2017 ALCS Game One: Yankees at Astros

2017-alcs-logoI gotta say, I did not expect the Yankees to reach the ALCS after they fell behind 0-2 to the Indians in the ALDS, but here we are. Here they are, really. I didn’t do anything other than blog about it. Four more wins and this lovable squad of great young players and quality veterans will advance to the World Series. This is the first time the Yankees have been underdogs since 1996. It’s been fun.

Of course, winning the ALCS and getting to the World Series will be no picnic, the same way winning the ALDS wasn’t easy. It only gets harder to win each time you advance. The Astros, who won 101 games during the regular season, completely depantsed the Red Sox in the ALDS and showed off their high-powered offense. Here’s how long it took Houston to take the lead in the four ALDS games:

  • Game One: Five batters, including the three Red Sox batters in the top of the first.
  • Game Two: Nine batters, including the five Red Sox batters in the top of the first.
  • Game Three: Three batters.
  • Game Four: Four batters.

Yeah. The Astros are good. But so are the Yankees! They wouldn’t be here if they weren’t. Historically, the team that wins Game One of a best-of-seven series goes on to win the series 64.1% of the time. Then again, we all read about how rare it is for a team to come back from down 0-2 in a best-of-five series last round, and the Yankees are still standing. But seriously, win Game One and start the ALCS off on the right foot. Here are the lineups:

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

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

It is hot in Houston today. It’s still like the middle of summer down there. Fortunately for everyone at Minute Maid Park, the roof will be closed and the air conditioning will be on. Tonight’s game will begin at 8pm ET and FOX Sports 1 will have the broadcast. Enjoy the game.

Umpire Review: 2017 American League Championship Series

The following is a guest post from Adam Moss, who goes by Roadgeek Adam in the comments. He’s previously written guest posts on Tim McClelland, Frankie Crosetti, the No. 26, Casey Stengel, Leo Durocher, Miller Huggins, Jerry Kenney, the Copacabana incident, Mark Koenig, Earle Combs, Urban Shocker, Michael Milosevich, and Snuffy Stirnweiss.

Fairchild. (Presswire)
Fairchild. (Presswire)

Man, that last series was something sort of exciting. Unfortunately Aaron Judge’s strike zone was not. The umpires managed to make it hard for him to do anything. That ALDS crew is gone and none are repeating on this ALCS crew. In this series, we will have an interesting set up because of the seven-game series. Instead of the same six umpires, it is a seven man crew, with one serving as replay coordinator during the series. As a result, there are seven umpires on this report, and it is an interesting list.

Chad Fairchild – No. 4 (HP Game 1 / Replay Coordinator Gms 3-7)

Chadwick Jarrett Fairchild will lead off the American League Championship Series at Minute Maid Park. Immediately, we are stuck with a horrid nightmare for Aaron Judge. Chad Fairchild has a very anti-right handed batter strike zone. Fairchild has a propensity to call more strikes inside out of the zone to righties than lefties. (We saw the opposite with Jeff Nelson in ALDS Game 5.) Fairchild’s statistics read rather rudimentary, with 8.3 K/9 and 8.3 H/9. His numbers also include a 4.01 ERA with a 1.30 WHIP. Hitters had a .246/.315/.421 batting line, which makes a lean towards a pitchers’ umpire, especially inside to righties, but it may be a bit subjective.

The Sandusky, Ohio native definitely has a big enemy in Cincinnati. Catcher Devin Mesoraco has been ejected not once, but twice, arguing Fairchild strike calls, one with him behind the plate. Fairchild made his MLB debut on September 30, 2004 at the Trop between a game between the Devil Rays and the Detroit Tigers. The Yankees have a limited experience with his right arm (which he has utilized 32 times in his career). His first two MLB ejections were of Paul Quantrill and Joe Torre, when the former nailed Jason Smith in replacement of Mike Mussina on May 24, 2005. We only saw him once this season behind the plate, July 7 during the Brewers/Yankees series.

Hunter Wendeltstedt – No. 21 (HP Game 2)

The son of the legendary umpire Harry Wendelstedt, Hunter Wendelstedt is the home plate umpire for the second game of the American League Championship Series. An anonymous scouting report describes Wendelstedt well and it comes down to this: he is inconsistent. He will lose focus during games for reasons I cannot explain and will be willing to call strikes and balls like throwing darts. That 2010 scouting report also stated that it seemed like Wendelstedt preferred you put the ball in play. The last sentence backs up his 2017 statistics. In 27 games this season, Wendelstedt managed to have a 4.41 umpire’s ERA (good for 44th) and a 1.36 WHIP (really high). Wendelstedt averages 8.7 H/9, 3.5 BB/9, and 8.2 K/9. Hitters have a .254/.328/.434 line with Wendelstedt behind the plate. Scouting report: hit the ball. Things are more likely to go your way.

Wendelstedt made his MLB debut at Coors Field on April 19, 1998 (of course, a 10-7 win for Colorado over Atlanta) and like his late father, was hired by the National League. He has 77 ejections since his debut and seems to manage at least 2 a season. Once again, there is no history with the New York Yankees in terms of ejections. However, he has the honor of ejecting Ron Gardenhire not once, not twice, not even three times, but five times. We have seen Hunter behind the plate several times this season: June 28 at Comiskey II, and June 9 against the Orioles at the Stadium.

