2015 Wild Card Game Lineup: Ellsbury sits against Keuchel

(Leon Halip/Getty)
(Leon Halip/Getty)

The starting lineups for tonight’s winner-take-all wildcard game have been posted. As expected, Chris Young is in the starting lineup. Brett Gardner is not sitting, however. Jacoby Ellsbury finds himself on the bench.

Here’s the lineup board (via me at @CBSSportsMLB):

2015 Wild Card Game LineupsEllsbury has not been good this year, hitting .257/.318/.345 (83 wRC+) overall and .253/.327/.325 (83 wRC+) against lefties. Gardner has slumped in the second half as well, but he was better than Ellsbury this year, both overall (105 wRC+) and against lefties (112 wRC+). It’s a ballsy move by Joe Girardi but the right one.

The rest of the lineup is pretty self-explanatory. Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran flipped spots, but no big deal. I assume Ellsbury and Dustin Ackley will come off the bench at some point in the later innings.

Attacking Altuve: Tanaka has to get the ball down and in

(Rob Carr/Getty)
(Rob Carr/Getty)

Only the Blue Jays hit more home runs than the Astros this season, yet Houston’s most important offensive player is a 5-foot-6 contact machine who never hit more than seven homers in a season prior to 2015. Second baseman Jose Altuve is a catalyst from the leadoff spot, so, needless to say, Masahiro Tanaka and the Yankees will focus on keeping him off base in the wildcard game tonight.

Altuve, 25, hit .313/.353/.459 (120 wRC+) this season and broke out as a power threat with 15 homers, though it’s his insane bat-to-ball skills that make him so dangerous. Altuve struck out in only 9.7% of his plate appearances this year, the fifth lowest strikeout rate among 141 qualified hitters this year, and his 89.4% contact rate was the fifth highest. If he swings the bat, chances are he will make contact.

Combined with his speed, that bat-to-ball ability makes Altuve a BABIP machine — he had a .329 BABIP in 2015, which was actually below his career average (.331) — and a straight up pest. He is not a comfortable at-bat for a pitcher or fans watching at home. That said, Altuve does have a weakness, because all hitters have a weakness. Against right-handed pitchers like Tanaka, Altuve’s weakness is down and in (click the image for a larger view):

Jose Altuve Heat Maps

The heat map on the left shows Altuve’s runs above average per 100 pitches, which in English means the brighter the red, the more damage he does on pitches in that location. The brighter the blue, the less success he has. The heat map on the right is his swing rate, so the brighter the red, the more he swings. The brighter the blue, the less he swings.

The RAA/100 heat map shows Altuve had no success against pitches down and in from right-handed batters this year. He could do nothing with those pitches, and, to be fair, not many righty hitters can do damage with a pitch in that location. At the same time, the swing rate heat map shows Altuve can’t lay off those down and away pitches. He swings at them more often than not despite the lack of results.

The Yankees already know Altuve struggles against pitches down and in. Look at where they attacked him during their two regular season series this year, via Baseball Savant:

Yankees vs. Jose Altuve

The Yankees really went after Altuve inside. Not so much down and in, but inside in general. They threw him plenty of pitches off the plate away because, well, you have to do that too. If you keep pitching a hitter in the same spot, he’s eventually going to catch up and make an adjustment, especially a hitter as good as Altuve. The outside pitch sets up the inside pitch and vice versa.

Tanaka may be able to exploit Altuve’s down and in weakness thanks to his splitter, which has that natural fade down and in to righties. Again, you can’t throw him nothing but splitters down and in, but that’s the potential out pitch. Altuve can be beat there. He’s been a below average hitter against down and in pitches all season and he has trouble laying off them as well.

Altuve is pretty much the polar opposite of the rest of the Houston offense. He doesn’t have a ton of power but he gets the bat on the ball and puts it in play seemingly at will. The rest of lineup? They’ll swing and miss a lot. Keeping Altuve off the bases will be imperative tonight, and the best way to do that appears to be attacking down and in, under his hands.

