The Yanks might see a different Dallas Keuchel in Game Five

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Once again, the Yankees have battled back from down 2-0 in a postseason series to knot things up 2-2. They did it against the Indians in the ALDS and now they’ve done it against the Astros in the ALCS. Their reward: Dallas Keuchel in Game Five and Justin Verlander in Game Six. That’s no fun. Then again, no one thought facing Corey Kluber in Game Five of the ALDS would be fun, and we know how that went.

Keuchel, as you know, shut the Yankees down in his team’s Game One win. Seven scoreless innings, four hits, one run, ten strikeouts. He was dominant. And he’s been dominant against the Yankees pretty much his entire career. The players change but Keuchel’s dominance against the laundry has remained the same.

In theory, seeing Keuchel for the second time in the span of a week should help. The Yankees are more familiar with him now, right? Ben Lindbergh’s research suggests otherwise. During the wildcard era, pitchers who made two starts in a single postseason series showed no significant change in performance in the second start, as long as they were on normal rest, like Keuchel will be in Game Five.

postseason-starters

Keep in mind that is a big picture look at things. That’s the average of 211 pitchers making multiple starts in one postseason series. In one individual game, anything can happen. The Yankees could benefit from seeing Keuchel for the second time in the series even though the research suggests it doesn’t really matter. And this works both ways. The Astros could benefit from seeing Masahiro Tanaka for the second time in Game Five too.

When Keuchel dominated the Yankees in Game One, he did it primarily with his sinker and slider. He threw 109 total pitches in the game and 57 were sinkers. Another 28 were sliders. That’s 52.8% sinkers and 25.8% sliders. His regular season averages: 50.8% sinkers and 18.7% sliders. Furthermore, Keuchel threw one (1) changeup in Game One. That’s all. He said Tuesday the pitch wasn’t working, so he had to lean on his slider instead.

“It mainly was a feel. I’m usually throwing 10-15, maybe 20% percent changeups, especially to this group being such good fastball hitters” said Keuchel yesterday when asked about not using his changeup in Game One. “And it was just the fact that I had some really late movement on my two-seam and my slider was really good, the cutter was decent. So I didn’t feel the need to change speeds with the changeup.”

That is sorta scary! Keuchel pitched so well in Game One despite not using his changeup, which is widely regarded as his best secondary pitch. He didn’t have a feel for the pitch, so he had to lean on the slider — and also the cutter, which he threw 19 times, way more than usual — and he still pitched effectively. Chances are Keuchel won’t eschew his changeup in Game Five. At least not if it’s working.

“Hopefully that comes into play tomorrow where they only saw one changeup,” added Keuchel.” It might come in handy … The changeup usually is the second to third best pitch. And for me to not use it hopefully will come into play for me tomorrow.”

On one hand, this sounds bad. Keuchel pitched well last time out and he did it without his best secondary pitch, and now he figures to break it out in Game Five. On the other hand, Keuchel has thrown only one changeup in the past 12 days. Including his ALDS start against the Red Sox, he’s thrown only seven changeups in the last 23 days. The changeup is a feel pitch, and if you don’t throw it much, it can be easy to lose that feel.

Even though the fastball-slider approach worked in Game One, my hunch is Keuchel will look to use his changeup more often in Game Five today, as long as the pitch is behaving properly. That means a new look for the Yankees, who didn’t see the pitch in Game One. With any luck, Keuchel will hang a few of those changeups and the Yankees will take advantage, or he’s miss out of the zone and put them in favorable counts. That’s where a potential lack of feel can come into play.

Either way, changeup or no changeup, I feel the key to beating Keuchel remains the same: wait him out. Houston’s middle relief is sketchy as hell right now — even Ken Giles, as good as he is, has allowed a run in all four postseason appearances so far — and the more bullpen the Yankees see, the better their chances of winning. Keuchel is awfully tough and he can frustrate opposing hitters and fans alike. The sooner the Yankees get him out of the game, the better.

Thoughts prior to Game Five of the 2017 ALCS

(Getty)
(Getty)

So are we having fun this postseason or what? Once again, the Yankees have fought back from down 0-2 in a series to even things up 2-2. They did it against the Indians in the ALDS, and now the Astros are getting a taste of the Fighting Spirit in the ALCS. That win was amazing yesterday, but the series is far from over. You know that. It’s a best-of-three now. Anyway, let’s get to the thoughts.

1. Now that the series is tied 2-2, the hard part begins. Mathematically, the Yankees have to do two things to win this series. They have to beat Dallas Keuchel or Justin Verlander, and they have to win a game in Houston. Can’t do it any other way. Today’s game is huge for both teams, because neither wants to go back to Houston needing to win Games Six and Seven. That’s true for the Astros, not just the Yankees. Because there’s an off-day tomorrow, I imagine Joe Girardi is ready to go all out with his bullpen to nail down a win today. In a perfect world Masahiro Tanaka would throw seven brilliant innings like he did in Game Three of the ALDS, when the Yankees were facing elimination. If not, Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson could both be asked to throw multiple innings. So could Aroldis Chapman if there are some stray outs that need to get got in the eighth. Girardi knows these guys will get to rest Thursday, and a win today in Game Five would make things so much easier going forward. Hopefully Tanaka continues to pitch well and takes the ball deep into the game. If not, I expect Girardi to use that bullpen aggressively.

