Postseason Review: Yankees, Indians, and the Odds of Baseball

Written by: Justin Choi (@justinochoi)

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Shane Bieber emerged from the regular season as the most dominant pitcher on Earth, and other civilized planets we have yet to discover. So when he was slated to face Gerrit Cole in a best-of-three against the New York Yankees, many anticipated an epic duel between two aces. Who would outlast the other? 

Then, baseball happened. Our expectations were, to our dismay, subverted. 

The Yankees bombarded Shane Bieber, producing 7 runs via 9 hits, two of which were home runs. The Indians’ bonafide ace did manage to strike out 7, but it was too late – the damage had been done. Bieber was pulled after just 4.2 innings, the Indians’ offense failed to rally, and Game 1 went to the Yankees. 

Bieber, despite his excellence, has a tendency to allow hard contact. The Yankees are in the playoffs because of their tendency to create hard contact. In hindsight, maybe we should have predicted some of this. But 7 runs? That’s a tall order, even for a clairvoyant. 

The Yankees came into this match with a clear strategy: attack the fastball. Every extra-base hit was off either the fastball or cutter, and 7 of the 9 total hits came off those two pitches. They did end up whiffing at some curveballs – it’s one of baseball’s best breaking balls, after all – but also collected two walks by ignoring them in crucial moments. 

To be fair, Bieber’s command looked shaky at times; the Yankees offense might have driven his demise, but they shouldn’t receive sole credit. In a sport that’s so volatile, it’s natural that an ace pitcher who will have a day when, for some reason, outs elude him, balls are put into play, and they become hits. They in turn become runs, which inflates ERA. Of course, that doesn’t mean said pitcher is now washed. 

Baseball fans—at least the rational ones—do understand this, but the disappointment surrounding Bieber is all too reasonable. In a traditional 5-game or 7-game playoff series, Bieber would have had a chance at redemption. The Indians, however, are already staring down the barrel of elimination. Before yesterday’s game, Fangraphs’ ZiPS projection gave both the Indians and Yankees a 47.2% and 52.8% chance of winning the series, respectively. That’s a coin flip. Today’s odds for Cleveland aren’t so optimistic (22.8%). 

You could also frame this game as a failure on the part of the Indians’ offense. It collectively had a 86 wRC+ during the regular season, which parked them into the 27th spot out of 30. That’s worse than the Tigers, even the Diamondbacks. 

There was an emerging offensive surge as the regular season concluded, led by MVP candidate Jose Ramirez, but that came to a temporary halt as Gerrit Cole struck out 13 batters in 7 innings, allowing just 2 runs. Postseason adrenaline often isn’t enough to fix a team’s chronic problems. 

It’s funny how odds work in baseball – ZiPS came to its original conclusion because when factoring in offense, defense, and pitching, the Indians and Yankees worked out to be two teams of similar caliber. But those three elements don’t always function at once. Yesterday, the Yankees found their offense, defense, and pitching; the Indians found none. Flip a coin three consecutive times, and there’s a solid 12.5% chance that all three will land either heads or tails. Include the chances of (two heads, one tail) or (two tails, one head), and the collective odds become higher. 

That is assuming the coins are fair. But as the title of the article suggests, the Yankees seemed prepared, giving them the edge necessary to conquer Shane Bieber. And yet, that doesn’t imply a lack of preparedness from the Indians. Maybe they too wanted to attack Cole’s fastball, but simply failed the execution – Indians hitters swung 34 times at it and whiffed 12 times, for a rate of 35%. 

“Yesterday,” Paul McCartney once sang, “all my troubles seemed so far away.” Fans may yearn for the pre-game optimism of yesterday, when Shane Bieber seemed invincible.  But tomorrow always arrives. And tomorrow, or today if you’re reading this, the Yankees will fight for their second win, and the Indians will be on the ropes in search of survival. 

Just don’t tell me the odds. 

Follow P365 MLB and KBO Analyst Justin Choi on Twitter! @justinochoi

Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365

All statistics from Baseball Savant and Fangraphs

Featured image courtesy of ESPN and Major League Baseball

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