ALCS 2016: Toronto Blue Jays vs Cleveland Indians Position-by-Position Breakdown

Seth Gruen@SethGruenFeatured ColumnistOctober 13, 2016

ALCS 2016: Toronto Blue Jays vs Cleveland Indians Position-by-Position Breakdown

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    Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

    Baseball's two hottest teams will clash in the American League Championship Series when the Toronto Blue Jays and Cleveland Indians play at Progressive Field on Friday.

    Each team swept its respective division series.

    The upcoming ALCS can be compared to a great boxing card. In boxing, contrasting styles between fighters make a great fight.

    The Indians and Blue Jays won this season in different ways. The Indians relied on solid pitching, particularly a starting rotation that carried the team through its best stretches of the regular season.

    Toronto, on the other hand, is loaded with power and hit its way through the Texas Rangers in the American League Division Series.

    Let's move on and see what makes these two heavyweights so great.


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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Side-by-Side Stat Comparison

     Russell Martin137  .231 .335 .398 2074  62
     Roberto Perez 61 .183 .285 .294 3 17 14

    Position Overview

    Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin is one of the most battle-tested backstops in the game today.

    Since Martin's rookie year with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2006, he has participated in every postseason except for 2007 and 2010. Though his regular-season numbers have dipped since he came to Toronto prior to the 2015 season, his veteran leadership will be key for a Toronto pitching staff that could be the ALCS juggernaut.

    Meanwhile, Indians catcher Roberto Perez is a novice to playoff baseball. In only his third MLB season, Perez is in the first playoffs of his career. Cleveland tried to execute a trade at the deadline for then-Milwaukee Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who exercised his no-trade clause and later ended up with the Texas Rangers.

    That may indicate the Indians did not have confidence in Perez.

    Edge: Blue Jays

    While neither player boasts strong offensive numbers, Martin's experience far outweighs anything Perez can bring to the series.

1st Baseman

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Side-by-Side Stat Comparison

    Edwin Encarnacion 160 .263 .357.529 42 127 99
    Mike Napoli 150 .239 .335.465  34 101 92

    Position Overview

    Edwin Encarnacion, who moves between first base and DH for Toronto, is arguably the game's best power hitter. It's debatable whether he's the best power hitter on his team, though, which shows the Blue Jays' run-scoring capability.

    He led the AL in RBI this season and tied for third in home runs, five away from MLB home run champ Mark Trumbo. Encarnacion is a threat to change the game every time he steps up to the plate.

    The Indians also have a power-hitting threat manning first base. Mike Napoli, a one-time All-Star, enjoyed the best power numbers of his career, topping 100 RBI for the first time.

    If the series turns into an offensive slugfest and Cleveland is able to keep pace, Napoli will take part in it. He batted cleanup for the team in its series-clinching win over the Boston Red Sox on Monday.

    Edge: Blue Jays

    Encarnacion is the better power hitter and gets on base more frequently. He is more reliable offensively, but Napoli could still have a big impact.

2nd Baseman

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    David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

    Side-by-Side Stat Comparison

    Darwin Barney 104 .269 .322 .373 4 19 35
    Jason Kipnis 156 .275 .343 .469 23 82 91

    Position Overview

    On a team loaded with offensive talent, Darwin Barney bucks the trend. He isn't an offensive stalwart but provides Gold Glove-caliber defense up the middle. He won the award on the National League side with the Chicago Cubs in 2012.

    Devon Travis, who hit .300/.332/.454 and has been dealing with a sore knee, could return for the ALCS, bolstering the position offensively for the Blue Jays.

    Jason Kipnis has been a mainstay at second base for Cleveland since his debut for the organization in 2011. He has the ability to get on base, hits for some power and bats lefty—all of which the Indians can use this series.

    During this year's ALDS against the Red Sox, Kipnis hit .364/.417/.636. He could help change the dynamic of this series.

    Edge: Indians

    This isn't close. If Toronto had its choice, the series would be an offensive showcase. Under those circumstances, both teams would rather have Kipnis hitting for them.

3rd Baseman

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    Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

    Side-by-Side Stat Comparison

     Josh Donaldson 155.284  .404 .549 37 99 122
     Jose Ramirez 152 .312 .363 .462 11 76 84

    Position Breakdown

    Josh Donaldson, Toronto's reigning AL MVP, has an argument to win the award for the second straight season. He is one of the AL's most dangerous hitters and feared by every pitcher in baseball.

    Even worse news for the Indians: Donaldson hit .381/.552/.714 against them this season.

