Manager & Coaching Staff Notes: Espada, Hairston, Ibanez

Espada and his new shortstop. (Elsa/Getty)
Espada and his new shortstop. (Elsa/Getty)

One week ago today we learned the Yankees had parted ways with Joe Girardi. And since then, we haven’t heard a peep about potential managerial candidates or interviews. Part of me wonders if we’re in for an out of nowhere hire. Know how Brian Cashman tends to make surprise trades with little to no rumors? What if the manager search happens in secret and one day they just announce a hire? That’d be something. Anyway, here’s the latest managerial and coaching staff news.

Espada joining the Astros

Yankees third base coach Joe Espada is now former Yankees third base coach Joe Espada. Espada will join the Astros as their new bench coach, reports Marly Rivera. Alex Cora, Houston’s former bench coach, is leaving to take over as Red Sox manager. Espada, whose contract expired earlier this week, also interviewed to be Cora’s bench coach in Boston.

Espada, 42, had been New York’s third base coach the last three years, and prior to that he worked in the front office as a special assistant to Cashman. It’s unclear whether the Yankees ever seriously considered Espada for their managerial opening. He’s young, he’s into analytics, he’s bilingual, and he’s already close to the young players in the organization. Seemed like a potential fit.

Hairston a managerial candidate

A few days ago it was reportedly Jerry Hairston Jr. is a potential managerial candidate for the Yankees, and now it is confirmed. Mark Feinsand reports Hairston is indeed in the mix. It’s no longer speculation or conjecture. Hairston played 16 seasons in the big leagues, including the second half of the 2009 season with the Yankees. He’s been working as a television analyst the last few years.

Hairston, now 41, has zero coaching or managerial experience. He grew up around the game — his father, grandfather, uncle, and brother all played in the big leagues — and he certainly spent enough time in the clubhouse as a player, though we know nothing about his skills as a manager. Is he a good communicator? How well-versed is he in analytics? How’s his feel for the game? The numbers may say one thing, but your eyes may tell you another. Is he adaptable? No one really knows.

Ibanez wants to stay with Dodgers

Rauuul. (Leon Halip/Getty)
Rauuul. (Leon Halip/Getty)

According Jon Heyman, the Yankees like Raul Ibanez as a managerial candidate, though word is he wants to stay with the Dodgers in his current front office role. Also, Heyman says the Yankees have a list of about 20-25 managerial candidates. Hooray for casting a wide net. Here’s my list of candidates, which runs 24 names deep.

The 45-year-old Ibanez has long been considered a future coach or manager because he’s a smart guy, he’s hard-working, and because he was such a strong leader and clubhouse presence during his playing days. Ken Davidoff wrote a good piece explaining Ibanez’s qualifications recently. At the same time, Ibanez has no coaching or managerial experience. I’m not sure I love the idea of bringing in a rookie skipper to work with this team.

Hal will discuss future plans with A-Rod

Now that the 2017 season over, so to is Alex Rodriguez‘s monster ten-year, $275M contract. The Yankees of course released A-Rod last year, though his contract ran through this season, so the team still had to pay him his $21M salary in 2017. Rodriguez spent the year as a part-time instructor with the Yankees and worked specifically with their young players, at least when he wasn’t doing television work with FOX or hanging out with Jennifer Lopez.

Anyway, according to Dan Martin, Hal Steinbrenner plans to reach out to A-Rod to determine the next step in their relationship. “Haven’t talked to him yet about his plans for next year … I will though. He seems to really enjoy working with our young players,” said Hal. I’m not gonna lie, I assumed the only reason the Yankees kept A-Rod around as an instructor was because they were still paying him this year, and they wanted to get something back from that investment. Now that his contract his up, will they really keep this going? We’ll see.

Houston Astros win the 2017 World Series

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the first time in franchise history, the Houston Astros are World Series champions. The ‘Stros beat the Dodgers in a somewhat anticlimactic Game Seven at Dodger Stadium earlier tonight. The final score was 5-1. Here are the box score, the video highlights, and the WPA graph.

The highlight of the game was, for sure, George Springer’s second inning two-run home run against Yu Darvish. That gave the Astros a 5-0 lead. Darvish allowed nine runs in 3.1 innings in his two World Series starts. Ouch. Springer, a semi-local kid from New Britain, hit .379/.471/1.000 in the series — that includes and 0-for-4 with four strikeouts in Game One — and was named World Series MVP. He tied Reggie Jackson’s and Chase Utley’s World Series record with five homers in the series.

