A Championship Undefended?
The Red Sox have begun a downward spiral of late that has them rapidly disappearing from the playoff picture. They’ve lost seven of their last 10 games, and their much-maligned pitching staff has combined for a 5.83 ERA since the trade deadline.
With all this in mind, Boston is precisely the type of team for which you can throw their record and recent form out the window. Their pitching woes aside, their lineup is of the caliber that it would not come as a shock to anyone if they rattled off 10 wins in a row and planted themselves firmly back into the wild card race.
Cleveland’s mission over the next three days will be to kick the defending champions while they’re down, and drain whatever life is left in their postseason hopes. It won’t be within a country mile of easy, but the Indians have proven over the last couple weeks that they can, in fact, beat the good teams.
Monday, 7:00 PM EST – RHP Zach Plesac vs. LHP Eduardo Rodriguez
Monday’s nationally televised contest will feature Zach Plesac, who made his MLB debut against these same Boston Red Sox at Fenway a few months ago. Despite some peripheral numbers that suggest the rookie is due for a rude awakening, Plesac continues to have success pitching to contact.
He is allowing hard contact on 35.6% of batted balls, with a 41.7% ground ball rate. Without the swing-and-miss stuff in the arsenals of a couple of his teammates, it’s imperative that Plesac continues to frustrate hitters with the types of pitches they can’t barrel up. He may give up a lot of batted balls, but they haven’t been of the high-danger variety.
Eduardo Rodriguez is a similar pitcher in that he primarily induces weak contact and ground balls, but there are a few things that jump out in terms of advantages for the Indians. The first is that he’s become prone to issuing free passes of late–he’s walked nine hitters through 11.2 innings in August.
While the small-sample-size argument could be made here, it’s worth noting his walk rate has climbed at a concerning rate from 7.1% in June, to 10.5% in July, to 17.3% this month.
Rodriguez has also been slightly less effective on the road than at home; he owns a 3.89 ERA at Fenway and a 4.46 ERA everywhere else. All in all, he is a more reliable pitcher than he gets credit for, but the Indians can get to him–especially if he isn’t throwing strikes.
Tuesday, 7:10 PM EST – RHP Mike Clevinger vs. LHP Chris Sale
Mike Clevinger would be in the AL Cy Young conversation if he hadn’t missed six weeks due to injury. The righty just held the home-run-happy Twins to two earned runs (and zero homers) in his last start, and he’s rocking a 1.83 ERA over his last seven outings.
The most comforting aspect of what Clevinger has been doing lately is that there is no evidence to suggest he shouldn’t be doing it. Sure, a 1.83 ERA over any prolonged stretch is unlikely, but his 2.58 FIP, 49% ground ball rate, and 34.5% strikeout rate since the beginning of July represent the complete package in a starting pitcher.
An opposing lineup’s best plan of attack is to simply hope he’s off his game.
Chris Sale has had an up-and-down season, but boy is he ever on the “up” side of that trend after his last start. The towering and ever-dangerous southpaw struck out 13 Angels hitters en route to eight scoreless innings in his most recent start, which is an ominous development if that version of Sale is back for Boston’s stretch run.
A good portion of Sale’s struggles stem from some mystifying batted-ball luck. He permits hard contact just 35.8% of the time while inducing a healthy 42.1% ground ball rate, and we all know he’s a single-game strikeout record waiting to happen. Yet he’s given up a home run on nearly one out of every five fly balls he’s surrendered.
Sale’s first-strike percentage of 66.3% is the 12th-highest such mark in baseball. File this away under “easier said than done,” but taking an aggressive approach early in counts might be the Indians’ best shot at getting to him if he’s on his game.
Wednesday, 1:10 PM EST – RHP Shane Bieber vs. TBD
Shane Bieber has allowed six earned runs in his last 32 innings. This includes two complete games, and his last three opponents have been tough lineups in the Astros, Angels, and Twins. He ranks inside the top five among qualified AL starters in strikeout rate, FIP, xFIP, and fWAR.
But the most fascinating thing about Bieber’s revelation of a 2019 campaign isn’t the numbers themselves–it’s the role in which he’s produced them. Bieber began the season as the Tribe’s fifth starter. Three of the guys ahead of him missed (and continue to miss) significant time due to injury and health concerns, while the fourth was traded.
Bieber is 24 years old and anchoring the rotation that was supposed to take the pressure off of him. Enough cannot be said about the job he’s done stabilizing the Tribe’s pitching staff amid the tumult, and you can bet the farm that nobody believes that more than Terry Francona.
Boston hasn’t announced who will oppose Bieber on the mound for Wednesday’s game. David Price is on the IL, Rick Porcello and Andrew Cashner pitched over the weekend, and Nathan Eovaldi has been used out of the bullpen ever since his return from a lengthy IL stint of his own.
A bullpen game would seem to be a possibility for the Red Sox in the series finale if Rodriguez and Sale are able to go deep into their starts. If the Indians are able to chase one or both of them early on, perhaps Boston will elect to go with a spot starter.