Thoughts following the Wildcard Game loss to the Astros


The Yankees season officially ended last night when the Astros walked into Yankee Stadium and shut the so-called Bronx Bombers out 3-0 in the AL wildcard game. The lethargic, uninspiring play we saw at the end of the regular season carried over in the wildcard game. It was not fun. Anyway, way I have some thoughts.

1. It is going to get second-guessed like crazy but benching Jacoby Ellsbury rather than Brett Gardner was absolutely the right move in my opinion. It looks awful in hindsight — Gardner went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts — but that move was based on more than Joe Girardi‘s gut feel. Gardner was very bad in the second half! But so was Ellsbury. Worse, in fact (67 vs. 59 wRC+). Ellsbury also had much worse numbers against lefties (112 vs. 83 wRC+) and ended the season with three hits in his last 21 at-bats. Before the game, hitting coach Jeff Pentland told Dan Martin that Ellsbury’s swing hasn’t been right since he crashed into the wall against the Red Sox last week — I assume it was the play when he crashed back-first into the wall in front of the visitor’s bullpen and stayed down on the ground a few moments, remember that? —  so there was a physical (i.e. non-numbers) reason for the move too. Gardner was awful last night, just like most of his teammates. But in a winner-take-all game, Girardi had to put his best players on the field, and at this point Gardner is simply a better player than Ellsbury. (Also, the fact Ellsbury was not in the lineup in a game of that magnitude in year two of a seven-year deal is damning.)

2. The offense was very bad last night and has been bad for a few weeks now, and I suspect it will be a hot topic in the offseason. The pitching was the real problem though. Not last night, just throughout the season. The Yankees were second in baseball with 764 runs scored this year but were 16th with a 4.05 ERA and 13th with a 3.93 FIP. The rotation specifically was 18th with a 4.25 ERA and 14th with a 4.04 FIP. The starters also ranked 21st with 927 innings. That was a big, big problem. The bullpen seemed to wear down late in the season and that’s because they had to get 10-12 outs per game in the first half. The Yankees have six starters either under contract (CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka) or team control (Nathan Eovaldi, Michael Pineda, Luis Severino, Ivan Nova) next season, but do they really have six starters? Is that the makings of a title-winning rotation? I don’t think so. Exactly two of those guys (Tanaka and Severino) were even league average this year. Offense was a problem late in the season. It couldn’t be any more obvious. The pitching, specifically the rotation, was a bigger problem all year though.

3. With that in mind, I can’t help but wonder if things would have turned out differently had Tanaka not hurt his hamstring a few weeks ago. He had a 2.79 ERA and held opponents to a .207/.234/.396 batting line in the nine starts and 61.1 innings immediately prior to the injury. Tanaka never seemed right after the injury. He wasn’t locating as well and his pitches didn’t have the same finish to them. Maybe if he never gets hurt, the Yankees clinch home field advantage earlier, the regular position players get more rest, and they head into the postseason much more refreshed. Who knows? Tanaka wasn’t the reason they lost last night — he wasn’t great but two runs in five innings is winnable — but his hamstring injury rally short-circuited that great stretch he’d been on. Blame the NL, I guess.


4. In hindsight, the turning point of the season was Mark Teixeira‘s injury. Greg Bird played very well in Teixeira’s absence, about as well as anyone could have expected, but he’s no Teixeira. The lineup was suddenly short its top power hitter and a big middle of the order switch-hitting presence. Teixeira adds balance, depth, and more thunder to the lineup. Then there’s the defense on top of it. The offense never really seemed to get on track after Teixeira went down, especially against left-handers. I don’t know if he would have made a difference against Dallas Keuchel last night, but boy, it’s hard to believe the Yankees wouldn’t have been better off with Teixeira in the lineup the last few weeks. He was sorely missed even with Bird playing so well as his replacement.

