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.

Six under-the-radar decisions that helped get the Yankees back to the postseason

Sir Didi. (Adam Hunger/Getty)
Sir Didi. (Adam Hunger/Getty)

In what was supposed to be a rebuilding transition season, the Yankees won 91 games and will play in the AL Wild Card Game tomorrow night. They remained in the hunt for the AL East title right up until the final weekend too. That’s pretty cool. Can’t say I saw this coming. This has been a fun six months, hasn’t it? Couldn’t have asked for a more enjoyable season.

Getting to the postseason and possibly maybe hopefully winning the World Series is the result of many, literally hundreds of decisions over a period of several seasons. It doesn’t happen quick. Some of the decisions that got the Yankees back to the postseason this year are obvious. Draft Aaron Judge with the 32nd pick in 2013 instead of literally anyone else. Trade for Sonny Gray and David Robertson. Sign CC Sabathia. Those are the obvious moves.

Many times it’s the not-so-obvious decisions, the multitude of easy-to-look decisions that are the difference between contending and just being okay. Don’t think much of that lightly regarded prospect thrown into a trade? Well sometimes that guy turns into Chad Green. Those are the moves and decisions that separate the contenders from the pretenders. Here are six of those not-so-obvious decisions that played a role in getting the Yankees back to the postseason.

Giving Denbo the keys to the farm system

The Yankees were never going to get back to being a perennial contender without developing players from within. You can’t build a winner through free agency anymore. Baseball has changed. And aside from a Brett Gardner here and a Dellin Betances there, the Yankees hadn’t developed an impact player since Robinson Cano as recently as two years ago. Things had to change and they did change.

Four years ago Hal Steinbrenner ordered what was essentially an audit of the farm system. The Yankees weren’t producing players and the owner wanted to know why. Hal’s evaluation of the system led to substantial changes. Coaches and player development personnel were replaced, and the minor league complex in Tampa was renovated. The status quo was not working so the Yankees changed the way they went about developing players.

The single biggest change was the (forced) retirement of longtime vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman, who’d been running the farm system for 15 years. Brian Cashman tabbed Gary Denbo, who has done basically everything there is to do in baseball throughout his career, to replace Newman, and the difference has been staggering. The Yankees are not just producing MLB players, they’re producing stars.

How much credit does Denbo deserve for the farm system turnaround? It’s hard to say, exactly. Denbo did overhaul the minor league coaching staffs — even the beloved Tony Franklin, Double-A Trenton’s longtime manager, was moved into another role — and start Captain’s Camp, among many other things. The farm system went from frustratingly unproductive to pumping out quality big league players under his watch. More than the Yankees can roster, really.

I never thought the Yankees had a problem acquiring talent (aside from the Cito Culver and Dante Bichette Jr. picks). They had talent. But that talent was not developing into MLB players. That has changed since Denbo took over, and hey, maybe it’s all one giant coincidence. I don’t think that’s the case though. Denbo replacing Newman barely registered as a blip on the radar at the time, but in the grand scheme of things, it may have been the team’s most impactful move of the last five or six years.

Letting Severino pitch in relief

Sevy. (Gregory Shamus/Getty)
Sevy. (Gregory Shamus/Getty)

The 2016 season couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start for Luis Severino. Rather than emerge as a homegrown ace, the then-22-year-old struggled big time early in the season and eventually went down with a triceps injury. He threw 35 innings with a 7.46 ERA (5.52 FIP) in seven starts before the injury, then once he got healthy, the Yankees sent him down to Triple-A Scranton.

In 13 games with the RailRiders, Severino had a 3.49 ERA (2.60 FIP) in 77.1 innings, and he was sent down for the express purpose of improving his command and improving his changeup. The Yankees did bring Severino back to the big leagues eventually, but not as a starter. As a reliever. In eleven relief appearances he threw 23.1 innings with a 0.39 ERA (2.29 FIP) and was overwhelmingly dominant. Naturally, the calls to keep Severino in the bullpen came, but the Yankees knew better and moved him back into the rotation this year.

This season Severino emerged as that homegrown ace and I don’t think that happens without his bullpen stint last season. While working in relief Severino learned how to get MLB hitters out, learned to trust his overpowering stuff, and built confidence, and it carried over this year. He looks like a reliever pitching as a starter this season. He has that same attack attack attack mentality and a better idea of how to get outs.

