The Cleveland Indians have been in first place in the AL Central since their sixth game of the season, despite the fact that neither their offense (.324 team wOBA, which is pretty good in the current depressed 2011 hitting environment, but nothing extraordinary) or pitching staff (a middling 3.89 team ERA, 7th-best in the AL) appears to be particularly imposing on paper — save for Asdrubal Cabrera, who has come out of nowhere (.301 wOBA in 2010) to post an 9th-best-in-the-American-League .391 wOBA.
Given that most prognosticators pegged the Indians for a 4th- or 5th-place finish in 2011, the Tribe’s early season run has caught many by surprise, though it appears that the team might finally be coming back down to earth. After finishing April with a mighty 18-8 record, the Indians played near-.500 ball in May (14-12) before hitting the skids in June (2-6).
Staff “ace” Justin Masterson appears to have finally reached his potential, having pitched to a fine 3.18 ERA/3.12 FIP/3.52 xFIP worth 2.0 fWAR, but nothing about the sinkerballing Masterson’s profile screams “head for the hills.” He doesn’t strike a ton of guys out (6.26 K/9), doesn’t have an overly impressive BB/9 (2.77) and gives up his share of hits on ball in play (.314 BABIP), though that’s not terribly surprising for a groundball pitcher like Masterson (55% GB%). While the GB% is nice, it’s actually lower than last season’s and isn’t quite the rate at which I think we’ve come to expect from the creme de la creme of sinkerballers, which I would unscientifically define as around 60%. The righty Masterson still has a pretty pronounced platoon split — though he’s been death on righties (.194 AVG, 2.71 FIP, zero home runs allowed in 35 innings), he still hasn’t quite mastered lefties, who hit him at a .309 clip and who he’s recorded a 3.46 FIP against).
In a way, Masterson’s profile reminds me a lot of Chien-Ming Wang, only with slightly fewer ground balls (Wang had a career 60% GB%) and more strikeouts. Wang also had more trouble with lefties as well, but was equally adept at limiting the long ball, which Masterson has done quite well this year (0.34 HR/9; 2nd-lowest in the American League). In addition to a decent sinker (3.6 runs above average), the other primary reason for Masterson’s success has been his complementary weapon, a strong slider (3.7 runs above average, 8th in the AL). At Wang’s peak in 2007, his sinker was worth 13 runs above average and his slider was 10.4 runs above average.
Of course, after spending all of this time on Masterson, it turns out the Yankees won’t even be seeing him this weekend.
The remainder of the Indians’ rotation really isn’t terribly exciting:
While this Indians pitching staff seems to do a reasonable-enough job limiting walks, they also don’t strike anyone out. Carmona’s getting his groundballs (58% GB%), but outside of his changeup (2.2 runs above average) he really isn’t fooling anyone.
The starter who probably has the best overall repertoire is — shudder –good old righthanded junkballer Josh Tomlin and his blazingly fast 87mph fastball, who for all intents and purposes drove me insane after he shut the Yankees down in his Major League debut last July. Carlos Carrasco has a pretty decent changeup, which doesn’t necessarily bode well for the Yankees, who are at -5.0 runs above average against the change, but fortunately he doesn’t seem to be overwhelmingly good at everything else. Again, Tomlin’s cutter and curve, which are both above-average pitchers for him as well as pitch types the Yankees have also struggled against this season (-3.1 and -5.0 runs above average, respectively), would appear to make him the Cleveland pitcher with the best chance of shutting the Yankees down this weekend.
So how then have the Indians managed to remain in first place with what appears to be one of the more mediocre pitching staffs in the league? It certainly helps to have a strong bullpen that ranks 2nd in the AL in ERA (3.25) and 5th in FIP (3.60), even if they have perhaps been a tad lucky (4.11 xFIP). Vinnie Pestano in particular is having a scary-good season, boasting a K/9 of 11.57 and a triple slash of 1.29/2.27/2.63. Given the Yankees’ difficulty with hitting teams’ bullpens all season-long, expect Pestano to shut the Bombers down. Fortunately, the Yankees can counter with what has been to date the finest relief corps in the league.
In tonight’s kick off of the Yankees’ second four-gamer of the season at home (it would’ve been their third had one of the games against the Twins not been rained out), the Bombers will trot out Ivan Nova (4.50 ERA/4.29 FIP/4.69 xFIP) to face Fausto Carmona. Carmona saw the Yankees twice last season and was OK the first time out (4 ER in 6 innings) and got absolutely bombed the second time around (7 runs in just 2.2 innings). Let’s hope for something like the latter outing this time around.
The Saturday afternoon game (this is, believe it or not, the Yankees’ first Saturday afternoon at 1pm start since April 16 against the Rangers) has Mitch Talbot going against Bartolo Colon (3.39 ERA/3.48 FIP/2.99 xFIP). Not to dump on the guy, but Mitch Talbot truly is the definition of a mediocre pitchers, and the Yankees simply have to beat up on the Indians’ weakest starter in this game.
The Sunday matinee features Freddy Garcia (3.77 ERA/4.75 FIP/4.16 xFIP) against Certified Yankee-Killer Josh Tomlin. Tomlin of course pitched that gem against the Yankees in his MLB debut last July, and his Game Score of 69 in that outing is still a career-high (he did match it in a start against the Reds back in May).
And in the Monday evening finale, the Yankees will face Carlos Carrasco, who will be opposed by A.J. Burnett (4.37/4.60/4.06). PITCHER THE YANKEES HAVE NEVER SEEN ALERT. Between Carrasco having been the Indians’ second-best starter this season and him being new to the Yankees, this game has disaster written all over it.
After another ridiculously disappointing series against the Red Sox, the Yankees really need to right the ship against the Indians. Not that Cleveland is a pushover team by any stretch, but they’ve pretty clearly been playing over their heads for much of the season, and the Bombers have to get better pitching performances and more timely hitting to help reestablish their credibility at home. The Yankees used to feel invincible at Yankee Stadium, and they’ve already lost 16 home games after losing 29 all of last season. I know they’ve played a ton at home, but they still need to be better than that. Following the historical embarrassment of two straight three-game sweeps by Boston at home, the Yankees simply have to win three of four this weekend.
Play today, win today. Das it.
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