Gary Cederstrom – No. 38 (HP Game 3 – Crew Chief)

The mellow North Dakotan is the crew chief for the American League Championship Series and he calls the first game at Yankee Stadium. His strike zone is more famous in Willets Point as he is the proud owner of Johan Santana’s strike zone for his June 1, 2012 no-hitter. At the same time, we all know that Santana was a bit wild that night. However, his number reads towards average to hitter’s strike zone. Despite this, you can see that hitters really swing with Cederstrom behind the plate. He has a 4.76 umpire’s ERA (15th of 92) and a 1.40 WHIP. Batters have a .267/.330/.440 batting line, which is insanely pro-hitter. Cederstrom also gave an average of 9.4 H/9, 8.6K/9, and 3.2 BB/9. Probably wise to say you like to swing with Gary.

Cederstrom, from Bismarck, North Dakota, made his MLB debut on June 2, 1989 at Comiskey Park in a game between the Twins and the White Sox. If you want to know why he’s mellow, I have never once seen him angry as an umpire, even during situations where a player or manager is yelling at him, he never raises his voice. The man is really mellow. He has 40 ejections since his debut, which is insanely low per average for an umpire in the league 25+ years. The Yankees experience is three ejections: one of Paul O’Neill on June 2, 1995 for arguing balls and strikes after a groundout. That was literally his first ejection in over four years at that point. His other ejections with the Yankees are a little more unusual. Jason Grimsley threw over the head of Edgar Martinez then nailed him on the second pitch, promptly being ejected. Doug Eddings ended up ejecting Joe Torre. In the top of the 9th, Frank Rodriguez nailed Chuck Knoblauch and while Lou Piniella and Don Zimmer spent time arguing with Cederstrom, Frankie Rodriguez yelled at the Yankees bench and the benches cleared. Joe Girardi took on Rodriguez himself and ended up being ejected for fighting. Humorously, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, both kids at this point, stood aside and started talking while this all was going on. Why YouTube has not found this fight yet is beyond me. I want to see it. We saw Cederstrom behind the plate three times this season. The first was on June 4 at the Rogers Centre; July 15 at Fenway Park and September 20 at the Stadium against the Twins.

Chris Guccione – No. 68 (HP Game 4)

I would say Game 4 features an umpire not on Joe Girardi’s Christmas card list. These two have butted heads on multiple occasions. He is dealing with Game 4 behind the plate. Game 4 will be super crazy zone. Hoo, boy. Chris Guccione has a written off mess for a strike zone and it shows statistically, with a 4.78 ERA, and a 1.40 WHIP. He also has a 9.3 H/9 strike zone, 3.3 BB/9 and the absurdly high 9.2 K/9. Hitters have a .265/.335/.443 hitting line, and looking at a random sample strike zone, he is all over the map: either squeezing or being expansive. We could be looking at literally anything in Game 4.

The native of Salida, Colorado made his MLB debut on April 25, 2000 in a 1-0 game between the Atlanta Braves and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Turner Field. This is his second ALCS, the last being 2012 (with the Yankees and the Tigers). Strangely that season and this season are the only ones in which he does not have an ejection at all. Guccione has 57 ejections, including three of Joe Girardi. He has been tossed once as Marlins manager on August 5, 2006 and twice as Yankees manager (May 22, 2008, his first as a Yankee manager; and May 5, 2016 at Camden Yards). Otherwise, nada. No other Yankees. The Yankees have also not seen his strike zone this season. Only series he was with the Yankees, he never worked the plate.

Jerry Meals – No. 41 (HP Game 5)

Nineteenth Inning Nightmare makes his return in Game 5, if it occurs. Jerry Meals, one of your best definitions of average umpires. This is his first Championship Series in 10 seasons, and his numbers read insanely average. 4.36 ERA, 1.36 WHIP with 8.8 H/9, 8.0 H/9 and 3.4 BB/9. He is an average umpire. Nothing outright amazing, and nothing to really pick on to watch out for in Game 5, if we get that far. If it helps, he was the home plate umpire for Kerry Wood’s 20 strikeout game.

I’d say Meals has a hot head for his short stature. The native of Butler, Pennsylvania made his MLB debut on September 14, 1992 in a barnburner between the Chicago Cubs and the New York Mets at Wrigley Field. Since then, he has amassed 49 ejections, two with the Yankees: Joe Torre on April 17, 2001 at Rogers Centre and Joe Girardi on May 4, 2009 at the Stadium. He also ejected Joe as manager of the Marlins on May 19, 2006. That said, the one game that stands in his history came on July 26, 2011 in a game between the Atlanta Braves and the Pittsburgh Pirates. That game went 19 innings (10 of them without Nate McLouth and Fredi Gonzalez, both tossed in the 9th for arguing balls and strikes). However, the way the Braves walked-off was insanely controversial as he blew an obvious call at home in the 19th inning with Julio Lugo scoring on a throw. I watched that game, and those who know me know I love 20 inning games. Thanks to that play, the name Nineteen Inning Nightmare was born. If you want to make your own decision, here is the play:

We only saw Meals behind the plate once this season, July 3 at the Stadium behind the Toronto Blue Jays. Hopefully the Yankees and the Astros do not go 19 innings.

