It Don’t Come Easy
October 7, 2022
On Tuesday October 11, the Yankees kick off the playoff portion of their season. As fans of the Yankees, we are quite accustomed to this part of the early autumn. The leaves begin to turn, the Rangers are at training camp and the Yankees continue to play.
To our younger readers this must seem like a rite of passage, so to speak. And for good reason, including the 1995 season the Yankees have made it to the post season 24 of 28 seasons, including 2022. Winning 5 World Series in the first 15 of those years (1995-2009). Which means they have not won in 12 years (2010-2021).
In Yankee years, that is a long drought.
We can add a year to that, technically speaking, because the Yankees were 70-43 when the strike ended the 1994 season and playoffs. The Yankees were 6.5 games ahead of the Orioles on August 12, 1994 when the strike started.
That still stings.
But here we are once again in the post season. This has been one of the more unique seasons. You don’t need me to rehash the season. Let’s just say it was a roller coaster ride filled with all sorts of ups and downs.
How will 2022 be remembered when the smoke clears? As of today, it is the year of Aaron Judge. But this is a team sport, and even Mr. Judge has his eyes on a bigger prize. A World Series.
Just like every other season not called “1998”. It will not be easy.
The Yankees and their $263,972,563 payroll (that is the actual amount when you throw in Active Payroll, Injured List Money, and Retained Salary-- according to https://www.spotrac.com/mlb/new-york-yankees/payroll) will begin the post season against the winner of the Cleveland Guardians ($77,410,000) and the Tampa Bay Rays ($96,194,000) series.
From purely a salary perspective it may seem like a mismatch on paper. But, the game is not played on paper. Make no mistake about it. These are two very good teams.
So what do each of these teams bring to a potential showdown with the Yankees?
Both teams have a common thread. Due to the economics of the game, they turn their rosters over more frequently than most teams, develop and plug in players that understand their system, make smart trades, and compete. Keep in mind, both of these teams have played in a World Series more recently then the Yankees have.
Both of them came very close to winning it all.
In a way, they are very similar to how Lou Lamoriello did it with the Devils and is now doing with the Islanders.
It is really impressive to watch year after year.
Let’s start with Cleveland (92-70) and one of the best, if not the best manager in the game; Terry Francona. It seems that every year, “Tito” spends the first 2 or 3 months of the season (with his trusted coaches DeMarlo Hale, Chris Valaika, Victor Rodriguez, Carl Willis and Justin Toole) teaching his young team how to play, and then sometime around the 4th of July, they start to play a fantastic version of team baseball.
2022 was no different.
Several of those Francona “students” such as outfielders Steven Kwan, Will Brennan, Oscar Gonzalez and Will Benson (yes, there is a Will Benson and a Will Brennan) catcher Bo Naylor along with pitchers Cody Morris and Kirk McCarty, should all remain in a position to contribute and shoulder important responsibilities in the postseason.
As expected, the teams with the best ERAs all made the AL playoffs (Houston 2.92, Yankees 3.30, Tampa Bay 3.37, Cleveland 3.50 and Seattle 3.57 (Toronto is at number 8 with a 3.90 ERA).
Cleveland’s Team ERA is spearheaded by their superb closer, Emmanuel Clase and his 1.36 ERA over 72.2 innings with 42 saves. Another trade won by Cleveland—he was part of the Corey Kluber trade with Texas. If you haven’t seen him pitch, make sure to do so in the series vs Tampa Bay. Clase now features a 101-mph cutter that turned bats to wet noodles in 2022.
My advice to any team playing Cleveland; get a lead before he comes in!
Photo by Jim McIsaac
The rotation consist of top 3 starters Shane Bieber (13-8) Triston McKenzie (11-11) and Cal Quantrill (14-5), along with Zach Plesac (3-12) and Aaron Civale (4-6).
Bieber, McKenzie and Quantrill are all tough at bats for any hitter. Tito has a very short leash with Plesac and Civale, and rightfully so.
His set up relievers James Karinchak, Trevor Stephan, Kirk McCarty, Nick Sandlin, Eli Morgan, Sam Hentges, Cody Morris and Enyel De Los Santos, although all right handed, with the exception of Hentges and McCarty, handle many high pressure innings and turn the ball over to Clase.
As a team, Cleveland (.253 team average --4th in AL) has a slight advantage over the Yankees with their .242 average (8th in AL) and Tampa with a .239 team average (9th in AL).
Here’s the thing, they also put the ball in play striking out 256 times less than the Yankees and 272 times less than Tampa Bay.
When they get on base, the havoc starts. Cleveland likes to put pressure on their opponents and force errors. They take extra bases. They force outfielders to make perfect throws. They hit the ball to the open sides of the field. They run the bases very hard. They move runners with productive outs.
