Under Major League Baseball’s current playoff format, the team that finishes with the best record in either league starts off the postseason with a significant advantage. Not only do those teams have home field advantage through the first two series, but they also face the winner of their league’s Wild Card Game. That Wild Card winner has (probably) burned their ace and a significant portion of their bullpen just to get to the Division Series, and thus has to fight from behind against a superior opponent.
The Cleveland Indians appear to be handing some of their inherent advantage back to the New York Yankees. Indians manager Terry Francona announced his ALDS starting rotation on Tuesday, and it’s... curious. Corey Kluber, the Indians’ unquestioned ace and AL Cy Young frontrunner, will start Game 2 on Friday. Cleveland’s Game 1 starter? Trevor Bauer, he of the 4.19 ERA in 176 1⁄3 innings this season. Carlos Carrasco will start Game 3, with Josh Tomlin tentatively slated for Game 4 if necessary.
This announcement rightfully drew a lot of eyebrows (and eye emojis) all over baseball. Bauer has been pitching well lately, with a 3.01 ERA and 3.68 FIP since the All-Star break. He has also demonstrated relatively significant home-road splits this year, so giving him a start at Progressive Field also makes sense. However, Kluber has arguably been the best pitcher in baseball this season, amassing 7.3 fWAR in just 29 starts. He led the American League with a 2.25 ERA, and held opponents to a 1.62 ERA after June 1. His strikeout and walk rates were step-for-step with Chris Sale, the only other pitcher who can hold a candle to his accomplishments this year.
Kluber was Cleveland’s workhorse last October as well, posting a 1.83 ERA in 34 1⁄3 innings. This was partially due to a limited roster — Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar were limited by injuries — but also because Kluber is still head and shoulders above anyone else on Cleveland’s staff.
While the Indians have a much healthier pitching staff heading into the playoffs this year, they should still look to use Kluber aggressively. He could start Game 5 on full rest after starting either Game 1 or 2, but could only start Game 4 of the ALDS on short rest if he starts Game 1 on Thursday. If he starts Game 2 (on Friday), the best the Indians could hope for in Game 4 (Monday) is a bullpen appearance.
This isn’t quite as problematic in a seven game series, but could prove fatal in the five-game ALDS. If the Indians fall behind 2-1, they would not be able to turn to their ace with their season on the line. We saw firsthand how dangerous the Yankees can be in Tuesday’s AL Wild Card Game, and I can’t imagine many Indians fans being all that comfortable with Bauer pitching at Yankee Stadium in a must-win situation.
Worse yet were Francona’s comments on the decision.
"Not that you go into a game thinking you're going to lose,” Francona told the media, “but if you do, you have your ace coming back."
This sounds like a more appropriate strategy for a team starting a series on the road. “Stealing” a game on the road to open up the series puts the underdog on level footing as they transition to their home ballpark for Games 3 and 4. Were the Indians playing in New York on Thursday and Friday, starting Kluber in Game 2 (presumably against a weaker starter*) would make more sense. At home, the Indians should play things a little more traditional.
*The Yankees have Masahiro Tanaka, Sonny Gray, and a still fresh Luis Severino at their disposal. Planning for a “weaker starter” doesn’t make much sense with this group.
In the end, this may not matter. The Indians won 102 games for a reason, and Francona is no stranger to the MLB postseason. Their starting staff is still excellent, and they can shift hard-throwers like Salazar and Mike Clevinger to the bullpen. They are perhaps the one team in baseball that can match the Yankees’ deep bullpen, and they have the playoff experience that this new crop of Bronx Bombers does not.
But if Cleveland falters, we’ll probably be looking back at this decision as a big reason why.