Scouting Game Four of the ALCS: Lance McCullers Jr.

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

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

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

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

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

History Against The Yankees

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

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

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

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

Current Stuff

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

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

lance-mccullers-jr-pitch-selection

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

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

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

Platoon Splits

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

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

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

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

Can The Yankees Run On Him?

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sonny-gray-walk-rate

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts prior to Game Four of the 2017 ALCS

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yankees 8, Astros 1: Judge breaks out, Sabathia shuts down Astros in Game Three

Alright alright alright. Now we have a series. After getting stifled by Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander in Games One and Two of the ALCS, the Yankees bounced back with a big 8-1 win in Game Three on Monday night. Good hitting, good pitching, good defense. This one had it all and the Yankees needed every bit of it. The Astros still lead the best-of-seven series 2-1.

Love this team. (Abbie Parr/Getty)
Love this team. (Abbie Parr/Getty)

Three Early Runs
With one swing of the bat, the Yankees scored more runs in the second inning of Game Three than they did in Games One and Two combined. Man did that Todd Frazier home run feel good. The rally started with two outs too. Line out by Gary Sanchez and strikeout by Greg Bird. It looked like another quick 1-2-3 inning for an offense that hadn’t done much in the series up to that point.

Things turned when Starlin Castro beat out an infield single and the pretty much unstoppable Aaron Hicks looped a single to shallow left field. Hicks has been so good this postseason. On both sides of the ball. Frazier’s three-run home run was one of those home runs that left you wondering how the hell it was a home run. Look at the point of contact:

todd-frazier

What the what. First of all, that’s a 95 mph fastball dotting the down-and-away corner perfectly. A great pitch, that was. Somehow Frazier reached out and one-armed the ball into the short porch for a three-run home run. A Yankee Stadium cheapie? Yeah, it sure looked like it. But the ball left his bat at 100.5 mph, so Frazier made great contact. And as he rounded first base, he pumped his fist has hard as I’ve ever seen a player pump his fist on a homer. Todd was pumped the hell up.

The Judge Game
There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Aaron Judge has had a brutal postseason to date. He went into Game Four with a 4-for-31 (.129) line and 19 strikeouts — 19 strikeouts! — in eight postseason games. And, in the first inning, Judge struck out again. On three pitches! That wasn’t good.

Fortunately, things started to turn after that. Judge worked a one-out walk in the third inning, and while it didn’t lead to a run, he finally got a favorable call on a pitch at the knees. He’s been getting hose on those all series. All season, really. The call went in his favor and, if nothing else, maybe that boosted his confidence a bit.

Also a confidence boost: robbing Yulieski Gurriel of extra bases in the fourth inning. Judge made a tremendous leaping catch — it wouldn’t have been a home run, but it definitely would’ve gone for a double without the catch — and crashed hard into the wall with his left shoulder, the shoulder he’s been icing basically the entire second half. Great catch! But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little worried about the shoulder.

Judge showed the shoulder was fine in the next half-inning. He somehow pulled his hands in and yanked a 93 mph Will Harris fastball to left field for a big three-run home run that turned a too close for comfort 5-0 lead into an okay you gave unclench now 8-0 lead. It was a very similar pitch to the high fastball he hit for a two-run double against Trevor Bauer in ALCS Game Four.

That five-run fourth inning rally was set up Cameron Maybin forgetting how to play defense. For whatever reason, he pulled up in left field and let Bird’s bloop dunk in for a ground-rule double. I have no idea. Not complaining though. Bird moved to third on Hicks’ fly ball to the warning track, then scored when Chase Headley perfectly placed a weak ground ball back up the middle. First DH hit of the postseason!

Headley’s two-out infield single gave the Yankees a 4-0 lead. It became 5-0 after Brett Gardner was hit by a pitch to load the bases, and Harris spiked a curveball that bounced away from Evan Gattis for a wild pitch. Not the best effort by Gattis to catch that ball. He just kinda watched it hit his mitt and did nothing else. Considering Judge’s strikeout issues, getting a run on the wild pitch felt big. He was definitely a candidate for an inning-ending strikeout. Instead, dinger time.

But wait! That wasn’t all for Judge. In the next half-inning he made a tremendous diving catch in shallow right field to take away a bloop single. And! And he made another nice running catch on a pop-up near the foul line. In the span of three half-innings, Judge made two excellent catches in right field and crushing a home run. That is how you impact a damn baseball game. What a game for Judge.

