This is what you play for. After 162 regular season games, both the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians won their respective divisions. Thanks to the Red Sox dropping five of their final six regular season games, the Indians will have home field advantage for the best-of-five American League Divisional Series.
How do these two teams break down? Who will ultimately come out on top?
Let’s break it down.
Offense: Advantage Red Sox
The Cleveland Indians ended up having a much better offense than many would have predicted prior to the start of the season.
Among their American League peers, the Indians were second in runs scored (777,) fourth in team ops (.759,) fourth in team batting average (.262,) and seventh in total bases (2356.) Those are all impressive numbers.
Cleveland got career years out of Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana. Rajai Davis led the AL in stolen bases, outfielder Tyler Naquin will garner some AL rookie of the year votes. Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez had breakout seasons and second baseman Jason Kipnis was once again among the better hitting AL second basemen.
As good as all of that sounds and it is good, it isn’t on the level of the Red Sox.
The Red Sox led the league in runs scored with 878, led in team ops with .810, first in team batting average at .282, and first in total bases with 2,615.
Red Sox fans know the deal. David Ortiz and Mookie Betts will both finish top 5 in the AL MVP voting. Either one of them could end up winning the award. Hanley Ramirez joins Ortiz and Betts to finish in the top 5 in RBI’s. Ortiz tied for first with 127, Betts fourth with 113 and Ramirez fifth at 111.
Betts, Ortiz and second baseman Dustin Pedroia all finished top 5 in batting. Pedroia and Betts tied for second at. 318, Ortiz tied for fifth at .315.
There’s plenty of power in that Red Sox lineup. Ortiz hit 38 home runs, Betts hit 31 and Ramirez hit 30 round trippers. Jackie Bradley Jr chipped in with 26 long balls and Xander Bogaerts hit 21 home runs.
Catcher Sandy Leon was a surprise strength both in the field and at the plate. Rookie Andrew Benintendi looks like a very promising young left fielder, and in spite of a second half slump, Travis Shaw still finished the season with respectable numbers.
The Red Sox also led the league in batting average with runners in scoring position at .283 and led the league in road batting average at .264. That’s something to keep in mind as not only do the Indians have home field advantage, but they were dead last in the AL (.236) in road batting average.
Starting Pitching: Advantage Red Sox
If everyone was healthy, then Cleveland would have an advantage here, but everyone is not healthy. Boston has a fatigued Drew Pomeranz and a rehabbing Steven Wright, but that’s nothing compared to what Cleveland has to deal with.
Cleveland had the best starting rotation in the American League. That was before two of their best three starters got hurt.
Former Cy Young winner Corey Kluber is still healthy, and he’ll present the Red Sox lineup with a real challenge in Game 2. Rather than sending Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco to the mound for Games 1 and 3, Indians manager Terry Francona will have to go with the mercurial Trevor Bauer and the long-ball prone Josh Tomlin.
Carrasco won’t be healthy until next spring. Salazar could be back for the ALCS, but the Indians will have to get past the best offense in the majors without him first.
The Red Sox get to send Cy Young favorite Rick Porcello to the mound in Game 1. David Price is coming off an inconsistent regular season, but he’s still a tough Game 2 starter. Clay Buchholz and Eduardo Rodriguez will start Games 3 and 4.
Cleveland’s injuries have turned what most would have assumed to be the team’s greatest strength into arguably their biggest weakness, especially against the potent lineup of the Red Sox.
Bullpen: Advantage Cleveland
The Red Sox bullpen isn’t bad. Veterans Koji Uehara and Brad Ziegler have both bounced back from midseason injuries and both had very good Septembers.
Closer Craig Kimbrel is a big concern. The once-dominant closer is coming off the worst regular season of his career. Unlike his veteran peers, he didn’t finish strong, he elevated his earned run average nearly a full run over the final two weeks of the season.
The Red Sox toyed with two lefty specialists over the final months of the season. Both Fernando Abad and Robby Scott got looks, but ultimately neither of them were placed on the team’s ALDS roster.