5. Whenever a team gets eliminated from the postseason, the natural reaction is “blow it up.” Trade all the players we don’t like, sign a bunch of free agents, call up some kids, the works. It’s not just Yankees fans, everyone does it. That’s not possible this offseason and it’s not even realistic anyway. The Yankees have problems to solve and roster holes to fill like every other team. That said, this basically amounted to a rebuilding year for the Yankees. They sought youth last offseason in Didi Gregorius and Eovaldi, and when they needed help during the regular season, they called up kids from Triple-A. Bird, Severino, Slade Heathcott, the relievers, whoever. The only outside help they added was Dustin Ackley. (And I guess Rico Noel.) This was as close to a rebuilding season as you’re going to see from the Yankees, and they still managed to make the postseason. That ain’t too bad. The ending was disappointing, no doubt. There was also a lot of positive to be taken from this season thanks to the young players. It’s been a while since the Yankees had a crop of youngsters like Didi and Severino and Bird. Players who look like they can legitimately be part of a winning core in the not too distant future.

Season Over: Yanks go out with a whimper in 3-0 wildcard game loss to Astros

In the end, the team-wide offensive inconsistency was too much to overcome. The limp to the finish line carried over into the postseason and the Yankees were knocked out by the Astros in the AL wildcard game Tuesday night. The final score was 3-0. The season is officially over. Everything sucks.


Runs? They Didn’t Even Get To Third Base
Offense has been hard to come by of late — the Yankees scored 44 runs in their final 14 regular season games, or 3.14 per game — and the struggles didn’t go away in October. Dallas Keuchel certainly didn’t help matters. The Yankees mustered only three hits on the night, all singles, and they drew two walks. They didn’t even have a runner reach third base. The offense was totally overmatched. This game was not nearly as competitive as the score may indicate.

The hits: Greg Bird with two outs in the second, Didi Gregorius leading off the sixth, and Carlos Beltran with two outs in the sixth. Chris Young drew a one-out walk in the first and Chase Headley drew a one-out walk in the seventh. That’s all. That’s all the base-runners. The sixth inning was the only time they had two runners on base at the same time. So they had the tying run on base! That’s good! And Alex Rodriguez was up! That’s also good! So was Keuchel’s climbing pitch count!

That sixth inning rally, which really wasn’t much of a rally, was by far the Yankees best chance to get back into the game. Keuchel was tiring — manager A.J. Hinch went out to talk to him before the A-Rod at-bat to see how he was doing, in fact — and, at the very least, the Yankees had a chance to get on the board. Instead, Alex missed a cookie of a cutter …

Dallas Keuchel Alex Rodriguez

… and flew out to center field to end the inning. That’s it right there. That’s the pitch that could have turned the entire game around. Instead, Alex flew out, and the Yankees had just one base-runner the rest of the game. That was Headley’s walk. The final eight batters they sent to the plate made outs and only one of those guys hit the ball out of the infield.

Give Keuchel credit, he pitched a helluva game on short rest, but the we’ve seen games like this too many times the last few weeks. Maybe not this bad — I mean, three singles and two walks? yeesh — but bad. The offense really sputtered down the stretch. Bird and Beltran were the team’s only reliable hitters over the last few weeks and that’s simply not enough. It was a team-wide disappearing act. From watching Tuesday, you would have never guessed this team scored the second most runs in baseball in 2015.


Obligatory Home Runs
Two runs in five innings is not a bad start by any means, but Masahiro Tanaka wasn’t great in the wildcard game when the Yankees needed him to be. The first inning was incredible. Yankee Stadium was electric — I haven’t heard it that loud since the 2009 postseason — and Tanaka struck out the first two batters before getting a fly out to end the inning. It was amazing. What a fun inning.

Then Colby Rasmus ruined the fun with a first pitch home run leading off the second inning to give the Astros a 1-0 lead. Yuck. Houston actually loaded the bases that inning and could have really blown things open, but Tanaka was able to escape with just the one run allowed. Carlos Gomez hit Tanaka’s first pitch of the fourth inning out of the park for a solo homer to make it 2-0. Tanaka’s homer problem continued to be, well, a problem.

All told, Tanaka allowed just those two runs on four hits and three walks in five innings. He struck out three and got a healthy 13 swings and misses out of 83 total pitches (15.7%). This was a grind though. Tanaka had to battle in every inning but the first. He wasn’t great but he wasn’t terrible either. All things considered, I think I would have taken two runs in five innings from Tanaka coming into the game, especially with the bullpen ready to go.

