Yankees-Astros has the makings of a budding rivalry

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Teetering near mediocrity for 3-4 seasons has left the Yankees with few true rivals. But there may be a budding rivalry in the opposing dugout this weekend.

Since the Yankees last played a multi-game playoff series in 2012, the team has hovered near .500 and played fewer truly intense games. The exception would be in-division. The games against the Blue Jays the last two seasons have had fans on the edge of their seats, particularly after the Jays made moves at the 2015 trade deadline. The Orioles’ emergence since 2012 has led to a few interesting regular season series. The classic Yankees-Red Sox rivalry still exists, but I doubt anyone would consider it near its peak. David Ortiz’s retirement really drives that home.

The Bombers have had rivals outside the division in the past, particularly during the 1996-2012 period of constant contending for titles. The Mariners at the turn of the century. The Indians before them. The Angels and Tigers each beat the Yankees in the playoffs multiple times and it created a bit more importance for those series, particularly the Angels games. Anaheim was always the team that had the Yankees’ number in their 15 years of contention and it was brought to the surface in three playoff series over an eight-year span.

Ultimately, that’s probably the best way to create a rivalry: Close playoff series. If two teams play multiple tense series in a short time span, it can lead to regular season series that mirror the same character of a postseason series.

In that regard, the Astros and Yankees already have step one out of the way. The two players who hit home runs for the Astros in that 2015 Wild Card Game have moved on from Houston, but we still have both starting pitchers: Dallas Keuchel and Masahiro Tanaka.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

And I think that a potential rivalry can pivot on the abilities of Keuchel. His tormented the Yankees in 2015, both in the regular season and one postseason game. The Yankees kinda sorta maybe got to him in his two starts last year and then he looked like Cy Young for four innings on Thursday before grinding out the fifth and sixth innings. It seemed that to be a fait accompli that Keuchel would wiggle out of his self-made jams and get a lead to the Astros’ bullpen. Just like how the early 2000s Yankees-Red Sox rivalry rose to new heights with Pedro Martinez on the mound, Keuchel can take that role on. He’s imperfect with less intensity and flare on the mound, but he gives the Yankees a nemesis, a hurdle either in a regular season series or in the postseason. With that, perhaps he’s more similar to 2009-10 Cliff Lee than 1999-2004 Pedro, but still, a tough challenge.

Beyond one key starting pitcher, a rivalry also can be aided by similarly built teams going to battle and we certainly have that with Astros-Yankees. A lot of young, exciting position players poised to man the middle of the lineup for the next decade? Check. Bullpens full of flame throwers? You got it. They both have questions in their rotation and have been linked to Jose Quintana this last offseason. With the young talent on these teams, it’s not hard to see ESPN, Fox or TBS market a series centered around Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve vs. Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge. They’re not limited in that regard as the teams seem to match each other budding star for budding star.

With their similar constructions also comes a similar timeline for success in this case: Both teams are rising to the top of the American League at the same time. Many in baseball foresaw the Astros’ success this year, perhaps as far as three years in advance. (Thanks Sports Illustrated!) Even though the Yankees came out of nowhere for some, they seem to be a team on the cusp of contention with their strongest days ahead of them.

This weekend’s series with the Astros may be getting overshadowed by the sweep of the Cubs and the upcoming festivities for Derek Jeter, yet it’s still an important series. Important at least for mid-May. Houston is a useful measuring stick for the Yankees, bringing a team just as hot as them into Yankee Stadium for four games. Come out with three wins and you gain a lot of respect. Lose three of four or get swept and it will be much easier nationally to dismiss the Yankees as a flash in the pan, a team not quite there.

Without 1-2 more playoff series between the two franchises, it will be hard to create a real rivalry. Close games like Thursday night can nudge it that way and so could a brawl, although the latter isn’t something for which to rot. A larger impediment is that they’re limited to 6-7 regular season games a year spread out over two series, not the 19 games the Yankees play against the Red Sox. But as far as rivalries go outside the AL East, the Astros are the best bet for one over the next half decade.

Mailbag: Harvey, Cahill, Judge, Carter, Bumgarner, Torreyes

There are 13 questions and 12 answers in this week’s mailbag. RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is the place to send us any questions or comments throughout the week.

Harvey. (Mike Stobe/Getty)
Harvey. (Mike Stobe/Getty)

Many asked: What about trading for Matt Harvey?

Things aren’t so great between the Mets and Harvey right now. He was recently suspended three days for violating team rules, and it’s since come out that Harvey failed to show up for a game — a game he was not scheduled to pitch, I should add — after a late night out on the town and morning round of golf. Harvey owned up to it and apologized to his teammates and fans and everyone else, but still, that doesn’t excuse it.

