Playoff Preview: Yankees vs. Astros
It took three games for one team and a surprising five games for another, but we have the matchup we all knew since maybe April that we’d have: Yankees vs. Astros. The Tampa Bay Rays gave us some heart palpitations by stretching the series out for an extra two games, but we’re down to the two heavyweights: the Yankees trying to avenge their 2017 ALCS defeat to these Astros, who are looking to repeat their 2017 successes with another title.
Game 1: Saturday, Oct. 12, in Houston, 7:08 p.m. EDT.
Game 2: Sunday, Oct. 13, in Houston, 7:08 p.m. EDT.
Game 3: Tuesday, Oct. 15, in New York, Time TBD.
Game 4: Wednesday, Oct. 16, in New York, Time TBD.
Game 5 (if necessary): Thursday, Oct. 17, in New York, Time TBD.
Game 6 (if necessary): Saturday, Oct. 19, in Houston, Time TBD.
Game 7 (if necessary): Sunday, Oct. 20, in Houston, Time TBD.
All games will be aired on Fox.
The Astros and Yankees played each other seven times during the regular season: three games in Houston in April and a four-game set in New York in June. Fans of history will remember that back in 2017, the ALCS went to seven games, and the home team won all seven. This year’s season series was very similar; Houston swept the April series, outscoring the Yankees 18-12, then the Yankees took three of four in New York, outscoring Houston 25-21. So the Astros won the seven-game series 4-3 by TWO runs. Could this be a preview of what is to come?
Few teams in the history of the game are built better to win a World Series than these Houston Astros. Three aces with two (about to be three) Cy Young Awards. An All-Star closer. Three All-Star setup men. And that’s just the pitching staff. Their lineup combined has 17 All-Star appearances, two Gold Gloves, seven Silver Sluggers, an MVP (and a finalist in 2019), three batting titles, and a Rookie of the Year. Is that all?
This team stayed remarkably healthy throughout 2019, posting 107 wins in the regular season—the second most since the 2001 Seattle Mariners won 116. This wasn’t just a hot start; the Astros dropped four of their first six games in the second half and then went 48-18 (.727) down the stretch, cementing themselves as the hottest team in the game entering October.
The Astros were expected to steamroll the wild-card Rays and did so in the first two games behind Cy Young finalists Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole before Tampa rallied back with two wins at home before Houston could finally shake their opponent. This highlights a potential issue with the Astros; over the last three offseasons, they’re 11-3 at home but just 5-9 on the road. Luckily, they will have home field as long as they advance in the playoffs.
The team is likely to trot out Zack Greinke in Game 1; you’ll recall Greinke allowed six earned runs over 3.2 innings in his Game 3 loss at Tampa Bay, though he should improve against the Yankees. That sentence sounds crazy to say when a pitcher goes from facing the No. 13 offense to the No. 3 offense (in terms of wOBA), but Greinke has succeeded against the Yankees so far this year, allowing three earned over 12.2 innings with 14 Ks in two starts. That being said, those were very different Yankees lineups. Both featured Mike Tauchman and Cameron Maybin, one had Thairo Estrada and Tyler Wade, Giancarlo Stanton was absent for both, and one required CC Sabathia to bat.
Greinke will get none of those breaks in Game 1. There are two concerns for Greinke though: one is that he feasts on patient hitters, giving up a .689 OPS when hitters swing at the first pitch vs .590 when they don’t, and only three teams swing at more first pitches than the Yankees. Second, Greinke has allowed 25 earned runs and 49 hits+walks in 23.1 innings at Yankee Stadium (combined because he pitched in both stadiums), and that’s concerning when you take Greinke’s anxiety issues into account—but only one of those starts has taken place since 2011, so take it with a massive grain of salt. A brief scouting report for Greinke: Look for him to establish his fastball early. He throws it 45% of the time at only 90 mph, but he’s one of the best at locating it, with a near 60% zone rate. Outside that, he’ll work to get strikes with an elite changeup to lefties and his slider and curveball to righties—a curveball that posted a career high 15.6 pVal in 2019.
