Thoughts prior to Game Five of the 2017 ALCS

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(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.

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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.

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(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.

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(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.

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(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.

The outlook for the upcoming ALCS games

(Corey Perrine/Getty Images)
(Corey Perrine/Getty Images)

Alright, we’ve seen this before. Down 2-1 in the series but a win tonight would tie it up. Gotta win few more games in a row from here on, right? Well, the Yankees could do that (again), but if only it were that simple. Winning three against a team like the Indians after being down 2-0 is pretty incredible. Asking for another similar task against the Astros… well, this team is certainly capable of it. We just don’t know the odds.

Game Four begins soon and I have some thoughts about the outlook going forward.

1. Lance McCullers Jr., eh?

I was fully expecting the Astros to go with Brad Peacock as the Game 4 starter (or Dallas Keuchel on a short rest) but they went with Lance McCullers Jr. instead. That is… an interesting decision.

McCullers had an up-and-down year. He had a great first-half (7-2, 3.05 ERA) that got him an All-Star nod. However, his second half was marred by a back injury and his performance was, well, not great (0-2, 8.23 ERA in 6 starts). For what it’s worth, he pitched in relief in the Game 3 of the ALDS versus Red Sox and went 3 IP, 2 ER while walking 2 and striking out 4. Eh. I don’t know if that would assure me enough to rely a postseason start on him.

The upside in McCullers Jr. is clear though. As mentioned, he was an All-Star this season and has been garnering attention as one of the best up-and-coming young pitchers in the MLB for awhile. If his health is fine and he can turn the right buttons perchance, he can dominate. It should be noted that McCullers has one of the nastiest curveballs in the game and dude throws it a lot (47.4% of his pitches in 2017) – like, more frequently than his fastball (40.4%). It will be interesting how that could give fits to guys like Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez, who have struggled with laying off the breaking ball in this postseason. The current Yankee roster hitters have hit only .241/.290/.310 cumulatively against him, which is not great. However, that does not mean a lot when predicting a one-game outcome. If McCullers can’t bring his A-game tonight, the Yankees could very well hit him.

All things considered, the decision to start McCullers Jr. is fascinating. It’s a bit of an unknown factor for now. I would not be surprised if they only have him out for three to four innings and put in Brad Peacock to absorb more.

2. The Astros starters after Game 4?

At first, I was wondering if there was a chance that the Astros could start Peacock on the Game 5 instead of Keuchel but 1) they probably want to start Keuchel on the normal rest 2) Keuchel has owned the Yankees, you know that. The goal for either team is not get to the Game 7 – it’s to end the series with a win as soon as possible. It does not matter for Keuchel whether he’s pitching in Minute Maid Park or Yankee Stadium – the lefty has a measly .446 OPS allowed at YS3 in his career. Yeesh.

I think Peacock would be a bullpen guy for Game 4 if McCullers Jr. departs early. In case you were wondering, Peacock had a breakout 2017 season. The Houston pitching coach Brent Strom has a reputation of working wonders on talented arms. The righty went 13-2, 3.00 ERA while striking out 10.98 batters per 9 innings pitched. He also went back forth between rotation and bullpen so it would make sense to ask him to absorb multiple innings if McCullers doesn’t work out.

If the series goes back to Houston, Game 6 would most definitely feature Justin Verlander. He started after Keuchel and dominated the Yankees in Game 2. What will be interesting, however, is if the series goes to Game 7. Do the Astros start Charlie Morton again? He flashed electric stuff last night but this industry is about the results – Morton allowed 7 ER in 3.2 IP and took the loss. I can see them give a nod to Collin McHugh, who pitched 4 scoreless last night in long relief and has a 3.55 ERA in 12 starts in the regular season. However, just like the Yankees, I’d expect the Astros to be ready to empty the tank on bullpen if they need to. Well, we’ll see if the series goes to that extent in the first place but gosh, that would be some drama.

3. Sonny Gray

It is easy to forget how excellent Sonny Gray has been in his career. As a Yankee, during the regular season, he had a 3.72 ERA in 11 starts. It’s not bad but there were some peripherals that are worrying. First off, after allowing only 8 home runs in 97.0 IP with the A’s, Gray allowed 11 in 65.1 IP in the pinstripes. That’s a jump from 0.7 HR/9 IP to 1.5. He also allowed walks more frequently – 2.8 BB/9 IP in Oakland to 3.5 in New York.

However, here’s something to keep in mind. In 8 out of 11 regular season starts as a Yankee, Gray allowed 2 ERs or less. He went 6 IP or more in 6 of those starts as well. Because of recency bias (9 ER, 8 IP, 3 HRs, 9 walks in the previous two starts. Yikes), it is okay to be wary of how he will do later tonight.