Swinging early in the count may be Yankees’ best chance against Dallas Keuchel

(Scott Halleran/Getty)
(Scott Halleran/Getty)

Later tonight the Yankees will face Dallas Keuchel in the winner-take-all wildcard game. If I had to hand-pick any pitcher in the big leagues to face the Yankees in an elimination game, I’m pretty sure I’d pick Keuchel. He’s the embodiment of everything the Yankees seem unable to solve, and by that I mean he’s a left-handed finesse guy with a changeup and command. If he were a rookie too, forget it. Game over.

Anyway, the postseason is not easy, and if you’re going to win the World Series, you have to beat pitchers like Keuchel. He’s a legitimate Cy Young candidate, and while he will be working on three days’ rest of the first time in his career tonight, I’m not sure fatigue will be a huge issue. Keuchel will have plenty of adrenaline pumping in his first career postseason start. Solving Keuchel is no easy task. Few teams have done it this year. Here’s a look at how the Yankees may be able to do it.

Head-to-Head Stats

This seems like a convenient place to start. I absolutely believe certain hitters can “own” certain pitchers and vice versa, but head-to-head stats don’t help us identify those matchups well. We’re usually talking about only a handful of at-bats spread across several years. That said, Joe Girardi relies on head-to-head data all the time, and I’m sure it’ll factor into his lineup decision. Here are the numbers, via Baseball Reference:

Chris Young 21 20 6 2 1 0 2 1 2 .300 .333 .500 .833
Chase Headley 13 13 3 1 0 1 3 0 6 .231 .231 .538 .769
Carlos Beltran 10 9 4 1 0 1 2 1 1 .444 .500 .889 1.389
Jacoby Ellsbury 8 7 2 0 0 0 0 1 1 .286 .375 .286 .661
Dustin Ackley 7 7 0 0 0 0 1 0 4 .000 .000 .000 .000
Alex Rodriguez 7 7 1 0 0 0 0 0 4 .143 .143 .143 .286
Brendan Ryan 6 6 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000
John Ryan Murphy 5 5 2 0 0 0 0 0 1 .400 .400 .400 .800
Stephen Drew 4 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 .000 .000 .000 .000
Brett Gardner 4 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000
Didi Gregorius 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000
Gregory Bird 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000
Total 92 89 18 4 1 2 8 3 25 .202 .228 .337 .565

This is Keuchel’s third full season in the big leagues and only his second as a full-time starter, so it’s no surprise the head-to-head plate appearances are limited. He’s not even in the same division. Keuchel totally dominated the Yankees in two starts this season (16 shutout innings with 21 strikeouts), so it’s no surprise the head-to-head numbers aren’t good. How much does this tell us going into tonight? Not much really. Keuchel is very good. We knew that already.

The Stuff

Keuchel is not a power pitcher. His fastest pitch of the season was 94.9 mph back in May. He hasn’t throw a pitch over 92.0 mph since August, so says PitchFX. Keuchel is a four-pitch pitcher with a sinker right around 90 mph, a cutter in the upper-80s, and both a slider and changeup right around 80 mph. He’ll occasionally throw an upper-80s/low-90s four-seamer as a get me over pitch. Words don’t do much, so here’s some video of Keuchel in action this season.

As you can see, he locates just about everything to both of the plate, and everything seems to break late. I have no idea how to quantify this, but my guess is all of Keuchel’s pitches look the same out of his hand. He must be real tough to pick up.

Like most pitchers, Keuchel attacks early in the count with his fastball (sinker, in his case) then goes to town with his offspeed stuff. The changeup is for righties but he will throw the slider to both righties and lefties. Here’s his pitch usage breakdown by handedness, via Brooks Baseball:

Dallas Keuchel pitch selection

I know we’re all used to the “take pitches, work the count, get the pitch count up” approach and it is pretty successful, by and large. The Yankees tried it against Keuchel in his two starts this season, at least early in the game, but it didn’t work. He fills the strike zone then goes to his offspeed stuff when ahead in the count.

