Some people would say that this is the World Series. The New York Yankees and the Houston Astros in the ALCS. Let’s be honest, the Los Angeles Dodgers were the best team by a large margin in the National League and they are now gone. However, unlike the last two postseasons, we’re back to seeing variance as opposed to seeing the best make their way through the playoffs.
Well, to a degree, anyway. These were the two best teams in the American League bar none and this is the ALCS that we all deserve. And the one that baseball fans wanted. Unless, of course, you are a Twins fan or a Rays fan.
The Yankees have been big Rays fans this week. New York disposed of Minnesota in three neat and tidy games. The Rays, meanwhile, pushed the Astros to the brink, forcing Justin Verlander to go on three days rest in Game 4 and Gerrit Cole into action in Game 5. At this point, Verlander looks like the Game 2 starter and Cole looks like the Game 3 hurler. That would mean Zack Greinke in Game 1 and probably Wade Miley in Game 4, though we’ll have to see how that all plays out for AJ Hinch’s ballclub. It does mean that neither Cole nor Verlander will get three starts if the series goes seven games. That’s a win for New York.
You’ll find different opinions as to whether or not sitting around for several days is good for the Yankees. They didn’t have to play. They didn’t have to risk injury. They saved bullets from their starters and relievers. On the other hand, players are accustomed to playing. The only multi-day break from Opening Day until the final day of the regular season comes during the All-Star Break. Aside from that, players get a day off here or a day off there. The Yankees have to flip the switch, on the road, against a tough competitor in Zack Greinke on Saturday October 12, after having eliminated the Twins on October 7.
The Astros are favored in the -175 range for this one, with the Yankees in the +155 range. It’s fair to wonder what this line would have been had Verlander and Cole not been used in the ALDS, but this line has already come down a little bit as it is.
As storied as the Yankees are with their 27 championships, this is the first time since 2009-10 that the Yankees have made back-to-back ALCS appearances. Of course, they’ve only missed the playoffs four times since 1995, but it hasn’t been as easy in recent years. The Yankees have not made a World Series appearance since 2009. That’s what they will be going for in this series. The last time the Yankees went 103-59, they won the World Series. So there’s that.
In all seriousness, given the hellacious set of injuries this team overcame, a case can be made that this is the most battle-tested Yankees team in recent memory. This team lacks the starting pitching of past great teams, but the bullpen is exceptionally talented and this offense is outstanding. New York’s 943 runs were the most since the 2007 season.
The Astros are out to win their second AL pennant in three years. They won Game 1 in the ALCS against the Red Sox last season, but then lost four straight and watched the Red Sox win the trophy that they won in 2017. Houston’s 107 wins were the most in franchise history and a case can be made that this is one of the best teams ever, especially with some of the midseason acquisitions and call-ups. This is a really special group and this is a team that has won 311 games over the last three seasons. This Astros bunch also set a franchise record for runs scored. Last season, Houston set a franchise record for fewest runs allowed in a full season.
As has been my motif throughout the postseason, I’ll run through my three keys for this series:
- Hitting Shoes
Here are the ranks for these teams from the regular season:
Ironically, in the categories where the Astros and Yankees are not 1 & 2, the Twins are usually one of the teams in between and the Yankees just got rid of them in three games. The primary difference is that Minnesota’s pitching staff is nowhere near Houston’s. With that being said, the Yankees have to hit in this series. I don’t know how, but they need to.
The Yankees were third in wOBA against right-handed pitching during the regular season and tied for second in SLG. They’ll see a ton of right-handed pitching for the Astros. The only regular lefties in the Yankees lineup are Brett Gardner and Didi Gregorius. Four lefties, if you include switch hitter Aaron Hicks, remain on the disabled list.
If we look more specifically at R vs. R plate appearances, the Yankees were second (to the Astros, of course) in wOBA at .349. Of course, they were also 16th in K%. A .323 BABIP and a lot of power production overshadowed the strikeouts.
I wouldn’t expect a lot of fastballs from Astros pitchers in this series, but it is worth pointing out that the Yankees led the league in wOBA at .318 in terms of righty vs. righty plate appearances ending on an offspeed pitch or breaking ball. The Astros were second, as you would expect. The Yankees also led all of baseball in R vs. R plate appearances that ended in a fastball at a wOBA of .385.
If there is a right-handed-heavy lineup that can overcome the hardships of facing Greinke, Verlander, and Cole for six of the potential seven games, it is the Yankees.
And that’s what they will have to do. It goes without saying that it would go a long way to winning this series if the Yankees could slow down the Astros bats, but that seems like a herculean task.
- A Bullpen “Boone”
The Yankees bullpen worked 13.1 innings and allowed just three runs against the Twins. The walks could’ve been a problem with seven of those, but 16 strikeouts helped. Perhaps most importantly, the Yankees starting rotation worked 13.2 innings and only allowed four runs and four walks. They struck out 19. Masahiro Tanaka was plenty good enough in five innings and Luis Severino managed four shutout frames. James Paxton struggled.