The Bullpen
As planned, Joe Girardi went to his big three relievers. Justin Wilson walked a batter but got a double play and four outs total. Dellin Betances was summoned in the seventh and he allowed an insurance run on a walk, a stolen base, and a single. The walk wasn’t surprising at this point. Dellin’s had control problems for weeks now.

The steal shouldn’t be surprising either — Betances allowed 17 steals in 21 attempts this year. He is very slow to the plate and usually it doesn’t matter because he’s so good at preventing base-runners. The Astros were very aware of his problem holding runners though, so pinch-runner Jonathan Villar stole second and scored on Jose Altuve’s single. Look at this pitch Altuve hit:

Jose Altuve Dellin Betances

Baseball can be so stupid sometimes. Betances and Andrew Miller eventually got the final six outs of the game without incident. The plan was Tanaka to Wilson to Betances to Miller, and that’s exactly what happened. Too bad the offense didn’t hold up its end of the bargain.

I’m not sure what’s left to add here. Both Gregorius and Headley had a great game in the field — Headley made an excellent barehand play for the final out of that messy second inning — and Brett Gardner also made a great play running down an Evan Gattis line drive into the right-center field gap in the second. The defense finally showed up!

Gardner and Ellsbury were booed tremendously after making outs in the eighth inning. I hope they were just booing the team’s general lethargy rather than Gardner individually. I know he had a brutal second half, but he was pretty awesome overall this year. Ellsbury? Let’s just say I have no trouble booing guys with Red Sox ties.

And finally, the final out of the season was a soft McCann ground ball to shortstop. I was hoping he’d pop-up one last time. Alas.

Box Score & WPA Graph
Here’s the box score and video highlights. I might as well link you to the season standings, Bullpen Workload page, and Announcer Standings page one last time. Here’s the loss probability graph:

Source: FanGraphs

Up Next
Up Next? Up next is the offseason. The next time we see the Yankees will be roughly four months from now in Tampa, when they report to Spring Training. Every offseason is busy and exciting and this one will be no different. Thanks for reading this season. The ending sucked but it was still a fun year.

2015 AL Wildcard Game Thread: Astros at Yankees

AL Wildcard Game logoFor the first time franchise history, the Yankees are a wildcard team under the current system. They’ve been the wildcard team before, but not since this new two wildcard team plan was put in place. This is great and terrible at the same time. I’ve got the usual postseason butterflies, except cranked up to about ten. I guess that’s the point of the wildcard game.

If you’re trying to come up with a prediction for tonight’s game, just stop. It’s not worth the headache. Anything can happen in any game. I know it’s the oldest cliche in the book, but that’s because it’s true. Sometimes Aaron Boone comes off the bench to hit a pennant winning home run. Sometimes the other team decides to pitch to your best hitter even though Freddy Guzman is on deck. Sometimes lifting the best reliever in the history of the universe for Graeme Lloyd works. Baseball, man. You can’t predict it. It would be boring if you could. Just enjoy the ride.

Here are the starting lineups, which you’ve seen already. My guess is the lineups at the end of the game will look much different, especially for the Yankees. The starting lineups ain’t the ending lineups.

Houston Astros
1. 2B Jose Altuve (101 wRC+ vs. RHP)
2. RF George Springer (113 wRC+ vs. RHP)
3. SS Carlos Correa (128 wRC+ vs. RHP)
4. LF Colby Rasmus (108 wRC+ vs. RHP)
5. DH Evan Gattis (108 wRC+ vs. RHP)
6. CF Carlos Gomez (102 wRC+ vs. RHP)
7. 3B Luis Valbuena (121 wRC+ vs. RHP)
8. 1B Chris Carter (100 wRC+ vs. RHP)
9. C Jason Castro (92 wRC+ vs. RHP)