Considering the data shows Keuchel throws a lot of first pitch sinkers, I think it might be worth it to forget the whole “work the count” approach and instead look to ambush some sinkers early in the count. Opponents hit .307 with a .119 ISO on the first pitch against Keuchel and .291 with a .148 ISO when putting one of the first two pitches of the at-bat in play. From the third pitch of the at-bat onward, opponents hit .187 with an .077 ISO against Keuchel this year. Big difference!

Of course, the “swing early in the count” approach could very easily backfire, especially if Keuchel has his sinker working. If those early count swings don’t turn into hits, the Yankees are going to look up in the fourth inning and see Keuchel’s pitch count in the 30s or 40s. That would be a problem. The data suggests Keuchel is going to throw his sinker early in the count. If he’s leaving the pitch up in the first inning, it might be time to swing away early in the at-bat.

The Running Game

As a lefty, Keuchel has an inherent advantage when it comes to shutting down the running game. He’s staring at the base-runner at first base the entire time. Opponents attempted only five stolen bases against Keuchel this year — all five were successful! — and only 31 in his 671 career innings. That’s nothing. Teams don’t run on him.

So Keuchel must have a great pickoff move, right? Well, no. In fact, he very rarely throws over to first base. He made five (!) pickoff throws to first base last season and only 19 this season, according to Sporting Charts. That works out to 0.08 pickoff throws per base-runner, or one every 12.5 base-runners. That’s not even one pickoff throw per start.

This seems like something the Yankees might be able to exploit, right? Specifically Jacoby Ellsbury. (I think Brett Gardner‘s going to sit in favor of Chris Young tonight, but we’ll see.) Ellsbury attempted only eleven stolen bases after coming off the DL, but three of them came in the last two weeks of the season. He was successful all three times. So at least he started to run a little more late in the year.

Ellsbury’s quick and usually an aggressive base-runner, and Keuchel is not going to throw over to first base all that often. Considering opponents never run on him, I’m guessing Keuchel varies his times well and has a quick slide step, but Ellsbury can generally outrun that stuff. He’s an elite base-runner when healthy. Pushing the envelope on the bases, even with something as simple as taking a bigger than usual lead, could be in the cards. That assumes Ellsbury actually gets on base against Keuchel, who dominates lefties.


Keuchel is starting on three days’ rest for the first time … as a big leaguer. He did it in college when Arkansas went to the 2009 College World Series. Doing it in the big leagues is different than doing it in college, sure, but it’s not a completely new experience to him either. The Astros wouldn’t throw him out there if they didn’t believe he was up for it.

(Brandon Wade/Getty)
(Brandon Wade/Getty)

“I can’t really tell you maybe (the adrenaline is) going to help me throw 91 instead of 90. I don’t know,” said Keuchel to reporters yesterday. “It’s a big game. So I’m sure I’ll be up for it no matter what. But at this point in time, the routine is there. I feel comfortable going in. I feel great. There’s no end-of-the-season fatigue, I feel like. So I’m excited.”

How will we be able to tell whether Keuchel is fatigued? Boy, I have no idea. Wildness and reduced velocity would be one way, but that’s about it as far as the eye test goes. We could look at the PitchFX data and compare release points and movement and things like that, but that doesn’t help in real time. The hitters will tell us if Keuchel is fatigued. Are they taking comfortable swings? That’ll be the best indication.

In a winner-take-all game, I can’t imagine Astros skipper A.J. Hinch will leave Keuchel out there long if he thinks he is fatigued and unable to compete at a high level. The Yankees should just forget about the short rest thing as far as I’m concerned. Assume Keuchel is at 100% and won’t lose anything as his pitch count climbs. This is no game to get caught waiting around.