Following Greinke will be Verlander and Cole, who need no introduction. One of them will win the Cy Young this year (Team Verlander!), but they’re both phenomenal pitchers, finishing first and fourth in CSW% (Verlander: 34% Cole: 35.7%). Overexcited Yankee fans will be quick to point at Verlander’s struggles in Game 4 against Tampa, and it’s true: His fastball command was nowhere to be found, which hindered his ability to set up his breaking pitches. However, it was the first start on three days rest following a full-length start of his whole career, and I won’t lend a whole lot of credence to it. Verlander will get Game 2 on normal rest, followed by Cole in Game 3 on normal rest. I don’t want to spend a whole lot of time on Verlander or Cole because they are very known quantities, but I’ll touch briefly on them. It wasn’t long ago that Verlander shut down the Yankees for one run on 12 baserunners with 21 Ks over 16 innings in the 2017 ALCS, but the Yankees hit him better in their two matchups, notching six earned runs over 13 innings. Cole, meanwhile, only saw the Yankees once, back in April and gave up three earned with a 1.00 WHIP and 6 Ks over seven innings, recording a W. Both of these pitchers play to the Yankees’ swing-and-miss tendencies; the Yankees are tied with the Cardinals for the highest strikeout rate among playoff teams at 23%.
The Astros’ strikeout rate? An MLB-best 18.2%. As a team, the Stros whiffed on just 8.6% of pitches, an anomaly in 2019’s three-true-outcome-based game. Typically, those types of teams don’t hit a ton of home runs, but the Astros finished third in baseball with 288 HRs and an MLB-leading .355 wOBA. As I mentioned earlier, they benefited from health. Alex Bregman, Michael Brantley, Yuli Gurriel, Yordan Alvarez, and Josh Reddick were healthy all season, George Springer missed just about 20 games, and Carlos Correa is healthy at the right time. Find a hole in this lineup; I dare you. Maybe Robinson Chirinos at .238/.347/.443. Yeah, their hole has a near .350 OBP and poked 17 home runs. Besides that, no regular for them hits lower than .275 or strikes out above 25.5% of the time. All season, this caused problems for opposing pitching staffs, working long at bats and getting starters out of the game early. The Yankees, however, are expecting their starter to throw five or fewer innings, so the impact of their plate discipline should be somewhat mitigated. The only other weakness I’m moderately concerned about for Houston is their susceptibility to high-velocity fastballs. You’d think a team like this would dominate against high fastballs, the emerging trend in baseball, but against 95+ mph fastballs in 2019, the Astros recorded a .233 AVG and .403 SLG (29th and 18th in MLB, respectively). Meanwhile, the Yankees pitching staff has the sixth-highest average fastball velocity in the game at 93.1 mph, and feature no less than five relievers who average 95 on their four-seamer. Don’t think I’m knocking this offense down too much. They are very dangerous and have lefties (Alvarez, Brantley, and Reddick) and righties intermixed in a way the Yankees don’t, which could very conceivably cause matchup problems for Aaron Boone.
This team is built to win a World Series, and anything less is a disappointment.
– Dave Cherman
New York Yankees
The Yankees (103-59) rolled their way to a division title this year—their first since 2012. They led the league in runs scored with 943 and were third in run differential at +204, trailing just the Astros at +280 and the Dodgers at +273. This is a lineup that lives and dies via the home run, as New York was second in the league with 306 and featured seven hitters who reached the 20-home run plateau.
In contrast to the Astros, the Yankees were able to win this year in spite of a truly remarkable amount of injuries. Giancarlo Stanton played just 18 games. Didi Gregorius missed roughly half the season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Miguel Andujar, last year’s AL Rookie of the Year runner-up played just 12 games. Starting center fielder Aaron Hicks played in just 59 games because of back and shoulder ailments. Edwin Encarnacion, whom the Yankees acquired from Seattle via trade, missed over a month with a fractured wrist and an oblique injury. Aaron Judge, Luke Voit, and Gary Sanchez all missed substantial time as well. And yet they still somehow managed to crank out 306 home runs. They also were without ace Luis Severino and one of their best relievers in Dellin Betances for virtually the entire year. The key for the Yankees was getting unexpected production from the likes of Gio Urshela, Mike Tauchman, Cameron Maybin, Brett Gardner and most notably D.J. LeMahieu. In an offseason that featured the likes of Manny Machado and Bryce Harper changing teams, LeMahieu was one of the more overlooked acquisitions, but he proved to be unbelievably valuable as he paced the Yankees in runs, RBI, and batting average—all while posting a .375 wOBA, which was good for third on the team.