2. Speaking of the bullpen, the Astros seem to have some issues down there, huh? Steven wrote about this last week. Ken Giles, last night’s blowup aside, has been pretty great all year. Chris Devenski and Will Harris have been very home run prone since the All-Star break though — Harris gave up Aaron Judge‘s three-run home run in Game Three — and neither Luke Gregerson nor Francisco Liriano inspire much confidence right now. There’s a reason neither see high-leverage work. The Yankees sent 15 batters to plate against Houston’s bullpen yesterday and none of the 15 struck out. That seems impossible. Could you imagine the Yankees bullpen going 15 batters without a strikeout? Keuchel and Verlander are workhorses of the first order. The Astros can reasonably expect them to pitch deep into Games Five and Six because they’ve been doing it all year. Now that the Yankees are seeing these guys a second time, hopefully they work the count a little more and not only be more effective against them, but also get into the bullpen a little sooner. The Astros have some issues down there right now, and I’ll take my chances in a battle of the bullpens any day of the week.

3. Man, how great was it to see Judge and Gary Sanchez play such huge roles in the comeback yesterday? Forget about their recent strikeout-filled slumps for a second. I’m just talking about two young cornerstone players getting huge hits in a postseason game. That is an awful lot of fun, isn’t it? These two are the faces of the franchise now. These are the types of hits and moments the Yankees are going to count on them to provide the next five or ten or however many years. And to see them do it now, in their first postseason and first full MLB season? Gosh that is awesome. Sanchez and especially Judge have looked more dangerous at the plate the last two games and it’s not a second too soon. The Yankees need those two to beat Keuchel and Verlander. I’m just glad they were able to snap out of their slumps and contribute in a huge way to that memorable win last night. That alone is really exciting and memorable.

(Getty)
(Getty)

4. Todd Frazier has been exactly the right player at exactly the right time for the Yankees. He’s been involved in basically every notable rally so far this postseason. He had the run-scoring double against Trevor Bauer in ALDS Game Four. He worked a nine-pitch walk in front of Brett Gardner‘s monster 12-pitch at-bat in ALDS Game Five. He slugged the three-run home run in ALCS Game Three the other day. Then, last night, he started that four-run eighth inning rally with a leadoff single. Frazier is a flawed hitter. He pops up a lot and it drags down his average. That’s just who he is. But, so far this postseason, Frazier has shown he’s not afraid of the bright lights and he embraces the biggest moments. And that’s on top of all the intangibles he adds. His teammates love him and he brings so much energy to ballclub. No one is having more fun than this dude. Given his role as a complementary player who bats near the bottom of the order, he’s been as good as the Yankees could’ve possibly hoped. Sometimes teams make a trade and that player just fits in perfectly. That’s Frazier.

5. Austin Romine catching Sonny Gray is absolutely going to be a thing now. Assuming the Yankees advance and Gray makes another start, of course. I hope he gets that chance. Following the game yesterday Gray said he and Romine were on the same page — he shook him off only once in five innings — and they had a good rhythm going. That sounds like more than enough for Girardi to justify keeping them together. Gray’s last four starts prior to yesterday were rough, mostly because he struggled to throw strikes, so I imagine anything that makes him comfortable and effective will remain in place going forward. That’s Romine. Gray said himself they were working well together. What can you do? I guess this is a thing now.

6. With each passing round this postseason, the atmosphere at Yankee Stadium has gotten better and better. The place was electric last night. The atmosphere was great during the Wild Card Game, it was even better during the ALDS, and now it’s better than it’s ever been since the new place opened. I went to postseason games in 2009. Aside from maybe Alex Rodriguez‘s game-tying home run against Joe Nathan, I don’t ever remember the ballpark getting as loud and as rowdy as it did during the eighth inning rally last night. It’s been amazing. Really amazing. This team is lovable — how weird is it that the most lovable team left in the postseason is the Yankees? — and fans are buying into it. The fact they’ve exceeded expectations makes it so much better. This has been such a fun ride, from the young players having so much success on down to being at the ballpark.

Yankees 6, Astros 4: Judge and Sanchez lead Yanks to come-from-behind win in Game Four

You didn’t doubt the Fighting Spirit, did you? The October ghosts have returned to Yankees baseball. I’ve missed them. The Yankees mounted a remarkable comeback in Game Four of the ALCS on Tuesday night to even the series at 2-2. The final score: 6-4. This team, man. I never want this to end.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Welcome To October In The Bronx, Kids
We have to start at the end with this game. We just have to. The Yankees were down 4-0 after six and a half innings — we’ll get to that in a bit — and Lance McCullers Jr. was razor sharp. He held the Yankees to one hit, a bloop single, through six innings. The Yankees were completely overmatched by that mid-80s curveball and mid-90s fastball. Just about everything they hit was on the ground. McCullers mowed them down.

