It's once again time for baseball's annual installment of Heartbreak Theater, as a team that has never won a championship in its brief existence faces off against a team that hasn't won since 1948 despite putting together some excellent editions (as well as some abjectly miserable ones) in the interim. Both teams are deserving of lovable underdog status, but only one will move on.
How did they get here?
The Rays just completed their sixth straight season over .500 and their fifth season in six of 90 or more wins, a feat all the more extraordinary for a payroll that has crested at about $72 million. The last time the Yankees had a payroll that low was 1998, and even that was higher relative to the league, ranking second that year. Given that background, this is exactly where they should be.
On another level, this is a team that struggled with consistency all season long, opening 5-10 and posting losing records in three months of the season. We can never know for sure, but the decision to keep offseason acquisition Wil Myers on the farm into mid-June might have had an outsized impact on their season. Outside of an August slump, he gave the team a second top-flight hitter to complement Evan Longoria in a way that protected the team from the more transient success of hitters like James Loney (.315/.366/.466 first half, .276/.322/.378 second half) and Kelly Johnson (.244/.320/.442 first half, .213/.267/.333 second half) and offset Ben Zobrist's vanishing power (.127 isolated power in 2013 after averaging .201 in 2011-2012).
Wil Myers (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
While the bullpen suffered some predictable regression from 2012, it was injuries in the starting rotation that were a real drag on the team. Defending AL Cy Young Award-winner David Price carried a 5.00 ERA into May before disappearing for 44 games with a triceps strain. Matt Moore, who looked like he might challenge for a Cy Young of his own in the early going missed a month with elbow inflammation. Alex Cobb, having a breakout campaign of his own, was sidelined for two months after taking an Eric Hosmer liner to the head. His 2.41 ERA in nine starts after returning add a heroic cast to his season. Chris Archer, one of the fruits of the Matt Garza deal, has also proved essential to shoring up the staff.
The Starter: Alex Cobb
Cobb has the Greg Maddux, Jr. kick to his pitching, getting both strikeouts and a bunch of grounders. Given his long time out to recover from his concussion, he didn't qualify for the league leaderboards, but had he done so he would have ranked second in ground out to fly out ratio and third in overall ground ball/fly ball. (One pitcher ahead of him on both lists: Justin Masterson, who will be in the Cleveland pen for this series.) This plays to the Rays' strengths -- they finished the season in a virtual tie with the A's for the league lead in defensive efficiency, the percentage of balls in play a team turns into outs. This makes for an interesting collision with the Indians, who are a hard team to double up (see below for more).
Strength: Overall offense
The Rays have exactly one soft spot in their lineup, catcher, and even that wasn't terrible this year because Jose Lobaton hit a bit (compare their overall production at the position to that of the Yankees, Blue Jays, Mariners, or White Sox). Maybe Longoria and Myers are the only hitters that can frighten an opponent in the Miguel Cabrera sense of fear, but the rest are six other guys who aren't pushovers. The Rays have this in common with the Indians, who posted almost the same offensive stats on the season but lack game-changing players on the order of the future Hall of Famer and the great rookie.
Evan Longoria ( Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports )
As you page down, you'll see the same weakness listed for the Indians; these really are closely matched clubs in a lot of ways. A year ago, Fernando Rodney had saved 48 games in 50 chances and allowed just five earned runs all season. He allowed five times as many this year and blew eight of 45 chances, a conversion rate that ranked 28th out of the 32 major league pitchers who had 20 or more save opportunities this year. Rodney had unusual control last year, and he went back to his wild ways this season, walking 36 batters in 66-2/3 innings. He was still quite hard on right-handers this year (.169/.250/.288), but left-handers had an easier time of it, hitting .248/.363/.353, numbers more or less in line with his career rates. The Indians, with seven left-handers or switch-hitters in their starting lineup, won't be giving up the platoon too often.
How Did They Get Here?
For the Indians, it goes back to the decision to sack Manny Acta and hire veteran skipper Terry Francona in the offseason. The impact of the Xs-and-O's, in-game aspect of managing is overrated, but the ability to sort out a winning combination from an inchoate roster is one of the places a manager can truly make a difference. Francona began with a great many outfielders, none of whom had any power, a bat-first catcher, a first baseman who had mostly played right field for the previous five years, and a pitching staff with no definitive ace -- the team was betting on a Scott Kazmir comeback, which seemed about as likely as an Elvis comeback.
