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CSNChicago.com’s Dan Hayes and JJ Stankevitz saw plenty of the Cleveland Indians while covering the White Sox in 2016, and set their sights on what kind of a challenge the Tribe will provide the Cubs in the World Series.
The American League’s second-best offense has slowed down considerably in the postseason as its .635 OPS ranks seventh among 10 playoff teams in 2016. But the Indians have received enough clutch hitting from part-timer Coco Crisp and their star in the making, shortstop Francisco Lindor, to make the most of their stellar pitching in the playoffs.
In the regular season, the Indians finished second in the American League in runs scored (777) in part because of an aggressive approach on the base paths and even though the team’s best player, Michael Brantley, was limited to 43 plate appearances because of injury. The Indians ranked second in the majors in extra bases taken with 186, two ahead of the Cubs, according to baseball-reference.com. The team also finished second in the majors with an extra bases taken percentage of 45 and led the AL with 134 stolen bases in 165 tries (81 percent).
The offense is centered around designated hitter Carlos Santana, who blasted a career best 34 home runs and posted an .865 OPS. First baseman Mike Napoli and second baseman Jason Kipnis also established career highs in homers with 34 and 23, respectively. Kipnis finished with 68 extra-base hits, including 41 doubles.
Third baseman Jose Ramirez picked up much of the slack for a team that also was without projected outfielder Abraham Almonte for half the season because of a suspension for PEDs. Ramirez had 46 doubles among his 60 extra-base hits and produced an .825 OPS in an outstanding all-around campaign that could garner him a few MVP votes. Rookie Tyler Naquin also filled a big void in the outfield with 14 homers and 43 RBIs in 365 plate appearances.
So far, Indians manager Terry Francona has divided up the plate appearances among his outfielders in October. Only right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall has received consistent playing time as the Indians have platooned Crisp, Naquin, Rajai Davis, who stole 43 bases this season, and Brandon Guyer.
— Dan Hayes
Andrew Miller may be having the best postseason a relief pitcher has ever had. The big-ticket trade deadline acquisition threw 11 2/3 innings in the ALDS against the Boston Red Sox and ALCS against the Toronto Blue Jays, striking out 21 while allowing only five singles and two walks (that’s good for a laughable .132/.171/.184 opponent slash line). Manager Terry Francona hasn’t been shy about using Miller early in games, too — he inserted the 6-foot-7 lefty in the fifth inning of Cleveland’s ALDS Game 1 win over the Red Sox, and half of his six playoff appearances this year began in the sixth inning or earlier. Miller’s ability to throw multiple innings will put pressure on the Cubs to score early and often against the Indians’ rotation.
Francona’s willingness to use Miller early has been critical toward helping maximize the success of a starting rotation without two of its three best arms in the postseason. Carlos Carrasco (fractured gone in right hand) won’t pitch in the World Series, though Francona hinted that fellow right-handed All-Star Danny Salazar (strained flexor muscle in right forearm) could return to start in the World Series. Right-hander Trevor Bauer, who sliced his right pinky open while repairing his drone and only managed to record two outs before his finger gushed blood in Game 3 of the ALCS, will start Game 2 or 3.
With or without Salazar and/or Bauer, though, Cleveland’s rotation has been effective. Corey Kluber is the unquestioned ace of the staff and allowed only two runs over 18 1/3 innings in three postseason starts, which stands as a continuation of his strong regular season numbers (18-9, 215 IP, 3.14 ERA, 3.26 FIP). Josh Tomlin has had a short rope, only throwing 10 2/3 innings in his two starts, but allowed three runs in that span with 10 strikeouts and three walks. Rookie left-hander Ryan Merrett threw 4 2/3 shutout innings in a clinching Game 5 win over the Blue Jays last week, too, showing no signs of “shaking in his boots” in his first postseason start.
The rest of Cleveland’s bullpen — which tied for the second-best ERA in the American League (3.45) in the regular season — has found success in addition to Miller in the playoffs. Hard-throwing closer Cody Allen has looked unflappable in five save opportunities, allowing five hits and three walks with 12 strikeouts. Right-handers Dan Otero (3.1 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 1 K) and Bryan Shaw (5.2 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 5 K, 1 HR) have been go-to options if Miller can’t bridge the gap between the starting pitcher and Allen, too.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that Cleveland has found pitching success in the playoffs, even with so many injuries, given their 3.86 staff ERA ranked 7th in baseball.
— JJ Stankevitz
Nobody has been as outstanding of a defensive team as the Cubs in 2016. But, the Indians are still near the top of the second tier team and have proven a remarkably improved squad over the past two seasons. Much of their improvement stems from the stellar play provided by Lindor, who ranked second in the majors in Ultimate Zone Rating (20.8) among shortstops and fourth in Defensive Runs Saved with 17, according to fangraphs.com. Combined with Kipnis, who ranked sixth in UZR (7.3) among second baseman, the Indians have a strong double play combo. Ramirez also proved to be a steady defender at third base after taking over as the full-timer following the release of Juan Uribe.
Though the club has missed the presence of starting catcher Yan Gomes, it has handled his absence extremely well. Not only does replacement Roberto Perez rate among the game’s best pitch framers, he also threw out 13 of 26 runners who attempted to steal a base with him behind the dish.
— Dan Hayes
Francona won two World Series trophies with the Boston Red Sox, including the one in 2004 that ended that franchise’s 87-year title drought. He’s led Cleveland to two postseason berths since taking over in 2013, and the Tribe haven’t had a losing record in his four years at the helm.
The 57-year-old has been lauded for his aggressive use of Miller in the playoffs, deploying the lights-out lefty as a study bridge between a starting rotation beset by injuries and dominant closer Allen.
First baseman/catcher/designated hitter Santana is hardly a prototypical leadoff man, but he’s hit first in six of Cleveland’s eight games in the postseason after leading off 85 games in the regular season. And that’s the batting order position he’s been most effective from — In the regular season, Santana hit .260/.385/.502 with more walks (67) than strikeouts (60) as a leadoff man. Francona’s willingness to eschew stolen bases and speed on the base paths has put early pressure on starting pitchers by having Santana on base so frequently.
Said Cubs starter Jon Lester, who pitched for Francona in the Red Sox 2007 championship run: “I know that manager on their side’s going to be prepared, I know their coaching staff’s going to be ready.”
— JJ Stankevitz