Development is rarely linear. So many players experience ups and downs along the way, and last season was a down year for Severino. It wasn’t a lost year though. You hope young players learn something when they struggle and Severino absolutely did. He doesn’t become the pitcher he is today without going through everything he went through last year. I know we’re all still scarred from the Joba Rules and all that, but in this case, a stint in the bullpen turned into a major positive for Severino and the Yankees.

Beltran picks the Astros

Over the winter the Yankees had a clear opening for a veteran middle of the order bat. Someone to support the youngsters and take all those designated hitter at-bats. The Yankees wanted to bring Carlos Beltran back for that role. He was Plan A. Instead, Beltran decided to take a one-year contract worth $16M with the Astros.

“They really made an offer early, faster than any other team,” said Beltran to Brian McTaggart after signing with Houston. “At the same time, I took a look at the roster, and having an opportunity to play against them last year with the Rangers, this team is very, very close to winning and winning for a long time. The fact they were aggressive and went out there and really showed big-time interest, it wasn’t that difficult to make to make a decision.”

With Beltran off the board, the Yankees shifted gears and turned their attention to Matt Holliday, the other big name veteran bat who could be had a one-year contract. The Yankees have Holliday a one-year deal worth $13M four days after Beltran signed with the Astros, and, well:

  • Holliday: .231/.316/.432 (97 wRC+) and 19 homers
  • Beltran: .231/.283/.383 (76 wRC+) and 14 homers

Holliday has crashed hard in the second half, hard enough that it’s fair to wonder whether he belongs on the postseason roster, but his first half was incredible. He hit .262/.366/.511 (132 wRC+) with 15 homers in 68 games before the All-Star break. Beltran’s best 68-game stretch this season was a .246/.301/.442 line (96 wRC+) with eleven homers from May 3rd through August 6th. Yeah.

Between Holliday’s first half production and his reported impact on Judge and other young players, the Yankees are pretty fortunate Beltran decided to return to Houston. They wound up with a slightly cheaper player who was more productive on the field and also an asset in the clubhouse (which Beltran certainly is as well).

Diamondbacks put their faith in Ahmed and Owings

Nearly three years ago, then-D’Backs general manager Dave Stewart decided he was going to dip into his team’s shortstop depth to bolster their rotation. The club had three young shortstops, none older than 24, so there was some surplus. Arizona could trade one young shortstop and still have two others on the roster. And that’s exactly what they did. The shortstops they kept: Nick Ahmed and Chris Owings. The shortstop they traded: Didi Gregorius.

  • Gregorius from 2015-17: .276/.313/.432 (98 wRC+) and +9.6 WAR
  • Ahmed from 2015-17: .228/.276/.351 (60 wRC+) and +1.9 WAR
  • Owings from: 2015-17: .255/.291/.387 (72 wRC+) and -0.5 WAR

To be fair, the D’Backs acquired Robbie Ray in the Gregorius trade, and Ray is pretty damn awesome. He threw 162 innings with a 2.89 ERA (3.72 FIP) and 32.8% strikeouts this season, and went to the All-Star Game. The trade worked out for them from the “get a young starter” perspective. The Yankees did not have a young starter to trade with the D’Backs directly, which is how the Tigers got involved. Then-Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski loved Shane Greene and served as an intermediary.

Gregorius is now a highly productive member of the Yankees because the D’Backs considered him expendable. That’s why he’s wearing pinstripes. They liked Owings and Ahmed more and identified them as their best chance to develop a shortstop of the future. “Didi has been one of the most talked-about players (in trades) for us. Looking at the possibilities for things we could do, it really came down to eventually, ‘How can we fill a need?'” said Stewart to Nick Piecoro after the trade. The D’Backs got their starter, so credit to them. That decision helped get the Yankees to where they are today.

Not making the easy move for the fifth starter’s spot

Monty. (Jamie Squire/Getty)
Monty. (Jamie Squire/Getty)

When Spring Training started, the Yankees had two open rotation spots. As it turned out, one was earmarked for Severino — didn’t I say that all offseason long? I did — leaving the fifth spot up to a good ol’ Grapefruit League competition. The fifth starter candidates: Green, Luis Cessa, Bryan Mitchell, and supposedly Adam Warren, though I never bought Warren as a rotation candidate. That group was the baseball equivalent of a shrug emoji.