LHP Dallas Keuchel

New York Yankees
1. CF Brett Gardner (112 wRC+ vs. LHP)
2. LF Chris Young (162 wRC+ vs. LHP)
3. RF Carlos Beltran (99 wRC+ vs. LHP)
4. DH Alex Rodriguez (148 wRC+ vs. LHP)
5. C Brian McCann (108 wRC+ vs. LHP)
6. 3B Chase Headley (104 wRC+ vs. LHP)
7. 1B Greg Bird (110 wRC+ vs. LHP in a small sample)
8. 2B Rob Refsnyder (77 wRC+ vs. LHP in a small sample)
9. SS Didi Gregorius (73 wRC+ vs. LHP)

RHP Masahiro Tanaka

The weather is New York this evening is damn near perfect. Not a single cloud in the sky or any threat of rain. Just a perfect night to puke over a baseball game. The baseline introductions are scheduled to begin at 7:44pm ET and the game itself will begin at 8:08pm ET. You’ll be able to watch on ESPN. Win it for CC.

Guest Post: American League Wild Card Umpires Preview

The following is a guest post previewing tonight’s wildcard game umpires from Adam Moss, who you know as Roadgeek Adam in the comments. He’s previously written guest posts on Tim McClelland, Frankie Crosetti, the No. 26, Casey Stengel, Leo Durocher, and Miller Huggins.

Eric Cooper was behind the plate for that stupid little incident with Carlos Gomez earlier this year. (Presswire)
Eric Cooper was behind the plate for that stupid little incident with Carlos Gomez earlier this year. (Presswire)

Well, here we go. The first postseason since I started these umpire reviews in the comments of River Ave. Blues. Major League Baseball Communications tweeted out the roster of umpires for the Wild Card games and the American/National League Division Series last night. Generally, in the postseason, we have six umpires, including one in left and right fields. Famously the right field umpire in 1996 came into play with the Derek Jeter/Tony Tarasco fly ball-home run incident in the 1996 American League Championship Series with Jeffrey Maier. The right field umpire that day was Richie Garcia (American League – No. 19) who called it a home run and dealt with Tarasco, Davey Johnson and Armando Benitez at the same time.

The Wild Card game and outfield umpires also reared their ugly heads in the 2012 National League Wild Card game when Andrelton Simmons popped up to left field and the infield fly rule was called by Sam Holbrook (No. 34), which caused poor behavior by the fans of the Atlanta Braves. The left field umpire, Holbrook, decided the IFR was needed despite Pete Kozma being out 75 feet into left field. The call, before the days of review, basically was upheld.

That being said, let’s take a look at who will be umpiring tonight’s game at Yankee Stadium.

Eric “Car Wreck” Cooper (No. 56 – HP)

The Des Moines, Iowa native, Eric Cooper, is our home plate umpire for tonight’s game. Cooper, who was with the crew run by Gary Cederstrom (Crew Q), called home plate for 17 games in the 2015 season, logging a 3.79 umpire’s ERA and a 1.20 umpire’s WHIP. The former is good enough for 46th of the 89 umpires in Major League Baseball this year. Hitters with Cooper behind the plate have had 8.1 hits per 9 innings, a 2.7 walk per 9 innings, and 7.8 strikeouts per 9 innings rate, numbers that would lead you to believe he is a hitter’s umpire. However, his tendency is to have a large strike zone and it shows. Cooper has called three no-hitters, including Hideo Nomo’s 2001 over the Orioles and both of Mark Buerhle’s in 2007 and 2009. Hitters are hitting a mere .241/.296/.401 with Cooper behind the plate and only a 1.04 HR per 9 innings, which also corresponds well to the size of the zone.

As for his ejection tendencies, Cooper is a hothead. His most famous incident comes in 2013, when A.J. Burnett and Russell Martin were arguing with him over a call, and Cooper got out from behind the plate, charged toward Burnett and point at him for warnings about his “behavior,” leading to Pirates manager Clint Hurdle coming in and arguing with Cooper. No one was ejected that day, but that being said, Cooper has a grand total of 61 ejections since he joined MLB on June 17, 1996 as an umpire for the American League. Somehow, in that time period, none have been of the Yankees, but there have been couple for the Mets (Bobby Valentine in 1999 and Mike Piazza in 2005).

