This year's American League Division Series features four stacked squads with legitimate title aspirations.
While MLB would not mind the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees meeting for the AL pennant for the first time since Boston's historic 2004 comeback, both big-market powerhouses enter the divisional round as underdogs. The Houston Astros boast baseball's premier offense, and the Cleveland Indians possess one of the greatest pitching staffs of all time.
Alongside Clayton Kershaw's Los Angeles Dodgers, all four participating pitching staffs finished among the top five in strikeouts per nine innings (K/9). Houston, Cleveland and New York, respectively, topped MLB's offensive leaderboard in weighted on-base average (wOBA).
While Boston trails its competition considerably in the run-production department, it may not matter when Chris Sale takes the mound.
Five of the AL's top-six leaders in WAR among position players—Mike Trout will be missed—will take the field on Thursday, when both ALDS showdowns commence. Let's take a look at each matchup's Game 1.
Boston Red Sox vs. Houston Astros
Game 1 Viewing Info: Thursday, 4 p.m. ET on MLB Network
The Astros scored 111 more runs than the Red Sox by hitting 70 more homers. Any hopes of upsetting the AL West champions hinge on individual dominance from Sale.
Boston's star southpaw will make his postseason debut after compiling an MLB-high 308 strikeouts this season. He expressed excitement for his playoff introduction, per MLB.com's Ian Browne.
"I'm 28 years old, so I've been waiting for this about 23 years," Sale said. "This has been a long time coming. A lot of hard work went into this. It's a long season. We had a lot of guys put everything they had on the field the entire season. To have this opportunity right here, it's the best."
He must bounce back from a topsy-turvy finish to 2017. Over his final 11 starts, he posted a 4.09 ERA due to two disastrous turns against Cleveland.
With a lineup led by right-handed superstars, the Astros accrued MLB's second-best wOBA against lefties behind the Detroit Tigers.
As noted by Baseball Savant's Daren Willman, they excelled against hard-throwing southpaws:
A possible solution? Throw more sliders. According to Brooks Baseball, opponents batted .177 with a 40.0 whiff percentage against Sale's lethal offering. He can endure the pitch's extra strain after receiving two extra recovery days.
Last Thursday, Sale hurt his Cy Young Award chances by surrendering four home runs to the Toronto Blue Jays. On the bright side, he received a full week to prepare for Game 1.
Boston needs a huge outing from its ace with a feebler offense facing Justin Verlander. Traded from the Tigers right before Sept. 1's deadline for postseason eligibility, the 34-year-old allowed four runs in five September starts. He recorded 43 strikeouts and five walks over 34 spectacular innings.
The Red Sox finished the season No. 23 in wOBA against righties, so Verlander gets an easier matchup than Sale. This is nonetheless a pivotal game for the AL East champions, who will want to maximize Sale's starts with help from a reliable defense and bullpen bolstered by David Price.
New York Yankees vs. Cleveland Indians
Game 1 Viewing Info: Thursday, 8 p.m. ET on FS1
Live Stream: Fox Sports Go
Most onlookers expected Corey Kluber, the man likely to best Sale for the AL Cy Young Award, to bless Thursday's slate with another marquee ace. Cleveland had other ideas.
Trevor Bauer will instead open the series, followed by Kluber in Game 2 and Carlos Carrasco in Game 3.
Cleveland manager Terry Francona explained his reasoning, courtesy of Fox's SportsTime Ohio:
The move may backfire if the Yankees gain a 2-1 lead, but Bauer is no slouch. The 26-year-old righty posted a 4.19 ERA, 10.0 K/9 and 3.88 fielding independent pitching (FIP) during the strongest season of his career. He rolls into the outing with a 3.01 second-half ERA, including two victories over the Yankees in which he allowed two combined runs.
Like the Yankees did in Tuesday's AL Wild Card Game win over the Minnesota Twins, Francona can quickly turn to a deep bullpen if needed. Mike Clevinger notched a 0.99 ERA in September, and Danny Salazar's 12.67 K/9 could manifest into a major relief weapon. Joe Smith provides another high-leverage option alongside studs Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.
Starting Bauer hardly waves the flag on Game 1, but the Yankees won't want to drop the opening contest before encountering Kluber and Carrasco.
The Bronx Bombers already demonstrated their formula to a fruitful playoff run. They hit three home runs on Tuesday night, including Aaron Judge's 14th blast in his last 20 games. Although they lack a front-line ace, manager Joe Girardi can keep leaning heavily on a deep, dominant bullpen.
Miller, who once starred alongside Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances after replacing David Robertson—who tossed 3.1 shutout innings against Minnesota—discussed his opponent's relief unit to MLB.com's Jordan Bastian.
"They're probably about as good as it gets," Miller said. "It's certainly a strength of their team, and Joe's going to have the luxury of picking and choosing who he goes to."
After getting one out from Luis Severino, Girardi would appreciate a lengthier outing from Game 1 starter Sonny Gray, as confirmed Wednesday by MLB.com's Mark Feinsand. Robertson and Chad Green, who respectively threw 52 and 41 pitches on Tuesday, are unlikely to appear in the ALDS opener.
With a Cleveland Game 1 victory, New York would have to win at least one of Kluber's two starts on full rest. The Yankees are no longer entering a must-win scenario, but Thursday's contest comes close.
All advanced stats courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.