Ultimately, none of the fifth starter candidates won the job. Jordan Montgomery shocked the world in camp, outpitched everyone, and won the job. The Yankees could’ve very easily gone with Cessa or Green or Mitchell, all of whom were already on the 40-man roster and had MLB experience, but no, they went with Montgomery. Johnny Barbato was the 40-man roster sacrificial lamb and Montgomery was the fifth starter.

What was expected to be a revolving door of fifth starters — when is it ever not a revolving door? — was instead steady and reliable production from Montgomery, especially in the first half. He finished the regular season with a 3.88 ERA (4.06 FIP) in 155.1 innings after pitching to a 3.65 ERA (4.05 FIP) in 91.1 first half innings. Montgomery led all rookie pitchers with +2.8 fWAR, all after coming into the season as a rotation afterthought.

There’s a pretty good chance Montgomery will not even be on the postseason roster, but make no mistake, he played a vital role in getting the Yankees back to October. He earned his spot in Spring Training and, truth be told, the only reason he had to be sent to Triple-A in the second half was to control his workload. Montgomery gave the Yankees what they’ve been seeking for years: a no nonsense starter to solidify the back of the rotation.

Going with Torreyes on the bench

It wasn’t that long ago that Rob Refsnyder was a pretty big deal around these parts. He put up very good numbers in the minors, and for the first few years of the post-Cano era, the Yankees had a revolving door at second base. The scouting reports said Refsnyder’s defense stunk, we all knew that, but wouldn’t the offense make up for it? After all, the Yankees were running guys like Brian Roberts and Stephen Drew out there.

The Yankees never believed in Refsnyder as much as the fans, so much so that when a bench spot was open last spring, they didn’t take him north. Refsnyder had a decent enough camp and was learning third base to increase his versatility. Instead, the Yankees decided to go with Ronald Torreyes, who had been in four different organizations in the previous ten months. They went with Torreyes because he could do what Refsnyder couldn’t: catch the ball.

Turns out, Torreyes had more to offer offensively as well. Refsnyder has never hit much in his various MLB stints — he authored a .170/.247/.216 (22 wRC+) batting line with the Yankees and Blue Jays this year — and he still doesn’t have a position. Torreyes, meanwhile, has settled in as a reliable utility infielder, one who filled in at shortstop and second base while Gregorius and Castro were injured earlier this year.

  • Torreyes while Didi was on DL: .308/.308/.431 in 19 games
  • Torreyes while Castro was on DL (two stints): .302/.321/.389 in 38 games

Does he draw walks? No. Does he hit for power? No. Does he even steal bases? No, not really (two all season). What Torreyes does do it get the bat on the ball (12.8%), and that prevents him from falling into deep and prolonged slumps. He’s a .300 hitter (well, .292 to be exact) and it is an empty .300, but .300 is .300, and we’re talking about a bench player. A bench player who can play all over the infield and start for a few weeks at a time if necessary.

Also, let’s not forget the off-the-field value Torreyes brings to the table. He’s a high-energy player who is universally beloved in the clubhouse. He’s a Grade-A glue guy and that is absolutely important. It’s a long season, man. Teams need players who can keep everyone loose and make it fun to go to the ballpark. Torreyes does that. He’s a solid utility player on the field and a great clubhouse guy behind the scenes.

Last spring Refsnyder was the trendy pick for that bench spot. He’d done all he needed to do in the minors to earn a chance, at least offensively and at least in the eyes of the fans, and it seemed like he would get the call. Instead, the Yankees went with the relatively unknown Torreyes, and his more functional skill set. This season he started for long stretches of time while Gregorius and Castro were out, and his production during those stints as a starter helped get the Yankees back to October.

Yankeemetrics: The sinking pinstriped ship (June 30-July 2)

(Getty)
(Getty)

Sleep is overrated
The Yankees arrived in Houston early Friday morning, bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived, but that didn’t stop them from putting together one of their most satisfying wins of the season against the best team in baseball.