The ALDS was a brief , bloodless affair for the Yankees. As it often does in the postseason, the difference came in pitching. The Yankees put the clamps on the powerful Twins offense, holding them to just seven runs across three games. The Twins pitching staff was victimized throughout the series for 23 runs—the kill shot being a Gregorius grand slam in Game 2 off a 1-2 fastball from Tyler Duffey. And after leading the Yankees with 38 home runs Gleyber Torres had himself a fantastic series hitting .417 with three doubles and a home run. He’s been hitting fifth, but you have to wonder if he gets bumped up in the order. The key thing to note for the Yankees is that none of their three starters ventured past the fifth inning. We should expect to see the Yankees continue to use their pen aggressively against a scary-good Astros lineup.
James Paxton pitched reasonably well in Game 1 of the ALDS, tallying eight strikeouts against one walk in just 4.2 innings of work (86 pitches). He was, however, victimized by a pair of solo home runs courtesy of Jorge Polanco and Nelson Cruz. In terms of K% and K-BB%, Paxton has been the Yankees’ best starter with marks of 29.4% and 20.7%, respectively. And he was very tough on opposing hitters, holding lefties to a .291 wOBA, righties to a .316 mark and all hitters to a .294 xwOBA. In just his first career postseason start, it was interesting to see Paxton go to his knuckle curve far more often, throwing it a whopping 41.9% of the time that in contrast to just 18.9% throughout the year. His two starts against the Astros this year were the very definition of Jekyll and Hyde. He had a poor start at Houston on the 10th of April, letting up eight hits and five earned runs along with five Ks across just four innings. His second start, though, was better. This time at Yankee Stadium in June, he allowed just one run across five frames while notching 7 Ks. Last year with the Mariners, Paxton had excellent numbers against the Astros with a 2.05 ERA, .224 batting average against, and 26 Ks across four starts (26.1 IP).
In writing up the Twins-Yankees preview, I had a lot of concern with Masahiro Tanaka given his reduced K rate this year and the lack of swings and misses we’ve seen from his splitter. He made me look foolish, though, as he allowed just a single run across five innings. The really encouraging thing was that he managed to get seven strikeouts along with a very impressive 35% CSW in that game. He managed seven whiffs off the 29 splitters he threw, which is definitely a very encouraging sign. It was pretty close to vintage Tanaka, as he is at his absolute best when he is able to rely heavily on his slider and splitter, leaving his fastball as a distant third pitch. He continues to build an impressive postseason career, as he’s now at a 1.54 ERA and 0.80 WHIP across 35 innings. It’s worth noting too that back in the 2017 ALCS against the Astros, he pitched to a 1.38 ERA across two starts. Tanaka will open the series for the Yankees, with Paxton and Severino following in Games 2 and 3, respectively.
In his start against the Twins, Severino threw 83 pitches across just four frames while managing to Houdini his way out of multiple jams. Severino leaned heavily on his fastball, throwing it just about 50% of the time. We know he’s got a good one, though it’s worth noting that it is down a tick at 96.2 mph this year as opposed to the 97.6 mph we saw in 2018. The Astros are plenty capable of ambushing the best of fastballs, with Tyler Glasnow this past Thursday night being the latest example. Another key thing to note from his last start: He managed just four whiffs on 27 total sliders. Severino is going to need more than that from his slider if he’s going to stand a chance against this offense.
In terms of raw power, this Yankees offense is loaded. We know they can hit home runs. However, unlike the Astros, they are far more susceptible to strikeouts. As a team they struck out at a 23.0% clip. Meanwhile, as mentioned earlier the Astros were tops in the league at 18.2%. The middle of the Yankee lineup features some righty bats in Judge, Stanton, and Sanchez who have K rates at or nearing 30%, they could get exposed mercilessly by the likes of Verlander and Cole. While the Astros lineup is primed for postseason play, the Yankee lineup could struggle especially so against the Astros’ elite pitching, which allowed nearly 100 runs fewer than Yankees pitching this year.