A few things about a potential Harvey trade. One, I can’t see a Yankees-Mets trade of this magnitude going down. I do think the general managers, Brian Cashman and Sandy Alderson, would make a deal if they believe it is the best thing for their teams. I don’t think the ownership groups have the stomach for it though. Could you imagine being the Wilpons if they traded Harvey to the Yankees and he thrived? Lordy.

Two, Harvey has an ugly injury history — he is coming back from surgery to treat Thoracic Outlet Syndrome this year — and a 4.93 ERA (4.10 FIP) in 23 starts and 127.2 innings dating back to Opening Day 2016. He’s more of a reclamation project than a plug-and-play ace. And three, I don’t think his trade value is all that high right now. The combination of injury history, recent performance, and looming free agency (after 2018) drag his value down.

Now, does that mean the Yankees should steer clear completely? Of course not. Perhaps the Mets are completely sick of Harvey — manager Terry Collins indicated the team has tried to rein in Harvey’s off-the-field activity in the past, but to no avail — and are willing to trade him away for not much in return just to eliminate the headache. In that case, he’d be a worthwhile gamble. Potential ace-caliber pitchers are hard to find.

My guess is the Mets will hang on to Harvey because he’s more useful to them on the mound than anything they could get back in a trade at this point. They’re better off hoping he can regain his 2013 and 2015 form. The Mets window to win is right now. While their starters are young and cheap, and while Yoenis Cespedes is in his prime. It’s hard for me to see how trading Harvey improves their chances, so no, I don’t think a deal is happening, either with the Yankees or another team.

Jake asks: Even with what we know now about Alex Rodriguez, which start to the season has been more fun for you guys: A-Rod‘s first month in 2007, or Judge’s in 2017?

I’d say Aaron Judge because he’s doing it as a rookie for an exciting upstart team. A-Rod was already a well-established MVP caliber performer back in 2007, and remember, the Yankees kinda stunk in April 2007. They went 9-14 in April and were so short on pitching Darrell Rasner was in the rotation and Andy Pettitte had to come out of the bullpen twice (!) to soak up innings in losses. A-Rod was awesome but the Yankees weren’t very good. Judge is awesome and the Yankees are good! This is much more fun. I love A-Rod. He’s my dude. But the hot shot rookie mashing will forever be more exciting than the veteran doing it.

Paul asks: Is it time to DFA Chris (No-Contact) Carter and give Refsnyder the job until Tyler Austin returns?

No way. I have zero interest in watching Rob Refsnyder at first base full-time until Greg Bird (or Austin) returns. And no, I don’t want Matt Holliday playing first regularly either. That sorta defeats the purpose. The point behind making him the designated hitter is keeping him off his feet so he stays productive all season. Putting Holliday at first base full-time is a great way to get him to stop hitting in mid-August or whatever.

Chris Carter doesn’t even have 70 plate appearances yet and only twice has he started as many as two games in a row. All the early season interleague games in NL parks have screwed up the lineup a bit. That won’t be the case going forward. The Yankees can put Carter in the lineup everyday now and hope he gets into a groove and starts smacking the ball out of the park. I’m not giving up on him because he hasn’t hit in sporadic playing time. Not when the alternative is Refsnyder.

Kyle asks: Does Cito Culver have any path to the big leagues right now? Too many other prospects seem to be blocking him.

Not really. Culver had a few big games last month and is hitting .247/.347/.554 (153 wRC+) in 20 games with Triple-A Scranton overall, which I guess could be a sign he’s breaking out, but probably not. He did hit .254/.315/.349 (87 wRC+) just last season, after all. Culver is still a very good defender and the Yankees have exposed him to multiple positions — he’s even spent time at first base — so I guess we can’t completely rule out the possibility of him carving out a career as a utility man. I’m just not sure I see it happening with the Yankees, not with Ronald Torreyes in the show and Tyler Wade coming. (Culver was a minor league free agent over the winter and opted to return to the Yankees. If another team saw him as a potential utility guy, I’m guessing he would have gone there because it presented a greater opportunity.)

Cahill. (Denis Poroy/Getty)
Cahill. (Denis Poroy/Getty)

Frank asks: So, how about Trevor Cahill as a potential target? Dude is killing worms and missing bats. He’s using his curveball more than ever before, which indicates there could be a reason for his success instead of being a fluke. He’s a pure rental, which could be viewed positively or negatively, dirt cheap, and shouldn’t cost a top prospect to acquire because of the fact he’s a rental. He’s also had success in the bullpen should starting not work out during the season’s second half. Seems like a pretty good fit. What do you think?