Finally, the “Car Wreck” nickname comes from Cooper’s World Series assignment last year, when Joe Torre called from New York to tell Cooper he would be umpiring the Fall Classic. He and his wife were in West Des Moines coming back from a showing of Gone Girl, and he nearly wrecked his car in amazement with his wife in it. They ended up switching positions in the car after the call. He ended up calling one of his fellow veteran umpires, and one of my favorites, the great Tim McClelland about the decision, who told him to “soak it all in.”

Paul Emmel (No. 50 – 1B)

Emmel. (Presswire)

Ergh, we go from a car wreck to another hothead. Paul Emmel also is a massive hothead. However, we will get to that later. Emmel worked on Jerry Meals’ crew in the regular season and had to manage 19 games behind the plate, logging a 4.02 ERA (best for 27th of 89 in the league). Hitters are also hitting at a 1.26 WHIP (higher than Emmel). The 4.02 ERA would open the door to a hitter’s umpire, as well as the rest of the numbers: 8.3 hits per 9, 3.0 walks per 9 and 7.5 strikeouts per 9. Those are all absurdly hitters umpire numbers, but yet, the .244/.309/.386 slash line would care to disagree, as well as the 0.87 home runs per 9 innings. Emmel averages a large strike zone from time to time and sometimes might find a small strike zone.

As for the ejection rate, Emmel, the Midland, Michigan native, has a grand total of 56 ejections since his hiring in July 1999. Most famously for Yankee fans, he threw out Joe Girardi (his 9th as Yankee manager at the time) and Brett Gardner on back to back days in July 2010. That Brett Gardner ejection led to Colin Curtis inheriting the at-bat with an 0-2 count and taking Anaheim’s Scot Shields deep for his first big league home run on a full count. There was much enjoyment out of that home run wasn’t there? Emmel, who started wearing glasses this year, also had the honors of ejecting Brian Matusz in May for illegal substance during a game with the Miami Marlins.

Ted Barrett (No. 65 – 2B/CC)

Did anyone hear a buzz behind plate? Oh, so no one is shaving behind home plate. It is just Ted Barrett’s strike call. Ted Barrett is our second base umpire and crew chief for this series. He was the crew chief for Crew C (Angel Hernandez, Scott Barry and Chris Conroy) and is one of the tallest umpires in MLB at 6ft 4in. A general rule to keep in mind with taller umpires is that they tend to have a hard time with lower strike calls, but Barrett is definitely not that type, as he’s a pitcher’s umpire true and true. He has a 3.22 ERA (best for 81st of 89!) and a 1.21 WHIP (pretty average actually). However, also weird is the 8.1 hits per 9, 2.9 walks per 9 and 7.8 strikeouts per 9, the latter of which support the idea of tall umpire issues. Here’s the kicker however, hitters are slashing a pathetic .237/.298/.359 with Barrett behind the plate. To make things even more blatant, Barrett is the only MLB umpire in history to call two perfect games (Matt Cain’s in 2012 & David Cone’s in 1999). He also has the Ervin Santana no-hitter in 2011 to his credit.

As for his temper, Barrett is one of the best umpires in baseball when giving players, coaches and managers time to vent. Since hired by the American League on May 27, 1994, the Pasco, Washington native has only 58 ejections and one of the few this season with none! This marks the 4th season Barrett has not thrown anyone out (1995, 2009, 2010 and 2012 being the others). He has only ejected one Yankee in 21 years, and that was Ivan Rodriguez on September 8, 2008 for fighting with Torii Hunter when the latter played for Anaheim. The Umpire Ejection Fantasy League, which I am a member of, rated Barrett the best umpire in the league in 2014, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s up again in 2015 for the same award. He’s that good.