As you can see, the Yankees got almost as many outs from their relievers as they did from their starters. That is very likely to be the case in this upcoming series. Tanaka threw 83 pitches. Paxton threw 86. Severino threw 83. Paxton faced 20 batters in Game 1. Tanaka faced 19 batters in Game 2. Severino faced 17 batters in Game 3.
What do all three of those starts have in common? The Yankees starters did not see the middle of the order a third time. Paxton may not have even been pushed as far as he was in Game 1 had it not been the first game of the series.
The New York bullpen is going to be pushed to its limits in this series. That’s nothing new. The Yankees ranked 26th in number of plate appearances with a starter facing a batter for the third time. The Angels, Rays, Brewers, and Blue Jays were below them. The Yankees did use some openers like those other teams, but this is a team that also fully understands how good its bullpen is. After all, the Yankees allowed the fourth-highest OPS against at .906 in those third time through plate appearances. (For what it’s worth (a lot!), the Astros had the lowest OPS against in those spots at .642)
This is one example of why not playing more than three games against the Twins could be very beneficial for the Yankees. Their bullpen is in good shape. They have multi-inning options like Luis Cessa, Jonathan Loaisiga, JA Happ, and CC Sabathia that they can roster in this series. We’re also extremely likely to see an opener at some point in this series, as James Paxton really isn’t “pitch on three days rest” caliber with his injury history. Neither is Tanaka or Severino.
The bullpen is going to play an extreme role in this series. I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility to say that this group will have to get upwards of 125 outs in this series, if not more, between starters leaving early and an opener game. These are the guys that you would want to face the Astros. Four Yankees relievers ranked in the top 35 in FIP among 158 qualified RP. Zach Britton didn’t, but he had an ERA under 2.
Not all bullpens are created equal, as we know, but the Astros ranked fourth in OPS in their first plate appearances against a reliever. The Yankees were fifth.
The Astros bullpen is solid, but top-heavier than the Yankees unit. Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressly, and Will Harris have been great all season long. The rest of the relievers have had their moments of struggle and strife. The long ball was a problem for several relievers, including Osuna at times. Chris Devenski was left off of the ALDS roster, due in large part to his home run issues. Josh James either gave up a home run, a walk, or finished with a strikeout. Brad Peacock struggled badly in 11 relief innings.
This is the one area where the Yankees have a concrete advantage. The Astros lineup is better overall and the rotation is decidedly better. The Yankees bullpen is deeper. As we know, that can be the difference in a playoff series.
- Versus Verlander
How the Yankees fare against Justin Verlander could very well decide this series. Gerrit Cole is the best pitcher on the Astros and the toughest matchup for the Yankees. Obviously Zack Greinke is solid in his own right and has the luxury of going righty vs. righty in most of his plate appearances, but he’s pitched to more contact with the Astros after coming over from the league where pitchers hit. The Yankees have the chance at getting to Greinke because their high K% against righties shouldn’t be as much of a factor.
Verlander, though, is the key. He’s the fly ball guy of the bunch. He’s the one that allowed 36 regular season home runs. The Astros could have the chance to make both of his starts at Minute Maid Park if he pitches Game 2 and Game 6, which would provide a big boost, as the park factor there is much better than the park factor at Yankee Stadium. The postseason balls could help, too.
The Yankees led all of baseball in runs scored, but were 20th in plate appearances with a runner in scoring position. The Astros were second in both runs and PA with RISP. Even in a short series, it is impossible to overstate how much the long ball means to the Yankees. Fortunately, it’s hard to string innings together against the Astros and guys like Verlander and Cole. Unfortunately, altered baseballs could limit the power production. The Yankees manufactured quite a few innings with 23 runs in three games against the Twins and only five home runs, but the Twins pitching staff wasn’t in the same stratosphere as Houston’s.
That means taking advantage of Verlander and his prowess for giving up the long ball. Greinke is pretty good at limiting them. Cole actually has a higher HR/FB% than Verlander, but he gave up seven fewer HR and he gave up 12 to right-handed batters, whereas Verlander surrendered 17.
From a line value standpoint, the Yankees are worth considering here. They are not as good as Houston in every facet of the game, but the bullpen is enough of a potential equalizer to consider the +155 or so price tag. Aaron Boone will manage aggressively. His starters will not see the lineup a third time through. How the Yankees put together enough outs from their relievers to outlast the Astros remains to be seen, but they have enough relief weapons to figure it out.
If the Yankees can steal Game 1, you’ll get a better price on Houston, even with Verlander and Cole coming in Games 2 and 3. If the Yankees can’t get Game 1, the Astros will be a much, much greater favorite, since that will require the Yankees beating Verlander twice, Cole twice, or one start from each at the very least.
I do think that the Astros move on. I also think that the winner of this series wins the World Series. I think the line is a little bit heavy on the Astros.
Rather than lay the -175 with Houston, I’d just go ahead and take Houston to win the World Series at the best price you can find in the +125 or +130 range. They’ll be a substantial favorite over either NL team. The same can really be true of the Yankees in the +250 range.
For my money, no offense to Cardinals and Nationals fans, this is the World Series.