I’m going to need to see more before buying into Cahill, even with the increased curveball usage. Six starts and 35.1 innings isn’t enough to make me a believer, not after how poorly his last attempt at being a starter went in 2014. Cahill is only 29 and he is getting a ton of strikeouts (30.1%) and ground balls (57.1%), but are we sure this is really a new him? He’s always been a big ground ball guy. That’s not a surprise. His career strikeout rate is only 17.1%, however.

That isn’t to say the Yankees should steer clear of Cahill completely. I just want to see more before endorsing him as a trade target. He is still walking a ton of batters (11.0%), which is not unusual for him, and at some point I feel like his 0.51 HR/9 (9.1% HR/FB) will regress to his career 0.88 HR/9 (12.2% HR/FB) marks. I’d rather not be left holding the bag when it happens. The Padres are rebuilding and Cahill will almost certainly be available at the trade deadline. He’s worth monitoring for the time being and revisiting closer to July 31st. I am intrigued but not sold yet.

John asks: Judge has been putting up some insane numbers, but it does seem like a lot of the home runs come during garbage time. Has there been any analysis done on his performance at particularly important points of the game? And how that compares to the average?

Going into last night’s game Judge had hit 13 home runs this season — it would be 14 if not for that stupid triple! — and five of the 13 have come with the score separated by no more than three runs. There was a stretch earlier this year in which Judge hit eight homers in the span of two weeks, and all but one came with the score separated by at least five runs. Anyway, here are the leverage stats prior to last night’s game:

Low Leverage 55 .362/.455/1.000 286 10 23.6% 14.5%
Medium Leverage 54 .267/.389/.556 156 2 31.5% 14.8%
High Leverage 12 .333/.333/.583 152 1 16.7% 0.0%
Total 121 .317/.413/.760 215 13 26.4% 13.2%

wRC+ is the important number there because that tells you how Judge has performed relative to league average. He’s been at least 52% better than average in all leverage situations. Of course, he only has a 12 plate appearances in high leverage situations, and a dozen plate appearances spread across 30-something games is pretty meaningless.

Judge grounded out to end the game with the tying run on base against the White Sox last month, which seemed to create this “Judge isn’t clutch” narrative. Whatever. If you’d rather have someone else at the plate in the big moment, be my guest. Judge has been ultra-disciplined this year and when he makes contact, he crushes the ball. I’ll take my chances with him at the plate in any situation any day of the week.

Rob asks: I feel like Adam Warren and Tyler Clippard should have their bullpen roles swapped. Am I wrong?

As good as he’s been this year, Clippard still scares me because of all the fly balls. I’m worried they’re going to start carrying over the fence once the weather warms up. I am president of the Adam Warren Fan Club and I do think he’s a better pitcher than Clippard, so yes, in that sense switching their roles would make sense. Joe Girardi‘s bullpen management is pretty straight forward. His best reliever pitches the ninth, his second best pitches the eighth, etc.

That said, sticking with Clippard as the seventh inning guy and using Warren as kinda this Swiss Army reliever who can throw multiple innings probably makes more sense in the grand scheme of things. I just wish he’d see more important situations. There are 192 relievers who have thrown ten innings this season, and Warren ranks 132nd in leverage index. He’s in the bottom third of the league. Part of that is the Yankees having so many blowout wins, but still, I feel like Warren is being underutilized. Jonathan Holder has entered five games with the Yankees either tied or leading by no more than two runs. Warren has three. Eh.

Dan asks: As a Yankees fan I could not be happier with the start to the season. I feel as though the overall comparison between this team and the Cubs is fair. BUT, I am a little worried that this team is getting too much attention and that we could be jumping on the “the rebuild is complete” train a tad too early. Thoughts?

Joey asks: So I love the current path the Yankees are on. Young prospects new faces of the franchise. But I feel were being dealt some fools gold. We’re number 1 in the east and I’m afraid that’s going to make us buyers at the deadline. Do you think Cashman knows this? The most I would like to see us acquire is a Innings eater on the cheap who’s deal is expiring. Do you think Cashman stays course with the rebuild or is this going make us veer off course and get a top flight starter?