Jim Reynolds – No. 77 (HP Game 6)

Jimmy Reynolds starts his fourth Championship Series this week and his third in three years. Reynolds is a textbook definition of hitter’s umpire. In 30 games this season, Reynolds has a 4.51 ERA (38th of 92) with a 1.42 WHIP, 9.2 H/9, 3.5 BB/9 and 8.2 K/9. The .265/.335/.453 batting line also backs up the hitters ump projection. However, if you are a righty batter you are in for another headache, because Reynolds leans towards giving inside strikes to right-handed batters than left-handed ones. It could be an ugly nightmare in Game 6 for right-handed hitters.

The Marlborough, Massachusetts native made his MLB debut on June 4, 1999 at Fenway Park in an interleague game between the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves. He was one of the 25 umpires hired after the mass resignation scandal with the umpires went awry. He has 36 ejections in his career since being hired, which is about average. However, he has none of the Yankees. Despite that, he did eject Joe Girardi in Chicago on April 9, 2000 for a call at second base. That was Reynolds’ second ever ejection. Girardi’s pitching coach, Larry Rothschild was his first ever ejection on July 25, 1999 for arguing a call at 1st base while manager of the Devil Rays. Serving under Joe West’s crew, we did not see his strike zone behind the plate this season.

Mark Carlson – No. 6 (HP Game 7 / Replay Coordinator Gms 1-2)

Mark Carlson is our seventh and final umpire this series and we will not see him on the field until Game 3. I am sure he is happy Carlos Zambrano is not. Zambrano went nuts on him on this play at the plate, which was a correct call. Nyjer Morgan scored before Zambrano tagged him. The former Marine is an average umpire and the 8.8 H/9 innings, 3.2 BB/9 and 8.3 K/9 would agree with that. So would the .256/.323/.440 batting line. (The slugging is on the high side, but that is a nitpick.)

The Joliet, Illinois native Carlson made his MLB debut on June 11, 1999 at Wrigley Field in a game between the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Cubs. Since then, he has amassed 53 ejections (on the high end for an umpire debuting in the 1998-2001 range). He has never ejected a Yankee, but amassed 11 ejections in 2003, including four in one game on July 13, 2003 between the San Diego Padres and the St. Louis Cardinals. Unfortunately there is no video of this fight on YouTube. We saw Carlson’s strike zone three times behind the plate this season: April 27 at Fenway Park, August 9 at the Rogers Centre, and September 24 at Rogers Centre. Let us pray we do not see it again.

Scouting Game One of the ALCS: Dallas Keuchel

(Bob Levey/Getty)
(Bob Levey/Getty)

In just a few hours the Yankees will open their ALCS matchup with the Astros at Minute Maid Park in Houston. The Yankees completed a pretty incredible comeback from down 0-2 in the ALDS to beat the Indians, the AL’s best team during the regular season. Now they’ll have to beat the AL’s second best team in the ALCS.

Against the Red Sox in the ALDS, the Astros started Justin Verlander in Game One and Dallas Keuchel in Game Two. Now, in the ALCS, Keuchel is starting Game One and Verlander is starting Game Two. That’s because Verlander threw 2.2 innings in relief in Game Four of the ALDS on Monday. First career relief appearance for him. He never even pitched out of the bullpen in college or the minors. Huh.

Verlander’s relief appearance means Keuchel starts Game One tonight, and Keuchel is something of a Yankees nemesis despite not playing in the same division. He beat the Yankees in the 2015 Wild Card Game, as you know, though he’s also had his way with them in the regular season. For his career, Keuchel has a 1.41 ERA (1.59 FIP) in six regular season starts against the Yankees, plus he threw six shutout innings on short rest in the 2015 Wild Card Game.

During the regular season the 29-year-old Keuchel threw 145.2 innings with a 2.90 ERA (3.79 FIP) in 23 starts. He also missed time with a neck injury. Among the 90 pitchers who threw at least 140 innings in 2017, his 66.8% ground ball rate was easily the highest (Marcus Stroman was second at 62.1%). Keuchel’s strikeout (21.4%) and walk (8.1%) rates were basically league average. Let’s break down Houston’s co-ace.

History Against The Yankees

Like I said, Keuchel has dominated the Yankees historically, but so did Corey Kluber and look how that turned out in the ALDS. I suspect we’re going to hear a lot about that 2015 Wild Card Game during the broadcast tonight, but keep in mind this is a different Yankees team. The only Yankees who were in the 2015 Wild Card Game starting lineup and are still with the team are Brett Gardner, Didi Gregorius, Greg Bird, and Chase Headley. And Headley’s not in the lineup tonight.

