Cleveland Indians Winning with National League Style of Baseball
The Cleveland Indians beat the Chicago Cubs in Game Three of the World Series playing a National League style of ball. It’s what the Tribe has been doing all season long.
Say what you will about how the designated hitter rule affects the World Series, the Cleveland Indians found a way to overcome their seeming disadvantage on Friday night to secure a 1-0 Game Three win and a 2-1 advantage in the best-of-seven series. And they did it playing the brand of baseball usually associated with the National League.
Cleveland, despite being an American League team, has essentially played a National League style of ball for most of the season, and particularly in the playoffs. It is to the credit of manager Terry Francona and the willingness of the players on the club to follow his lead that the Indians are now a mere two wins away from their first World Series championship since 1948.
As second baseman Jason Kipnis told MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian after the game:
"“[Francona]’s been doing it all postseason. He’s been pulling the right strings, pushing the right buttons. Sometimes you might not understand moves, but at this point, you definitely don’t question them, because you know he’s got a plan.”"
Game Three was a microcosm of that plan, and really much of the season for the Tribe. Cleveland used 17 of the 25 players on the roster in blanking Chicago, including every available position player. Francona played matchup baseball just as he’s done all year, starting Carlos Santana in left field, bringing Andrew Miller into the game in the fifth inning, pinch running Michael Martinez and pinch hitting Coco Crisp in the seventh, and it all resulted in a win.
This should not be a surprise to anyone who has watched the Indians play in 2016. The club led Major League Baseball in platoon advantage, both at the plate and on the mound, this season. As Daniel Barbarisi of the Wall Street Journal wrote:
"“The Indians led baseball in gaining the matchup advantage this season, taking 70% of their plate appearances with the platoon edge. What makes that number so remarkable is that the rest of the league is going in the other direction: The league average for plate appearances with the platoon advantage is 53%, and has been falling steadily since 2013, when it peaked at 56%…This matchup-centric thinking doesn’t just apply to hitters. The Indians also led baseball in getting the best pitching matchups, primarily through the way manager Terry Francona uses his bullpen. Indians pitchers had the matchup advantage 54% of the time, against a league average of 47%.”"
Cleveland is the first time to lead MLB in both sides of the platoon advantage since the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals. Having switch hitters throughout the lineup certainly helps, but the way the roster has been constructed and Francona has orchestrated the whole thing deserves to be recognized as a key component of the team’s October run. In no game was the managerial maneuvering more apparent than on Friday night.
The Tribe also led the American League in FanGraphs’ baserunning efficiency metric and stolen bases, and placed third in defense, facets of the game that tend to have greater emphasis in the NL.
Francona is no stranger to National League style strategy, having began his career as a skipper with the Philadelphia Phillies from 1997 through 2000. It’s the same style of play the Indians have used throughout the season to succeed in the face of so many injuries to key players.
Taking advantage of matchups, eschewing traditional bullpen roles, and plugging in players in more of a utility-type style is how the club has survived and thrived despite being without key cogs such as Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar for large chunks of the season and now in the playoffs.
Next: Bryan Shaw Key to Game 3 Win
Cleveland has two more games to play at Wrigley Field, so expect more of the same. Francona has proven this postseason to be one of the great tacticians in baseball, and watching him orchestrate his roster has been one of the most interesting to watch in October. If he can continue to pull the right strings and push the right buttons, the Indians may well put an end to their long championship drought.