Gleyber Torres, Aaron Judge
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The New York Yankees face a familiar playoff foe in the Cleveland Indians to open the 2020 MLB postseason’s Wild Card round.

Josh Benjamin

The New York Yankees are back in the playoffs after a roller coaster of a regular season, and a familiar face awaits them. The Cleveland Indians clinched the second-place spot in the American League Central and will host the three-game Wild Card round at Progressive Field.

Both teams bring a lot to the table in what should be a strong matchup. The Yankees lineup is streaky but a modern-day Murderers’ Row when running on all cylinders. In contrast, the Indians’ 3.29 staff ERA led the American League, whereas New York’s streaky rotation ranked 8th with a mark of 4.35.

This makes for a battle not just between teams, but philosophies. Will New York’s lineup come together after a horrendous finish and blast into the American League Division Series? Or will Cleveland’s arms neutralize the opponent once again?

Let’s take a look and see just who advances in the series.

A long playoff history

This is far from the first time we’re seeing the Yankees and Indians face off in the postseason. In fact, both teams have built a bit of a mini-rivalry based entirely on their playoff clashes.

In 1997, the Bronx Bombers were within reach of a second straight trip to the American League Championship Series before Sandy Alomar Jr. homered off of Mariano Rivera in the eighth inning of Game 4. Cleveland walked off in the ninth and won the deciding Game 5 the next day.

The following year, New York avenged the loss by beating the Indians in a scrappy six-game League Championship Series and then winning the World Series. Almost a decade later, Joba Chamberlain’s date with the midges arguably buried the Yankees again. A decade after that incident, in 2017, Greg Bird and Didi Gregorius’ home run heroics sent a heavily-favored Cleveland squad packing.

Cut to today, and history indicates it is once again the Indians’ turn for redemption. The good news for them is Progressive Field hasn’t necessarily been kind to the Yankees as of late. New York hasn’t won a series in Cleveland since 2016 and is 9-9 at Progressive Field over the last five years.

Throw in the fact that both teams finished the season in incredibly streaky manners, and this series becomes even tougher to predict.

Plus, in the playoffs, anything can happen.

The lineups

Looking at the lineups is where things get interesting. As was mentioned before, the Yankees lineup is dangerous from top to bottom.

DJ LeMahieu hit .364 to win the American League batting title and is the first modern-era player to win batting championships in both leagues. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton can be the Bash Brothers when they’re both locked in from the batter’s box. With both men injured most of the season, Luke Voit mashed his way to an MLB-leading 22 home runs.

Throw in more great bats like Gleyber Torres and Aaron Hicks, not to mention Clint Frazier’s breakout year, and the Yankees can absolutely take this series.

However, New York’s bats have been uncharacteristically cold as of late. The Yankees infamously endured a 5-15 stretch and were ravaged by injuries once again. That was followed by a ten-game winning streak, but the Yankees sputtered again with a 2-6 finish.

But Cleveland’s lineup is not without its issues either. The Tribe only hit .228 as a team and ranked 26th in MLB with a collective .303 wOBA. They ranked 27th with a paltry WRC+ of 86. The lineup’s most reliable hitters in Francisco Lindor and MVP candidate Jose Ramirez are concentrated at the top. Cesar Hernandez’s contact hitting helps at times, but the remaining six are more of a crapshoot.

This means that even during an ugly stretch, advantage New York.

Edge: Yankees

The rotation

The Yankees employ Gerrit Cole, who played as advertised after inking a nine-year, $324 million deal last offseason. The big righty went 7-3 with a 2.84 ERA in 12 starts and fanned 94 hitters in 73 innings of work. He’ll start Game 1 on Tuesday. Following Cole in Game 2 will be playoff veteran Masahiro Tanaka, who owns a 1.76 postseason ERA.

But in this case, the clear pitching advantage goes to the Indians. Shane Bieber faces off against Cole in Game 1 and not only is he the favorite for the American League Cy Young, but he could easily be in the MVP conversation as well.

The 25-year-old led the majors in both ERA (1.63) and K/9 (14.2). Bieber accomplished this by proving to be completely unpredictable with a five-pitch mix. He mixes a mid-90s fastball with a devastating curve, and his slider and changeup aren’t bad either. A slumping New York lineup could have a very hard time trying to mount some offense against Bieber.

And even if Bieber takes Game 1 and the Yankees steal Game 2 against Carlos Carrasco, they’d still need to face Zach Plesac in Game 3. Plesac posted a 2.28 ERA and his BB/9 was just 1.0.

The Yankees, meanwhile, are more reliant on their lineup than the Indians. In the playoffs, that matters a significant amount.

Edge: Indians

The bullpen

Now, let’s talk about something that nobody’s talking about, but is very likely to happen. Given the streakiness of both the Yankees and Indians lineups, there’s a strong possibility this is a low-scoring series. This means when push comes to shove, the bullpens will be the deciding factors.

Let’s start with Cleveland. Veteran Brad Hand is as serviceable a closer as the next, having converted an MLB-best 16 saves with a 2.05 ERA. Hand also has a reliable setup man in James Karinchak, who recorded a 17.67 K/9. Even 39-year-old Oliver Perez is still reliable. All three were instrumental in helping the Indians bullpen rank 5th in the majors with a 3.53 ERA.

The Yankees bullpen, on the other hand, bore the brunt of most of that 5-15 cold streak. In fact, New York’s relief corps blew a lead in seven of those games. As a result, the Bronx Bombers ranked 16th with a 4.51 bullpen ERA.

Granted, losing Tommy Kahnle to Tommy John surgery early was a big loss, but the team still ranked 9th with a 4.08 mark last year and additionally fourth with a 3.38 ERA in 2018. To say the bullpen underachieved this year is an understatement.

However, though Cleveland’s bullpen is more consistent, the bridge to Hand is fairly young. New York, meanwhile, has proven capable time and time again of hitting its stride when it matters most.

Thus, the bullpens could go either way.

Edge: Push

The verdict

In a standard 162-game season, fortune would overwhelmingly favor the Yankees. They are the better team on paper, albeit a streaky one, and just know how to come together in the postseason. If that switch gets flipped Tuesday, New York could be an unstoppable force.

But 2020 was not a standard year for anybody and in the 60-game sprint, Cleveland was the far better team. The pitching stayed mostly consistent even while the lineup averaged just three runs per game during an eight-game losing streak earlier this month.

Moreover, while the Yankees stumbled to 2-6 after a ten-game winning streak, the Indians won nine of their last 11 to clinch the No. 4 seed. New York, meanwhile, only secured the No. 5 after the No. 8 Toronto Blue Jays lost on Sunday.

There is every chance the Yankee lineup will come together and blow everyone away. Judge could finally hit his first home run since coming off the injured list and Stanton could stop succumbing to strikeouts.

Yet, given how each team looks coming in, the answer is clear. Turn on some reruns of “The Drew Carey Show,” pick up your favorite Harvey Pekar comic, and blast Bone Thugs-n-Harmony at full volume.

Because as much as New York may hate to admit it, Cleveland rocks.

Prediction: Indians in 2

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