Overall, players on New York’s roster have hit .184/.215/.282 in 108 total plate appearances against Keuchel in his career, which dates back to the time before he emerged as an ace. I’m not sure why that history would be relevant now. Keuchel’s a different pitcher. Here are the numbers against Keuchel the last three years:

Name PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
Chase Headley 18 18 3 0 0 0 1 0 8 .167 .167 .167 .333
Jacoby Ellsbury 13 12 1 0 0 0 1 0 2 .083 .083 .083 .167
Didi Gregorius 12 12 3 1 0 0 0 0 4 .250 .250 .333 .583
Aaron Hicks 12 10 1 0 0 1 1 2 3 .100 .250 .400 .650
Starlin Castro 9 9 2 1 0 0 2 0 5 .222 .222 .333 .556
Greg Bird 3 3 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 .333 .333 .333 .667
Brett Gardner 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 .000 .000 .000 .000
Matt Holliday 3 3 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 .333 .333 .333 .667
Aaron Judge 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000
Austin Romine 3 3 2 1 0 0 1 0 0 .667 .667 1.000 1.667
Gary Sanchez 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000
Total 82 79 14 3 0 1 6 2 29 .177 .198 .253 .451

Not gonna lie, when I looked up these numbers earlier today, I got worried we’d see Romine behind the plate tonight thanks to that 2-for-3 with a double line against Keuchel. Fortunately, that is not the case. That 2-for-3 with a double happened in a game last season, by the way.

Anyway, the head-to-head history still isn’t very good, though most players in that table only have three career plate appearances against Keuchel, so it’s not a ton of history. Neither Headley nor Ellsbury, who have combined for 31 of those 82 plate appearances against Keuchel, is in the lineup tonight. Noticeably absent from that table is Todd Frazier. He’s never faced Keuchel in his career.

In Game Two of the ALDS the Red Sox scored one run in 5.2 innings against Keuchel, forcing him to throw 96 pitches. The Red Sox don’t have a great offense though. The Yankees hit for considerably more power and are better at working the count and prolonging at-bats. That doesn’t automatically mean they’ll have more success against Keuchel, of course.

Current Stuff

Keuchel is a throwback. The Yankees just saw an Indians pitching staff loaded with power arms and wicked breaking balls. Keuchel is a finesse southpaw with a sinker that sits right around 90 mph. That’s the pitch that gave him the league’s best ground ball rate in 2017. Keuchel, similar to CC Sabathia, will bust righties inside with a cutter and get them to chase away with a changeup. He also has a good slider. Keuchel doesn’t bring a lot of velocity to the table, but he knows how to pitch. He’ll pitch inside and keep everything down.

Here is Keuchel’s regular season pitch selection, via Brooks Baseball:

dallas-keuchel-pitch-selection

Lefties get the slider, righties get the cutter and changeup. Pretty standard. Keuchel is quite similar to the current version of Sabathia, though his sinker is top notch and his cutter has more cutting action. Their style is similar though.

Here is every pitch Keuchel threw against the Athletics on April 30th of this season, when he allowed one run in 7.2 innings. The dead center field camera angle provides a great look at the movement on his pitches.

Everything Keuchel throws has some movement and that makes him awfully tough to square up. Among those 90 pitchers who threw at least 140 innings in 2017, Keuchel had the highest soft contact rate (25.4%) and the lowest hard contact rate (24.7%), and by quite a bit too. Kluber had the second highest soft contact rate at 24.4% while Max Scherzer and Jordan Montgomery (!) tied for the second lowest hard contact rate at 26.5%.

Keuchel is going to frustrate the hell out of hitters and also fans, who will see less than premium velocity and pitches that look hittable result in soft contact. The subtle movement keeps Keuchel away from the sweet spot though. That’s how he succeeds. If he throws something that starts belt high, it’ll finish down around the knees. If he throws something that starts at the knees, take it, because it’ll probably drop out of the zone.

Platoon Splits

Despite the lack of overpowering stuff, Keuchel has absolutely crushed lefties the last three seasons. He’s quite good against righties too, but against lefties, he’s incredibly dominant. Here are the 2015-17 platoon splits:

  • vs. RHB: .241/.300/.375 (.295 wOBA) with 21.2 K%, 7.4 BB%, 59.9 GB%
  • vs. LHB: .186/.221/.279 (.219 wOBA) with 25.6K%, 3.7 BB%, 67.4 GB%

Gardner, Gregorius, and Bird are the only lefties in tonight’s lineup, and they’re three guys who are going to play every game from here on out no matter what. Anything can happen in one individual game, but yeah, the righties are probably going to have to carry the offense against Keuchel tonight.

Can The Yankees Run On Him?

You know what? No. Shockingly. As I mentioned this morning, the Astros were by far the worst team in baseball at throwing out basestealers during the regular season. Keuchel, thanks in part to being left-handed, has an excellent pickoff move, however. Runners went 3-for-5 stealing bases against him in the regular season. That’s all. Over the last four seasons they’re 11-for-18. His pickoff move makes up for the terrible arms behind the plate.

Also, it’s worth noting Keuchel is the best fielding pitcher in baseball, which helps when you’re such an extreme ground ball pitcher. Bunting on him probably won’t work, at least not if you’re trying to bunt for a hit. Gardner unsuccessful tried to bunt for a hit on the first pitch of ALDS Game Five, though I don’t see that happening again against any pitcher, let along the best fielding pitcher in the game.