* * *

There’s no denying Keuchel is a tremendous pitcher. He’s a bonafide ace with unconventional methods. Keuchel dominates by keeping the ball on the ground, not by missing bats or blowing the ball by hitter. He has struggled on the road this season — struggled is a relative term, Keuchel had 1.46 ERA (2.04 FIP) at home and a 3.77 ERA (4.01 FIP) on the road in 2015 — and he will be working on short rest, which may or may not come into play.

The Yankees have seen Keuchel twice this year, and while he dominated them both times, getting two looks at him has value. They’ve seen him up close. There’s no mystery. (Or at least there’s less of a mystery.) It appears hunting sinkers early in the count may lead to positive results, and if Ellsbury gets on base he should take an exaggerated lead given Keuchel’s lack of pickoff throws. Other than that, hope Keuchel has an off night. He’s tough.

Refsnyder, Heathcott, Sanchez all make Wildcard Game roster

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Rosters for the 2015 AL wildcard game were due at 10am ET this morning, and shortly thereafter the Yankees officially announced their 25-man squad for their first postseason game in three years. Here is the Astros’ roster and here is the Yankees’ roster for tonight’s winner-take-all game at Yankee Stadium:

RHP Dellin Betances
LHP Andrew Miller
RHP Bryan Mitchell
RHP Ivan Nova
LHP James Pazos
RHP Luis Severino
RHP Masahiro Tanaka
RHP Adam Warren
LHP Justin Wilson

Brian McCann
John Ryan Murphy
Gary Sanchez

2B/OF Dustin Ackley
1B Greg Bird
SS Didi Gregorius
3B Chase Headley
2B Rob Refsnyder
DH Alex Rodriguez
IF Brendan Ryan

RF Carlos Beltran
CF Jacoby Ellsbury
LF Brett Gardner
OF Slade Heathcott
PR Rico Noel
OF Chris Young

I’m glad the Yankees took only nine pitchers. There’s really no need for more than that. Plus it’s not like the Yankees are swimming with options right now. CC Sabathia is unavailable after checking into rehab and next in line is probably Andrew Bailey, who wasn’t too good during his September cameo.

Both Severino and Nova started Saturday, so they aren’t fully available tonight. Today is their usual between-starts throw day, so they can probably give an inning or two, maybe three if they’re really efficient, but I doubt it would be much more than that. Obviously the plan is Tanaka to Wilson to Betances to Miller. Anything other than that is probably bad news.

Sanchez had only two garbage time at-bats at the end of the regular season, and the fact he is on the roster suggests the Yankees may start Murphy against the left-hander Dallas Keuchel. Murphy starts, McCann takes over once Keuchel is out of the game, and Sanchez is the emergency catcher. Sanchez could also be a pinch-hitter or DH option if A-Rod gets lifted for Noel at some point.

The rest of the roster is pretty self-explanatory. As I said this morning, I think Young will start tonight’s game, likely in place of Gardner. Young has good career numbers against Keuchel and Joe Girardi loves his head-to-head matchups. Gardner figures to come off the bench as soon as Keuchel is out of the game though. With any luck, no one outside the starting lineup and big three relievers will be used.

Thoughts prior to the 2015 AL Wildcard Game

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Later tonight the Yankees will host the Astros in the 2015 AL wildcard game. The loser goes home, the winner goes to Kansas City to play the Royals in the ALDS. It’s Game Seven without all the fuss of Games One through Six. I’m excited and I want to puke at the same time. Here are some thoughts.