    Cleveland's Jose Ramirez has also had a terrific season. He doesn't bring the element of power to the Indians lineup but has the capability to get on base. He hit .500 against the Red Sox in the ALDS and may be the toughest out in this lineup.

    Edge: Blue Jays

    This is no slight to Ramirez, who could easily have a huge impact on this series. But Donaldson is the best player not only in the ALCS but maybe in the entire AL.


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    David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

    Side-by-Side Stat Comparison

    Troy Tulowitzki131 .254 .318 .443 24 79 54
    Francisco Lindor158  .301 .358 .435 15 78 99

    Position Breakdown

    Since being traded to Toronto last season, Troy Tulowitzki has struggled at the plate.

    He hit .340 in Colorado in 2014 and was hitting .300 at the time of his trade, but he has struggled to maintain an average above .250 for the Blue Jays. His power numbers have remained solid, but he has underwhelmed in Toronto. The Blue Jays must have thought they were getting one of the elite hitters at his position.

    Instead, he has been average at best.

    Francisco Lindor, meanwhile, has emerged as one of the game's bright young stars. (Doesn't it seem like they all play shortstop?) Combined with his play at the plate, Lindor owns one of the best gloves at the position. He has an ultimate zone rating of 20.8, which ranked second among shortstops this season, according to FanGraphs.

    The second-year star still hasn't seen his power jump, but he is capable when it comes to putting the bat on the ball. 

    Edge: Indians

    Lindor has had the better all-around season, though it's always possible Tulowitzki could revert to the player he was in Colorado.

Left Fielder

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    Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

    Side-by-Side Stat Comparison

     Ezequiel Carrera 110 .248.323 .356 6 2347
     Coco Crisp 122 .231.302 .39713  5554 

    Position Breakdown

    Ezequiel Carrera may have entered the playoffs as a liability in Toronto's lineup, but he came to play in the ALDS against the Rangers, hitting .333/.429/.583 with one homer. He also went 2-for-4 in the AL Wild Card Game against the Baltimore Orioles.

    The latter was his sixth playoff game but the first in which he got a postseason hit.

    Since being traded at the waiver deadline to the Indians, Coco Crisp has struggled. He hit only .208/.323/.377 in 20 games with the Tribe. He played two games in the ALDS, hitting .167 with a home run and two RBI.

    Edge: Blue Jays

    Given the choice between two players who have been, generally, offensively inept, it makes sense to go with the one swinging the hot bat.

Center Fielder

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    Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

    Side-by-Side Stat Comparison

     Kevin Pillar 146 .266 .303 .376 7 53 59
     Tyler Naquin  116 .296 .372 .514 14 43 52

    Position Breakdown

    Hidden in Toronto center fielder Kevin Pillar's stats this season: In three games against the Indians this season, he hit .143/.200/.143.

    That's hardly a big enough sample size to judge how he might perform in this series, but the Indians pitching staff seems to have a good handle on how to get him out. He'll be studying what went wrong when he faced the Tribe this season.

    Pillar, though, has the superior glove. He ranked tops among all center fielders with an ultimate zone rating of 21.4, according to FanGraphs.

    Cleveland boasts one of the game's promising young center fielders in Tyler Naquin, who earned consideration for AL Rookie of the Year. Of note, Naquin grounded into only four double plays this year. Naquin had a UZR of -5.1, according to FanGraphs.

    Edge: Indians

    Naquin has been the better player all year and someone Cleveland relies upon offensively. He forces pitchers to work to get him out and is a rally-starter with his ability to get on base.

    The gap defensively brings the two players closer together overall. But defensive statistics are best used evaluating a player over the course of the regular season. A player has more opportunity to affect a playoff series at the plate, hence why the Chicago Cubs sat Jason Heyward, an outstanding defensive player who is struggling at the plate, in Game 3 of the NLDS.

Right Fielder

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    Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

    Side-by-Side Stat Comparison

     Jose Bautista 116 .234 .366 .452 22 6968
     Lonnie Chisenhall 126 .286 .328 .439 8 5743

    Position Breakdown

    Toronto's Jose Bautista was hampered by injury this season, which deflated his numbers. Last season, though, he hit 40 homers, drove in 114 runs, and led the AL with 110 walks.

    With the exception of the 2011 season, when he hit .302, Bautista has never been a high-average guy. But he gets on base, which is an asset for a Blue Jays lineup loaded with power.

    Indians right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall has enjoyed a bounce-back season after a subpar 2015 campaign. Chisenhall isn't a great defender, and he doesn't walk much, but he played well in five games against the Blue Jays this season, slashing .348/.348/.522.

    He hits well with runners on base too. His average with runners on is .312 and .291 with runners in scoring position.