* * *

Because the Astros appear to have some middle relief issues, working the count and driving up the starter’s pitch count could have a huge impact on this series. I mean, that’s always a good strategy, but in the ALDS you knew Andrew Miller was going to be the first guy out of the bullpen, and that’s no fun. Chris Devenski faded down the stretch, so the Astros don’t have a Miller. The best plan of attack against Keuchel figures to be grinding out at-bats, waiting him out, then getting to the bullpen.

The Astros’ bullpen may have some depth issues heading into the ALCS

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

During the 2017 season, the Houston Astros’ bullpen developed a strong reputation.

They posted the most fWAR in the first half of the season (4.9). For the whole season, they struck out a shade under 11 batters per nine innings and boasted five relievers who threw at least 40 innings and struck out at least 10 per nine. Ken Giles bounced back to his 2014-15 form and Chris Devenski emerged along with his signature changeup.

But when you look below the surface, the bullpen isn’t nearly as intimidating as they seemed early in the year.

In the second half, the Astros produced a 4.49 bullpen ERA with an elevated home run rate and the 20th highest fWAR. Granted, they acquired Tyler Clippard in August, so that could explain some of it, but it was also about their top relievers letting them down.

Giles was just as dominant, perhaps more so, down the stretch, so he should be exempted from this conversation. But batters seemed to adjust to Devenski somewhat as his K/9 fell by more than four Ks and his walks rose. He still held batters to a .198 average (38 points higher than the first half), but his ISO against rose from .134 to .232. Yikes.

But their reliable back-end of the bullpen from 2015 is no longer quite so usable. Luke Gregerson still strikes out a batter an inning, but he allowed 13 home runs, more than all but one MLB reliever this season. Devenski gave up 11 yet threw nearly 20 more innings than Gregerson. His walk rate is nearly a career-worst and was only used in the eighth inning of blowouts during the ALDS.

Will Harris has similarly been relegated to a lesser role despite having a solid season. He still sports a K-BB rate of over 25 percent and a 2.98 ERA. Yet A.J. Hinch refused to use him in big situations against the Red Sox in the ALDS. He got the eighth inning of Game 1 with a six-run lead and couldn’t even finish the inning after giving up back-to-back singles. He could have been part of the bridge to Giles in Game 4, but Hinch eschewed Harris for Justin Verlander.

Gregerson (Bob Levey/Getty)
Gregerson (Bob Levey/Getty)

Beyond those four, the Astros used just two other relievers beyond the Brad Peacock-Lance McCullers Jr. piggyback start in Game 3 and that was Joe Musgrove and Francisco Liriano. Liriano is just a matchup lefty for them and Musgrove is mostly a long man.

Hinch will simply have to go to Harris or others in key situations against the Yankees or keep his starters in, perhaps past their breaking points. He can’t use Verlander or Keuchel in relief until a winner-take-all situation in a seven-game series. Perhaps the Astros can out-hit the Yankees to the point where there aren’t too many high leverage innings for their middle relievers. However, I’d bet that we’ll see Hinch have to go to a reliever he doesn’t quite trust with a game on the line.

And that’s before you dissect the ALDS performance of the two relievers he does trust. Devenski and Giles combined for 5 1/3 innings and allowed five runs on seven hits. They struck out five and walked none. The latter part is encouraging yet they didn’t shut the door.

Terry Francona relied upon more relievers than Hinch and he was still stretched thin at times by the Yankees’ offense. As evidenced by Todd Frazier and Brett Gardner in the ninth on Wednesday, the Bombers will take every pitch and wait out mistakes. They were able to get the Indians’ starters out after an average of 12 outs. The Astros won’t have the luxury of going to a deep bullpen for long innings and will need their rotation to go long, thus emphasizing the importance of the Yankees’ long at-bats against the starters.

A key to look for: Devenski’s reverse split. Thanks to his changeup, he holds lefties to a .110/.178/.236 line compared to righties batting .238/.314/.448 against him. If he comes in against a lefty/switch-hitter heavy part of the lineup, he’s more likely to excel. If he’s asked to face one or two of Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge and co., he could be in for trouble.

If the Yankees can’t hit Keuchel, Verlander and the other Astros starters, the potentially soft underbelly of the Houston bullpen won’t matter. But if this series goes anything like the Indians series, this series might come down to a few at-bats from relievers who haven’t seen high leverage outings recently … and for good reason.

ALCS Series Preview: Houston Astros

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

I was one of many that didn’t expect the Yankees to do much this season. I would’ve been happy with an above-.500 season, and competent performances from the litany of young players that the team carried for most of the season.

Instead, the Yankees were one of the best teams in baseball for a significant portion of the season, and ended up making the playoffs. And, even then, I would’ve been ecstatic just to make it to the ALDS, and put up a good fight against arguably the best team in the American League (if not all of baseball). As the series progressed, though, I wanted more. My hopes and optimism grew in bounds, and once they reached a decisive game five, I knew that I wouldn’t be satisfied with anything other than an ALCS appearance.

And now that they’ve reached the ALCS, I want more. This team is so much fun to root for, and they play with the sort of energy that breeds confidence and pure joy in fans. I’m happy that they’ve gone as far as they have, and I don’t think anything could disappoint me given all that they’ve accomplished – but I’m more optimistic than I’ve been at any time since 2009. They can do this.