The 13-4 rout also capped off one of the most bizarre months for any Yankees team in recent memory. They went 13-15 in June, the 20th best record in the majors last month. Not good. Yet they compiled a run differential of plus-56 that ranked second only to the Dodgers. Very good!

Two stats tell this perplexing story: The Yankees led MLB with nine wins by at least five runs, and tied for the MLB lead with nine losses by exactly one run. It was the first time the Yankees had nine wins by five-or-more runs in a single month since July 2010; and the first time in at least the 15 seasons they had nine one-run losses in a single month.

At the center of the offensive explosion was Brett Gardner, who went 3-for-5 — including his third career grand slam — and a career-high-tying six RBIs. He’s just the second Yankee leadoff batter to drive in six runs in a game, along with Hank Bauer on May 10, 1952 against the Red Sox. Gardner is also just the fifth Yankee to have multiple 6-RBI games as a leftfielder; this is a fun list: Alfonso Soriano, Bob Meusel, Charlie Keller and Babe Ruth.

Although Aaron Judge was hitless in four at-bats, he still notched his 29th and 30th walks of the month, etching his name in both the MLB and franchise record books. The ridiculous power and patience he showed in June was nearly unprecedented, especially for such a young player:

  • Judge is the fourth Yankee with at least 30 walks, 10 homers and five doubles in a calendar month. The rest of the names should be familiar by now: Mickey Mantle (June 1957), Lou Gehrig (twice) and Babe Ruth (seven times).
  • Among all major-leaguers age 25 or younger, only six others besides Judge walked at least 30 times and had at least 70 total bases in a month: Mantle (June 1957), Eddie Mathews (July 1954), Ted Williams (twice), Mel Ott (June 1929), Keller (August 1939) and The Babe (twice).
(AP)
(AP)

Deja vu all over again
Another series, another candidate for W.L.O.T.S. (Worst Loss Of The Season).

In what has become an all-too-familiar theme for this Yankees team, they followed up one of their most impressive wins of the season with one of their most brutal losses, and the bullpen flames were raging again on Saturday night. Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman self-destructed in the eighth inning, blowing a three-run lead as the Yankees suffered another horrible come-from-ahead loss, 7-6.

Here are some of the gory details behind the Yankees recent string of late-inning meltdowns:

Stat Notes
15 Blown Saves – 10(!) more than they had at this point in the season last year (in just four more save opportunities);
– Yeah, they had 16 all of last year
16 One-Run Losses – Four more than they had through 79 games last year;
– 10 of them have come since June 1, tied with the Phillies for the most in that span
5 losses when leading by at least three runs – Matches the same number they had in all of 2016;
– At this point last year, they had one such loss
10 losses with at least five runs scored – One fewer than they had all of last year;
– Through 79 games in 2016, had six such losses;
– 7 of the 10 losses have come since June 1, the most in MLB

Dellin Betances was the biggest culprit in the eighth inning, getting only two outs while allowing three stolen bases, four earned runs, three walks and a homer. Yikes.

betances-long-gm2-apHe is just the third Yankee pitcher to allow at least three stolen bases in an outing of fewer than one inning pitched, and he’s the only one of those three to also allow an earned run.

But its the rest of his ugly pitching line that earns Betances of our Obscure Yankeemetric of the Series:

He’s just the second Yankee ever to give up at least four earned runs, walk at least three guys, allow a homer while facing no more than six batters. The other was Hank Johnson on June 17, 1925 against the Tigers, a 19-1 loss that included a 13-run sixth-inning implosion by Yankee pitchers.

The story of the game should have been about the historic and dazzling major-league debut of Clint Frazier, who went 2-for-3 with a double and homer. His six total bases were the most by a Yankee his first career game over the last 100 years, and he also became the first player in franchise history to hit a home run and a double in his big-league debt.

Perhaps even more impressive … at 22 years and 298 days old, he was the youngest Yankee rightfielder with a homer and a double in any game since Mickey Mantle on May 30, 1952.

Didi Gregorius also took his turn in the spotlight, crushing his first career grand slam. The only other Yankee shortstops in the last three decades with a grand slam were Starlin Castro (August 5 last year) and Derek Jeter (June 18, 2005).