Instead the Red Sox will likely deploy a collection of former starters. Joe Kelly, Drew Pomeranz and Matt Barnes have all been starters at one point. Kelly started the 2016 season as a part of the Red Sox rotation and Pomeranz was acquired in July to bolster the rotation. Barnes was a starter as a minor leaguer.
Robbie Ross Jr is the likely lefty specialist option for manager John Farrell who would love to not have to use his bullpen too early or too often.
The Indians are a bit different. Terry Francona doesn’t always want to go to the bullpen, but he’ll feel a lot better about doing it than Farrell will.
Why wouldn’t he?
Francona has a two-headed monster at the back of his bullpen in the form of righty Cody Allen (32 saves, 2.51 ERA,) and lefty Andrew Miller (3 saves, 1.55 ERA and 46 K’s in 29ip.) Cleveland also has Dan Otero, Zach McAllister, and Bryan Shaw as above average, late-inning options.
Baserunning: Advantage Cleveland
The reality as any Red Sox fan knows, is that the Red Sox have made a habit of running into too many outs. They’re not awful on the base paths and they’ve been good as far as stealing bases goes. The Red Sox were sixth in the AL in stolen bases with 83 and second in stolen base success rate at 77.57 percent.
The problem is that the Cleveland Indians were first in both categories. No team in the AL stole more bases than Cleveland’s 134 and no team was more successful at stealing bases than the Indians at 81.21 percent.
Both teams will likely find some success on the base paths but the Red Sox need to be more careful about avoiding failures.
Fielding: Advantage Red Sox
Here’s a big plus for the Red Sox, they’ve got a fielding advantage. The Red Sox had the second fewest amount of errors (76) in the AL this season. Cleveland made 89 errors this season. Not a ton more, but enough to make a difference.
Cleveland allowed 59 unearned runs, while the Red Sox allowed 54.
According to FanGraphs.com the two teams are nearly neck-and-neck when it comes to overall defense. But I’ll give a slight edge to the Red Sox especially with Sandy Leon gunning down runners throughout most of the second half of the season.
Manager: Advantage Cleveland
I’m not a member of the “Fire Farrell” crowd. I’ve certainly been critical of him at times, and there were times when I thought he might end up getting fired, but that doesn’t mean I ever whole-heartily endorsed his firing.
In spite of all the criticism, and Farrell has dealt with mountains of it. He’s done a very admirable job this year. Not only has he had to consistently deflect all the on-line, in-print, talk-radio and television critics, he’s also had to deal with a fairly challenging season of actual baseball.
Even if you’re the biggest John Farrell fan, it is hard to see how Cleveland doesn’t have an advantage here.
Terry Francona has tons of experience and his postseason success has been well-documented, especially among Red Sox fans. It is time to recognize his success in Cleveland.
Managing a team with a lower payroll, in a competitive division and with a set of historical burdens not all that different from the ones Francona encountered when he became the manager of the Boston Red Sox, Francona’s Cleveland teams have flourished.
He’s been able to get career years out of veterans like Carlos Santana and Mike Napoli. The Indians found a way to finish with the second best record in the AL in spite of missing two of their best three starting pitchers for most of the second half of the season.
The Indians were predicted to be a very good team this year, but everyone thought they’d win on the strength of their starting pitchers, instead they ended up winning with a deep bullpen and an offense that exceeded everyone’s expectations.
A lot of the credit should go to the players, but it is important to acknowledge that Terry Francona led teams have made a habit of exceeding expectations and this year’s squad is no exception.
Prediction: Red Sox in 4
There’s reasons for the Red Sox to be concerned, but the reality is that Cleveland needed home field more than the Red Sox did. The Red Sox were one of the best road teams in the AL, while Cleveland really struggled away from their home ball park.
Look for the Red Sox to take one of two in Cleveland and then return home where their bats will help put away Cleveland in games three and four.