The Astros do feature some personnel with ties to the Yankees. Most notably, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran wore pinstripes from 2014-16 before moving to Houston (for different reasons) this offseason. Congrats to them. Especially Beltran. He’s been waiting a long time to get a ring. Does he ride off into the sunset now?

There’s also Tyler Clippard, who wasn’t on Houston’s postseason roster after blowing more than a few games for the Yankees earlier this year. Clippard’s getting a ring. Life ain’t fair, man. Also, Lance McCullers Jr.’s father Lance Sr. played for the Yankees from 1989-90. He was traded to the Tigers for Matt Nokes.

Congrats to the Astros and their long-suffering fans, even though I hate them for beating the Yankees in the ALCS. The franchise has been around since 1962 and this is their first championship. And congrats to the Dodgers too. They had a great season. And now … the offseason.

Saturday Links: Coaching Staff, Qualifying Offer, Super Two

No one ever takes pictures of the third base coach. (Rob Carr/Getty)
No one ever takes pictures of the third base coach. (Rob Carr/Getty)

It has now been two days since the Yankees parted ways with Joe Girardi, and we’ve yet to hear anything concrete about potential replacements. Just speculation. I suspect we’ll hear some news next week, once Brian Cashman holds his annual end-of-season press conference following the World Series. Here are some bits of news and notes to check out in the meantime.

Espada a candidate for Astros, Red Sox

According to Sweeny Murti, the Astros and Red Sox are considering Yankees third base coach Joe Espada for their bench coach openings. The Tigers also considered Espada for their managerial opening before hiring Ron Gardenhire. The ‘Stros lost bench coach Alex Cora to the Red Sox, who was named their manager. Current Red Sox bench coach Gary DiSarcina is a John Farrell holdover, and he could be shown the door as Cora builds his staff.

Espada, 42, has been New York’s third base coach for three years now, and prior to that he spent some time in the front office as a special assistant to Cashman. As I said yesterday, Espada checks pretty much all the boxes associated with a modern manager. He’s young, he knows analytics, he’s upbeat, and he has a rapport with the front office (with the Yankees, at least). I’m not surprised two smart teams have interest in him for a coaching position.

Next manager will have say on coaching staff

Not surprisingly, the next Yankees manager will have a say on the coaching staff, according to Jack Curry. That’s usually how it goes. When Girardi was hired during the 2007-08 offseason, the only holdover coaches were hitting coach Kevin Long and first base coach Tony Pena. All the other coaching positions changed and it seems possible, if not likely, that will happen again.

Like Girardi, every member of the coaching staff has an expiring contract this year, so they’re all free to look for opportunities elsewhere while the Yankees sort things out. In fact, Ken Rosenthal says the Yankees have already given teams permission to interview any of the coaches before their contracts officially expire (after the World Series). My hunch is Pena and bench coach Rob Thomson will stick around in some capacity — Thomson is a Yankees lifer and particularly good with the young players — though it wouldn’t surprise me to see all the other coaches head elsewhere, even assistant hitting coach Marcus Thames, who it appeared was being groomed for the main hitting coach job the last few seasons.

Naehring not interested in manager’s job

Yankees vice president of baseball operations Tim Naehring is not interested in the now vacant manager’s job, he told Andrew Marchand. Naehring took over as Cashman’s right-hand man after Billy Eppler left to join the Angels. He has no coaching experience at all — Naehring has been working in various front offices since his playing career ended — so shifting down into the dugout would’ve been an interesting move. Naehring was never named as a real candidate for the managerial opening. It was just speculation given his relationship with Cashman. Now we can scratch him off the list.

Qualifying offer set at $17.4M

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

According to Tim Dierkes, the qualify offer has been set at $17.4M for this coming offseason. That’s lower than I expected. I thought it would be up over $18M. Heck, last year the qualifying offer was $17.2M, so it didn’t go up much. The qualifying offer is set at the average of the top 125 salaries in baseball, and I guess salaries didn’t go up much this season. That makes sense. Last winter’s free agent class kinda stunk. Yoenis Cespedes signed the only $100M+ contract, and it was only $110M.