Here’s a positive that could just be a small sample size thing: he was pretty great after a long rest (6 days or more) this season – only .170/.255/.295 allowed in 4 starts. What the Yankees would hope is that he’ll be out there refreshed and mentally charged for this crucial, crucial matchup. So many things could go wrong – he’s had trouble avoiding long balls with the Yankees and will be pitching in the YSIII while facing the powerful Astros lineup. However, if he throws a solid start, he can catch multiple rabbits at once by instilling more faith in him going forward and giving the Yankees a chance to win today.

Depends on how things go with the bats, I would be happy with a five inning outing with maybe 2 runs allowed from Gray. The bullpen is rested and can take it from there. Chad Green, David Robertson and Aroldis Chapman should be able to throw multiple innings – Tommy Kahnle maybe an inning or less.

4. Again with the dumb luck

Back in ALDS, I talked about how there were significantly more lucky bounces going the Indians’ way in their first two wins of series. Well, what do you know – some of it came to the Yankees’ side to help them win the series.

The first two games of the ALCS has featured an array of moments that favored Houston – not a lot of 344 feet liners turn into homers but that’s what Carlos Correa made happen. Aaron Hicks could have given Yankees a 2-0 lead in Game 2 but the ball fell right in front of the wall. Brett Gardner could have been safe at third. Gary Sanchez could have fielded Didi Gregorius‘s throw from second and tagged Jose Altuve out easily, etc. A lot of these happened from inches to few feet’s worth of difference to resulting in very different outcomes. Who knows how the series’ momentum could be by now had many more little things gone the Yankees’ way?

It’s impossible to predict or project luck. The Yankees could get bad breaks here and there and could still win the series – it just would be very hard to work around them. Make no mistake about it – the players on both teams are very skilled and that’s why they are playing for a league title in the Major League Baseball. But sometimes, luck plays that x-factor that can really separate the winners from losers – and the Yankees could, again, really use some bounces go for them the next few games. We’ll see.

Brad Peacock may be Astros’ secret weapon in Game Four

(Elsa/Getty Images)
(Elsa/Getty Images)

The Astros changed course this series, opting to start Lance McCullers Jr. and not Brad Peacock in an important Game 4.

If you were seeing this in July, you would have laughed. McCullers was the Astros’ No. 2 starter then behind Dallas Keuchel and you could have argued he was their No. 1. Now? Not so much, yet maybe that ace-like performance comes through Tuesday.

But even though he isn’t starting, you can’t forget about Peacock. He has a role to play in this series, in the rotation or not.

Before this season, Peacock was an OK swing-man who was shuffled between Triple-A and the majors. He had made a total of 11 appearances over 36.2 innings in the majors in 2015-16. But he pitched nearly like an ace for much of this season, in large part because of his new slider he learned from teammate Jordan Jankowski in 2016.

His slider is actually his primary pitch now. He throws the low-80s slider nearly 40 percent of the time. He’s cut down significantly on his four-seam fastball usage (52.6 to 27.2 percent) and utilized his sinker more (24 percent). He’ll occasionally use his curveball and changeup, but he’s basically a fastball-slider pitcher.

Thanks to the slider, he’s become a significant strikeout pitcher. He was eighth among pitchers with at least 100 innings in strikeout rate with a 29.5 percent mark. The guy ahead of him? Clayton Kershaw. The guy behind him? Luis Severino.

The 29-year-old starter had never struck out more than 8.3 batters per nine, but has K’d 11.0 this season. He walks nearly four per nine, but makes up for it with plenty of grounders and soft contact.

With that in mind, Peacock could be the Astros’ secret weapon in this series. Why not start him then? That’s a fair question, but he might be the perfect multi-inning reliever.

Here’s the main reason why: The first time through the order as a starter this season, he held opposing batters to a .145/.222/.198 line. That’s unreal. His lines got significantly worse each time through the order to the point where he was not effective at all once the lineup turned over a third time.

A.J. Hinch was criticized for removing Peacock pretty early on in his start during ALDS Game 3, but Hinch is likely seeing the same statistics we are. Removing Peacock early wasn’t a poor decision (maybe going to Francisco Liriano was, but I won’t judge).

In the regular season, Hinch could let his starter go a second or third time through without worrying too much. But in the postseason, Hinch can afford to pull him early, particularly with the dependable arms of Keuchel and Justin Verlander coming in Games 5 and 6. It also helps to have Collin McHugh absorb four innings on Monday night.

So if McCullers struggles at all, Hinch has an easy decision: Go to Peacock. He can turn over a lineup before the Houston manager has to make any decisions about which relievers he trusts besides Chris Devenski and Ken Giles. And if McCullers can get through the lineup a few times just fine, well, Peacock has short relief experience, too, and could be a factor in 1-2 inning appearances the rest of the way.

It remains to be seen how Peacock will be used on Tuesday, if at all. But if he’s piggybacking McCullers, the Astros could merge two starts into one, coalescing into a strong challenge to Sonny Gray and the Yankees.

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.