I’m going to lump these two together because they’re basically the same question. Why would you be afraid the Yankees might be good and buy at the trade deadline? I’d rather they be in contention and buy than fade out of the race and sell again. As long as Cashman is calling the shots, I’m confident the Yankees will stick to their plan and not overreact to anything. If ownership gets involved, well, all bets are off. I just can’t see the Yankees gutting their farm system to get that one big piece at the deadline (rental Yu Darvish?) — they haven’t done that in a very long time anyway — after everything they’ve done in the last 12 months. I think Cashman will stick to his plan, look for lower cost upgrades a la the 2014 deadline (Brandon McCarthy, Martin Prado, etc.), and continue to build around the young players. Give me all the attention and winning as possible. I want the Yankees in the race and thinking about upgrades, not looking for ways to deal veterans for prospects again.

Bumgarner. (Jamie Squire/Getty)
Bumgarner. (Jamie Squire/Getty)

Matt asks: What do you think the odds are that Bumgarner gets dangled once he’s back and healthy? He’s got a team friendly deal through 2019 and could fetch the Giants quite a haul. What trade proposal that sucks do you have?

I’ve been joking around the last few weeks that I can’t wait for the Yankees to trade Clint Frazier for post-dirt bike accident Madison Bumgarner, but nah, it’s not going to happen. Bumgarner is one of those players who will never be traded. You might as well ask me if the Cubs will dangle Kris Bryant. Bumgarner and Buster Posey are the face of the Giants, and as terrible as San Francisco has been this season, they strike me as more of a “take a step back and go for it next year” team, not a “tear it down and rebuild” team. Yes, they could get a haul for Bumgarner if they ever put him on the market, and yes, I’d want the Yankees to be all over him. I just don’t see this happening. Imagine adding a healthy Bumgarner to this team. That’d be amazing.

Anonymous asks: Is it me or has Gary Sanchez hit more ground balls this year than last year? If so, is this concerning?

Sanchez had a 49.3% ground ball rate last year, and it’s 53.3% this year. That’s not a big enough difference to worry about right now. He’s played eleven games! Sanchez has been hitting well since coming off the disabled list even though some of his rockets have gone for outs. The first four games before the injury weren’t particularly pretty. Since coming back though, Gary looks more like the player he was last season. So yes, his ground balls are up slightly, but no, it’s not worth worrying about at this point. The sample size is way, way, way too small.

Seth asks: At what point are you convinced what Ronald Torreyes is doing at the plate is the real deal? Regardless, do you feel that he could be an integral piece to a championship a la Luis Sojo?

I do believe Torreyes is a championship caliber utility infielder. I’m not sure I’d want to give him 150 starts and 600 plate appearances, but as a 200-something plate appearance backup infielder? Sign me the hell up. Torreyes makes a ton of contact, he’s good enough defensively, and he plays with a ton of energy. He’s everything I want in a utility player, and I could totally see him maintaining a .300-ish average off the bench because he puts the ball in play so much. It’s not a glamorous job at all, but quality depth players like Torreyes are really important. Those guys who can, say, fill-in for your injured shortstop for a month and contribute on both sides of the ball are often the difference between contenders and pretenders.

Justin asks: Was a little surprised Green was sent back down so soon. Isn’t the upcoming 20 plus days with out a off day a perfect time to give him a spot start and give rotation a extra day? Also isn’t using the “Scranton Shuttle” to spot start Green, Cessa, and Mitchell a better plan then just using it for fresh bullpen arms?

The annual 20 games in 20 days stretch begins next Tuesday and I have no doubt the Yankees will use a spot sixth starter at some point just to give their starters extra rest. They’ve been doing that the last few years. The ten-day rule means Chad Green can’t be called back up until May 20th, the fifth game of the 20 games in 20 days stretch. That works well for spot start purposes. Go through the rotation once, then call him up. Even then though, it doesn’t necessarily have to be Green even though he’s pitched the best out of the depth starters. The Yankees could just as easily call up Luis Cessa for a spot start, or Bryan Mitchell, or Daniel Camarena. Sending Green down to stay stretched out in the meantime makes more sense than stashing him in the bullpen as the mop-up reliever. He’ll be back at some point, and sending him down won’t prevent the Yankees from using a spot sixth starter during the 20 games in 20 days stretch.

Ellsbury thrown out at home, Yankees drop series opener 3-2 to Astros

So close! The Yankees very nearly made another miraculous ninth inning comeback in Thursday night’s series opener against the Astros. Instead, the final out was recorded at home plate, and they lost the game 3-2. Man, that would have fun. What a wild ending.


Keuchel On The Ropes
Early on, it sure looked like Dallas Keuchel would cruise to a complete game shutout, probably on fewer than 100 pitches too. He’s regained his Cy Young form this season, and he held the Yankees to two baserunners — a Chase Headley infield single and a Chris Carter ground ball single — in the first four innings, and he needed only 42 pitches to do it. Four of the 13 batters he faced those four innings made first pitch outs.