(AP)
(AP)

At least they scored a run
The Yankees early-summer slide deepened with another listless defeat on Sunday afternoon, as the bats went cold and the arms were lit up by the Astros powerful lineup in an 8-1 loss. They’ve now gone winless in six straight series, their longest such streak since an eight-series winless streak spanning July and August of 2013.

Luis Severino had one of his worst performances of the season, getting tattooed for nine hits — six doubles, a homer and two singles — and six runs in 5⅓ innings pitched. Yet he still flashed dominance with his fastball-slider combo, striking out a quarter of the batters he faced (7 of 28).

That pitching line gives us an unfortunate statistical connection for Severino …. The only other Yankee in the last 100 seasons to pitch fewer than six innings while surrendering at least seven extra-base hits and getting at least seven strikeouts in a game was Michael Pineda on April 24, 2016 against the Rays. #SmallSevy

The only other notable number to come out of this game was One — the number of runs they scored in the ninth inning to avoid being shutout for the first time this season. This is the sixth time in franchise history they’ve gone at least 80 games into the season without being blanked and the first time since 1988.

The franchise record? That would be held by the 1932 team, which scored at least one run in every game that season. In related news, the 1932 Yankees went 107-47 and swept the Cubs in the World Series. Oh, and a man named Babe Ruth hit a sorta famous home run in Game 3 of that series:

6/30 to 7/2 Series Preview: Houston Astros

(Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
(Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

We are just ten days away from the beginning of the All-Star break, and it feels as though that time off cannot come quickly enough. Injuries, illnesses, and losses have pervaded the last several weeks for the Yankees, and that is only being exacerbated by this current sixteen games in sixteen days stretch. This weekend’s visit to Houston is their last road series of the first-half.

The Last Time They Met

The Yankees dropped three of four to the Astros back in May (11th through 14th), which represented their first series loss since the first full weekend of the season. Both teams were playing brilliantly at the time, ranking in the top-five in all of baseball in most every relevant metric, but the Astros were the better team that weekend. Some points of interest:

  • Masahiro Tanaka had his worst start of the season (and possibly his career) in the final game of the series, pitching to the following line – 1.2 IP, 7 H, 8 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 4 home runs allowed.
  • Giovanny Gallegos made his big league debut in the series, pitching twice. He allowed a hit, a walk, and an unearned run in 3.1 IP, striking out 3.
  • Jacoby Ellsbury “drove in” a run by garnering a catcher’s interference call with the bases loaded in the first game. That’s fascinating, and kind of hilarious. He also got thrown out at home to end that game, which is less so.

Check out Katie’s Yankeemetrics post for more interesting stats.

Injury Report

Houston currently has three starting pitchers on the disabled list – ace Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, and Charlie Morton. There is a chance that Morton will return and start the last game of this series for the Astros, but the other two aren’t likely to be back until after the break.

Their Story So Far

The Astros are arguably the best team in baseball, as the holders of the best record (54-26) and the second-best run differential (+125, with the Dodgers leading the way at +141). They lead the majors with a 123 wRC+ (the Yankees are second at 114), and they’re top-five in both runs scored and runs allowed. They’re also 8-2 in their last 10.

While their pitching has been quite good, it’s difficult to look at this team and think about anything other than their offense. They’ve given 200-plus PA to nine players, and five of those players of a wRC+ of 130 or better; and just one – Carlos Beltran – has a wRC+ below 101. If you drop that down to 100-plus PA, you add two more hitters with an above-average wRC+, meaning that the Astros can roll out an above-average hitter at every position on any given night.

Check out The Crawfish Boxes for more news and notes on the Astros.

The Lineup We Might See

At least some of the success of the offense has to be credited to manager A.J. Hinch, who does a good job of utilizing platoons and keeping his players rested. Brian McCann is essentially a case study in this, as he has sat out nearly 30 games, avoiding back-to-backs and tough southpaws – and his 115 wRC+ would be his best since 2013. All that being said, this is the Astros’ most common lineup of late:

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

You can also expect to see healthy doses of Evan Gattis and Yuli Gurriel.

The Starting Pitchers We Will See

Friday (8:10 PM EST): RHP Michael Pineda vs. RHP Lance McCullers Jr.