In other words, they play a refreshing brand of baseball. Station to station, waiting for a long ball does not exist on the North Coast.
A great strategy.
They do take risks, and why not?
They are second in the league with 119 stolen bases (Yankees are 4th with 102, Tampa Bay is 5th with 95). Not a huge variance at all.
In the most simplistic terms, baseball is about 2 things. Scoring runs and preventing runs from being scored. Therein lies the distinct advantage for the Yankees in 2022.
The Yankees have scored 807, Runs allowed 567 with a variance of 240.
The Guardians have scored 698 Runs, allowed 634 with a variance of 64.
The Rays have scored 667 Runs allowed 614 with a variance of 53.
But there are variables and factors to be considered. Injuries, opponents and late season trends. And of course the biggest two of all: Team execution and desire/commitment to win in October.
As is usually the case, Cleveland is led by third baseman Jose Ramirez. One of the more under rated players in all of baseball. In 2022 he hit .275 with 29 Home Runs and 124 RBI.
Second baseman Andres Gimenez (.297/17/69) and Shortstop Amed Rosario (.283/11/71) continue to prove that Cleveland won the Francisco Lindor trade, and along with Josh Naylor (.256/20/79) at first base, now have one of the best young infields in all of baseball.
Cleveland’s outfield is bereft of serious power, however they do contribute in other ways.
Photo by Robert Sabo
Yankee Stadium fan favorite, Myles Straw, is the weak link in the Cleveland outfield, but Steven Kwan is a rising stock. The 25 year old lefty hit .298 with 24 doubles. He strikes out a minuscule 9.3% of his plate appearances.
Oscar Gonzalez seems to be getting the most playing time in left field, and has played well hitting .296 with 11 home runs and 27 doubles in only 90 games.
Cleveland's catching tandem of Austin Hedges and Luke Maile do not do much at all from an offensive stand point. They both play solid defense, but are limited offensively.
The DH Position is handled mostly by rotation at this point. After another disappointing season by Franmil Reyes, he was designated for assignment in August and picked up by the Cubs.
The 2 weakest links in the Cleveland attack, DH and Catcher, are compensated for by aggressive base running, putting the ball in play, and forcing mistakes.
Cleveland is, relatively speaking, injury free heading into the Playoffs.
Francona’s teaching and approach to the game has resulted in a Cleveland team that never seems to be out of game, and one that has a fondness for late-inning rallies.
Moving on to Tampa Bay (86-76) a team we are more familiar with having played them 19 times a year, plus in a post season series, we start with Kevin Cash (former Francona bench coach).
What more needs to be said? He seems to be a thorn in the side of the Yankees since taking over the reins of the team and replacing Joe Maddon in 2015. A creative manager that always seems to get the most out of his players.
The Rays have made it to the playoffs now in four successive seasons, and reached the World Series in 2020, losing to the Dodgers in six games.
As is usually the case, the Rays can pitch. Cash’s top of the rotation four starters this year were Shane McClanahan (12-8) Corey Kluber (10-10) Drew Rasmussen (11-7) and Jeffery Springs (9-5).
Most notably missing from the rotation in 2022 was staff Ace Tyler Glasnow. Glasnow had Tommy John surgery in August 2021.
Promising young right-hander Shane Baz missed all but 27.0 innings in 2022 and is out due to his own 2022 Tommy John surgery.
Glasnow is now back and is penciled in to start game 2 in Cleveland.
McClanahan is a 2022 Cy Young Candidate.
Photo by Steph Chambers
Unlike Cleveland’s lights out closer Clase, Tampa Bay relies on a closer by committee approach (sound familiar Yankee fans?) based on match ups. Cash uses a mix of Jason Adam, Colin Poche, Brooks Raley, Andrew Kittredge and Peter Fairbanks.
Unfortunately for Cash and the Rays, this past Tuesday lefty Colin Poche suffered an abdominal injury and according to the Rays he is out for the year.
Poche was 4-2 with a 3.99 ERA in 65 relief appearances over 58⅔ innings. He entered the game with a 26.3% strikeout rate, 8.8% walk rate and 32.5% ground ball rate.
Andrew Kittredge is also out for the season due to his own Tommy John surgery.
Those are huge hits for the Rays staff.
But, something tells me Cash has a wild card or 2 up his sleeve.
As I mentioned above, Tampa Bay hit .239 in 2022 compared to Cleveland at .253. They also have very similar run differential. A distinct advantage for the Yankees regardless of who advances to play in the Bronx.
Similar to Cleveland they do not rely on the home run to score.