It was until the seventh inning, with his 81st and final pitch, that McCullers made his first real mistake. He hung a first pitch curveball to Aaron Judge, and Aaron Judge did what Aaron Judge does to hanging curveballs. Long dinger into Monument Park. His previous two postseason homers were pulled to left and only a row or two back. This was a true Aaron Judge shot. Gone off the bat, the whole nine. We hadn’t seen a swing like that since September.

The Judge home run got the fans back into the game. They’d been silenced by McCullers and the dread of falling behind in the series 3-1 with Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander looming. The Judge home run energized the crowd. Then, when Didi Gregorius followed with a triple into the left-center field gap, the ballpark was back to life. Everyone was on their feet. Gary Sanchez plated Didi with a sac fly to cut the deficit to 4-2. Progress.

The eighth inning … that’s when the magic happened. The Yankees had one of their best offensive innings of the season that inning, and I don’t mean in terms of total runs scored. I’m just talking about quality at-bats, big hits, that sorta stuff. There’s a lot to go through here, so let’s recap with an annotated play-by-play.

yankees-astros-play-by-play(1) So Todd Frazier is involved in pretty much every rally these days, right? Right. That dude is in the middle of everything. I know he’s a flawed hitter because of his low average and all the pop-ups, but man, the big spot just seems to find that dude, and so far this postseason, he’s come up pretty damn big. In the eighth inning, the Yankees needed him to be a leadoff hitter, and he hooked a sinker into left field for a leadoff single. Just like that, the tying run was at the plate.

(2) Chase. Dude. Chase Headley pinch-hit for Austin Romine, swung through two Joe Musgrove fastballs for a quick two-strike count, then stroked a double into the left-center field gap. See? I told you the hits would start to fall as long as Headley keeps making quality contact. On this double, Headley slipped on the first base bag and stumbled between first and second. He was toast. The Astros had him. Carlos Correa, the relay man, took a little too long to make a throwing decision, allowing Headley to recover and make it to second base safely. It was one of those “no no no yes yes yes!” plays. Everything was going wrong, yet it all worked out. Replay confirmed Headley was safe. The tying run was in scoring position with no outs and the lineup was about to turn over.

(3) I know a run-scoring ground out is boring as hell, but during a series in which contact has been hard to come by, Brett Gardner getting that run in felt big. Ken Giles has nasty, nasty stuff, and he got ahead in the count 1-2 on Gardner. Brett was in battle mode, and he was able to pull a slider to second base to score the run and advance Headley to third. Now the deficit was only 4-3, and a fly ball would’ve tied the game.

(4) For the first time in a while, Aaron Judge had an Aaron Judge at-bat. Giles has a wicked slider and Judge spit on two of them down-and-away. He’s been chasing sliders off the plate since the start of the ALDS. Judge fouled off a fastball for a 2-2 count, and given his postseason to date, it was easy to fear the unproductive strikeout. I know I did. Instead, Giles left a slider up juuust enough, and Judge went down and hammered it off the left field wall to tie the game. To the action footage:

Man, what a moment. I thought it was gone off the bat — it certainly looked like a Judge homer off the bat — but a game-tying double off the wall works just as well. It was so great to see Judge take two sliders out of the zone, then go down to hammer the mistake slider for a game-changing hit. He’s been missing that pitch or taking it for strike three for a few games now. What a huge hit. One of the biggest of the season, hands down.

(5) Sometimes, you just need a little luck. The Gregorius single was a solidly hit ground ball that, more than anything, was well-placed. It was deep enough in the shortstop hole that Correa couldn’t reach it, and, even if it had, he wouldn’t have thrown out Gregorius. Judge was able to advance to third after freezing on the ground ball in front of him. Now the Yankees had the go-ahead run at third base with one out.

(6) Going into this eighth inning at-bat, Sanchez was riding an 0-for-18 slump that dated back to the ALDS. There were signs he was starting to snap out of it though. Last night he ripped a 98.1 mph line drive in his final at-bat that I thought was gone, but didn’t carry in the cold air. Gary’s at-bats have been progressing from ugly strikeout to weak contact to solid contact. It was progress. Giles started him with two sliders and hey, why not? I would’ve done the same thing. Sanchez can get antsy at times and chase out of the zone. Gary took both sliders for a 2-0 count, and, to my surprise, Giles gave him a 2-0 fastball. Didn’t expect that. It was 98.6 mph coming into and 113.1 mph going out.