The Yankees finally put together a rally in the fifth inning, and they needed an error to do it. First baseman Yulieski Gurriel dropped the ball on Headley’s routine grounder to third base. The throw to first was perfect. Right to Gurriel’s chest. It just clanked off his glove. Very weird. Didi Gregorius followed with a single and Aaron Hicks followed with a walk to load the bases with one out. Woo! Then Carter struck out for the second out. Boo!

Fortunately, Jacoby Ellsbury came through with a clutch catcher’s interference to force in a run with two outs. You’d think Brian McCann would know better, right? Maybe scoot back a step or two when Ellsbury is in the box. Ellsbury always picks a good time for catcher’s interferences, it seems. That brought Gary Sanchez to the plate with two outs, and he reached out for a 2-0 sinker and grounded out weakly to end the threat. Drat. One run is better than no runs though.

In the very next inning, the Yankees again threatened against Keuchel, this time thanks to back-to-back singles by Matt Holliday and Starlin Castro. Castro’s single was a rocket off the wall in left field that wasn’t more than a few feet from going over from a game-tying two-run home run. He hit it so hard he had to hold at first. Runners at the corners with one out! Then strikeout strikeout strikeout. Woof. Aaron Judge, Headley, and Gregorius couldn’t even put a ball in play.

On the bright side, the Yankees did get Keuchel’s pitch count up in those fifth and sixth innings. He threw 42 pitches in the first four innings and 55 pitches in the fifth and sixth inning. Hooray for avoiding the complete game? Making them use the bullpen is better than not making them use the bullpen. Keuchel allowed one unearned run on five hits and a walk in his six innings. He struck out nine. Great pitcher pitched great. News at eleven.

Pineda’s One Mistake
On a night he was going to have to be close to perfect to win, Michael Pineda made only one real mistake on the mound, and unfortunately it came right after his defense made a mistake behind him. Josh Reddick lifted a weak fly ball to shallow center field that fell between Gregorius and Ellsbury for a single. It was Ellsbury’s ball all the way. The outfielder charging in has to call off the infielder looking over his shoulder.

Anyway, Reddick’s fly ball dunked in for a single, extending the inning and giving Carlos Correa a chance to bat with a man on base and two outs. Pineda made one of his classic two-out mistake pitches and Correa almost effortlessly lifted it into the right field seats for a two-run home run. Sanchez wanted the ball down and away, but Pineda left it up in the zone:


Sigh. Make a mistake to Correa and he’ll do that. Following that home run Correa was 6-for-9 with three dingers against Pineda in his career. In related news, Pineda walked him on four pitches next time up.

Aside from that though, Pineda was very good, allowing just one more run on a two-strike slider George Springer dug out of the dirt in the fifth inning. Nori Aoki reached on a fielder’s choice and stole second earlier in the inning to set that up. Pineda executed a good two-strike slider and Springer went down and got it. What can you do? Sometimes you make a good pitch and get beat anyway. Such is life.

Pineda finished the night having allowed three runs — all three were earned because the Reddick fly ball was ruled a hit (neither Gregorius nor Ellsbury touched it) — on six hits and one walk in 6.2 innings. This is only the second time Pineda has allowed as many as three runs in his last six starts. The missed location to Correa stunk, but overall this was another good outing for Pineda. He’s been pretty solid so far this season.


Fighting Spirit!
For the fourth time in their last seven losses, the Yankees had the tying run on base in the final inning. Even when they lose, they don’t go down quietly. A Hicks walk and an Ellsbury single-plus-stolen base combination gave the Yankees runners at second and third with two outs in the ninth. The tying run was at second! They might still lose, but at least they were going down with a fight, you know?

Sanchez then provided the big hit with runners in scoring position the Yankees had been seeking all game. He yanked a single through the left side of the infield, scoring Hicks easily. Ellsbury was sent home and … was thrown out at the plate by Jake Marisnick to end the game. A walk-off out at the plate. Zoinks. Here’s the video:

Given the result, it was a really bad send. That said, I’m okay with third base coach Joe Espada waving Ellsbury around. I think the odds of Marisnick’s throw being off-line are greater than the odds of Holliday, the next hitter, getting a hit against the very nasty Ken Giles. Marisnick made a great throw. A perfect throw, really. And Ellsbury was out. Sucks. Just one of those games the Yankees weren’t meant to win, I guess.

