ALDS preview: Yankees, Indians out to prove which bullpen is best

The New York Yankees relied heavily on their bullpen to advance to the American League Division Series. The Cleveland Indians rode Andrew Miller and Cody Allen all the way to the World Series in 2016. Now, we finally get to see whose relievers are better.

In fairness, both teams are equipped with more than just late-inning saviors. The Yankees bring the immense power of Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez to the table, while Cleveland boasts Edwin Encarnacion, Francisco Lindor and a healthy Michael Brantley. Oh, and their pitching staff has both Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco healthy this time.

Focusing solely on bullpens may overstate the case, but both managers have shown a willingness to ride their relievers at the first sign of danger. Even if Corey Kluber and Carrasco dominate, you can expect to see a heavy dose of Miller and Allen. On the other side, Joe Girardi may have to copy Terry Francona’s strategy from last postseason, especially if ace Luis Severino falters like he did in the AL wild-card game.

SCHEDULE
Game 1: Thursday, Oct. 5, in Cleveland, 7:38 p.m. ET (TV coverage on FS1)
Game 2: Friday, Oct. 6, in Cleveland, 5:08 p.m. ET (MLB Network)
Game 3: Sunday, Oct. 8, in New York, 7:38 p.m. ET (FS1)
Game 4*: Monday, Oct. 9, in New York, time TBD (FS1)
Game 5*: Wednesday, Oct. 11, in Cleveland, time TBD (FS1)
*if necessary

PREVIOUSLY
The two teams met seven times in 2017. Cleveland triumphed, winning five of those games. The Tribe split a four-game set at home, but swept New York on the road.

The last time the two teams met in the postseason, Cleveland defeated New York 3-1 in the 2007 ALDS. That matchup will have no bearing on the 2017 meeting. The only player from that series who will reprise his role is CC Sabathia, and he plays for New York this time around.

Sonny Gray will take on Trevor Bauer in Game 1 of the ALDS. (Photos via AP)

PITCHING
Game 1: Trevor Bauer (17-9, 4.19 ERA) vs. Sonny Gray (10-12, 3.55 ERA)
Game 2: Corey Kluber (18-4, 2.25 ERA) vs. CC Sabathia (14-5, 3.69 ERA)
Game 3: Carlos Carrasco (18-6, 3.29 ERA) vs. Masahiro Tanaka (13-12, 4.74 ERA)
Game 4*: Josh Tomlin (10-9, 4.98 ERA) vs. Luis Severino (14-6, 2.98 ERA)
Game 5*: Corey Kluber (18-4, 2.25 ERA) vs. TBD
*if necessary

Cleveland is making the bold move of starting Bauer in Game 1. Francona rationalized the move by saying it would keep Kluber on his normal five-day schedule. The move has a couple other advantages as well. Bauer won’t pitch at homer-happy Yankee Stadium, and putting him in Game 1 prevents Francona from possibly exhausting his bullpen the day before Tomlin starts. While Tomlin will “start” Game 4, that’s probably going to turn into a bullpen game. So … that’s how you talk yourself into starting Bauer Game 1.

On the Yankees’ side, newly-acquired Sonny Gray gets the call in Game 1. Gray saw his numbers decline slightly after joining New York, mostly due to an elevated home-run total. He allowed eight of his 11second-halff home runs at Yankee Stadium, so having him pitch on the road could be a wise decision. He’ll be followed by a surprisingly resurgent CC Sabathia in a game that will pit a former Cleveland Cy Young winner against a current Cleveland Cy Young winner in Corey Kluber. After that, Masahiro Tanaka will go in Game 3 and Severino will return for Game 4.

Cleveland didn’t have Carlos Carrasco around last postseason. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

THREE KEYS FOR CLEVELAND
Stay healthy:
Obvious? Yes. Important? Also yes. Francona took Cleveland deep into the postseason last year by riding his relievers. That was a necessity, because Salazar and Carrasco were down, and Bauer’s drone grounded him. Miller and Allen were fantastic, but possibly overworked. Francona shouldn’t have to do that this time around if everyone stays healthy. If Francona has a completely fresh bullpen throughout the postseason, it’s hard to see anyone but Cleveland hoisting the World Series trophy.

Quick hook: Unless Francona forgot everything about last October, this should be a given. Francona utilized a quick hook with most of his starters last season, and he better be willing to do the same this time around. Cleveland’s bullpen remains a major weapon, so he shouldn’t hesitate to take out a clearly struggling Bauer or Tomlin in the first inning. Not overworking his pen will be an issue, but Francona has both Kluber and Carrasco to presumably go deep in games this time around.

It’s not just about pitching: Cleveland’s staff is great, but it’s not like their offense is full of scrubs. Cleveland ranked sixth in runs, and have players capable of both immense power and speed. The lineup is patient, tying for third in walk rate, but doesn’t strike out. Cleveland ranked next to last in the majors with an 18.5 whiff rate. To borrow a phrase from opposing manager Joe Girardi, “it’s what you want.”

Joe Girardi will have to be aggressive in the ALDS. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

THREE KEYS FOR NEW YORK
Remember the wild-card game: 
The Yankees have to hope Girardi doesn’t have a short memory. If the team has a weakness, it’s probably starting pitching. Though, we should note their starters combined for a 3.98 ERA, fifth best in the league. Still, we know the bullpen is the Yankees’ strength. Girardi needs to follow his blueprint from the American League wild-card game. If a starter struggles early, he needs to be willing to pull the plug.

Everybody keep calm: The Yankees exceeded expectations this season due to their youngsters. You would think nerves could be an issue, though that myth was met with mixed results in the wild-card game. Severino struggled, but Judge hit a home run and Gary Sanchez remained on the field despite taking a hit to a sensitive area. Getting Severino back on track would be huge, but making sure the moment doesn’t get too big for any of the team’s first-timers will be key.

Use Aroldis Chapman properly: Girardi was willing to let all of his relievers throw multiple innings in the AL wild-card game … except Chapman. That was probably the right call. The reliever criticized Joe Maddon during the offseason for leaving in Game 6 of the World Series too long. Chapman said he was tired for Game 7, in which he gave up a game-tying home run. Girardi can lean on his other relievers for multiple innings, but he should limit Chapman to just one unless he knows he can get the reliever enough rest.

Trevor Bauer gets the call in Game 1 of the ALDS. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)

FIVE IMPORTANT NUMBERS

  • 4 2/3: Trevor Bauer’s longest postseason outing in 2016. That was before he cut his pinky on his drone. After the injury, Bauer made it four innings before getting pulled. Game 1 could get turned over to the bullpen quickly.
  • 0: Number of times Kluber and Judge have faced off. Arguably the best player on each team have never gone up against each other. Whoever can figure the other out first could have a big advantage.
  • 1.41: Andrew Miller’s ERA in 19 1/3 innings in the 2016 postseason. He only gave up three runs, all of which came in the World Series. Other than that, he was flawless.
  • 0: Tweets from Larry King saying the Yankees are going to win this series. He felt pretty confident during the wild-card game, guaranteeing a Yankees’ victory. Not so much with the ALDS.
  • 20.6: Strikeout-to-walk rate for Cleveland’s pitchers. The team led the league in strikeout rate while posting the lowest walk rate among staffs. You have to earn your base against Cleveland, so the Yankees need to bring their bats if they want to win this series.

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Chris Cwik is a writer for Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at christophercwik@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!