1. Talking about the baseball implications of CC Sabathia‘s decision to go to rehab is kinda uncomfortable but it is something that needs to be discussed. The Yankees have already had these talks, after all. Sabathia was going to be on the wildcard roster as an extra long reliever tonight — Brian Cashman all but confirmed it during his press conference yesterday — and now they don’t have anyone for that role. At least not anyone besides Adam Warren, who may be needed in middle relief. Michael Pineda just started Sunday and can’t pitch tonight. He won’t even be on the roster. I do expect Luis Severino and Ivan Nova to be on the roster as just in case arms, but a) I doubt Joe Girardi wants to use them, and b) they won’t be able to provide much length. Both started Saturday and today is their usual between-starts bullpen day (I think), so maybe the Yankees can get an inning or two out of them if necessary. In that case, if the game is tight and Girardi needs three outs before going to the usual late-inning relievers, maybe it’s best to let Severino air it out for an inning so Warren is available in extras. The hope was Sabathia wouldn’t have to pitch, but the fact he won’t even be on the roster now may change the bullpen dynamic.

2. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced Chris Young will be in the starting lineup tonight. For starters, he has pretty great numbers against Dallas Keuchel — 6-for-20 (.300) with two doubles and a triple, though the two doubles came back in 2012, long before Keuchel broke out as an ace — and Girardi loves that stuff. He uses hitter/pitcher matchups all the time even though they aren’t the most predictive thing in the world. Eno Sarris had a more convincing reason why Young should be in the lineup: fly ball hitters tend to have a lot of success against ground ball pitchers. Young has one of the highest fly ball rates in baseball and Keuchel is the game’s most dominant ground ball pitcher. I think he’ll be in the lineup tonight and I think it’ll be Brett Gardner who finds himself on the bench. I’d rather see Jacoby Ellsbury on the bench — they’ve both been terrible in the second half, but at least Gardner’s at-bats are competitive, Ellsbury anecdotally makes a ton of weak contact early in the count — but there’s no way that happens. Gardner has sat in favor of young more often than Ellsbury this year and that’s what I think will happen tonight.

3. I’m not sure pitching on three days’ rest will be a big deal for Keuchel — I think the adrenaline of pitching in the postseason will more than compensate for any additional fatigue — but with any luck, he’ll tire out in the middle innings and force manager A.J. Hinch to go to the bullpen. A revived relief corps was a huge reason for Houston’s success this season, though that same bullpen struggled in September. They blew a lot of leads and let some winnable games slip away. That said, Hinch’s core relievers were fine in the final month:

Astros bullpen

All small sample sizes, obviously. Pat Neshek’s the only one who seems to have some real problems given his inability to miss bats or get ground balls. The other guys all had strong strikeout and walk rates — except for Will Harris, I guess, his strikeout and walk numbers were closer to average — and they weren’t getting clobbered with hard contact. I don’t want to make too much out of such a tiny number of innings. Houston’s bullpen had a mess September, yes, but the core relievers were mostly fine. Some bounces just didn’t go their way, hence the ugly ERAs.

4. So who’s ready for Postseason Carlos Beltran? By now you all know he has incredible career October numbers — those numbers: .333/.445/.683 (195 wRC+) with 16 homers in 51 games — and there is zero doubt in my mind his postseason success was a reason the Yankees targeted him two years ago. The only reason? Of course not. But definitely a reason. Can Beltran still do that stuff at age 38 — he “only” hit .268/.388/.464 (140 wRC+) in 17 postseason games with the 2013 Cardinals — after running around the outfield all summer? Gosh, I hope so. The offense has looked sluggish for weeks and the arrival of October Beltran would be one heck of a shot in the arm.

5. The Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka to win a game just like this one, and I feel like he’s not getting nearly enough respect heading into tonight. Don’t get me wrong, Keuchel had a tremendous year and probably deserves the Cy Young award, but Tanaka’s no slouch either. He’s shown the ability to step up in big games — Tanaka was the only Yankees starter to put up a fight against the Blue Jays down the stretch, and he flat out dominated that offense (22 IP, 12 H, 3 R, 3 BB 20 K in three starts) — and that’s why the Yankees lined him up to start the wildcard game. The Astros offense had the second highest strikeout rate (22.9%) and the 11th highest chase rate on pitches out of the zone (31.3%) during the regular season. Tanaka, meanwhile, had the second highest chase rate this year at 38.6%. (Carlos Carrasco was first at 38.7%, so he and Tanaka were neck and neck.) He excels at getting hitters to expand the zone. Keuchel might dominate the Yankees because he’s left-handed and has a changeup, sure. But don’t forget that the pitcher who is better than just about anyone at getting hitters to chase out of the zone is about to face a bunch of hitters who tend to hack at pitches off the plate.