Adam Warren had something of an off-night in relief of Pineda. He stranded an inherited runner at second after entering in the seventh inning, and finished the night having allowed a hit and two walks in 1.1 innings. Warren didn’t allow a run, but he wasn’t quite sharp either. Jonathan Holder and Chasen Shreve combined for a scoreless ninth. Shreve getting the call in the left-on-left matchup spot over Tommy Layne seems notable.

One Yankee reached base multiple times: Hicks. He drew three walks. Hicks has 20 walks and 13 strikeouts so far this year. Ellsbury, Sanchez, Holliday, Castro, Headley, Gregorius, and Carter accounted for the seven hits, all singles. The Yankees went 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position and the one was Sanchez’s hit in the ninth, in which Ellsbury was thrown out at home. Womp womp.

And finally, Ellsbury’s catcher’s interference was the 28th of his career. That is second all-time. Ellsbury is one behind Pete Rose for the record. Rose had 15,890 plate appearances in his career. Ellsbury has 5,084.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
Head over to ESPN for the box score and updated standings, and MLB.com for the video highlights. Don’t miss our Bullpen Workload page either. Here’s the graph of win probability:

Source: FanGraphs

Up Next
Same two teams Friday night, in the second game of this four-game series. Finesse lefty Jordan Montgomery and power righty Lance McCullers Jr. are the scheduled starting pitchers. RAB Tickets can get you in the door if you want to catch that game.

DotF: Rutherford, Castillo have big games in Charleston’s win

Triple-A Scranton (11-5 loss to Syracuse)

  • SS Tyler Wade: 3-5, 2 R, 1 2B, 1 SB — 18-for-56 (.321) in his last 13 games
  • CF Dustin Fowler: 2-5, 1 2B, 1 3B, 3 RBI, 1 K — that’s now six triples on the season
  • RF Clint Frazier: 0-5, 2 K
  • 2B Rob Refsnyder: 2-4, 1 R, 1 E (throwing)
  • LF Mason Williams: 1-4, 1 R, 1 2B
  • C Kyle Higashioka: 1-4, 1 R, 2 RBI, 1 PB, 1 E (throwing)
  • RHP Bryan Mitchell: 2.1 IP, 3 H, 5 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 6/0 GB/FB — 32 of 52 pitches were strikes (62%) … he’s in the process of getting stretched out
  • LHP Tyler Webb: 1 IP, zeroes, 2 K, 1/0 GB/FB — nine of 14 pitches were strikes

[Read more…]

Game 32: The Best vs. The Best


The Yankees are back home this weekend, but only briefly. They have a four-game weekend series with the Astros before heading back out on the road. At this very moment, the Yankees and Astros are the two best teams in baseball in terms of winning percentage. The Yankees are first at .677. The Astros are right behind them at .676. They’re also first and second in the AL in run differential. Should be a fun series.

Tonight the Yankees will face old nemesis Dallas Keuchel, who crushed the Yankees Kevin Gausman style back in 2015, including in the AL Wildcard Game. He was on short rest that day too. This is a different Yankees team though. Only two players from the 2015 Wildcard Game starting lineup are in tonight’s starting lineup, and they’ll be on the left side of the infield. Everyone else is a new face. Here is the Astros’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. C Gary Sanchez
  3. DH Matt Holliday
  4. 2B Starlin Castro
  5. RF Aaron Judge
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. SS Didi Gregorius
  8. LF Aaron Hicks
  9. 1B Chris Carter
    RHP Michael Pineda

It is cool and cloudy in New York today, though there’s no rain in the forecast, so that’s good. Tonight’s game will begin at 7:05pm ET. You can watch on YES locally and MLB Network nationally. Enjoy the game.

Roster Move: As rumored, Gio Gallegos was called up today, the Yankees announced. Chad Green was send down yesterday to clear the roster spot.

5/11 to 5/14 Series Preview: Houston Astros

Correa and Altuve. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images North America)
Correa and Altuve. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images North America)

A strong argument can be made that this is the series to watch this weekend, regardless of your fandom. As of this morning, the Yankees and Astros rank in the top-five in winning percentage, runs scored, runs allowed, run differential, wRC+, and park-adjusted ERA; and, beyond that, both teams are headlined by young sluggers. In short, this is a match-up between teams that have the foundation laid to be good over the next several years – what more could you ask for?

