After two very different Division Series, the two strongest teams in the AL by win totals and run differentials will meet in the ALCS. The Yankees (103-59) won just two games more than the Twins during the regular season, and were outhomered by one, yet they continued their post-millennial postseason dominance of Minnesota, beating them in a Division Series for the fifth time in the past 17 seasons, outscoring them by a combined total of 23-7 and producing the round’s only sweep. The Astros (107-55) looked as though they might sweep of the Rays as well after Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole produced two of the postseason’s most stifling performances to date, yet they needed the full five games to advance thanks to some strong pitching by the Rays, who kept most of the Astros’ big bats at bay.
This series is a real heavyweight bout. It’s the fifth time that two 100-win teams have matched up in a postseason series during the Wild Card era, all of which have taken place within the past three years: the 2017 World Series between the Astros (101-61) and Dodgers (104-58), the 2018 Division Series between the Red Sox (108-54) and Yankees (100-62), the subsequent ALCS matchup between those Red Sox and the Astros (103-59), and the aforementioned Yankees-Twins ALDS this year. In terms of combined wins by the two teams, this pairing is second only to last year’s Red Sox-Astros ALCS. Additionally, of course, this is a rematch of the 2017 ALCS, which was won by the Astros in a seven-game series during which home teams went undefeated. Houston has home-field advantage this time around as well, though they’re the one team from this pair who has yet to win a postseason game on the road. The series opens in Houston on Saturday, October 12, at 8 pm.
Based upon what we saw in the Division Series, here’s my best guess as to how the two teams will line up their respective rotations (this has been updated to reflect both managers’ announcements of their Games 1-3 starters):
|Gm||Date||Home||Astros (DR)||Yankees (DR)|
|1||Oct. 12||HOU||Zack Greinke (4)||Masahiro Tanaka (6)|
|2||Oct. 13||HOU||Justin Verlander (4)||James Paxton+ (8)|
|3||Oct. 15||NYY||Gerrit Cole (4)||Luis Severino (7)|
|4||Oct. 16||NYY||Jose Urquidy (7)||Chad Green (8)/J.A. Happ+ (11)|
|5||Oct. 17||NYY||Zack Greinke (4)||Masahiro Tanaka (4)|
|6||Oct. 19||HOU||Justin Verlander (5)||James Paxton+ (5)|
|7||Oct. 20||HOU||Gerrit Cole (4)||Luis Severino (4)|
On a sheer performance basis during the regular season, this is a mismatch that heavily favors the Astros:
|Yankees (Severino 162)||648||24.1%||7.0%||17.1%||1.45||42.3%||4.20||4.18||.293||12.5|
Houston has the league’s top two pitchers by ERA (Cole 2.50, Verlander 2.58) and strikeout rate (Cole 39.9%, Verlander 35.4%), and the top three by lowest wOBA the third time through the order (Cole .231, Verlander .238, Greinke .238). But because they were stretched to five games in the Division Series — with Verlander starting Game 4 on three days of rest and getting roughed up (four runs and seven hits in 84 pitches over 3.2 innings) and Cole needed for Game 5 — they can’t get to their pair of aces until Games 2 and 3 here, and they aren’t guaranteed to pitch them twice unless the series is extended. As you can see, they’ll line up just fine if that’s the case.
Greinke, who himself was cuffed in his Game 3 start (3.2 innings, three homers, six runs on just 61 pitches) will pitch Game 1 instead. The rookie Urquidy, who was bypassed for the Division Series Game 4 start by manager A.J. Hinch, figures to get the nod here; while the 24-year-old righty has just 41 major league innings under his belt, he matches up better with a very righty-heavy lineup — Brett Gardner and Didi Gregorius are the only lefty starters — than lefty Wade Miley, who was pummeled for a 12.60 ERA and 6.08 FIP over his final six starts.
The Yankees’ stats would look better with a fuller complement of Severino’s innings than just the 12 he actually threw, but still, the rotation was not their strength this year. Paxton led the staff with 3.5 WAR and pitched to a 2.51 ERA and 3.26 FIP over the final two months of the season, albeit against some weak competition. But in part due to his third-time-through woes (.367 wOBA allowed, placing him in the bottom quintile), manager Aaron Boone didn’t let him or Severino pitch even a full five innings in their Division Series starts, and he pulled Tanaka — who authored the most impressive start of the trio in Game 2, but was even worse this year during the third time through (.387 wOBA) — after just five, preferring to turn things over to a powerhouse bullpen. As it was, the Yankees’ starters did a better job of limiting walks and homers in the Division Series than the Astros (7.1% versus 8.9% in the former category, 1.3 HR/9 to 1.8 in the latter) while striking out a a healthy complement (33.9% versus 38.3%), a performance they’ll have to repeat to have any kind of chance in this series.