Gregorius was running on the pitch but I’m sure he was going to score from first base anyway. What a rocket. What a huge hit. Sanchez had been fighting it all series. The Astros have pitched him really well. The Yankees aren’t going anywhere without Judge and Sanchez contributing. Judge had the home run and the game-tying double. When it was Sanchez’s turn, he doubled into the right-center field gap to give the Yankees a 6-4 lead. Shooting a 98.6 mph heater the other way. Beautiful. Just beautiful. I’ve never heard the new Yankee Stadium louder than it was at the moment.

(7) You know things are going well when Starlin Castro works a work. The Astros were on their third pitcher of the inning at this point, and the Castro walk loaded the bases. I was ready for Aaron Hicks to do the damn thing. Or at least hit a fly ball to get an insurance run in, you know? Luke Gregerson fed Hicksie a steady diet of sinkers, which is unusual. He’s an extreme slider guy. Hicks was down in the count 1-2 when he hit a weak tapper to first base, allowing Yulieski Gurriel to throw home for the force out. Blah. No more runs. But you know what? That’s okay. The Yankees had the lead.

Houston’s bullpen in Game Four: 2 IP, 6 H, 5 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 0 K on 54 pitches. Their bullpen had the second highest strikeout rate during the regular season, behind the Yankees. They faced 15 batters and struck out zero Tuesday. The Yankees put together some high-quality at-bats in the seventh and eighth innings, got the big hits, and got a little lucky as well (Headley’s stumble, most notably). At one point in the seventh inning, the Astros had a 94.2% chance to win the game. Then the Yankees went to work against their bullpen.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Sonny Gray-t
Get it? Sonny Gray-t, like Sonny Great? Yes? No? I might break that one out again. You are forewarned. Anyway, Sonny’s last few starts have not gone all that well, mostly because he couldn’t stop walking people. And while he walked only two batters in his five innings in Game Four, he was hardly precise. Gray battled through the first two innings before setting down for his final three frames.

Through five innings, Gray held the ‘Stros to one hit and one walk, and he recorded nine of his 12 ball-in-play outs on the ground. That works. With the game still scoreless in the sixth, Sonny walked George Springer on four pitches to start the inning, then threw a first pitch ball to Josh Reddick. And that was it. His afternoon was over. Joe Girardi went right to David Robertson, which warmed my heart. Scoreless game with the middle of the order coming up? Give me the best reliever regardless of inning.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. Reddick reached on a catcher interference — other teams are allowed to do that against the Yankees? rude — and Robertson walked Altuve to load the bases. Bases loaded with no outs without no balls in play. Walk, catcher interference, walk. Yuck. Robertson did strike out Correa for the first out, so that was cool, but then he hung the hell out of the curveball to Gurriel. Look where Romine wanted it and where Robertson threw it:

yulieski-gurriel-david-robertson

Romine set up down-and-away and Robertson left the pitch way up in the zone inside. Pretty impressive that Gurriel was able to keep that fair. A lot of times pulling a pitch like that equals a foul ball. Instead, the ball shot down the left field line and beyond the reach of a diving Frazier at third base. All three runners scored and Gurriel was thrown out after being caught in a rundown, though that didn’t mean much. The damage had been done.

Gray’s final line: 5 IP, 1 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 4 K on 85 pitches. He labored a bit in the first two innings before finding a groove in the third. Gray had struck out four of the last seven me he faced heading into that sixth inning, so there was no real reason think he’d run into trouble that inning other than baseball being baseball. The Yankees were going to need a good start from Gray and they got it, as far as I’m concerned.

The Astros scored an insurance run in the seventh inning against Chad Green thanks in large part to a Castro error. He had two of them in Game Four, both pretty bad. Marwin Gonzalez looped a double into the gap, then scored when Brian McCann‘s grounder into the shift hopped up on Castro and he muffed it completely. McCann was safe and Gonzalez raced all the way around from second. Pretty terrible.

For real though, Green is the game’s unsung hero. That insurance run stunk, but, in the eighth inning, Green cut through the middle of Houston’s lineup to keep the Yankees to within 4-2. The Yankees managed to win a battle of the bullpen because their bullpen allowed only four runs. Go figure.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Leftovers
Judge had maybe the most complicated caught stealing in baseball history in the fourth inning. He drew a leadoff walk, then he didn’t pick up the ball on Sanchez’s one-out weak pop-up, and got doubled off first base. HowEVA, replay overturned the call and Judge was safe at first. HowEVA again, replay showed Judge did not retouch second base. D’oh. The Astros appealed, and rather than let them do it uncontested, Judge took off from first and basically tried to steal second. His only hope there was the throw from McCullers going into center field. Alas.

Tough game for Castro, who kinda sorta redeemed himself with that eighth inning walk. He went 0-for-3 with the walk and two he shoulda had it errors. Yuck. Also, Romine went 0-for-2 at the plate and saw four pitches. He also allowed a wild pitch — Sanchez gets killed for those, so it’s only fair Romine does as well — and committed the catcher interference. Sigh.