I Love It When You Call Me Big Stoppa
No, he is no longer the pitcher he was in his prime, but damn does CC Sabathia know how to come through in big spots. He’s stopped losing streaks all season, and with Game Three a must-win for all intents and purposes, Sabathia went out shut the Astros down across six innings. Three singles, four walks, five strikeouts, no runs. With a big 8-0 lead, Joe Girardi let the big man air it out for 99 pitches.

The biggest moment of the game for Sabathia came in the top of third, immediately after Frazier’s homer. After two quick outs, Sabathia walked George Springer, gave up a single to left to Alex Bregman, and walked Jose Altuve to load the bases. For Carlos Correa, no less. That’s not good. Sabathia stuck to the game plan, busted Correa in on the hands with a cutter, and got him to pop-up harmlessly on the infield. Ex-friggin-hale.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Sabathia, who had the fifth highest soft contact rate and the sixth lowest hard contact rate in baseball this season, held the Astros to a 73.7 mph average exit velocity in Game Three. It was the lowest for any pitcher against the ‘Stros this season, according to James Smyth. In a way, Sabathia was the perfect pitcher to send out there against the Astros. They’re going to put the ball in play, but CC knows how to use their aggressiveness against them, and seemingly nothing he gives up is hard-hit.

Once upon a time, when the Yankees first signed Sabathia, there was a lot of ink spilled about his lack of postseason success. Now? Now he’s 37 years old and still slingin’ like a champ in the postseason. He’s the guy the Yankees want on the mound in a big game and I feel exactly the same way. There’s something to be said for not being overwhelmed by the moment and knowing how to pitch rather than overpower. Late career Sabathia is awfully fun.

Close It Out
I have zero complaints about Girardi’s bullpen usage in Game Three. With the 8-0 lead, he went to Adam Warren for the seventh and eighth innings, and it was only the third time Warren has seen game action since coming off the disabled list. Correa and Gurriel both his balls that I thought were gone off the bat in the eighth, but they just died in the cold night air. Two quick, scoreless innings for Warren.

Girardi went to Dellin Betances with the 8-0 lead because, well, if you’re not going use Dellin up 8-0, when will you? Bad Betances showed up and walked the first two — and only two — batters he faced. His pitch locations:

dellin-betances-pitch-location

Poor Dellin. Can’t help but feel terrible for the guy. His body language tells you his confidence is completely shot. How could it not be? The two walks ended the night Betances, and in came Tommy Kahnle to wrap things up. He allowed a single and walked in a run, which is mildly annoying, but whatever. It was 8-0. Altuve banged into a game-ending double play with the bases. Not very MVP like, if you ask me.

Leftovers
The Yankees had six hits in 3.2 innings against Charlie Morton, but don’t confuse that for crushing him. Frazier hit the home run, yes, but two of those six hits were infield singles — really three if you include Headley’s well-placed grounder against the shift — another was the Bird bloop double Maybin should’ve caught, and another was the Hicks flare single. Hey, I’ll take it. The Yankees hadn’t been getting those weak hits lately.

Everyone in the lineup reached base at least once except Sanchez, who crushed a fly ball in the eighth inning. Like Correa and Gurriel against Warren, I thought it was gone off the bat, but it just didn’t carry. Not a good night for fly balls. Gardner and Sanchez were the only starters without a hit. Gardner did get hit by a pitch to reach base. The Yankees went 3-for-6 with runners in scoring position.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
Head on over to ESPN for the box score and MLB.com for the video highlights. Here is our Bullpen Workload page and here is the win probability graph:


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next
The Game Three win means there will be at least two more games at Yankee Stadium this season. The Yankees will look to even the series 2-2 in Game Four on Tuesday. That is a 5pm ET start, not an 8pm ET start. The Astros haven’t announced their starter yet, though I get the sense it’ll be Dallas Keuchel on short rest. We’ll see. The Astros are starting Lance McCullers Jr., surprisingly. Sonny Gray will be on the bump for the good guys.

2017 ALCS Game Three: Astros at Yankees

2017-alcs-logoOnce again, the Yankees return home in a postseason series down 0-2. And, once again, they’re faced with having to make a big comeback against a 100+ win team. The Yankees made that comeback against the Indians in the ALDS. Can they do it against the Astros in the ALCS? I mean, sure, of course they can. Will they? That’s another matter.

This season the Yankees had the AL’s best home record at 51-30, so it would seem it is advantage Yankees that these games will be played in Yankee Stadium. Then again, the Astros were tied for the AL’s best road record 53-28, so maybe not. But! The Astros were tied with the Indians for the best road record, and we know what happened in the ALDS.