The Yankees faced McCullers on May 12, and he shut them down (6.0 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 7 K) by mixing his mid-90s fastball, mid-80s curveball, and upper-80s change-up with gusto. He actually relied on his curve a bit less than usual, throwing it just 41.1% of the time, as opposed to his season norm of 46.1%. Whether or not that was a matter of that pitching being off for a night or a strategy remains to be seen.

McCullers has a 2.53 ERA (156 ERA+) on the season, with 10.7 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9 in 81.2 IP.

Last Outing (vs. SEA on 6/24) – 5.0 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 8 K

Saturday (7:15 PM EST): LHP Jordan Montgomery vs. RHP Francis Martes

Martes entered the season as one of the best prospects in the game, peaking at number 15 on Baseball America’s top-100 list. His call-up, however, was based on need more so than performance, as he had struggled mightily in his first taste of Triple-A (5.29 ERA, 7.8 BB/9). He currently has a 5.51 ERA (73 ERA+) in four major league games, but he’s still only 21, and he’s a top prospect for a reason.

That reason largely being his stuff, which includes a mid-to-high 90s fastball, a low-90s change-up, and a mid-80s power curve. The fastball and curve are usually graded as plus-plus, but there have been some concerns about the movement on his fastball.

Last Outing (vs. SEA on 6/25) – 2.0 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 4 BB, 3 K

Sunday (2:10 PM EST): RHP Luis Severino vs. TBA

As of Friday morning, the aforementioned Morton is expected to take the ball on Sunday. He has completed two rehab starts and he’s already with the team, though a final determination does not seem to have been made. The Yankees faced Morton back on May 14, plating four runs in 5.2 IP (albeit while striking out ten times). He hasn’t pitched since May 24 due to a lat strain, so, even with the rehab starts, rust could be a factor.

Last Outing (vs. DET on 5/24) – 7.0 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 3 BB, 6 K

The Bullpen

The Astros bullpen leads the majors in both K/9 and K%, and ranks in the top-ten in both park-adjusted ERA and WPA. Their greatest strength lay in the 7th and 8th innings, as set-up men Chris Devenski (2.23 ERA, 12.3 K/9, 2.2 BB/9) and Will Harris (2.16 ERA, 10.5 K/9, 1.1 BB/9) have been dominant throughout the season. Closer Ken Giles has been more good than great at times, but he’s still a safe bet in the ninth. As is the case with the lineup, Hinch mixes and matches with his bullpen, with Michael Feliz, James Hoyt, and Luke Gregerson serving as solid options with defined roles.

It’s worth noting that the Astros bullpen has been leaned upon heavily this year, particularly with Keuchel, McHugh, and Morton out. Their starters oftentimes struggle to pitch through the sixth. Last night’s game was a good example of this, as they won 6-1, but still needed their bullpen for four innings as SP Brad Peacock needed 106 pitches to get through five.

Who (Or What) To Watch

If the Yankees can work the count early in the game, they may be able to get into the thinner portion of the Astros bullpen without necessarily teeing off on the starters. That might be the key to the team’s success this weekend, given that they’re going to have to go blow-for-blow with the only offense that outclasses the Bombers.

As was the case last time around, I’m always interested in watching a McCullers start. And this time we get to see Martes, as well, who has a similar overall profile.

Yankeemetrics: Bronx Bummer (May 11-14)

(AP)
(AP)

Game of Inches
Entering Thursday the Astros and Yankees were baseball’s two best teams, separated by just .001 in the win percentage column, so it was fitting that the first game of the series was decided on the final play, by mere inches.

Down two runs in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and two men in scoring position, Gary Sanchez lined a single through the left side of the infield; Aaron Hicks scored easily from third base but Jacoby Ellsbury – racing home from second – was thrown out at the plate as the potential game-tying run.

Those types of rally-killing outs on the bases have been piling up for the Yankees this season. It was the sixth baserunning out at home plate by a Yankee this season, tying the Red Sox for the most in the AL through Thursday, and one shy of the major-league-leading Marlins.

Yet, the heart-wrenching nature of this play is actually quite rare: This was just the third time since 1930 that a game ended on a base hit with a Yankee being thrown out at home as the potential game-tying run.