Two hits for Judge, Gregorius, and Frazier. One each for Sanchez and Headley. Greg Bird quietly drew three walks. Judge and Castro had walks as well. By the way, Judge is now hitting .308/.438/.846 in the ALCS. He might be series MVP if the Yankees win! Gotta love small sample size stats. The Yankees went 3-for-8 with runners in scoring position. That feels wrong. Whatever.

The Astros scored four runs in the game, but they only had three hits. The Yankees have held them to nine runs on 18 hits in four games so far. Too bad the series is only tied. The Gurriel double felt like it might open the floodgates, though Green shut that down. Aroldis Chapman gave us a nice and easy 1-2-3 ninth inning. Thank goodness for that.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
Head on over to ESPN for the box score and MLB.com for the video highlights. Don’t miss our Bullpen Workload page either. Here’s the win probability graph:


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next
Now that the series is back even, it means a) this is now a best-of-three, and b) the Yankees are going back to Houston for at least one more game. But first, the Yankees and Astros will play Game Five on Wednesday afternoon. That’s another 5pm ET start. Dallas Keuchel and Masahiro Tanaka are the scheduled starting pitchers.

2017 ALCS Game Four: Astros at Yankees

2017-alcs-logoA very strong case can be made this is the most important game of the ALCS. The Astros lead the series 2-1, meaning the Yankees need to win today to avoid falling down 3-1 in the series before facing Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander in Games Five and Six. Having to beat Keuchel and Verlander and win two games in Houston to advance is a tall order. A win today would make life so much easier.

So, in an effort to give his team the best chance to win today, Joe Girardi put Austin Romine in the lineup. Girardi said “the numbers bear out that (Sonny Gray) had better starts with Austin,” which is undeniably true. Gray had a 1.45 ERA (2.84 FIP) with Romine behind the plate during the regular season. It was a 4.63 ERA (5.56 FIP) with Gary Sanchez catching. Of course, we’re talking 18.2 innings with Romine and 46.2 innings with Sanchez, so who the hell knows. “Sometimes it just happens. Sometimes I can’t explain one one catcher mixes with a pitcher a little better,” added Girardi. Yup.

The numbers say whatever the numbers say. Realistically, this boils down to two things. One, Gray’s ball moves all over the place and Romine is a better blocker than Sanchez. And two, the DH spot has been so bad this postseason that putting Romine in the lineup likely represents no change. That’s basically it. A lot of times in a situation like this, we all complain about the player who gets in the lineup, and then he goes out and gets a big hit. I will happily take that today. Here are the starting lineups:

Houston Astros
1. CF George Springer
2. RF Josh Reddick
3. 2B Jose Altuve
4. SS Carlos Correa
5. 1B Yulieski Gurriel
6. 3B Alex Bregman
7. DH Carlos Beltran
8. LF Marwin Gonzalez
9. C Brian McCann
RHP Lance McCullers Jr.

New York Yankees
1. LF Brett Gardner
2. RF Aaron Judge
3. SS Didi Gregorius
4. DH Gary Sanchez
5. 1B Greg Bird
6. 2B Starlin Castro
7. CF Aaron Hicks
8. 3B Todd Frazier
9. C Austin Romine
RHP Sonny Gray

It is an absolutely gorgeous evening in New York. Chilly, but gorgeous. Pretty great postseason baseball weather. Game Four will begin at 5pm ET and FOX Sports 1 will have the broadcast. Enjoy the game.

Scouting Game Four of the ALCS: Lance McCullers Jr.

(Omar Rawlings/Getty)
(Omar Rawlings/Getty)

Following Game Three last night, the Astros somewhat surprisingly announced Lance McCullers Jr. will start Game Four this evening. I say somewhat surprisingly because McCullers hasn’t pitched all that well of late, and they had both Brad Peacock and Dallas Keuchel (on short rest) as options. Instead, it’s McCullers, son of the former Yankee and also a former Yankees trade target, on the bump today.

The 24-year-old McCullers threw 118.2 innings with a 4.25 ERA (3.10 FIP) this season, with one of the highest ground ball rates in baseball (61.3%) to go along with strong strikeout (25.8%) and walk (7.8%) numbers. It was really a tale of two seasons for McCullers though. He had some back problems at midseason that required two disabled list stints, and his performance dropped off big time. To wit:

  • First 15 starts (healthy): 2.69 ERA (2.72 FIP), 29.1 K%, 7.1 BB%, 63.9 GB%
  • Last 7 starts (dealing with back trouble): 8.53 ERA (4.41 FIP), 18.4 K%, 9.5 BB%, 56.1 GB%

In his only ALDS appearance, McCullers came out of the bullpen and allowed two runs on three hits and two walks in three innings against the Red Sox. Because the Astros took it easy on him in the second half while his back was acting up, McCullers has not thrown more than 83 pitches in a game since July. Only once has he thrown more than 76 pitches since July. This could be a four-and-fly start for him. Let’s take a look at the right-hander.

