Cleveland-Boston ALDS preview: battle of the best

by Paul West

While the Rangers-Blue Jays ALDS might promise more controversy, it could be argued that the coming series between the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians features the two best teams in the American League–when healthy. Unfortunately, the Indians are far from healthy at the moment, and this could greatly influence a series between two balanced teams against whom no lead feels safe.

David Ortiz and Mookie Betts help fuel the best top to bottom lineup in baseball.
David Ortiz and Mookie Betts help fuel the best top-to-bottom lineup in baseball.

The 93-69 Red Sox won the tough AL East by four games, fueled by a dangerous lineup and a pitching staff led by emergent surprises. The team’s centerpiece and spiritual leader is designated hitter David Ortiz, who’s having arguably the best final season ever. The man known as Big Papi batted .315 with 38 home runs, 48 doubles and 127 RBIs, causing many to wonder aloud if he should, indeed, retire. Outfielder Mookie Betts hit .318 with 31 homers, 113 RBIs, 42 doubles and 26 stolen bases; second baseman Dustin Pedroia, despite a midseason slump, also finished with a .318 average along with 36 doubles. Hanley Ramirez had an outstanding season as Papi’s primary lineup protection, hitting .286 with 30 home runs and 111 RBIs; and despite often hitting at or near the bottom of the order,  outfielder Jackie Bradley, Jr. had 27 home runs and 87 RBIs. Switch-hitting veteran catcher Sandy Leon was a pleasant surprise on offense, finishing with a .310 average…and if you’re sensing a theme, you’re right. The Red Sox were first in baseball in runs, batting average, slugging percentage and on base percentage; they scored 878 runs, and finished with a staggering plus-184 run differential. With role players like Brock Holt, Travis Shaw, the resurgent lefty-crusher Chris Young, and athletic rookie Andrew Benintendi, the Sox present a daunting combination of speed, power and athleticism that would make most pitchers cringe.

The Red Sox’ run differential is also the result of surprisingly good pitching. The Sox were tied for 5th in baseball with 87 quality starts, and were 7th in batting average against as well as 9th in ERA and WHIP. Rick Porcello, who will lead the series off, went 22-4 with a 3.15 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP. Porcello has always been viewed as talented, but has largely been up and down in his seven-year career; this year, he’s in the conversation for the AL Cy Young Award. David Price‘s strong season is more consistent with his career numbers, but he’s no longer as consistently dominant as in past years; still, he went 17-9 with 228 strikeouts, and produced a number of outings that were reminiscent of his previous ace status. The biggest caveat regarding Price is is 5.12 career postseason ERA in 8 starts and 14 appearances, and if Porcello doesn’t hold serve in the opener, this could spell trouble for the Sox. Drew Pomeranz has been solid as the third starter, while Clay Buchholz and lefty Eduardo Rodriguez are highly talented but less than consistent from one outing to the next; fortunately, the Red Sox’ bullpen, which struggled for much of the season, has been strengthened by the addition of Brad Ziegler. He and Koji Uehara set up closer Craig Kimbrel, who isn’t as automatic as he seemed with the Atlanta Braves but still held down 38 saves on the season. Meanwhile, Ziegler has saved 22 games of his own. Knuckleballer Steven Wright, who went 13-6 with a 3.33 ERA as another pleasant surprise amid the Red Sox’ rotation, hopes to return soon from a shoulder injury sustained during the home stretch.

Cleveland is one of baseball's hardest teams to put away, especially at home.
Cleveland is one of baseball’s hardest teams to put away, especially in their home ballpark.

The 94-67 Cleveland Indians won the AL Central, and for a while looked like a team of destiny. They sported a plus-101 run differential, and were 5th overall in runs scored, 6th in batting average, 8th in on base percentage, and 9th in slugging percentage. While they haven’t got a superstar of the magnitude of Papi, but led by slugging second baseman Jason Kipnis and first base-DH hybrids Carlos Santana and Mike Napoli, the Cleveland offense packs a punch of its own. Lonnie Chisenhall is a lefty roleplayer capable of power surges, while veteran Rajai Davis and rookie Tyler Naquin–who hit a walkoff inside-the-park home run this season–combine speed with occasional home run power in the outfield. The left side of the infield is patrolled by Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, two dynamic rookies who both hit over .300 with double-digit homers and 19 and 22 stolen bases, respectively. Moreover, similar to the Red Sox, the Indians have been the comeback kids all season, especially at home, where they went 53-28 (incidentally, the same home record as the Texas Rangers). They don’t only rely on offense and resilience, though: the Indians’ pitching staff was one of the most talented in baseball, with four starters capable of delivering a double-digit strikeout start. Unfortunately, as with the New York Mets, their formidable rotation has been beset by injury.

Due to injuries to the rest of the staff, Trevor Bauer gets the start in the opening game. Bauer is talented, and has struck out as many as 13 in a game this season, but he struggles with control at times and can be hittable. He sports a 4.26 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP, and the Indians hope he can settle in to start their series off on the right foot. Carlos Carrasco, their number two starter for much of the year, is on the 60-day disabled list with a broken pitching hand; Carrasco was electric at times, striking out 150 in 146 innings and pitching to the tune of a 3.32 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. Corey Kluber, winner of the 2014 AL Cy Young, left his last start with quad tightness; he was the team’s ace for much of the year, striking out 228 batters while finishing with a 3.14 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. The Indians are hoping he’ll be able to make a start over the weekend. Danny Salazar, another electric talent who struck out 161 in 137 innings, is on the disabled list with an elbow strain. This leaves Mike Clevinger, Cody Anderson and Josh Tomlin to pick up the slack; while all three are serviceable, none provides the threat potential of the rising stars who are on the mend. The Indians’ saving grace might turn out to be their bullpen, which has been strong all year and which manager Terry Francona mixes and matches effectively and not always by the book. Cody Allen was quietly one of baseball’s most reliable closers, saving 32 games while finishing with a 2.51 ERA and an even 1.00 WHIP.

If there’s an x-factor in this series, aside from Cleveland’s ailing staff, it could be Cleveland’s home field advantage. The Indians are extremely tough to beat at home, and the Believeland crowd really brings the noise late in games. This will be a close, exciting series, but unless the Cleveland rotation can return to form, the Red Sox’ firepower might propel them to the next round.

Prediction: Red Sox in 5


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