Judge, Bird among top Baseball America’s top 20 Eastern League prospects

Judge and Bird in the Arizona Fall League. (Presswire)
Judge and Bird in the Arizona Fall League. (Presswire)

Baseball America’s look at the top 20 prospects in each minor league continued earlier today with the Double-A Eastern League. As always, the list is free but the scouting reports are not. Nationals RHP Lucas Giolito claims the top spot and is followed by Phillies SS J.P. Crawford and Mets OF Michael Conforto.

The Yankees have two players on the stacked — seriously, Giolito and Crawford are the two best prospects in the minors right now — Eastern League list: OF Aaron Judge ranks 15th while 1B Greg Bird ranks 16th. RHP Luis Severino only threw 38 innings with Double-A Trenton and did not qualify for the list. Josh Norris did not take any Yankees questions in the subscriber-only chat, so there’s no other information there.

“Having such a big body means Judge has a big area for pitchers to attack, with a greater probability of finding holes to exploit. The book on Judge this year read: work him hard inside before finishing him off with soft stuff away,” said the write-up. “Even so, Judge’s power is undeniable, and he has the potential to make an impact in the near future … Nearly all who watch him say he’s more athletic than they’d estimate simply by looking at his body, and all praise his throwing arm as plus.”

Judge, 23, hit .284/.350/.516 (147 wRC+) with 12 homers, an 8.6% walk rate, and a 25.0% strikeout rate in 63 games with the Thunder before being promoted to Triple-A Scranton. The relatively low ranking seems like an overreaction to Judge’s strikeout issues in Triple-A more than anything, especially since the guy ranked one spot ahead of him (Phillies C Andrew Knapp) is older and had a similar strikeout rate (22.4%) while slugging .356. (Oops, read the wrong stat line.) Whatevs.

As for the 22-year-old Bird, the scouting report says he has “shown an approach at the plate advanced beyond his years, as well as enough power to stick as an everyday player at a corner position.” He also received credit for showing “smoother actions around the bag at first base” this summer, although his defense is still not considered a plus. We’ve seen it firsthand the last few weeks.

Bird put up a .258/.358/.445 (133 wRC+) line with six homers in 49 Double-A games before being promoted to Triple-A. He struck out in 14.2% of his plate appearances and walked 11.3% of the time. 3B Eric Jagielo and C Gary Sanchez both qualified for the top 20 — at least based on their playing time compared to Bird’s — but simply fell short of the list. OF Jake Cave and RHP Brady Lail were long shots for the top 20.

The next and final list of interest to Yankees fans it the Triple-A International League. That will be released later this week. Judge and Severino are right on the playing time bubble and might not qualify for the list. Bird and Sanchez will almost certainly fall short of qualifying. 2B Rob Refsnyder had plenty of playing time with the RailRiders and could be the only Yankees farmhand on the top 20. OF Ben Gamel and RHP Bryan Mitchell are long shot candidates.

Other league top 20s: Rookie Gulf Coast League, Rookie Appalachian League, Short Season NY-Penn League, Low-A South Atlantic League, High-A Florida State League

Monday Night Open Thread

Today was the calm before the postseason storm. Except it wasn’t calm. The CC Sabathia rehab news sure was an unexpected development. Hopefully Sabathia beats this thing. This isn’t like getting a tooth pulled. Sabathia couldn’t delay this until after the postseason or something like that. He wants to go to rehab today, so he goes today. He might not want to go tomorrow. Addiction is brutal.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Lions and Seahawks are the Monday Night Football game, and that’s about it. No hockey or basketball yet. Talk about that game or anything else right here.