History Against The Yankees

McCullers just completed his third MLB season, and because he’s in a different division, he doesn’t have a ton of head-to-head experience with the Yankees. He’s made three career starts against the Yankees, holding them to four runs in 17.1 innings. That includes three runs in 11.1 innings in two starts this season. Six scoreless innings on May 12th and three runs in 5.1 innings on June 30th.

Players on New York’s ALCS roster have hit .241/.290/.310 in 62 total plate appearances against McCullers in his relatively short MLB career. Didi Gregorius gets credit for most of that damage. Here are the numbers:

Name PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
Jacoby Ellsbury 9 8 0 0 0 0 0 1 2 .000 .111 .000 .111
Brett Gardner 9 9 3 1 0 0 0 0 2 .333 .333 .444 .778
Didi Gregorius 8 8 5 1 0 0 1 0 1 .625 .625 .750 1.375
Chase Headley 7 7 0 0 0 0 0 0 5 .000 .000 .000 .000
Aaron Hicks 7 7 1 0 0 0 0 0 3 .143 .143 .143 .286
Starlin Castro 6 5 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 .000 .167 .000 .167
Aaron Judge 5 4 2 1 0 0 0 1 1 .500 .600 .750 1.350
Matt Holliday 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000
Austin Romine 3 2 1 0 0 0 0 1 1 .500 .667 .500 1.167
Gary Sanchez 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 .000 .000 .000 .000
Ronald Torreyes 2 2 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 1.000 1.000 1.500 2.500
Total 62 58 14 4 0 0 1 4 18 .241 .290 .310 .601

After a few weeks of these previews, I think you know how I feel about hitter vs. pitcher splits. I’m not sure eight or nine at-bats spread across several seasons is all that meaningful or productive. But! I absolutely believe a pitcher can “own” a hitter and vice versa. It’s a weird dynamic. The overall numbers against McCullers aren’t very promising, but they came against McCullers when his back was healthy, so … who knows?

Current Stuff

In short, McCullers has some of the nastiest stuff in the game. His four-seamer has gradually morphed into a sinking two-seamer over the last two years and the pitch will sit in the mid-90s and touch 98. His curve is an absolute hammer. The pitch averaged — averaged! — 86.1 mph this past season and topped out at 90.1, which seems impossible. A good but not great upper-80s changeup rounds out his repertoire.

That hammer curveball? McCullers threw it 47.7% of the time this past season. He threw more curves (47.7%) than fastballs (40.2%) during the regular season, if you can believe that. I can’t think of another starter who threw that many more breaking balls than fastballs. Or more breaking balls than fastballs in general. Here, via Brooks Baseball, is the breakdown of how McCullers pitches against righties and lefties:

lance-mccullers-jr-pitch-selection

The Astros aren’t stupid. They know the Yankees have collectively flailed at breaking balls pretty much all postseason, so I get the sense McCullers is going to go out today and throw a ton of curveballs. I mean a ton. It could be as much as 70% curves in Game Four. He’ll need to throw some fastballs just to keep hitters honest, but when your curveball is this good and you’re playing an important postseason game, why not throw it a ton? I’m sure the curveball is a big reason why McCullers and not Peacock is starting today.

Thanks to the magic of the internet, here is every pitch McCullers threw against the Rangers on May 1st this year. He allowed two runs on six hits and two walks in 6.1 innings, and struck out ten.

Gosh that curveball is pretty. I know McCullers has struggled overall the last few months, but if his curveball is on and he comes out throwing the pitch a ton today, the Yankees are going to have a hard time scoring runs. They have to hope either the pitch isn’t behaving properly, or McCullers leaves a few up in the zone.

Platoon Splits

Interestingly enough, McCullers has a pretty big reverse split both for his career and the 2017 season. Last year it was closer to even, but in 2015 and 2017, it was pretty lopsided in favor of righties, which I didn’t expect. His career platoon splits:

  • vs. RHB: .251/.340/.402 (.325 wOBA), 23.2 K%, 10.6 BB%, 54.9 GB%
  • vs. LHB: .232/.300/.337 (.280 wOBA), 30.3 K%, 7.7 BB%, 54.1 GB%

Huh. I can’t really explain that. You’d think a guy with a mid-90s fastball/mid-80s curveball like McCullers would crush same-side hitters, but apparently not. Perhaps the changeup is that much of a difference-maker against lefties? They have to respect the changeup, making the fastball and curveball that much more effective? Then again, McCullers does use his changeup against righties, so who knows.

Do these numbers mean Joe Girardi should stack the lineup with righties this afternoon? I guess so, but realistically, what changes are there to be made? Gregorius sure as hell isn’t sitting for Torreyes. I guess Holliday for Headley at DH? I’d rather just stick with Headley, who has hit a few balls on the screws the last two games and is a switch-hitter anyway.

Can The Yankees Run On Him?

Yes in that they should be able to run against pretty much any Astros pitcher except Keuchel given how poorly Brian McCann and Evan Gattis throw. Runners went 4-for-6 stealing bases against McCullers this season. Not the biggest sample. It is what it is. The Yankees, despite McCann and Gattis, have yet to attempt a steal in the ALCS. Part of that is lack of opportunities against Keuchel and Justin Verlander, and part of it is those glorious dingers last night. But yeah, they can run on McCullers, at least in theory.