With respect to the orders above, the extra rest allowed the Yankees to swap Paxton (who started ALDS Game 1) and Tanaka, who over the course of his career has thrived while pitching in the crucible of Yankee Stadium, posting a 3.36 ERA and 3.74 FIP at home (including 3.10 and 3.78 this year) versus 4.15 and 4.03 away (6.05 and 4.85 this year); he’ll now pitch Game 5 in the Bronx if the series gets that far, rather than Games 2 and 6 in Houston.
Get Some Relief
In the Division Series against the Twins, Boone outmanaged counterpart Rocco Baldelli by keeping the ball in the hands of his top relievers with greater frequency; 10.1 of their 13.1 bullpen innings were thrown by Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Tommy Kahnle, Chad Green, and Adam Ottavino, with another inning taken by Happ, and the group combined to allow just two runs.
During the regular season, the Astros’ bullpen had the lower ERA of the pair, but with 109.2 fewer innings and a higher FIP (4.24 to 4.15), they produced far less WAR (7.5 to 4.3). During their Division Series, which featured the aforementioned fourth-inning exits by Verlander and Greinke, they needed a combined 4.1 innings from Urquidy and Miley; meanwhile, Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressly, Will Harris, Hector Rondon, and Joshua James combined to allow four runs in seven innings, though none of them proved consequential.
Among these groups, the Yankees have the performance advantage:
|Yankees top 5||316.0||31.6%||10.4%||21.2%||0.85||49.1%||2.79||3.12||.285||6.9|
|Astros top 5||301.1||29.2%||7.6%||21.5%||1.19||48.0%||2.99||3.51||.259||4.5|
The Yankees’ relievers were much better at preventing the longball, while the Astros’ relievers walked significantly fewer batters. The latter group, which has three pitchers with groundball rates of 50% or higher (Harris, Rondon, and Pressly), got a lot of help from a defense that frankly is far superior by the key measures (.717 to .686 in defensive efficiency, 14.9 to 2.7 in UZR, and 90 to -18 in DRS), an advantage that of course extends to the rotations as well; the Yankees group’s groundball rate is skewed by Britton’s 77.2%, with Kahnle (50.4%) the only other pitcher above Chapman’s 42.1%.
Aside from Miley, the Astros aren’t likely to carry a southpaw on the roster, which doesn’t matter terribly given the Yankees’ modest left-handed presence; both Gardner (70 wRC+ in 142 PA against lefties) and Gregorius (87 in 94 PA) could welcome that, but Pressly (.159 wOBA against lefties), Osuna (.207), and Harris (.212) are particularly adept at getting such hitters out. The Yankees will have three lefties in Chapman (.208 wOBA against lefties), Britton (.220), and likely CC Sabathia (.301) replacing rookie Tyler Lyons for what could be his final major league innings. They’ll need to worry about the Astros’ two potent lefties, Yordan Alvarez and Michael Brantley; the former hit for a 171 wRC+ in 131 PA against lefties, the latter just 103 in 184 PA.
Worth noting: the Astros could add righty swingman Brad Peacock, who threw just three innings in September due to shoulder discomfort, to the roster; he could provide multiple innings, particularly in Game 4. Chris Devenski, who led the team in relief innings (67), albeit of replacement-level quality, did not make the ALDS roster and isn’t expected to make the cut here.
Heavy Hitters Galore
The Yankees’ lineup is a juggernaut that rarely takes a backseat to any other team, but the Astros aren’t just any other team. They make more frequent contact, they walk more often, they hit for a higher average, and they’re better against both righties and lefties:
|Team||AVG/OBP/SLG||wRC+||wRC+ vs L||wRC+ vs R||BB%||K%||BsR||Off||Def||WAR|
The Yankees did out-homer the Astros during the regular season, 306 to 288, but even Houston’s total would have set the major league record if they’d hit ’em last year. The Astros had four players hit at least 30 homers in Alex Bregman (41), George Springer (39), and Jose Altuve and Yuli Gurriel (31 apiece), with Alvarez smacking 27 in just 369 PA; Brantley (22) and Carlos Correa (21 in just 321 PA) were also over 20, and every lineup regular hit at least 10. Seven of their regulars posted a 132 wRC+ or better, with Josh Reddick (94) and backup catcher Martin Maldonado (76) the only players of significance below 100.