    Edge: Blue Jays

    Look past his poor average this season, and Bautista stands out as the better player. He still can change the game with a swing of the bat, while Chisenhall lacks that capability.

Designated Hitter

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    Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

    Side-by-Side Stat Comparison

     Michael Saunders140.253  .338 .478 24 57 70
     Carlos Santana158 .259 .366 .498 34 87 89

    Position Breakdown

    Michael Saunders may be the coldest regular in the Blue Jays lineup. He hit .200/.333/.200 during an ALDS against the Rangers in which his team feasted offensively.

    He was without an extra-base hit in the series.

    Still, he can hit for power, though it often goes unnoticed on a Toronto team that slugs as well as any in baseball.

    Santana has spent most of his time—86 games—hitting leadoff. Because it is traditionally a power-hitting position, we often think of the DH as hitting in the middle of the order.

    While Santana certainly has power, the Indians have had success using him as a table-setter. Given that the pitcher does not hit in the AL, it's not uncommon for teams to lead off with power.

    Former MLB manager Jim Leyland, for example, was a fan of doing so. He used Barry Bonds as a leadoff man with the Pittsburgh Pirates and did the same with Curtis Granderson in Detroit.

    Edge: Indians

    This is fairly clear-cut: Santana has better numbers. An easy call.

Starting Pitching

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    Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    Side-by-Side Stat Comparison

     Pitching StaffWLIPERABAAWHIPR
     Toronto Blue Jays 66 41 995.1 3.64 .236 1.22 438
     Cleveland Indians 66 47 936.1 4.08 .248 1.24 461 

    Position Breakdown

    Toronto has yet to indicate how it will employ its rotation except for saying Marco Estrada will start Game 1.

    It’s a rotation with tremendous upside, but questions surround its best arm. Estrada (3.48), J.A. Happ (3.18) and Aaron Sanchez (3.00) were each in the top 11 among AL starters in ERA.

    Sanchez, though, is entering uncharted territory.

    He surpassed his innings total of 92.1 in 2015 by nearly 100 this season. The Blue Jays even sent Sanchez to the minors because they intended to skip a start to limit his innings load. It's still unclear how he'll respond to an extended playoff season.

    The Indians' Corey Kluber might be the best starting pitcher in this series and is scheduled to face Estrada in Game 1. Kluber began the season slowly but rallied to close out the year with a 3.14 ERA. Trevor Bauer will pitch Game 2 and Josh Tomlin Game 3 for an Indians rotation whose depth has been challenged by injury.

    All year, Cleveland had the AL's best rotation, but in September a comebacker broke Carlos Carrasco's right pitching pinkie finger. All-Star Danny Salazar has been out for about a month with a right forearm strain and is unlikely to return for the ALCS.

    Edge: Indians

    It's close. ThisClose. But the Indians still have the better overall arms, even with Salazar out.


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    Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

    Side-by-Side Stat Comparison

     Toronto Blue Jays 464.0 43 4.11 .254 1.27228  64
     Cleveland Indians 508.2 37 3.45 .233 1.24215 53

    Position Breakdown

    Toronto's bullpen wasn't brutal this season but still ranked in the lower third of MLB. Given the ease with which Toronto scores runs and the quality of its starters, Blue Jays relievers are the team's biggest unknown heading into the ALCS.

    Roberto Osuna is the team's closer and saved 36 games for the club this season. But he was removed from the AL Wild Card Game against the Orioles with a shoulder issue.

    He was able to pitch in two of the three ALDS games, but it's fair to question whether the issue will flare up again.

    Cleveland boasted one of baseball's best bullpens this season. Then, at the deadline, it went out and added left-handed reliever Andrew Miller—one of the game's dominant bullpen arms.

    Given the depth issues in the rotation and Toronto's propensity for scoring runs, the bullpen will come into play frequently. Manager Terry Francona is sure to employ his relievers to gain favorable matchups in an attempt to keep scoring down.

    Edge: Indians

    They have more reliable arms and the better closer.


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    Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

    In four playoff games, the Blue Jays have scored 27 runs. They've been virtually unstoppable and have four players in their lineup hitting at least .353 this postseason.

    Toronto's pitching is not nearly as good as Cleveland's, but it does have the kind of talent in its starting rotation to keep it in low-scoring games. Even in that case, the Blue Jays have more bats in their lineup capable of hitting homers, which is often the way playoff games are won.

    Sure, the Indians are hot too. But offensively, they lag so far behind the Blue Jays that it's hard to imagine they'll remain in games in which they aren't pitching perfectly.

    Final Prediction: Blue Jays 4-2

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