The Last Time They Met

The Yankees visited the Astros for a three-game set just before last year’s deadline, taking two out of three. It was their first series following the Aroldis Chapman trade (he was actually dealt the morning of the first game), and the last time Andrew Miller would take the mound as a Yankee. Some other points of interest:

  • The Yankees were four games above .500 after winning the second game, which was the high-water mark of the season to that point.
  • Astros third baseman Alex Bregman made his big league debut in this series, starting all three games. He went 0-for-9 with 2 walks and 3 strikeouts.
  • Michael Pineda gave up a home run on his first pitch of the game. He promptly settled down, finishing with 7 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 2 BB, and 8 K.
  • Luis Severino made the first relief appearance of his career in the third game of the series. He went two innings, and allowed no hits and one walk while striking out three.
  • Adam Warren made his first appearance since coming back from the Cubs in that same game. He gave the Yankees a scoreless sixth inning.

You can check out Katie’s Yankeemetrics post for more interesting tidbits.

Injury Report

RHP Collin McHugh has been on the disabled list since Opening Day with a posterior impingement in his right elbow, and isn’t expected to return until sometime in June. He has been a stalwart in the back of the Astros rotation since 2014, but the team has managed to get by in the interim.

Would-be fourth outfielder Teoscar Hernandez is on the DL, as well, as the result of a scary collision with Jose Altuve. He’s expected to activated soon, but he may end up in Triple-A.

Their Story So Far

The Astros are 23-11, and lead the AL West by a full six games. That impressive record is a product of their dominance of the division thus far, as they’re 17-6 against the Mariners, Angels, A’s, and Rangers (and 6-5 against everyone else). Even so, the team has performed quite well in most every facet of the game; they have seven regulars/semi-regulars with a wRC+ above 120, and Carlos Beltran‘s 92 wRC+ represents the bottom of the barrel. They have a 3.42 ERA (109 ERA+) as a team, a resurgent Dallas Keuchel pitching like an ace, and a deep bullpen that is striking out 11.54 batters per nine innings (the best mark in the majors). The greatest flaw of the team — at least in terms of how it’s performing right now — lay in baserunning, as they’re 29th in the game in FanGraphs’ BsR (an all-encompassing metric).

In short, the Astros are firing on (almost) all cylinders right now.

The Lineup We Might See

Manager A.J. Hinch like to mix-and-match his lineups, as evidenced by the fact that he has used 32 unique lineups this year (as per Baseball-Reference). He does this not only to gain the platoon advantage, but also as a means to keep players rested – Brian McCann has already had nine days off, and no player has played every game. Having versatile players like Marwin Gonzalez, Alex Bregman, and Evan Gattis helps with that, too. That being said, we’ll probably see something along these lines:

  1. George Springer, CF
  2. Josh Reddick, RF
  3. Jose Altuve, 2B
  4. Carlos Correa, SS
  5. Carlos Beltran, DH
  6. Yulieski Gurriel, 1B
  7. Brian McCann, C
  8. Alex Bregman, 3B
  9. Nori Aoki, LF

Evan Gattis will almost certainly start at least one game at catcher, and probably when Jordan Montgomery takes the mound. Jake Marisnick may play LF over Aoki on that day, as well. And Gonzalez will get a couple of starts; where he plays is up in the air, as he has started at 1B, 2B, 3B, LF, and RF this year.

The Starting Pitchers We Will See

Thursday (7:05 PM EST): RHP Michael Pineda vs. LHP Dallas Keuchel

Keuchel followed-up his 2015 Cy Young-winning season with a subpar 2016, pitching to an 87 ERA+ in 168 IP. His velocity dropped across the board, he struggled to throw strikes at times, and he missed starts with shoulder soreness, leading many to wonder if there was a more serious injury lurking beneath the surface. Fortunately for the Astros, he came to Spring Training healthy, and he has rebounded in a big way in 2017 (albeit at least in part due to a ridiculously low .195 BABIP). He’s currently sitting on a 199 ERA+, and has averaged more than 7 IP per outing in his seven starts.

The 29-year-old southpaw throws three fastballs in the mid-to-upper 80s – a four-seamer, a two-seamer, and a cutter. He also mixes in a slider and a change-up in the upper-70s, which account for around 40% of his pitch selection. Keuchel pounds the bottom of the strike zone with gusto, as evidenced by his 63% ground ball rate in 2017.

Last Outing (vs. LAA on 5/5) – 8.0 IP, 7 H, 5 R, 2 BB, 5 K

Friday (7:05 PM EST): LHP Jordan Montgomery vs. RHP Lance McCullers Jr.

The story of McCullers’ career-to-date is highlighted by brilliant stuff, strong performances, and concerns over the health and future of his elbow. The 23-year-old boasts a 120 ERA+, 27.3 K%, and 51.7 GB% in his young career, along with an average of nearly +4 bWAR per 200 IP. Unfortunately, he missed right around half of 2016 due to elbow issues, and missed time in Spring Training due to the same malady. He’s been healthy and effective since the regular season began, though, and is tossing just over 6 IP per start.