Anyway, as I detailed in July, the Yankees only have one qualifying offer candidate this offseason: Masahiro Tanaka. If he opts out of the final three years and $67M left on contract — which most RAB readers expect to happen — then of course make him the $17.4M qualifying offer and get a draft pick, even if it is only a dinky fourth rounder. Todd Frazier is not eligible for the qualifying offer because he was traded at midseason, and even if the Yankees want to bring CC Sabathia back, they won’t make the qualifying offer because he’d take it and throw a wrench into the luxury tax plan. They’ll likely be able to sign him for less.

Super Two cutoff set at 2.123

The Super Two service time cutoff has been set at two years and 123 days this offseason, reports Dierkes. Players who qualify as Super Two go through arbitration four times instead of the usual three, which is their consolation prize for essentially having to wait an extra year for free agency. The Yankees do not have any players who will qualify as Super Twos this winter. Greg Bird is 70 days short of qualifying and he’s the closest. Bryan Mitchell would’ve qualified as a Super Two by six days had he spent the entire season in MLB, but he didn’t, so that’s that.

Yankeemetrics: Sweet season, bitter ending (ALCS)

I want to thank everyone for being such great followers, fans and readers during this incredible season. It’s been a wild and crazy ride, and your loyal support has meant so much to me and the rest of the RAB crew. The Chase for 28 begins today. #Lovethisteam

(USA Today Sports)
(USA Today Sports)

Trouble in Texas
Riding a huge wave of momentum following their epic comeback against the Indians, the Yankees flat-lined in the ALCS opener, losing 2-1 and digging themselves into an early series hole yet again. They were flummoxed by Dallas Keuchel, who also made a little history along the way:

  • He is the fourth pitcher to hold the Yankees without a run and strike out at least 10 guys in a postseason game, joining Cliff Lee (2010 ALCS), Randy Johnson (2001 World Series) and Pedro Martinez (1999 ALCS)
  • Combined with his 2015 Wild Card Game masterpiece (6 innings, 0 runs, 7 strikeouts), Keuchel is the first pitcher ever to strike out at least seven guys and allow no runs in back-to-back playoff starts against the Yankees

The Yankees wasted their one big scoring opportunity in the fifth inning when Aaron Judge laced a single into left field and Greg Bird was thrown out at home plate trying to score from second. We’ll let Bird explain the play in his own words: “I’m too slow,” Bird told reporters after the game. “Wish I was a little faster. That’s baseball.”

Hard to argue with that analysis. Bird is the second-slowest Yankee according to Statcast’s Sprint Speed metric, ahead of only Chase Headley. Bird tried to make up for his rally-killing blunder with a two-out solo homer in ninth that trimmed the deficit to 2-1. The 399-foot drive was notable because, with the Yankees down to their last out, he saved them from being blanked and produced our first Obscure Yankeemetric of the Series:

The last Yankee to hit a postseason homer with two outs in the ninth to prevent a shutout was … yeah, you guessed it … Scott Brosius in Game 5 of the 2001 World Series. Of course, Brosius also had Jorge Posada on second base at the time, and the outcome was much much different.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Deja vu in Texas
More heartbreak, more losses for the Yankees on Saturday as they dropped a second straight excruciating game by the score of 2-1, this time via Carlos Correa’s game-ending double, and put themselves in yet another 0-2 series hole.

It was their second walk-off loss in October, making this only the second postseason in franchise history they’ve dropped two games in walk-off fashion. The other year was 2004.

What makes the two-games-to-nil deficit so crushing – and historic – is the double-whammy effect of losing two close contests while getting outstanding pitching in both matchups. Only one other team in postseason history lost each of its first two games of any series by one run while giving up no more than two runs in each game. In the 1950 World Series, the Phillies lost by scores of 1-0 and 2-1 Games 1 and 2 to the Yankees, who eventually finished them off in a sweep.

They were dominated again by an Astros starter, as Justin Verlander tossed a masterful 13-strikeout complete game while giving up one run. Only four other pitchers have gone the distance while striking out at least 13 Yankees in the postseason: Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax (1963 World Series) and Bob Gibson (1964 World Series), plus Dodgers righthander Carl Erskine in the 1953 World Series.