Bill Miller (No. 26 – 3B)

If you see a ball from Bill Miller, you best take it, because you probably won’t see it again before the at bat is over. Miller is notorious for possibly having a strike zone and a half, and I mean a half. There’s almost 2 strike zones when Miller is behind the plate and it’s not unknown that he’ll call ANYTHING a strike. Just ask Brett Lawrie in 2012 about that one. Miller worked 19 games behind the plate as a crew chief for Crew P (Doug Eddings, Jim Wolf, & Adrian Johnson) and somehow managed a 3.55 ERA and 1.23 WHIP (both very average numbers). That said, he has an 8.5 hits per 9 rate, a 2.5 walks per 9 rate and a 8.2 strikeouts per 9, the latter two are pitcher’s umpire. Hitters are slashing a pure .249/.304/.375 with him behind the plate and not hitting home runs at all (0.67 per 9). If you’re going to enjoy 0-0 games, enjoy Bill Miller, if not, yuck.

As for his temper, he’s definitely not the worst out there, and you can see how he got to crew chief status. That said, lord does he have ejections around everywhere for balls and strikes and called third strikes. Since being hired by the AL on July 28, 1997, Miller has 45 ejections, most of which are for the strike zone. His only one with the Yankees is Johnny Damon on September 18, 2006 against the Toronto Blue Jays, in which Damon was ejected for balls and strikes from the on deck circle. It is absurdly rare that the on deck player gets ejected, so Damon accomplished quite a feat. But those who know Miller well know the escapade in Toronto with Brett Lawrie, in which Miller called 2 strikes in the 1.5 strike zone and Lawrie threw his helmet at Miller. A fan got revenge later by throwing a beer at him.

Conroy. (Presswire)
Conroy. (Presswire)

Chris Conroy (No. 98 – LF)

Now that the veteran umpires have been tackled, we get to deal with the two who will be working the left field and right field positions, and honestly, I wish we had veteran umpires here, because the newbies for postseason work are doing them. The first is the North Adams, Massachusetts native Chris Conroy, who was promoted to the full-time staff in June 2013 after Brian Runge failed a drug test. (Yes, umpires get tested too!) Conroy has only been in the league since 2010 and I don’t have much to say. This season, as part of Ted Barrett’s crew, Conroy worked 18 games behind the plate, and came to a 3.70 ERA (52nd of 89 in the league) and a 1.31 WHIP (higher end). The rest of the numbers scream hitter’s umpire however, with a 9.1 hits/2.7 walks/7.2 strikeouts per 9 innings this season, as well as a .263/.318/.387 slash line. He is basically a hitter’s umpire.

Conroy, having only been in the majors since September 29, 2010, has a low ejection total, with a grand total of 9, including 3 this season. He has not ejected anyone in the city of New York and only one in the NL East (DeMarlo Hale) for bench jockeying on April 28, 2013. Not much to see here, move on.

Manny Gonzalez (No. 79 – RF)

Finally, we get the other youngin’ for this crew and that is Manny Gonzalez. The Caracas, Venezuela native is our right field umpire and is quite possibly one of the biggest hitter’s umpire in the game, with an insane 4.51 ERA (8th of 89) and a 1.48 WHIP (highest in the league for anyone worked at least 10 games). These numbers speak for themselves in his 22 games behind home plate as a member of Crew O (Fieldin Culbreth’s). Hitters have a 9.9 hits/3.4 walks/7.7 strikeouts per 9 innings slash line and that alone screams tight zone with the propensity to hit. Hitters average 1.05 home runs per 9 and a .280/.347/.438 slash line. If you want a slugfest, this is your man, because he’ll produce one real quick with those numbers.

As for Gonzalez’s temper, there’s not much detail to work with. He only has four ejections since his hiring on May 17, 2010. His very first ejection was of Ike Davis on September 26, 2012 on a call at first (which I remember quite clearly); the others are of Jhonny Peralta, Jeff Banister and Ian Kinsler, the latter two of which were this year. He’s had ejection free seasons three times now (2010, 2011 and 2014) and this season will be his first with two ejections.


I mean, the hitting stats are pointless in the fact that only Eric Cooper’s is whose matters, but the ejection rates matter, and while the Commish usually asks umpires to be more reasonable in the playoffs, it’s not like they don’t eject people in the playoffs either. We have the tale of two crews (3 hitter’s umps and 3 pitcher’s umps, including Lord deStrike, Bill Miller) and hopefully there’s no blasphemous calls that requires Barrett, Torre and [insert umpire here] to hold a press conference after the game, which has been in the case in recent years.

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.