All that stands in their way is a damn good Houston Astros team.

The Season Series

The Yankees and Astros met seven times this season, with Houston taking five of those match-ups. Two of the Yankees losses were by just one run, though, and the largest margin of victory in a game came when they beat the Astros 13-4 on June 30. Some notes:

  • Masahiro Tanaka had what may’ve been the worst start of his career against the Astros back on May 14. He went just 1.2 IP, and allowed 8 earned runs on 7 hits (4 home runs), a walk, and a hit batter. It wasn’t pretty, to say the least.
  • Carlos Correa feasted on Yankees pitching, going 14-for-28 with 7 R, 2 2B, 2 HR, and 10 RBI in those seven games.
  • The Astros as a team hit .283/.336/.486 as a whole against the Yankees, with 28 extra base hits (including 11 home runs).
  • The Yankees hit .263/.339/.417, with 23 extra base hits (7 home runs).

How They Got Here

The Astros went 101-61 with a +196 run differential in the regular season, both of which ranked third in the majors. Their 896 runs scored led the majors (as did their 121 wRC+, by a whopping 13 points), and their 700 runs allowed ranked 9th. They were actually a bit better away from Minute Maid Park, going 48-33 at home and 53-28 on the road (tied with Cleveland for the best in baseball). And then they beat the Red Sox in the ALDS, taking the series 3-1.

It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to call this team an offensive juggernaut, given the sheer depth of the lineup. Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Marwin Gonzalez, and George Springer all ranked in the top-25 in the game in wRC+, and Josh Reddick, Alex Bregman, and Yulieski Gurriel all fell within the top-60 (among the 181 players with 450-plus PA this year). They will have nine players on their roster that posted a wRC+ above 100 this year, and that doesn’t include Carlos Beltran, who hit .400/.500/.600 against in the ALDS. The Astros hit .333/.402/.571 as a team in that series.

Their pitching staff was solidly above-average in the regular season, and it only improved with the addition of Justin Verlander. He went 5-0 in five regular season starts with the Astros, with the following insane line: 34.0 IP, 17 H, 5 BB, 43 K, 1.06 ERA. The one-two punch of Verlander and Dallas Keuchel is among the best in the game right now, and the built-in off days ensure that both would be able to start two games if the need arises. Their starting pitching isn’t flashy beyond those two, but likely starters Charlie Morton (109 ERA+) and Brad Peacock (132 ERA+ between the rotation and bullpen) are both more than adequate this season.

As a whole, Astros starters pitched to a 4.03 ERA (105 ERA+) this year, with a 24.6 K% (6th in baseball) and a 8.2 BB% (17th).

The bullpen is a bit of a different story. It was an average-ish unit on the season (4.27 ERA, 99 ERA+), but it is a bit top heavy. Closer Ken Giles (2.30 ERA, 11.9 K/9), fireman Chris Devenski (2.68 ERA, 11.2 K/9), and Will Harris (2.98 ERA, 10.3 K/9) are as dependable as they come, but the herd thins considerably after that.

The Lineup We Might See

The ridiculous depth of the Astros bench allows manager A.J. Hinch a great deal of flexibility. He doesn’t use the strictest platoons, but he will shuffle the lineup against the toughest lefties – whether or not that would include CC Sabathia is up for debate, I suppose. Regardless, these are the nine men that we’ll likely see in the starting lineup:

  1. George Springer, CF – .283/.367/.522, 34 HR, 5 SB
  2. Josh Reddick, RF – .314/.363/.484, 13 HR, 7 SB
  3. Jose Altuve, 2B – .346.410/.547, 24 HR, 32 SB
  4. Carlos Correa, SS – .315/.391/.550, 24 HR, 2 SB
  5. Marwin Gonzalez, LF – .303/.377/.530, 23 HR, 8 SB
  6. Alex Bregman, 3B – .284/.352/.475, 19 HR, 17 SB
  7. Yulieski Gurriel, 1B – .299/.332/.486, 18 HR, 3 SB
  8. Evan Gattis, DH – .263/.311/.457, 12 HR, 0 SB
  9. Brian McCann, C – .241/.323/.436, 18 HR, 1 SB

Carlos Beltran struggled mightily this season, and only started one game in the ALDS. I’d be shocked, however, if he didn’t start at least one of the games in Yankee Stadium.

The Starting Pitching

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Dallas Keuchel has been confirmed as the starter for game one. He missed nearly two months with a neck injury, but was excellent when he was on the mound. He pitched to a 2.90 ERA (136 ERA+) in 145.2 IP, with slightly league-average strikeout (21.4%) and walk (8.1%) rates. Keuchel is a worm-burner extraordinaire, posting a 66.8% ground ball rate this year, which is 22.6 percentage points above league-average. He’s death on LHH, who posted a .192 wOBA against him this year, but somewhere closer to mortal against righties (.293 wOBA).

Justin Verlander will start game two. He has been excellent over the last two years, leaving his awful 2014 in the rearview mirror as he re-established himself as one of the best starters in the American League. I posted his ridiculous numbers with the Astros above, but he was quite good all year, pitching to the following line: 206.0 IP, 170 H, 72 BB, 219 K, 3.36 ERA (133 ERA+). It is worth noting that he has become more flyball prone than ever the last two seasons, bottoming out with a 33.5% groundball rate this year.

