The American League Championship Series kicks off on Friday night with the AL Central champion Cleveland Indians hosting the AL Wildcard Toronto Blue Jays.
Terry Francona’s Tribe went 94-67 in winning their division by eight games over the Detroit Tigers.
Manager John Gibbons guided the Jays to a tie with the Baltimore Orioles for 2nd place in the AL East at 89-73, four games behind the Boston Red Sox.
The Jays then defeated the O’s in dramatic fashion in the AL Wildcard Game on a three-run walk-off home run by Edwin Encarnacion in the bottom of the 11th inning.
That victory bought Toronto a date with the AL West champion Texas Rangers in the ALDS, and the Blue Jays swept Texas in three straight games by 10-1, 5-3, and 7-6 scores.
Meanwhile, the Indians faced off with the Bosox in their ALDS. Cleveland also swept, taking their three games by scores of 5-4, 6-0, and 4-3.
The two clubs met seven times during the regular season, with Cleveland coming out on top in four of the seven games.
Four of the seven were one-run games, and six were close finals. However, the Jays did spank the Tribe by a 17-1 score on July 3rd.
These are two of the more potent offensive attacks in the game. Cleveland finished 5th and Toronto 9th in runs scored during the 2016 regular season.
While the Jays are more likely to go deep, out-homering the Tribe by 221-185, Cleveland puts pressure on teams with their team speed. The Indians, who were fourth in baseball in steals, outpaced the Blue Jays in stolen bases by 134-54.
But to call this purely a power vs speed match-up would be to sell the Indians short. When you factor in doubles and triples, the Indians actually were 5th in MLB with 522 extra-base hits, while Toronto was 9th with 515 XBH.
On the mound, both clubs had strong seasons. Toronto (.242) finished fourth and Cleveland (.243) fifth in the game in Batting Average Against.
The Jays’ rotation tied with the Chicago Cubs for first in all of baseball with 100 Quality Starts. Meanwhile, Cleveland’s pitching staff was fourth in MLB in strikeouts.
There is not much to separate them defensively either, as Toronto ranked in a tie for seventh (.986) and Cleveland tied for ninth (.985) in Fielding Percentage. The Tribe committed one more error (89-88) than did the Jays during the regular season.
Toronto’s current group may have more postseason experience. They won the AL East a year ago and advanced to the ALDS where the Jays defeated Texas 3-2.
But Toronto then lost to the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals in six games in the ALCS. That was the first time since the franchise last won the Fall Classic back in 1993 that the Jays had reached the postseason.
The Indians were shut out in the 2013 AL Wildcard Game by the Tampa Bay Rays in their most recent postseason experience.
Back in 2007, Cleveland dispatched the New York Yankees in the ALDS in four games before dropping a tough seven game ALCS to the Boston Red Sox after holding a 3-1 lead in the series.
The Red Sox manager as Boston rallied for three straight wins? Francona, who would skipper Boston to a sweep of the Colorado Rockies and a second World Series crown in four years.
Francona has managed three organizations over 16 seasons, compiling a 1,381-1,209 regular season record. This year’s Tribe won his second division crown, and he has the two world championships with Boston.
Gibbons is 644-614 over nine big league seasons as a manager, covering two different stints with Toronto.
In addition to their more recent postseason experience, the Blue Jays also have a more veteran ball club. Seven players who receive regular playing time are 30+ years of age, and a few others will hit that 30-year old mark soon.
Leading the way offensively are Encarnacion as the DH, the 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson at the hot corner, Troy Tulowitzki at shortstop, Jose Bautista in right field, and catcher Russell Martin.
What speed they do have is usually provided by center fielder Kevin Pillar, who also happens to be one of the best outfield defenders in the game.
Cleveland also has a handful of key 30+ veterans in their lineup in slugging first baseman Mike Napoli, speedy left fielder Rajai Davis, and run-producing DH Carlos Santana.
Joining Napoli on the Tribe infield are three of the best and in some ways most underrated players in the game in second baseman Jason Kipnis, shortstop Francisco Lindor, and third baseman Jose Ramirez.
The pitching matchup for the Friday night opener is a good one. Corey Kluber, who won the 2014 AL Cy Young Award, goes for the Indians. Marco Estrada, who allowed just 132 hits over 176 inning this season will toe the rubber for Toronto.
The rest of the announced matchups for the next three games are: J.A. Happ (TOR) vs Trevor Bauer (CLE), Marcus Stroman (TOR) vs Josh Tomlin (CLE), and Aaron Sanchez (TOR) vs Mike Clevinger (CLE) in the fourth game.
However, as Joshua Sadlock at Fansided points out, Francona could very well decide to come back with his ace, Kluber, should the Tribe find themselves trailing after the first three games.
The two bullpens are fairly well matched. Francona has Cody Allen as his closer, and is never afraid to use his ‘x-factor’ Andrew Miller, perhaps the best overall relief pitcher in the game this season, at any time in key situations.
There are some out there who feel that Toronto seems like the “it” team this season. Their dramatic Wildcard walk-off and sweep of the talented Rangers being the main reasoning.
However, the Indians have been under-appreciated all season long by the wider baseball public, in my opinion.
This is a well-rounded club that can pound and pitch with the Jays, but which also has that speed element to draw upon in close games.
The fact that I believe Cleveland can match-up with the Toronto offensive attack and starting pitching well allows them to make those areas a push for me.
I am picking the Cleveland Indians to win the series in seven tough games. The difference-makers in the end may well be Francona and Miller, and the home field.
Tomorrow look for my National League Championship Series prediction for the Chicago Cubs match-up with the Los Angeles Dodgers.