Last Updated: 2017-10-13
The New York Yankees have already beaten one of the best that the American League had to offer. Are the Houston Astros next? The prize for being the top seed in the AL was to get the better of the two AL East teams and the Cleveland Indians failed to close out New York, despite three shots to do it. The Yankees left Cleveland’s visitors clubhouse reeking of champagne, which is the second time that has happened in the last year (no, I’m not bitter), to fly out to Houston for Friday’s Game 1. The Astros are a hefty series favorite in the -190 price range, but that’s the same price the Indians were, so being the underdog isn’t a foreign concept to the Bronx Bombers as this series begins.
Here is the schedule for the series and my guess on the pitching matchups:
Game 1 @ HOU, Friday October 13, 8 p.m. ET (Tanaka vs. Keuchel)
Game 2 @ HOU, Saturday October 14, 4 p.m. ET (Severino vs. Verlander)
Game 3 @ NYY, Monday October 16, 8 p.m. ET (Morton vs. Gray)
Game 4 @ NYY, Tuesday October 17, TBD (Peacock vs. Sabathia)
Game 5 @ NYY, Wednesday October 18, TBD (Keuchel vs. Tanaka)
Game 6 @ HOU, Friday October 20, TBD (Severino vs. Verlander)
Game 7 @ HOU, Saturday October 21, TBD (Gray vs. Morton)
The most important thing when comparing these two teams is not to let recency bias factor in too heavily. The Yankees faced a much stiffer test from Cleveland pitching than the Astros did from Boston pitching.
Houston slashed .282/.346/.478 as a team during the regular season and blew the league away with a .349 wOBA and a 121 wRC+. The Yankees were very strong as well with a .262/.339/.447 slash line, a .336 wOBA and a 108 wRC+. Because Houston played in so many bad road parks for offense with Anaheim, Oakland, and Seattle within the division, their .353 road wOBA is a stunning figure and deserves a lot of attention. The Yankees were sixth in road wOBA at .325. As we know, Yankee Stadium is a good place for offense, so I have to give Houston a pretty big edge here.
One big difference between the two offenses comes in the form of the plate discipline metrics. The Astros struck out in just 17.3 percent of their plate appearances. The Yankees struck out in 21.8 percent of their plate appearances. The Yankees do bridge that gap a bit by having a 9.7 percent BB% to Houston’s 8.1 percent BB%, but it’s hard to find fault with anything that the Astros have done offensively this season. They far and away led the league in slugging percentage and made a ton of contact in another season with rising strikeout rates.
Houston absolutely mauled fastballs, too. The Astros were 36.3 runs above average on four-seamers and 37.9 runs above average on two-seamers. They were also 24.5 runs above average on sinkers and 24.3 runs above average on curveballs. Basically, it is nearly impossible to find pitch types and usage patterns that are going to level the playing field. The Yankees also hit fastballs really well. They won’t face the same type of overpowering arms that the Indians were able to put out there, especially with the same level of breaking stuff. This is a series where we could see a lot of offense because both groups are strong. The Yankees were second in offensive production against right-handed pitching, which wound up being the deciding factor against the right-handed-heavy Indians staff.
I have to give Houston the edge because of the full body of work, but the idea of a Yankees lineup in which Aaron Judge isn’t completely overmatched like he was against Cleveland could even the gap significantly.
The Astros and Yankees were extremely comparable this season. Houston had a 9.31 K/9 and a 3.09 BB/9 with a 4.03/3.95/3.81 pitcher slash (ERA/FIP/xFIP). New York had a 8.97 K/9 with a 2.76 BB/9 and a 3.98/4.18/3.83 pitcher slash. The potential deciding factor here is that the Astros now have Justin Verlander, who has been brilliant with the Astros, and he only made five regular season starts to contribute to those numbers. The Yankees added Sonny Gray at the Trade Deadline, but the fact that CC Sabathia started Game 5 over Gray was pretty telling about how he’s currently throwing the ball.
On the other hand, Masahiro Tanaka, who was dominant in Game 3, had a horrendous first half and a much better second half. Tanaka had a 5.47 ERA with a .275/.330/.511 slash against in the first half and a 3.77 ERA with a .229/.267/.405 slash against in the second half.
Something to watch in this series is to see how the Astros do with premium velocity. When Luis Severino started Game 4, the Yankees as a team averaged 98 mph with their fastballs. The Indians hitters were overmatched and this is a team that had one of the best contact profiles in all of baseball. Houston falls into the same boat. The Astros actually made contact more often than the Indians did. The Indians didn’t make very much great contact in the ALDS and Houston may fall into a similar situation. If that is the case, then this series becomes a lot more interesting.
Top to bottom, the edge in this department depends on how Charlie Morton and Brad Peacock pitch, unless Lance McCullers gets a start. The Astros have a lot of options. Morton allowed two runs on four hits across 5.1 innings in his ALDS start. Peacock only had two strikeouts with two runs allowed on five hits in five innings. Both guys had more than a strikeout per inning this season. If they can’t miss bats against a far more potent Yankees lineup, I’m going to be very worried about the Astros rotation.
For now, I’ll lean slightly to the New York side because I don’t know if Morton and Peacock can get their swing and miss going. If they can’t, the Yankees are going to put a lot of balls in play and that will significantly increase the Yankees’ chance of pulling the upset.
The Yankees have the edge. Period. They have an edge over pretty much everybody. The Indians bullpen went toe-to-toe with the Yankees in that department and, in fact, may have outshined that part of the team. But, in the end, it wasn’t enough. With Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Dellin Betances, Chad Green, and Adam Warren all weapons capable of going multiple innings, this is a really tremendous unit.
The Astros are good, with multi-inning weapon Chris Devenski, a strong closer in Ken Giles, and other middle relief pieces like Will Harris and Joe Musgrove, but the Yankees are much deeper and much stronger. Luke Gregerson’s home run problem could be a huge issue in this series against one of the few teams that can stack up in the thunder department with Houston. If Lance McCullers is in the bullpen and can harness his control, he will be a weapon in this series.
The problem is that the Yankees bullpen is one of the best ever assembled.
Joe Girardi made some missteps in the ALDS. He should have challenged Lonnie Chisenhall’s hit-by-pitch. He was too slow on the hook for CC Sabathia in Game 5. I thought he leveraged his relievers pretty well and knew the right times to bring David Robertson into the game and I think that may be his most valuable weapon.
AJ Hinch has made some questionable moves in the past, though I do believe his background in sabermetrics gives him a high upside as a manager. We’ll have to see how he does in a higher-leverage environment against a very, very good New York lineup.
The Astros struggled a bit defensively. They were 20th in defensive runs saved at -17 and rated worse in UZR at -26.7. The Yankees were +14 in the DRS department and just on the plus side in UZR.
One big intangible, as mentioned above, is that Houston hit very well away from home in some subpar offensive environments. Yankee Stadium will not lower their offensive potential at all. That could be a big deciding factor in this series.
Series Pick: New York Yankees +165
The gap in this series isn’t this big. I do believe that the Astros ultimately win this series because their offense is just so good, but the price point would dictate a shot on the Yankees. This should be another long series, at which point I’ll be concerned about how New York played the extra game against the Indians and the Wild Card Game.