More than anything, the Yankees need to get their offense going. They scored one run in Game One and one run in Game Two, and botched several chances due to poor baserunning decisions. The Astros aren’t exactly firing on all cylinders either. How much longer will that continue, realistically? It would behoove the Yankees to snap out of their team-wide funk soon, as in tonight. Here are the starting lineups:

Houston Astros
1. CF George Springer
2. 3B Alex Bregman
3. 2B Jose Altuve
4. SS Carlos Correa
5. DH Yulieski Gurriel
6. C Evan Gattis
7. 1B Marwin Gonzalez
8. RF Josh Reddick
9. LF Cameron Maybin
RHP Charlie Morton

New York Yankees
1. LF Brett Gardner
2. RF Aaron Judge
3. SS Didi Gregorius
4. C Gary Sanchez
5. 1B Greg Bird
6. 2B Starlin Castro
7. CF Aaron Hicks
8. 3B Todd Frazier
9. DH Chase Headley
LHP CC Sabathia

It is a cold and windy night in the Bronx. Playoff weather. If you’re at the game, I hope you dressed warm. Tonight’s game will begin at 8pm ET and FOX Sports 1 will have the broadcast. Enjoy the game.

Injury Update: Luis Severino (shoulder) doesn’t need further tests, it was determined. He played catch today and they’ll check on him again tonight just to be sure everything is fine. If (when!) there’s a Game Six, Severino will be the starter.

Tommy Kahnle went from having an undefined role during the regular season to being a postseason weapon

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

I don’t think Brian Cashman or the Yankees would admit it, but when they made the big trade with the White Sox back in July, righty Tommy Kahnle was the key piece. Todd Frazier is a rental player and David Robertson, while awesome, is owed quite a bit of a money next season. Kahnle was not just dominant, but he’s cheap and under control through 2020. That’s quite valuable. He was far from a throw-in.

Following the trade, Kahnle never did settle into a defined role with the Yankees. He was a seventh and eighth inning guy with the White Sox, setting up Robertson, but with the Yankees, he’s been more of a jack of all trades. Kahnle would pitch the late innings if the top relievers weren’t available, or handle middle innings work. He also struggled a bit soon after the trade. You could see Joe Girardi wanted to find a spot for him, but couldn’t.

Kahnle was pretty excellent in September, and he finished the regular season with a 2.70 ERA (2.30 FIP) in 26.2 innings with the Yankees. He struck out 31.3% of the batters he faced and walked 8.7%. A little surprising, right? Those first few weeks after the trade were a bit rough for Kahnle. Maybe that’s because the Red Sox were stealing signs. Whatever it was, Girardi never really found a set role for Kahnle during the regular season. He pitched in all situations.

When the postseason started, it wasn’t clear how or when Girardi would use Kahnle. It was clear Robertson and Chad Green were the top two setup options behind Aroldis Chapman. Then what? Well, the Wild Card Game answered that for us. Luis Severino bowed out after getting one out, Green and Robertson soaked up 5.1 innings between them, then it was up to someone to bridge the gap to Chapman. Girardi opted for Kahnle with the tying run on base.

Seven up, seven down for Kahnle in the Wild Card Game, which suddenly earned him some trust. Then, in Game Four of the ALDS, Kahnle retired all six men he faced to spare Robertson and Chapman, and make sure they were ready for the winner-take-all Game Five. And in Game Two of the ALCS, after Severino exited with an injury, Kahnle was the first one of the bullpen with the score tied.

All told this postseason, Kahnle has thrown seven scoreless innings with only a walk allowed. He’s retired 21 of 22 batters faced with seven strikeouts and, just as importantly, he’s thrown only 87 pitches in those seven innings. Kahnle has been excellent and efficient, which helps his availability going forward. He threw only 28 pitches in those two innings in Game Two the other day. I doubt he’s off-limits tonight.

“(He’s) been crucial to our success up to this point,” said Girardi during yesterday’s non-workout day. “The one thing we weren’t quite sure about him when we got him is how much we could use him multiple innings. It’s not something he did very much in Chicago, and he was successful in Chicago. And we thought if we took him out of that type of role, would it change who he was? It hasn’t. Which is very big in the playoffs, because some days you don’t have certain relievers.”

