October 6, 1998
Playoff Preview - Cleveland vs. New York
Our Appraisal of the American League Championship Series
(The Indian lineup is the one they use against lefthanders, which they will see in two of the first three games of the series. Against righties, Joey Cora plays second base and bats ninth, and Brian Giles bats seventh and plays either DH or left, shifting Justice to DH in the latter configuration.)
The Yankees had the best offense in the AL this year, in part due to a league-leading .364 OBP and 653 walks. Despite a so-so Division Series performance by the lineup, and the loss of LF/DH Darryl Strawberry to cancer surgery, there's no reason to expect the team to be shut down the way the Red Sox were. The balance--no hitter in the lineup was under a .350 OBP or a .270 EQA--is great insurance against slumps.
Note that Joe Girardi caught both Andy Pettitte and David Cone in the Division Series, and may continue to do so in the ALCS. Joe Torre's insistence on keeping his two starting backstops happy yields no gain behind, and a considerable loss at, the plate.
The Cleveland lineup is formidable, but the presence of out-machine Sandy Alomar and the middle infielders, none of whom are special with the stick, means it doesn't sustain innings as well as the Yankee nine. Its core is on par with the Yankees', however, and is a definite strength. Watch for Torre to be aggressive with his bullpen: the Indians platoon at two spots, and two other starters (Thome and Justice) will have some problems with left-handed relievers.
On balance, give the Yankees the edge, thanks to better depth 1-9. I expect them to score a considerable number of runs in this series.
The Indians' defense is an underrated contributor to their success. The infield, when Enrique Wilson plays, is excellent, and while Kenny Lofton has lost some range, he remains a good center fielder. Game 4 heroics aside, Dave Justice isn't anything special, and Manny Ramirez' strong arm doesn't make up for his problems getting a jump.
The Yankees are a veteran team defensively. They have players with unexceptional range, such as Paul O'Neill and Derek Jeter, who make the plays they get to. Jorge Posada has an excellent arm, which--when he plays--may be a factor in controlling Kenny Lofton.
Strong edge here to Cleveland.
For what it's worth:
The Yankees have the clear advantage here, helped along by Mike Hargrove's insistence on putting his second-best starter, Dave Burba, in the bullpen, and starting his fifth-best, Charles Nagy, in the second game.
Not that it would matter much. The gap here is huge, and while there will be a lot of discussion of Wright's strong performance against the Yankees in the 1997 Division Series, and the quality starts by Colon and Nagy against the Red Sox, this is a terrific mismatch. Expect the Yankees to control the first five innings of every game.
I will point out one potential chink: Orlando Hernandez. He did pitch well in his first start against Cleveland, but was touched up in their second matchup. His style and motion chew up right-handed hitters, but he can be susceptible to patient left-handed hitters, and the Indians have a number of those. If Cleveland can win even one of the first three games, I like their chances to make this a series in Game 4.
John Hart did an excellent job midseason, shoring up his bullpen with some excellent underrated and underperforming talent, and doing it cheaply. The Indians have had some of the best pens of the decade, and this one, while not the best, is another talented and effective collection. And as we saw in Game 4 of the Division Series, Mike Hargrove is more than willing to use all of the tools at his disposal.
Don't be fooled by the ERAs of Poole and Jones. Both pitched better down the stretch after joining the Indians, and are kept within their limits by Hargrove.
The Yankee bullpen is also deep, with the now-healthy Jeff Nelson and rotation expatriate Hideki Irabu. Joe Torre has the luxury of going deeper into the game with his starters, which lets him be aggressive about matchups late in the game because he usually only has to get 4-6 outs in front of Mariano Rivera.
For both teams, the pen is a strength. I would give the Indians the edge, however. Their best arms are better than the Yankees', and Hargrove knows how to use them.
The loss of Strawberry hurts the Yankees, but it does create more playing time for Everybody's Hero, Shane Spencer. Ricky Ledee, a similiar though lesser player than Strawberry, comes up to take the roster spot. The team continues to hamstring itself by carrying Luis Sojo, who serves no obvious purpose. I rarely propose carrying 11 pitchers in the postseason, but Darren Holmes would really be a better use of the roster spot. Hell, Larry Holmes might be. Or Oliver Wendell Holmes, who would at least provide some great post-game quotes. If he wasn't already dead, of course, which brings us back to what he has in common with Sojo's bat.
The Cleveland bench gets little use aside from their platoons, and that's a good thing, as the Indians have their own Girardi and Sojo, without the Raines and Curtis to go along. Hargrove is carrying 11 pitchers, but with the rotation he's got, you can't disagree with that decision. 15-1 against Branson and Diaz combining for 2 PA in the series.
Edge to the Yankees, but it doesn't matter much.
Picking a best-of-seven isn't done with much more confidence than a best-of-five. Once again, the Yankees have large advantages in scoring and preventing runs over their opponent, and it's easy to see how they should walk over the Tribe on their way to Atla...er, the World Series. But Eric Gregg could happen; Lenny Webster could happen; Jim Leyritz could happen.
I like the Indians to win Game 4 and one other. Yanks in six.