Combined with Keuchel’s 10-strikeout gem in Game 1, they are the first set of teammates with back-to-back double-digit strikeout games against the Yankees in a playoff series.

One of the few Yankee highlights was Tommy Kahnle‘s brilliant and near-perfect two-inning performance. Coming off his ALDS Game 4 outing when he retired all six batters faced, Kahnle joined Mariano Rivera (1996, 2003) and Goose Gossage (1978) as the only Yankees with back-to-back postseason games of at least two hitless innings pitched.

(New York Post)
(New York Post)

Home sweet home
A return to the Bronx was the perfect elixir for the ice-cold Yankee bats, which broke out of their mini-slump in a 8-1 blowout Game 3 win. More importantly, the victory snapped a miserable seven-game losing streak in ALCS contests, which was the second-longest in MLB postseason history, and trailed only a 10-game slide by the Red Sox from 1988-1999.

Todd Frazier ignited the offensive outburst in the second inning when he golfed a 95-mph fastball at his shins into the right-field seats for his first career postseason homer. While it is remarkable that the homer left his bat at 100 mph and went an estimated 365 feet, the fact that it found the seats was nearly as shocking:

Per Statcast data, a batted ball with an exit velocity of 100 mph a and launch angle of 21 degrees produces a homer just six percent of the time. And per Hittrackeronline.net, given weather conditions of 70 degrees and no wind, the hit would have cleared the fences in only one ballpark.

So let’s give Frazier a nice #FunFact shout-out for that improbable blast: he is the first Yankee third baseman to homer with at least two men on base in a postseason game since … Scott Brosius’ three-run, go-ahead homer off Trevor Hoffman in the eighth inning of Game 3 of the 1998 World Series.

Aaron Judge capped off the offensive fireworks with a screaming liner over the left-field fence in the fourth inning that plated three runs to make it 8-0. The only other time the Yankees hit multiple three-run homers in a postseason game was when Lou Piniella and Graig Nettles each did it in Game 2 of the 1981 ALCS against the A’s.

Perhaps no player on the Yankees has personified their Fighting Spirit more than CC Sabathia, who delivered yet another vintage clutch performance. He tossed six shutout innings – amazingly, his first career scoreless postseason outing – and bolstered his season-long reputation as The Stopper: Sabathia improved to 10-0 with a 1.69 ERA in 13 starts following a Yankee loss in 2017.

At the age of 37, Sabathia has thrived by working the edges of the zone and generating tons of weak contact. Among starters (min. 300 batted balls), no pitcher had a lower opponent average exit velocity than Sabathia (83.9 mph) during the regular season and his soft-contact rate was the fifth-highest (min. 140 IP). He used that formula on Monday, too, with an average exit velocity allowed of 73.7 mph, the lowest by any starter in a postseason game since Statcast began tracking the data in 2015.

With this latest dominant outing, Sabathia also extended his playoff run of stingy pitching in front of the hometown crowd. He has a 1.61 ERA in seven postseason starts at Yankee Stadium, with two earned runs or fewer in each of those games. The only other Yankee pitcher that can match his streak of seven straight postseason starts at home and no more than two earned runs allowed is Whitey Ford.

(AP)
(AP)

Bedlam in the Bronx
The Comeback Kings struck again on Tuesday night as this never-say-die, no-quit team staged yet another stunning late-game rally to beat the Astros 6-4 in a Game 4 thriller. Down 4-0 with nine outs to go? No problem!

This was the Yankees first postseason win in the Bronx when trailing by at least four runs since Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. They’ve also made a habit of overcoming big deficits in the postseason, regardless of venue. Since the start of 2009, their five playoff wins when trailing by at least three runs at any point in the game are the most of any team in that span.

The unbelievable comeback wouldn’t have been possible without a dazzling performance on the mound by Sonny Gray. He was charged with two runs (one earned) and held the Astros to one hit before hitting the showers in the sixth, yet he got stuck with a no-decision because the Yankee bats were lifeless through the first six frames. Gray has now thrown 21 1/3 innings in the playoffs over four starts and received exactly zero runs of support while in the game.