Kahnle didn’t come out of nowhere this postseason. I’ve joked about him pulling a 1996 David Weathers this postseason, but Weathers was quite bad during the 1996 regular season. Kahnle was awesome overall this season. He just never really settled into a set role with the Yankees after the trade, and when Girardi doesn’t have a set role for a reliever, it usually means he doesn’t trust him. Kahnle pitching the seventh and eighth innings of the Wild Card Game was not Plan A.

And so far this postseason, Kahnle’s emergence has been crucial for the Yankees. Dellin Betances still isn’t trustworthy in a close game because of his walk issues, and Adam Warren hasn’t pitched a whole lot since coming back from his back injury very late in the season. Warren has made one appearance in the postseason, throwing one inning with the Yankees down three in the ALDS Game One. That’s kinda where he’s at right now. He’s a mop-up guy.

On paper, the Yankees have an excitingly deep bullpen. In reality, the only relievers Girardi seems to trust implicitly are Robertson and Chapman. Green’s meltdown in ALDS Game Two seemed to knock him down a peg or two, at least temporarily. With Betances unable to throw strikes and Warren questionable after the back injury, the Yankees were suddenly faced with having a bullpen short on trustworthy relievers heading into October. Instead, Kahnle has stepped up, retired basically everyone he’s faced, and become a key component of the postseason bullpen.

Scouting Game Three of the ALCS: Charlie Morton

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Despite allowing four runs total in Games One and Two of the ALCS in Houston, the Yankees return home to New York for Game Three down 0-2 in the series. Annoying! Very annoying, really. The Yankees have been here before though. They came home down 0-2 to the Indians in the ALDS, and that was a best-of-five series. Not a best-of-seven. The current situation is not ideal. It is not insurmountable, however.

The good news: the Yankees don’t have to face Dallas Keuchel or Justin Verlander in Game Three tonight. Those two held the Yankees to one run total in 16 combined innings in Games One and Two. They are: good. Tonight the Yankees will face sinkerballer Charlie Morton, who threw 146.2 innings with a 3.62 ERA (3.46 FIP) during the regular season. His strikeout (26.4%) and ground ball (51.8%) rates were excellent. His walk rate (8.1%) was about average.

Morton’s lone ALDS start against the Red Sox did not go particularly well. He allowed two runs on seven hits and two walks in 4.1 innings, and, on top of that, six of the 12 balls in play against him left the bat at 100+ mph. The Red Sox hit some rockets for outs. Needless to say, it would be swell if Morton were that square-up-able again tonight. Let’s preview Houston’s Game Three starter.

History Against The Yankees

This is Morton’s first season in the American League, so he has limited exposure to the Yankees. Players on the ALCS roster have hit a combined .326/.396/.600 with eight homers in 135 plate appearances against him in his career. A lot of that, including all eight homers and 87 of those 135 plate appearances, are tied up in Matt Holliday, Starlin Castro, and Todd Frazier. They faced Morton a ton when they all played in the NL Central.

Here is how Yankees on the ALCS roster have fared against Morton the last three seasons, via Baseball Reference.

Name PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
Aaron Hicks 6 4 1 0 1 0 2 2 1 .250 .500 .750 1.250
Starlin Castro 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 .000 .000 .000 .000
Todd Frazier 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000
Brett Gardner 3 2 2 0 0 0 1 0 0 1.000 1.000 1.000 2.000
Didi Gregorius 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 .000 .000 .000 .000
Matt Holliday 3 3 1 0 0 1 3 0 1 .333 .333 1.333 1.667
Aaron Judge 3 2 0 0 0 0 0 1 2 .000 .333 .000 .333
Gary Sanchez 3 2 1 0 0 0 0 1 1 .500 .667 .500 1.167
Jaime Garcia 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000
Ronald Torreyes 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000
Total 31 25 5 0 1 1 6 4 9 .200 .333 .400 .733

Not nearly as much success as the overall career head-to-head numbers would lead to believe. Like I said, a lot of overall success comes from Holliday (Cardinals), Castro (Cubs), and Frazier (Reds) when they faced Morton (Pirates) on the regular as NL Central. A lot of the career head-to-head history is very old and not indicative of who these guys are as players today.

The Yankees did face Morton once this season, scoring four runs in 5.2 innings against him in May. His final line: 5.2 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 4 BB, 10 K. That is a bit misleading though, because Morton dominated the Yankees for four innings before falling apart in the fifth. A walk, two singles, and a Holliday homer put four runs on the board quick. Prior to that, Morton manhandled the Yankees.