The last time it happened was August 12, 1987 against the Royals when Wayne Tolleson was nailed at the plate trying to score from first on Roberto Kelly’s double to left field. Before that, you have to go back all the way to May 9, 1930 against the Tigers, when Tony Lazzeri was thrown out trying to score from second on Bill Dickey’s single.

Ellsbury was also involved in the Yankees only other run, when he got a catcher’s interference call with the bases loaded in the fifth inning. It was his 28th catcher’s interference, one shy of tying Pete Rose for the all-time MLB record. Of course, Rose is also the all-time record-holder in career plate appearances (15,890), while Ellsbury ranked 960th in that stat (5,084) through Thursday.

In yet another oddity, it was the first time in his career that Ellsbury got a catcher’s interference call with the bases loaded. And it had been more than two decades since any Yankee did that – the last one was by Pat Kelly in 1992 against the A’s.

(Newsday)
(Newsday)

Dead Bats Society
The Yankees offense went into a deep freeze on a chilly Friday night in the Bronx, barely avoiding a shutout in a listless 5-1 loss to the Astros. Didi Gregorius‘ RBI single with two outs in the ninth kept the Yankees as one of three teams (Twins, Nationals) that haven’t been blanked this season.

Brian McCann delivered the big blow for the Astros when he clubbed a three-run homer in the fourth inning to break a scoreless tie. It was his 47th homer at Yankee Stadium since 2014, the most home runs hit by any player at the Stadium in that span – and 12 more than the next guy on the list (Carlos Beltran, who also was sitting in the visiting dugout this weekend).

Lance McCullers dominated the Yankee lineup with a devastating mix of 95-mph fastballs and knee-buckling curves, holding them to zero runs on four hits over six innings while striking out seven and walking none. That seems good, eh? McCullers (23 years, 222 days) is the youngest pitcher ever to throw at least six scoreless, walk-free innings with seven-plus strikeouts in his first road appearance against the Yankees.

(AP)
(AP)

Comeback kings strike again
The Yankees kicked off Mother’s Day/Derek Jeter Night with a slump-busting, 11-6 come-from-behind win in the first game of Sunday’s double-header. It was their eighth victory when trailing by at least two runs, the second-most in baseball this season.

The first rally came in the fourth inning and was sparked by a couple longballs off the bats of Starlin Castro and Aaron Judge. Castro’s two-run homer knotted the score at 3-3, his fourth game-tying homer of the season, which matched Freddie Freeman for the most in the majors. Judge’s go-ahead, 441-foot solo blast to dead-center was his MLB-leading sixth home run of at least 430 feet in 2017, two more than any other player.

The second and decisive rally came in the seventh inning, when the Yankees erupted for six runs to erase a 6-4 deficit. The biggest blow was a tie-breaking, bases-loaded triple by Chase Headley. In the last 20 years, the only other Yankee with a go-ahead, bases-clearing triple in the seventh inning or later was Bernie Williams on June 21, 2005 against Tampa Bay.

(Getty)
(Getty)

#RE2PECT2JETER
The excited buzz and loud cheers lingering from the Stadium crowd following Derek Jeter’s number retirement ceremony were quickly silenced when George Springer stepped into the batter’s box and led off the game with a home run. That sparked a six-run first inning for Houston and paved the way for a deflating 10-7 loss by the Yankees.

Masahiro Tanaka was clobbered amid a chorus of boooooos, producing the worst start of his major-league career. He matched career-worsts in innings pitched (1 2/3) and homers allowed (4), while surrendering a career-high eight runs, and etching his name in the record books — for the wrong reason.

Tanaka became the first pitcher in Yankees history to give up at least eight earned runs and four home runs in a game while pitching fewer than two innings.

Three of those home runs came in the first inning, putting the Yankees in a huge early hole that even the Comeback Kings couldn’t dig out of. Going back to 1950 (as far back as Baseball-Reference.com has mostly complete play-by-play data), the Astros are the only visiting team to hit three-or-more home runs in the first inning of a game at Yankee Stadium.

As horrible as this game ended up, we can still end this Yankeemetrics on high note by honoring The Captain with the ultimate #JeterFunFact.

Here’s the list of players in major-league history to compile at least 3,000 hits, 250 homers, 350 stolen bases and 1,300 RBIs in a career: Derek Sanderson Jeter.

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.