Well, we’ve made it. The first baseball games of this year that truly matter are on the horizon.
The 2020 Major League Baseball season was about as 2020 as it could get. The season hung in jeopardy after only one weekend due to the first major COVID outbreak in American sports. Soon after, the Yankees were dealt punch after punch as the injury bug plagued their regular season once again. This time, however, unlike last year, there was no feel-good #NextManUp story to flaunt. There were losses. Many of them.
On the bright side, Luke Voit and DJ LeMahieu stepped up big-time for the Bombers this season, both in the absence of, and in the heart of, the Yankees’ ‘Death Star’ lineup, finishing with the home run crown and the batting title respectively. Both are likely guaranteed Top-5 MVP finishes. Aaron Judge was a frontrunner in the race before being snakebitten by some combination of bad luck, injury-susceptibility, and the gigantic dump that is Tropicana Field.
It didn’t matter who you asked at the beginning of the season—fans, experts, bettors, all expected the Yankees to win the division, probably lock up the AL 1 seed, and host the first round of the playoffs in the Bronx. None of that happened.
All said and done, the Yankees finished 33-27, good for second place in the AL East, seven games behind the Rays. Even though they’ve been fully healthy for about a week and a half, they enter the 2020 postseason on a cold streak, having lost six of their last eight. So the 60-game regular season could’ve been better, to say the least. But none of that matters anymore.
Even in a normal year, the postseason is a chance for a fresh start. It doesn’t matter how good you were in the regular season; everyone starts October at 0-0. The 2001 Mariners and 2019 Nationals will probably agree. Ask the Yankees if they care that they’re the AL’s fifth seed. You’ll get a short answer that rhymes with go. DJ LeMahieu summed it up well: “I think we have the best team in the league still. I don’t know why it was so up and down. I chalk it up to 2020 and I know in the playoffs, we’re going to be extremely focused and ready to go.”
So, sights set on Cleveland. What are we looking out for? In a best-of-3 rematch of the 2017 ALDS, the Yankees take on an Indians team that looks dangerous after two straight seasons of mediocrity, and another two of playoff chokes. Cleveland benefits immensely this year from the emergence of Cy Young lock Shane Bieber and the late-season resurgence of José Ramirez who’s apparently decided to play on Rookie this past September.
For the first time in what feels like forever, the Yankees have a true ace on the bump to kick off the postseason; Gerrit Cole will start Game 1 opposite Shane Bieber. Cole has been money in his last three starts, going 7 innings with one earned run or less, so he’s getting hot at exactly the right time. This coincides with him seemingly having found his groove with Kyle Higashioka, who figures to be his personal catcher throughout the playoffs. He faces off against Shane Bieber, who, unless you have been living under a rock, needs no introduction. Bieber is 8-1 with a 1.63 ERA and 122 strikeouts, and it would be a tall task to find a pitcher who’s having a more dominant 2020 campaign.
For Game 2, the Yankees turn to playoff god Masahiro Tanaka, who has had an above-average 2020, with a 3.56 ERA skewed by two bad starts. It might be appropriate to mention here, however, that Masahiro Tanaka has the lowest batting-average-against of any pitcher in baseball history. Playoff god indeed. He takes the bump opposite Carlos Carrasco, who had a great season himself to the tune of a 2.91 ERA (albeit sporting a 3.59 FIP).
The Yankees will turn to either JA Happ or Deivi García in Game 3. Happ, after having a dreadful start to the season, turned his fortunes around in a big way, pitching to a 2.45 ERA and 3.14 FIP in his last six starts. García had been solid since his debut but was lit up in his last two outings, giving up a combined 10 runs between the two.
As far as the lineups are concerned, the differences are almost unfair. The Yankees scored the most runs per game (5.25) out of all AL teams this season, and the Indians (4.13) finished better than only the Rangers. However, the Yankees’ home/road splits have been somewhat concerning this year, posting a well-below-average 86 wRC+ on the road compared to a 158 wRC+ at home. The two teams’ bullpens match up a little more closely—the Indians led the league in bullpen FIP and were third in bullpen ERA. Brad Hand and James Karinchak have both pitched their asses off, and the front-end of the bullpen, featuring Nick Wittgren and Phil Maton among others, has been solid too. The Yankees’ bullpen, missing key setup man Tommy Kahnle for all but one game in 2020, didn’t exactly live up to expectations this year, ranked tenth in the league in ERA and ninth in FIP. However, Chapman and Britton have been crazy good, with few outliers. Adam Ottavino had a pretty disastrous start to the season, but finished the season strong, rediscovering his strikeout pitch. Jonathan Loaisiga and Chad Green round out the middle-end for the Yankees, both having pitched pretty decently in 2020. Here’s a (very) far-fetched X-factor for the series: Matt Blake. The guy has probably worked with all of Cleveland’s kids extensively in the past. He probably knows them better than anyone else on Planet Earth.
Fans are going to want to hope that this team, especially the offense, which has been admittedly bipolar in 2020, shows up on the plus side for this series. This is likely the toughest pitching they are going to face these entire playoffs, but when this offense is fully and truly clicking, it could probably make Sandy Koufax sweat.
I don’t know about you guys, but we believe in this team.
Time to step up and become savages in that box.