If the Astros stick to their ALDS rotation, Brad Peacock would be up in game three. He spent part of the season in the bullpen, which makes his overall numbers look better, but he was very good as a starter, to wit – 111.2 IP, 90 H, 46 BB, 135 K, 3.22 ERA. He’s essentially a three-pitch guy, throwing a low-90s four-seamer, a low-90s sinker, and a low-80s slider; that slider is his bread-and-butter, and he throws it just under 45% of the time, per Brooks Baseball.

And that would leave Charlie Morton for game four. Morton has been an “if he can stay healthy” guy for a half-dozen years now, and it has never quite shaken out that way. He has mostly healthy this year, though, making 25 starts and throwing 146.2 innings of 3.62 ERA (109 ERA+) ball. Morton is mostly thought of as a groundball specialist, and that’s mostly true; he kept 51.8% of batted balls on the ground this season, which is 3.2 percentage points below his career norm. However, he has become something of a strikeout artist, with an even 10.0 K/9 this year, as well as an above-average 10.9% swinging strike rate.

There are some rumblings that Lance McCullers could work into the Astros plans for the series, as he’s said to be back at full-strength. He hasn’t looked all that good since coming off the DL, though, so I’m not sure that now is the time for Hinch to shake things up.

The Bullpen

Ken Giles is the closer, and he’s probably one of the 20 or so best relievers in baseball. He pitched to a 2.30 ERA (172 ERA+) in 62.2 IP, and converted 34 of 38 save opportunities. And those impressive numbers are skewed a bit by a rough patch in June; he had a 1.11 ERA from July 1 forward, to go along with 12.3 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9. He might not be a truly elite closer, but he’s not all that far off, either.

Chris Devenski fills the fireman role, and he has been a revelation in that role. He tossed 80.2 IP across 62 appearances this year, posting a 2.68 ERA (148 ERA+) and striking out 11-plus batters per nine innings. The Astros will go to him in any high-leverage situation, regardless of inning, and he has delivered more often than not. He did get rocked by the Red Sox in game three of the ALDS, though, allowing 3 runs on 3 hits without recording an out.

Will Harris is a more traditional set-up man, and he had another strong year despite missing some time with an injury. He had a 2.98 ERA (133 ERA+) to go along career bests in strikeout rate (29.4%) and walk rate (4.0%). His downfall at times has been the long ball, though, as he allowed 1.4 HR/9 and 17.1% HR/FB this year.

The bullpen deployment beyond that is anyone’s guess at this juncture. Luke Gregerson, Joe Musgrove, and Francisco Liriano are all slated for regular use, but whether Hinch trusts them is another issue entirely.

Who (Or What) To Watch

The Yankees being the underdog is an interesting feeling, to say the least – but it’s also exhilarating. FiveThirtyEight has the Astros with a 56% chance of winning the ALCS, and FanGraphs has them at 58.1%. Anything can happen in baseball, as evidenced by the Yankees amazing comeback against the heavily favored Indians, and this is the time to embrace that sort of chaos.

Yankees announce ALCS roster, make no changes from ALDS

Erik Kratz isn't here to play, he's here to party. (Gregory Shamus/Getty)
Erik Kratz isn’t here to play, he’s here to party. (Gregory Shamus/Getty)

The Yankees came back from down 0-2 in the ALDS to beat the Indians, and tonight they’re going to open the best-of-seven ALCS against the Astros in Houston. Can’t believe this team made the ALCS. I don’t think anyone saw this coming when Spring Training opened.

Anyway, the two teams had to finalize their ALCS rosters by 10am ET today, and shortly thereafter, they announced their 25-man rosters. Here is the Astros’ roster and here are the 25 players the Yankees will carry in the ALCS:

Pitchers (12)
RHP Dellin Betances
LHP Aroldis Chapman
LHP Jaime Garcia
RHP Sonny Gray
RHP Chad Green
RHP Tommy Kahnle
LHP Jordan Montgomery
RHP David Robertson
LHP CC Sabathia
RHP Luis Severino
RHP Masahiro Tanaka
RHP Adam Warren

Catchers (2)
Austin Romine
Gary Sanchez

Infielders (6)
Greg Bird
Starlin Castro
Todd Frazier
Didi Gregorius
Chase Headley
Ronald Torreyes

Outfielders (4)
Jacoby Ellsbury
Brett Gardner
Aaron Hicks
Aaron Judge

Designated Hitters (1)
Matt Holliday

Same exact roster as the ALDS. No changes at all. I thought maybe the Yankees would drop the 12th pitcher (Garcia? Montgomery?) and get another bat on the bench (Tyler Austin? Clint Frazier? Tyler Wade?), but nope.

I have to think Holliday will start at DH tonight against Keuchel. If you’re not going to start him against a lefty without overpowering velocity, I have no idea what he’s doing on the roster. Holliday hasn’t played since the regular season finale 12 days ago.