* * *

Collin McHugh did the Astros a solid and soaked up some garbage time innings last night, meaning Houston’s top relievers are rested and ready to go this afternoon. It’s not crazy to think A.J. Hinch could try to squeeze five innings from Chris Devenski and Ken Giles if they have a lead, knowing Keuchel is a good bet to pitch deep into the game tomorrow. McCullers figures to throw the hell out of his curveball today, but with his limited pitch count, the Yankees have a chance to get into Houston’s bullpen pretty early if he can stay patient and work the count.

Sonny Gray must get his control back on track for the Yankees to have a chance in Game Four

(Gregory Shamus/Getty)
(Gregory Shamus/Getty)

Last week, when the Yankees lined up their ALCS rotation, they opted to start trade deadline pickup Sonny Gray in Game Four even though he started Game One of the ALDS and could’ve started Game One of the ALCS. The Yankees had Gray throw an extended three-inning simulated game on Thursday to stay sharp, though he’s still going 12 days between postseason appearances.

There are a few reasons the Yankees lined up their ALCS rotation the way they did. One, Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino are their two best pitchers — Severino because of the way he’s thrown all year, Tanaka because of the way he’s thrown lately — and they wanted them going up against Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander in Games One and Two. Two, the Yankees trust CC Sabathia in a Game Seven situation, so they lined him up for that start.

And three, Gray has simply not pitched all that well lately. His first eight starts in pinstripes went great, as he threw 50.2 innings with a 2.66 ERA (4.14 FIP). Gray’s final three regular season starts did not go well (7.36 ERA and 7.38 FIP), and in his ALDS start, he allowed three runs in 3.1 innings before getting the hook. The problem, again, was his control. Gray walked four and struck out two in that ALDS start. In his last four starts, and he has 14 walks and 12 strikeouts in 18 innings. Yikes.

For the 2017 season overall, Gray had an 8.4% walk rate, which was essentially league average (8.5%) and just a tick above his career rate (7.9%). As the season progressed though, his walk rate kept climbing.

sonny-gray-walk-rate

Hmmm. Why has Gray been walking more batters lately, particularly in his last four starts? That’s tough to answer from here, and it could be a combination of many things. His mechanics are out of whack. He’s hiding an injury. Giving up home runs at Yankee Stadium scared him out of the strike zone. He’s trying to be way too precise in an effort to impress his new teammates and coaching staff and fans. Who knows?

The walks themselves aren’t the only problem. Gray has been falling behind in the count a lot as well lately, which puts hitters on the advantage. During these last four starts Gray has faced 86 batters, and by my count, 21 saw a hitter friendly 2-0 or 3-1 count, and more than a few of those 21 saw a 2-0 count and a 3-1 count in the same at-bat. Gray went to a 2-0 or 3-1 count on 17.0% of batters faced during the regular season. The MLB average is 17.1%. Over these last four starts, Gray is at 24.4%.

From watching him pitch over the years — not just with the Yankees, but with the A’s as well — Gray is the type of pitcher who doesn’t need to hit his spots perfectly to get good results. He has good velocity and everything he throws moves, helping him avoid the barrel. Gray can aim for a quadrant of the strike zone, let it rip, and let his natural movement do the work. Being precise with all that movement can be difficult.

Whatever the cause of these walks and recent control problems, this much is clear: the Astros won’t let those free baserunners go unpunished. Well, that’s not necessarily true. The Yankees did walk eight batters in Game Three last night and only one scored. (For real.) I just wouldn’t count on that happening again, giving the Astros so many free passes and escaping unscathed. As good as New York’s pitching has been in the ALCS, Houston’s lineup feels like a sleeping giant.

Now, this isn’t to say Gray should just fire it in there middle-middle to avoid walks, because that’ll create a completely different set of problems. But continuing to fall behind in the count and either walking people or going 2-0 and 3-1 is a recipe for trouble. We’ve seen it in Gray’s last four starts and the stakes are a lot higher now. To keep the Astros in check, Sonny has to attack and stay in the strike zone, something he’s done throughout his career, just not lately.

Thoughts prior to Game Four of the 2017 ALCS

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Now we’ve got a series on our hands. After dropping Games One and Two of the ALCS in Houston, the Yankees returned home to Yankee Stadium to win Game Three last night. They still trail the series 2-1, but according to the laws of sports momentum, they will go undefeated the rest of the postseason after last night’s win. Anyway, I have some thoughts.