McCullers is a borderline two-pitch pitcher, living and dying by his explosive mid-90s fastball and ridiculously hard, bendy knuckle-curveball (which is just as filthy in-game as it reads on your screen). That curveball represents nearly half of his offerings in any given game, and he gets whiffs on it about 20% of the time. He’ll also mix in a split-fingered change-up, which is another swing-and-miss pitch when it’s working.

Last Outing (vs. LAA on 5/6) – 7 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 4 K

Saturday (1:05 PM EST): RHP Luis Severino vs. RHP Mike Fiers

It seems like Aaron Judge is hitting the ball out of the park whenever he puts it in the air, and that’s because 44.8% of his fly balls have left the yard. Fiers has turned every hitter into Judge this year, as 41.2% of his fly balls allowed have turned into home runs. He’s allowed 14 home runs in just 30.1 IP, which ties him with Jered Weaver and his 84 MPH fastball (and Weaver has pitched in Colorado and Arizona this year). Fiers was ineffective last season, and he has to be close to losing his job at this point. It’ll be interesting to see him in Yankee Stadium

Fiers’ arsenal includes a four-seamer in the upper-80s, a mid-80s cutter, a low-80s change-up, a low-80s slider, and a low-70s curveball. He uses all five pitches fairly regularly, and they used to play-up because of his over-the-top delivery, which added a great deal of deception. It doesn’t seem like it’s fooling anyone nowadays.

Last Outing (vs. LAA on 5/7) – 5 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 4 BB, 1 K

Sunday (7:35 PM EST): RHP Masahiro Tanaka vs. RHP Charlie Morton

Morton leapt into baseball consciousness nearly six years ago, due largely to his professed copying/mimicry/absorption of Roy Halladay’s mechanics and pitch selection. The overall results have been mixed, as he has a 94 ERA+ in 681.1 IP since the self-overhaul, and he has spent nearly as much time on the disabled list as he has on the field — his 2016 season ended in April, when he tore his hamstring running out a bunt (thanks, National League). Morton has great strikeout (25.1%) and ground ball (50.5%) rates right now, in addition to a 103 ERA+. The Astros would be more than happy with that over 180 IP or so, given their 2-year, $14 MM investment.

The 33-year-old throws four different fastballs — a low-to-mid 90s four-seamer, a low-to-mid 90s two-seamer, a cutter in the upper-80s, and a mid-80s splitter. His only true offspeed pitch is a curveball, which he throws a bit more than a quarter of the time (and has a strong 20.8% whiff rate this year).

Last Outing (vs. ATL on 5/9) – 5.2 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 4 BB, 5 K

The Bullpen

The Astros bullpen has been excellent this year, ranking sixth in the majors with a 2.93 ERA. Fireman Chris Devenski has thrown 21 IP across 11 appearances, with incredible strikeout (49.4%) and walk (3.9%) rates – and his 2.14 ERA is fourth on the team among relievers with 10-plus IP. Ken Giles has reclaimed the closer’s role after losing it to Luke Gregerson last year, and he might be the team’s fifth best reliever right now as he’s still rounding into form.

Gregerson pitched on Tuesday and Wednesday, so he isn’t likely to be available in the first game of the series. Giles went yesterday afternoon, but he only needed 11 pitches to pick up the save. Between Monday’s off-day and both starters pitching into the 6th in their two-game series against the Braves, the Astros bullpen is fairly well-rested.

Yankees Connection

The Astros have two everyday players that were Yankees regulars as recently as last year, in McCann and Beltran. The latter is showing an age a bit, as he is currently slashing .256/.295/.397 (92 wRC+) with a 25.6% strikeout rate, but he has shown signs of life since the calendar flipped to May with three multi-hit games and six extra-base hits.

McCann, on the other hand, is playing better than he has in years. He’s batting .281/.381/.461 (135 wRC+) with terrific walk (14.3%) and strikeout rates (10.5%) in 105 PA. He’s on-pace to play less than 120 games, and the regular rest has clearly paid off six weeks into the season. And, while there’s may be some small sample size noise here, his .270 BABIP and exit velocity suggest that this isn’t necessarily a fluke.

Who (Or What) To Watch

The Astros are a high-contact team, so they will test the Yankees defense early and often. They’re striking out in just 18.1% of their plate appearances, which is the second-lowest mark in baseball, and they’re aggressive in and out of the zone. It goes without saying that this will be a challenge for the Yankees pitchers, too.

Any McCullers start is a must-watch, as well. Or, at the very least, his curveball is a sight to behold.