Thoughts prior to Game One of the 2017 ALCS

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

It feels like the ALDS just ended (well, it kinda did) and already the ALCS is about to begin. Such is life when you go the full five games in a best-of-five series. The Yankees and Astros open their ALCS matchup tonight (8pm ET on FOX Sports 1) in Houston. Can you believe this team is in the ALCS? What a fun year. Anyway, let’s get to today’s thoughts.

1. When the Yankees announced their ALCS rotation yesterday, it was exactly how I expected. Pushing Masahiro Tanaka all the way back to Game Three just because of his home/road splits would be overthinking it. Tanaka is a very good pitcher who can pitch well anywhere. We’ve seen him do it. So he had more success at home this year. Big deal. I don’t think there’s anything that fundamentally makes Tanaka pitch better at home. It’s just one of those things. Luis Severino follows naturally in Game Two, and with the Game Three starter also set to start Game Seven, I figured CC Sabathia would get the ball. Sonny Gray‘s control has been an issue the last few starts and it makes sense to push him back. (Gray threw a three-inning simulated game yesterday to stay sharp.) It doesn’t mean the Yankees have soured on Gray or that they regret the trade or anything like that. It means they made a rational decision. Gray has been walking too many hitters lately and is the current weak link in the rotation. That’s all. Sonny Gray is good! When he’s your fourth starter in the postseason, you’re doing pretty damn good. Right now though, the Yankees’ best path to victory involves getting the other guys on the mound as soon and as often as possible.

2. I have to think the bullpen will be a little short tonight. Both Aroldis Chapman and David Robertson threw multiple innings in Game Five, and Chapman did it two days after throwing multiple innings in Game Three. I can’t imagine either guy will be available for multiple innings again tonight. Maybe the Yankees can squeeze one inning out of Chapman and Robertson each tonight if they have a lead? And if they do that, what’s their status for Game Two? You can’t really worry about that though, I guess. You have to worry about the game you’re playing, and if you have a chance to win, you have to go for it. I suppose the good news is the backup relievers are Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle, Dellin Betances, and Adam Warren. It’s not like the Yankees would be turning the game over to Jose Veras and Edwar Ramirez. Green hasn’t pitched in a week now, since giving up the grand slam to Francisco Lindor in Game Two, so he should be well-rested. Joe Girardi did what he had to do to win Game Five. No complaints about the bullpen usage here. That usage has consequences though, and that could mean a limited or even unavailable Robertson and Chapman tonight.

3. The Yankees and Astros finished first and second in home runs this season. They’re the two most prolific power-hitting teams in baseball, and when you look at their lineups and ballparks, it’s easy to understand why. The key difference between the two offenses is their strikeout rate. The Yankees collectively struck out in 21.8% of their plate appearances this season, which is basically identical to the 21.6% league average. The Astros on the other hand, had the lowest strikeout rate in baseball this season at 17.3%. Hot damn. Combining the second most home runs with the lowest strikeout rate is a great recipe for offense. Now, before you freak out, keep in mind the Indians had the second lowest strikeout rate at 18.5%, and the Yankees did a fine job keeping their offense in check. Cleveland only ranked 15th in homers, however. The Astros make contact better than anyone and they hit the ball out of the park better than anyone other than the Yankees. The pitching staff is going to have their hands full. Strikeout pitchers against contact hitters with power.

McCann't throw. (Bob Levey/Getty)
McCann’t throw. (Bob Levey/Getty)

4. A very big #thingtowatch this series: the Yankees on the bases. The Astros were, by frickin’ far, the worst team at throwing out baserunners this season. They threw out 12% of basestealers this season. Can you imagine? Austin Romine is a terrible thrower and he had a 10% caught stealing rate this year. That’s basically the Astros. They throw like Romine. Generally speaking, I am not a big stolen base guy. Given the current makeup of the Yankees, I think stolen bases are worthwhile in the late innings of a close game only, when one run means so much. Otherwise, just let this power-laden lineup in a home run friendly home ballpark take their swings with men on base. In the ALCS though, Brian McCann (13% caught stealing) and Evan Gattis (10% caught stealing) are such awful throwers that it makes sense to push the envelope. That doesn’t mean Gary Sanchez and Matt Holliday should try to steal, of course. But give Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, Aaron Hicks, and basically anyone who can steal a base the perpetual green light. Throwing out basestealers is a glaring weakness for the Astros and the Yankees should attack it relentlessly. Don’t stop running until the Astros show they can throw you out consistently.

5. So I guess this means it’s prediction time, eh? I’ve done well so far. I had the Yankees coming back from an early Eddie Rosario two-run home run to win the Wild Card Game, and coming back to win the ALDS in five after falling behind 1-2, which they technically did. My official ALCS prediction: Yankees in six. I have the Yankees dropping Game One, winning Games Two, Three, and Four, losing Game Five to create mass panic, then winning Game Six. Severino wins ALCS MVP after two brilliant starts. The big hero on offense? Eh, I’ll say Starlin Castro, who drives in the go-ahead runs in Games Two and Six. Also, Sonny shoves in Game Four. I thought the Indians were the best team in the American League pretty much all season and the Yankees could’ve won that series 4-1. That doesn’t mean the Astros are a pushover, of course. That team can score runs in a hurry.