The Yankees have hit 254 HR out of a total of 1,308 hits =19.42% HR to Hits.
The Guardians have hit 127 HR out of a total of 1,410 hits =9.01% HR to Hits.
The Rays have hit 139 HR out of a total of 1,294 hits =10.74% HR to Hits.
Relying on the Home Run to score in the Playoffs does not work. “Relying” being the operative word. Scoring runs on the home run is great. You get into trouble when your primary source of runs is the Home Run. Neither Cleveland nor Tampa fall into that trap.
But, as we have learned over the years, the regular season can mean very little in the playoffs. MLB is distinctly different from the NFL and NBA, and to a lesser degree the NHL. Removing the point spreads, NFL and NBA playoff games are pretty easy to predict the winners. In Baseball, it is completely different. Every game is a different starting pitcher, and that is huge.
As we saw in 2020, Kevin Cash and his staff managed to push Boone and his staff against the ropes and get into their heads. In that series in which Tampa Bay beat the Yanks in 5, Tampa Bay hit .290 and Yankees hit .240.
The Yankees outscored the Rays 25-20 and out pitched them ERA wise 4.40 to 4.50. It all came down to big plays, and of course the cherry on the top; Boone and Cashman deciding to lead from behind and used Deivi Garcia as the opener in game 2. That flopped and Tampa Bay won 3 of the next 4 and closed it out.
Randy Arozarena, former Cleveland third baseman Yandy Diaz, and Taylor Walls were the only Rays to play over 100 games in 2022. Cleveland had 7 position players with over 100 starts, the Yankees had 8.
Cash very effectively uses a mix of position players on a daily basis. All with different skill sets based on the opponent, starting pitcher and in some cases the stadium the game is played in.
Similar to Francona, nothing gets past him, and he is extremely prepared.
Randy Arrozarena has proven to be the player to contain in the post season. He can do it all, and in a short series he can dominate.
Photo by Matt Slocum | AP
Along with Arrozarena, Cash relies heavily on a variety of players including Diaz, Harold Ramirez (DH) Ji-Man Choi (1B) Manny Margot (RF) and Wander Franco (SS).
Just like Cleveland, the Rays emphasize pitching, defense and speed while finding tactics to score without hitting a lot of home runs.
The Rays had a record of 2-4 this season in head to head competition with the Guardians. Cleveland pitching held them to scoring only 18 runs, going 1-2 in a late-July series at Tropicana Field and again last week in Cleveland.
Notably missing from the Tampa Bay post season roster:
2B- Brandon Lowe
C- Mike Zunino
RHP- Andrew Kittredge
CF Kevin Kiermaier
LHP - Colin Poche
All injured and out for the season. All previously major contributors to the Tampa Bay team.
In the postseason, run manufacturing is critical. In the 2022 regular season Cleveland led the three teams in combined runs scored via sacrifice (fly balls and hits). A key factor not to be over looked when a good portion of run production is based on execution and fundamentals.
The Yankees had 55 runs scored this season via the sacrifice.
The Guardians had 74 runs scored this season via the sacrifice.
The Rays had 38 runs scored this season via the sacrifice.
It is not surprising to me at all that Francona has his team excelling at this scoring method.
I am not into predictions, but what I will say is I believe Tampa Bay will have their hands full with Cleveland. Injuries play a factor for sure, and we see Tampa Bay has their fair share. But, Cleveland seems to be more of a well rounded and functioning machine.
Over the last 10 games Cleveland is 7-3 while Tampa Bay is 2-8.
How Tampa Bay handles Cleveland is to be determined. I like the way Cleveland goes about their business, and plays the game. This past season they had 17 rookies (at my last count) who made their MLB debuts in 2022, and contributed to a division title.
That is very impressive, to say the least.
For a little short of 5/6 of the 2022 season, the Yankees were a juggernaut, led by Aaron Judge and his historic season. The August slump now seems like a distant memory. The Yankees picked themselves up, wiped the blood off of their noses and went back to playing solid baseball in September and October with a 20-11 record to finish overall at 99-63.
The battle to face off in the Bronx starts today at Progressive Field in Cleveland at 12:07 p.m. The game can be seen on ESPN. It should be a good 3 game series with 2 very good teams squaring off for the right to go to Gotham next week and face the Yankees.
For you baseball junkies like me, we have a potential of 12 Playoff games this weekend!!
Something tells me I will not be going out much this weekend!
So, whoever is in the third base dugout on on October 11 at Yankee Stadium, I believe will be a worthy and formidable opponent. One to be taken very seriously, despite records and injuries.
As is usually the case, the team that plays the cleanest and executes the most, will win.
Remember 2009 was a long time ago.
It don’t come easy!