The Yankees, who dealt with a record number of injuries, became the first team to have 14 players reach 10 homers. Only two players hit more than 30, namely Gleyber Torres (38) and Gary Sanchez (34), but Gardner (28), Aaron Judge (27), DJ LeMahieu (26), Luke Voit (21), and Gio Urshela (21) all hit more than 20 for them, and Edwin Encarnación totaled 34 including his time in Seattle. While they had 10 players produce a 125 wRC+ or better, four of them (the injured Mike Tauchman and the bench-limited Mike Ford, Voit, and Cameron Maybin) won’t play much or any of a role here. Gregorius (84 wRC+) was the weak link, but he went 4-for-10 with a grand slam and two walks in the ALDS, making the lineup that much more dangerous. Between that and the return of Encarnación to the lineup in time for the Division Series, there’s simply no place for opposing pitchers to hide; the Yankees hit a combined .293/.403/.525 in the series with five homers.
The rustiness of Giancarlo Stanton and the possible return of Aaron Hicks from a right flexor strain that appeared as though it might end his season could result in a major lineup reconfiguration. Stanton, after being limited by injuries to just 18 regular season games, went just 1-for-6 with four walks and a sacrifice fly and looked rough in the field as well; he could move to DH, with Encarnación at first base, LeMahieu at third, and Urshela to the bench. If the Yankees deem Hicks healthy enough — and they’re undecided at this writing — he would play center field, with Gardner moving to left; otherwise, Maybin could get a look in left.
In addition to having the edge against pitchers of both hands, the Astros appear to have a decisive edge when it comes to matching up against certain pitch types. Via Statcast, here are the team wOBAs against each of the major types. First, the pitchers’ wOBAs allowed:
The Astros have edges of 30 points or more via both breaking pitches — their sliders were the majors’ most effective by this measure, and their changeups were top five — and 20 points against all four-seamers, a gap that widens to 34 points when considering only those of 95 mph or higher, the province of Cole, James, Osuna, Pressly, and sometimes Verlander. The Yankees have the edge only against sinkers/two-seamers (Baseball Savant doesn’t aggregate them, but I have, as Pitch Info does); they were the majors’ second-best in that category. The Yankees were worse than league average via four-seamers (moreso against high-velo ones) and curves, and average-ish via sliders and changeups. Let all of that rest for a moment as you see the hitter wOBAs against:
The two teams were the majors’ best against four-seamers, and the Astros were the best against sliders; the Yankees were sixth-best there, but the gap between the two was huge, which when considered in the context of the Astros’ pitchers’ advantage in that department, appears to be a very big advantage. Drilling down, Verlander (.164 wOBA allowed on sliders), Cole (.224), Pressly (.200), and Osuna (.168) — their top two starters and top two relievers, no big deal — were particularly lethal with that pitch, though Greinke (.313) was worse than average. Gregorius (.361), Voit (.358), LeMahieu (.334), Sanchez (.327), and Judge (.320) were significantly above-average there, and Torres (.296) was above average but nothing special; Hicks (.282) and Urshela (.275) were middling, Encarnacion (.250) and Gardner (.242) bad.
Where the Yankees would appear to have some advantage is their pitchers’ high-velocity offerings versus the Astros’ lineup, but with Domingo Germán (.219) on administrative leave in connection with a domestic violence allegation, that really comes down to Chapman (.277) and Green (.307), with Severino (.214 in a small sample this year, .323 including last year) about average and Paxton (.340) and Kahnle (.385) worse than average. Springer (.558), Bregman (.478), Atuve (.411), and Alvarez (.388) are particularly dangerous against such heat, with Brantley (.303), Gurriel (.301), Reddick (.206), and Robinson Chirinos (.147) vulnerable. So this may not amount to much.
There’s more to be said about both teams, but in short-series baseball, any analysis can quickly be confounded. Still, while these are two behemoths, it’s not hard to escape the conclusion that the Astros’ decisive advantages in terms of starting pitching, on offense against pitching of either hand, and on defense can offset the Yankees’ bullpen advantage. Our depth charts-based playoff odds give the Astros a 65.4% chance of winning the series, though the ZiPS game-by-game version — which has Houston’s Game 4 as a bullpen game — gives them just a 54.2% chance. If the two teams can match the intensity of their 2017 pairing, this could be a very memorable series, but the arrow points to Houston.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.