The Indians bounced around a lot in the standings, an inconsistency befitting their roster. No position player had a truly consistent year; even second baseman Jason Kipnis, having a breakout season, dropped off in the second half. The Indians repeatedly challenged for first place in the AL Central, even getting there a couple of times, most recently in early July. The one obstacle was the Detroit Tigers. Given a chance to assert themselves in head to head matchups, the Indians were repeatedly brushed aside by Jim Leyland's team. Playing the rest of the league, the Indians went 88-55, tantamount to a 100-win pace. They went 4-15 against the Tigers, which is like being turned into the 1962 Mets -- on a bad day.
Jason Kipnis (Hannah Foslien)
Francona was tinkering throughout. A key change came around the two-thirds mark of the season when the catching load began to shift. Through July 31, Yan Gomes had started only 41 of 107 games (and hit .291/.325/.520 in the process). Thereafter, he started 39 of the remaining 55 (71 percent) including 22 of 27 in September. (.297/.364/.441). The Indians, helped by a soft schedule, went 21-6 on the month. Not only was the staff ERA half a run lower with Gomes catching (no doubt helped by the schedule), he threw out 41 percent of attempting basestealers versus just 18 percent for Santana.
Francona wasn't perfect, but his willingness to shift one of his best players out of his accustomed defensive role showed a flexibility that a lot of managers wouldn't have had. As for Scott Kazmir, he posted a 3.38 ERA with a strikeout-walk ratio of nearly five to one in the second half.
The Indians will bet their season on a 23-year-old rookie, albeit one who throws 96 miles per hour. Signed out of the Dominican Republic when he was 16, the Indians nursed Salazar along for seven years, through growing pains and Tommy John surgery, not to mention the junior prom and that time Fonzie was in a coma after trying to jump his motorcycle over all those trashcans. Salazar vaulted past the more highly touted Trevor Bauer with a strong 14-game audition at Triple-A, not only striking out 78 batters in 59-1/3 innings, but walking only 14 along the way. He showed roughly that same control in the majors, but note that that didn't mean that pitch counts didn't get away from him at times -- as a strikeout pitcher, he tends to burn through his bullets fairly quickly. Francona also had a very fast hook where the kid was concerned, with the result that he had games in which he allowed one run and struck out eight -- in four innings.
The tendency to yank Salazar early may be a bit more dangerous for Cleveland right now than at any other time of year. With Chris Perez removed from the closer's spot, Francona may feel he has to hold one of his better relievers for late in the game, exposing the team in the middle innings. Then again, Francona has already said he's willing to use Masterson for three innings at a time out of the pen if need be, which could alleviate any issue brought on by a short Salazar start -- just because Masterson isn't stretched out for starting doesn't mean he needs to be held to regular relief loads.
Danny Salazar (USA TODAY Sports)
Strengths: Patience and speed.
The Indians' overall offense was merely solid -- in fact, it was very similar to that of the Rays. The Indians hit .257/.329/.410 and their opponents hit .257/.329/.408; park adjustments don't do much to alter the sameness of those statistics. On a rate basis, the Rays were the most patient team in the league, walking in 9.4 percent of their plate appearances, but the Indians were for all intents and purposes about the same, walking in 9.1 percent of theirs. Cleveland had three players draw over 70 walks on the season, and only third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall and utilityman Mike Aviles were really opposed to taking ball four at a decent rate.
While no one on the Indians really had a big, MVP-style year, no one was really miserable either, with the possible exceptions of designated hitter/tranquility coach Jason Giambi and Aviles. While they weren't exactly a Whitey Herzog-style club, they also had good team speed, making them one of the hardest teams on the circuit to double up. The Indians grounded into only 106 double plays and tied for the lowest rate in the league.
Cody Allen (Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports )
Chris Perez had a rough year, what with rotator-cuff tendinitis, five blown saves in 30 chances, and having his dog busted for mail-ordering some pot. As mentioned above, he was deposed as closer at the end of the season. While the Indians have several effective arms in the pen, including sidewinder Joe Smith and the fireballing Cody Allen, when relievers are asked to do things in the playoff pressure situations it has a way of backfiring. According to MLB.com, "Indians general manager Chris Antonetti quipped on Tuesday that he had to talk Francona down from a 24-man pitching staff." That hints at the insecurity Francona is feeling, as does the decision to carry situational lefty Rich Hill and his engorged ERA.