– Ryan Amore
|Batting K-BB%||23.0-9.1= 13.1%||18.2-10.1= 8.1%|
Everything here favors Houston. I mean, everything. There’s not really a stat that I could find in which the Yankees have any kind of overwhelming advantage.
Things to Watch
- How will Greinke pitch? Will his postseason struggles continue (3.35 regular season vs. 4.58 postseason)?
- Who pitches Game 4 for Houston?
Wade Miley came out of the pen in the ALDS after notably giving up 21 ER over 11.1 IP in September.Meanwhile, rookie Jose Urquidy gave up just three earned runs over his last 18 innings in September, but did so against the Angels twice, Seattle, and Oakland. He really only has only faced one or two strong offenses in his rookie season after lighting up Triple-A, so he could get the call.
- How does this Astros bullpen look and get deployed? Roberto Osuna is obviously at the back end, but Ryan Pressly has not been the same since returning from injury. Do we see more of Will Harris, Joe Smith, and Josh James?
- Does the extra time off (they played their last game Monday as opposed to the Astros, who finished Thursday) help the Yankees or make them rusty? Do the Astros look more battle tested or more fatigued?
- What does the Yankee lineup look like? With Hicks now healthy does Boone opt to insert him into the lineup? He would at the very least upgrade the lineup defensively as it could shift Gardner to left field, relegating a below-average glove in Stanton to DH. In that case, Encarnacion could play first, shifting LeMahieu to third. Though after he was on the shelf for so long, asking Hicks to go out and hit Astros pitching seems just a tad ambitious.
Does Luke Voit get a shot this series? He didn’t receive a single at-bat last series so it would appear unlikely at this point, but this is still someone who posted a .360 wOBA and .378 OBP across 510 plate appearances this year.
- NOTE: Luke Voit did not make the ALCS roster.
- Look for the Yankees to continue to aggressively use their bullpen. None of the Yankees starters hit 90 pitches against the Twins. Given what we’ve seen so far it would be a legitimate surprise to see any of them venture into the sixth inning.
- What do the Yankees do for a fourth starter? Sabathia is on the roster, but given where he is at this stage in his career, it seems a little strange to ask him to get big outs against the best offense in baseball. He also allowed 27 home runs in just 107.1 innings. Which would seemingly leave J.A. Happ. The very name should make any Yankee fan grimace in pain as he led the staff coughing up 34 home runs while allowing a .345 wOBA to RHB. Yikes. Would the Yankees consider Chad Green as an opener?
- How do the Yankees play at Houston? They’ve been fantastic at home this year with a 57-24 record, but on the road, they’ve been, not surprisingly, more pedestrian at 46-35. It was a different team, yes, but the Yankees struggled, scoring just three runs across four games at Houston in the 2017 ALCS. The Astros, meanwhile, won an MLB-best 60 games at home in 2019. Considering how dominant Cole is, the Yankees are likely going to have to take one of the first two games of this series in order to be successful.
- The Astros starters’ pitch counts. Yankee manager Boone has mentioned this on multiple occasions and that is the emphasis his hitters have in trying to control the zone and extend at-bats. Easier said than done, especially against elite pitching, but look for the Yankees hitters to try to elevate the Astros starters’ pitch counts and force them into their pen earlier than usual.
Dave Cherman: My heart says Yankees, but my brain says Astros in six. I think the Yankees struggle in that hostile Houston environment and drop both of the first two, then fall down 3-0 against Cole in New York before rallying to win the remaining two at home. Ultimately, though, Houston is just a significantly better team—up and down the lineup and up and down the rotation.
Ryan Amore: Yankees in seven games. As is often key for the underdog in these series: Can the Yankees manage to split the first two games? If so, then they’ve got a good chance to make this a long series. The Astros have a huge advantage in starting pitching, but Cole being pushed back to Game 3 is big. If the Yankees can manage to work the Astros starters and get into their pen earlier than usual, then they could hold an advantage.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@FreshMeatComm on Twitter)