1. Can we talk about the pitching so far this series please? I feel like it is completely flying under the radar. The Yankees have held the Astros to five runs and 15 hits in three ALCS games so far. That includes only three extra-base hits. Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa are 9-for-23 (.391) so far this series and the rest of the Astros are 6-for-66 (.091). There has been some great defense to rob base hits along the way — Aaron Judge saved two hits last night, one a double at the wall and the other a bloop in shallow right — but hey, that counts. You need pitching and defense to prevent runs, not just one or the other. The Astros have the kind of offense that can explode for four or five or six runs in an inning at basically any moment, so I’d be lying if I said I think the Yankees will continue to manhandle Houston’s lineup the rest of the series. The fact they’ve pitched so well and are still down 2-1 in the series is quite annoying. What can you do though? Overall, the pitching has been excellent so far in the ALCS, and really in the entire postseason. The guys on the mound are doing their job.

2. Man was it great to see Judge have a monster two-way game last night. He had the two great plays on defense and also hammered the three-run home run, which officially turned Game Three into a laugher. That doesn’t mean Judge is out of the woods yet — his slump didn’t end when he ripped that double against Trevor Bauer in Game Four of the ALDS, after all — but at least he contributed on both sides of the ball and could go home feeling pretty great about things. Judge is a pretty stoic dude who never seems to get too high or too low, though I’m sure the struggles and all the strikeouts were beginning to wear on him. How could they not? It’s only natural. The Yankees survived the ALDS with Judge doing basically nothing. I have a hard time thinking they can come back to beat the Astros in the ALCS without him contributing. He’s too important to the lineup and the team in general. Judge reminded us of all the wonderful things he can do on the field last night. Hopefully that was a sign of things to come the rest of the postseason.

3. The Yankees at home this postseason: 4-0. The Yankees on the road this postseason: 1-4. The one win was Game Five of the ALDS. Does that mean anything? The Yankees were a much better team at home than on the road this season, though I don’t think the postseason home/road record is indicative of anything. The two games in Houston were very winnable, and the Yankees were up five runs in one of the games they lost in Cleveland. They might’ve won that game had Joe Girardi challenged the hit-by-pitch. A bounce here or a borderline pitch call there could’ve changed that road record easily. I do, however, believe the Yankees are an extremely confident team at home. They’re built for Yankee Stadium and they know they can do serious damage at home. That doesn’t mean they lack confidence on the road or anything. I think this team believes they can beat anyone anywhere, and they should, because they can. At home though, I get the sense they feel invincible.

(Duane Burleson/Getty)
(Duane Burleson/Getty)

4. I was a bit surprised the Astros opted to start Lance McCullers Jr. in Game Four today rather than literally anyone else. Brad Peacock was the obvious alternative, though my hunch was they’d go to Dallas Keuchel on short rest. I guess not. As good as McCullers can be — his mid-80s (!) curveball is just filthy — it’s been a while since he’s been effective. McCullers had some back problems in the second half, and in his final seven starts of the regular season, he had an 8.53 ERA (4.14 FIP) with 46 hits allowed in 31.2 innings. That’s what a miniscule 15.7% soft contact rate will do for you. McCullers was getting squared up well down the stretch — he allowed two runs on three hits and two walks in three innings in his only ALDS outing, which came in relief — and hopefully he’s still not right when he takes the mound today, because when this kid is on, he’s untouchable. Also, another thing to keep in mind: McCullers has not thrown more than 83 pitches in a game since July. Work the count and he could be out of the game fairly early. After three or four innings or so.

5. At this point, I think the Yankees have to stick with Chase Headley at DH. The DH spot finally got into the hit column with his little seeing-eye ground ball single between the shift last night — the DH spot is now 1-for-30 (.033) in the postseason — but, more than anything, Headley seems to be starting to square the ball up more often. He had a line drive reeled in by Josh Reddick at the wall in Game Two and also had two other line drives go four outs the last two games as well. Headley has put balls in play at 96.1 mph, 96.2 mph, and 98.6 mph in the last two games, all of which went for outs. Exit velocity isn’t everything, but given the current DH situation, at least we’re seeing some signs of life here. Headley has squared some balls up the last few games and you might as well keep running him out there, and hope it continues. Eventually the hits will fall in if it does. That makes Jacoby Ellsbury a pinch-runner and Matt Holliday a … I don’t know what. A veteran mentor occupying up a 25-man roster spot.

6. Pretty good chance Dellin Betances threw his final pitch of the postseason last night. Maybe even the final pitch of his Yankees career, though I don’t think so. Girardi did the right thing by using him with the 8-0 lead. That’s exactly when you should be using a pitcher you’re trying to get right, even in the postseason. And Girardi did the right thing by yanking Dellin after the back-to-back walks. Unless the Yankees play a lot of blowouts the rest of the way, it’s hard to see how Betances toes the slab at all. Blowouts and extra innings — like extra extra innings — are about it. If the Yankees get to the World Series, they’ll have to consider leaving him off the roster. Hopefully for a bat but maybe it ends up being Chasen Shreve. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. The Yankees need to win three more games before we can begin thinking about the World Series roster. For now, Betances is an obvious mess, his confidence is shot, and there’s basically no way Girardi can use him in anything other than an emergency. What a shame.