreu - only recently called back up
Domingo German - 4.20 ERA down stretch
Miguel Castro - 4.50 ERA in two October appearances, otherwise hasn’t pitched since Jul 10
Jonathan Loaisiga - 1.72 ERA down stretch, may also wind up closing
Aroldis Chapman *LHP - 3.18 ERA down stretch
Yankees' Keys to Winning the Division Series:
Limiting doubles will need to be the focus of the Yankees defense as the Guardians were 11th in the league at amassing two-baggers (273) and as mentioned, with an outfield of Aaron Judge, Harrison Bader, and Oswaldo Cabrera, I think the Yankees line up very favorably with the Guardians in the upcoming Division Series.
It may also make good sense to add another speedy outfielder to the roster in the Division Series and I anticipate the Yankees may do that if Andrew Benintendi is unavailable. Perhaps Tim Locastro would be useful for something other than pinch-running? I think he’d be useful if the Yankees find themselves needing to manufacture a run here or there.
Success in the Division series with the Guardians will likely boil down to five key things.
How off-days will shape strategy. Cole clearly has the Guardians number. Can he continue his dominance over them? Meanwhile, Cortes is left-handed and that’s not good news for a team that struggles mightily against left-handed pitching. Can Cortes make two starts in this series if called upon for a decisive fifth game?
The Yankees offense will need to break through against the Guardians superb pitching. It’s no secret, the Yankees hit home runs and Cleveland is a bit vulnerable to giving them up. Can the Yankees capitalize here?
The Yankees can deploy a rangey outfield to minimize the line-drive “gap-power” approach of the Guardians. Will this stifle what is normally a successful Guardians' approach?
Can the Guardians succeed against what is predominantly a right-handed Yankees pitching staff? If Cole and Severino pitch well, Cleveland will have to take advantage of the many right-handers in the Yankees bullpen.
Yankees pitching will need to deal with the constant threat that Terry Francona creates on the base paths. Can Jose Trevino hurt the Guardians' vaunted running game? Trevino averaged the 9th fastest Exchange Rate (.68 seconds) among MLB catchers this season, but he ranked 52nd in POP Time to Second-Base this year (1.99) where Kyle Higashioka was 14th (.69 seconds) and his POP to second base was 26th (1.95).
Given that Trevino’s arm was rated 74th (77.9) and Higgy’s was 57th (80.1), it may make sense to give Higgy a start in this series but the Yankees will attempt to ride both of their catchers fast Exchange Rates while also attempting to keep the Guardians off the bases as much as possible.