Current Stuff

Over the years Morton has gone through several transformations. He went from four-seam pitcher to straight sinkerballer with the Pirates years ago, when he literally copied Roy Halladay’s delivery, hoping it would work for him. He also scrapped his changeup in favor of a splitter. And over the last two years, Morton has added basically two full miles an hour to his fastball. From Brooks Baseball:

charlie-morton-velocity1

Huh. It’s not often you see a pitcher on the wrong side of 30 add velocity like that, but then again, everyone seems to be adding velocity these days, so maybe it’s not that unusual. Morton’s sinker and four-seamer sit in the mid-90s these days, and his top secondary pitch is a hard low-80s curveball. He’ll also throw a few upper-80s cutters and mid-80s splitters per start, though they’re not crucial to his success. For all intents and purposes, he’s a sinker/curveball guy.

Here, via Brooks Baseball, is Morton’s pitch selection against righties and lefties this season:

charlie-morton-pitch-selection

Get ahead with the sinker and put away with the curveball. Fairly standard. Morton isn’t as good at peppering the bottom of the strike zone as Keuchel (few are), though he generally does a very good job locating down in the zone. Verlander crushed the Yankees with fastballs up and down, and breaking balls at the knees. With Morton, almost everything is at the knees. Part of me wonders if the Astros will look to change up the scouting report by having Morton pitch upstairs with four-seam fastballs, even as waste pitches to change eye level. We’ll see.

There aren’t any good 2017 Morton videos out there, so here are his ten strikeouts against the Yankees in that May start. You can get a good enough look at the sinker and curveball here.

During his ALDS start last week, Morton’s location was pretty crappy and he left a lot of pitches belt high. The end result would have been much worse than two runs in 4.1 innings if a) the Red Sox had any power, b) some hard-hit balls didn’t find gloves, and c) Morton didn’t have enough movement on his pitches to occasionally miss the sweet spot even when he makes mistakes.

Platoon Splits

Morton went from having an extreme platoon split from 2015-16 to having a reverse split this year. Weird. Verlander had something similar happen — he went from a slight platoon split to a slight reverse split this year — though not nearly as drastic. Check out Morton’s numbers.

2015-16 vs. RHB: .235/.291/.335 (.274 wOBA) with 17.9 K%, 6.3 BB%, 61.7 GB%
2015-16 vs. LHB: .295/.382/.497 (.378 wOBA) with 18.4 K%, 9.0 BB%, 54.0 GB%

2017 vs. RHB: .272/.263/.298 (.345 wOBA) with 20.9 K%, 7.9 BB%, 45.6 GB%
2017 vs. LHB: .172/.263/.298 (.249 wOBA) with 32.8 K%, 8.4 BB%, 56.1 GB%

While I’m sure there is some sample size noise and general randomness at play here — Morton had a .347 BABIP against lefties from 2015-16 and a .244 BABIP against them this year, though that doesn’t explain the big uptick in strikeouts — it is worth noting the Astros got Morton to use his curveball more often against lefties early in the count. That makes him less predictable and, in theory, leads to fewer balls in play early in the count. If you know a guy is very likely to throw his fastball 0-0, 1-0, 0-1, or whatever, it’s easier to zero in.

Can The Yankees Run On Him?

The Astros have the worst throwing catcher tandem in the league (by far), yet through two ALCS games, the Yankees have attempted zero (0) steals. Obviously a lack of opportunity is part of that. In the two games so far the Yankees have had only seven stolen base opportunities, meaning a runner on first with second base unoccupied. Two of the seven were slow as hell Greg Bird, another was slow as hell Gary Sanchez, and another time the runner moved to second base on a wild pitch on the first pitch of the next at-bat. So, really, it’s only three stolen base opportunities.

Morton allowed only four stolen bases in five attempts this year, but throughout his career, he has been very susceptible to basestealers. Runners are 32-for-38 (84%) stealing bases against him since 2014. So yes, the Yankees can run on him. Should someone who can run (Gardner, Hicks, Jacoby Ellsbury, even Judge) reach base, they should test Brian McCann‘s (or Evan Gattis’) arm. The offense is not clicking right now, so those extra 90 feet can be very valuable.

* * *

If the Yankees are going to come back to make the ALCS interesting, it has to start tonight, at home against Houston’s third starter. They’re not going to see Keuchel or Verlander until at least Game Five — ‘Stros skipper A.J. Hinch has already all but confirmed Keuchel will not start Game Four on short rest — so this is the time to make a move. Against the third and fourth starters at home. Morton had a very good regular season overall, but he’s also had some stinkers, including last time out in the ALDS.