Let’s get back to the incredible rally, which was sparked by a solo homer from Aaron Judge in the seventh. He drilled a first-pitch curveball 427 feet into Monument Park, an impressive feat given his struggles against curves this postseason. Since the start of the Division Series and prior to the home run, Judge had seen 57 curveballs, and hit none of them in fair territory. This is how it broke down:

29 called balls
14 called strikes
14 swings
12 whiffs
2 fouls

Judge later added to his growing October Legend with a game-tying double – off a slider! – in the eighth inning. Let’s reward Judge with another #FunFact: He’s the second Yankee age 25 or younger to have consecutive playoff games with at least one homer and two RBI. The other is a fella named Lou Gehrig, who did it in the 1928 World Series.

Finally, Gary Sanchez went from Goat to Hero with one swing of the bat when he smoked a go-ahead double into the right-centerfield gap for a 6-4 lead. Before that clutch hit, Sanchez was 0-for-13 in the series and hitless in his last 18 at-bats, the longest drought without a hit of his major-league career.

El Gary earns our Obscure Yankeemetric of the Series for his game-winning heroics. Only three other Yankees have hit a tie-breaking double in the eighth inning or later of a postseason game: Thurman Munson (1977 World Series Game 1), Tino Martinez (1996 ALCS Game 3) and Alex Rodriguez (2009 World Series Game 4).

(NJ.com)
(NJ.com)

Masterful Masahiro
The Yankees continued their magical October run in the Bronx with a drama-free 5-0 win over the Astros in Game 5.

They pummeled ex-Yankee-killer and former postseason ace Dallas Keuchel, who entered the game with the lowest career ERA (1.09) against the Yankees of any pitcher in baseball history (min. 50 IP) and the lowest postseason career ERA (1.69) of any active starter (min. 25 IP). He no longer holds those titles after getting battered on Wednesday by the unstoppable Bronx Bomber bats.

Gary Sanchez led the way with two run-scoring hits, an RBI single in the fifth and a solo blast in the seventh. That homer was his third of the postseason, as he matched two of his fellow Baby Bombers (Greg Bird and Aaron Judge) and Didi Gregorius for the team lead.

The Yankees are the first team in major-league history to have three players age 25 or younger hit at least three home runs in the same postseason. And this is the first postseason in Yankees history they’ve had four players – of any age – with three-plus homers.

Aaron Judge drilled a double down the left-field line in the third inning to score Brett Gardner for his team-leading 10th RBI of the playoffs. He joined a 25-year-old Manny Ramirez in 1997 as the youngest corner outfielders to drive in at least 10 runs within a postseason.

(New York Post)
(New York Post)

The true superstar of the game was the Yankees latest ace on the mound, Masahiro Tanaka. He dialed up another gem, blanking the Astros over seven brilliant innings while scattering three hits and striking out eight. Combined with his nearly identical effort in Game 1 of the Division Series, Tanaka joined Roger Clemens (2000) as the only Yankees with multiple starts of at least seven scoreless innings and three hits or fewer allowed in the same postseason.

Tanaka has put together a stellar postseason resume with a 1.44 ERA and 0.80 WHIP in four career starts. Most impressively, he’s given up no more than two runs and no more than four hits in each of those games. The only other pitcher in baseball history that can match Tanaka’s dominance – two or fewer runs and four or fewer hits allowed – in each of his first four postseason starts was Blue Moon Odom for the Oakland A’s in 1972.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Bump in the road
The series headed south for the final two games and the Yankees found themselves in trouble again deep in the heart of Texas.

They lost 7-1 in Game 6, tied for their second-largest loss in a potential clinching game on the road …. and you probably want to forget the largest (a 15-2 blowout in Game 6 of 2001 World Series in Arizona). Making the loss even more miserable was the fact that the Astros were winless in their five previous playoff games at home when facing elimination.

The Astros bats exploded for seven runs on eight hits against the normally tough Yankees pitching staff, which had actually been on an incredible run dating back to the middle of the Division Series. They’d held the Indians and Astros to no more than six hits in eight straight games from ALDS Game 3 through ALCS Game 5, the longest such streak by any team in MLB postseason history.

Still, they could have nearly pitched a perfect game and it wouldn’t have mattered given how dominant Justin Verlander was once again with his team on the brink of a long winter. He tossed seven scoreless innings with eight strikeouts, racking up a bunch of notable feats:

  • First player in major-league history to pitch three consecutive scoreless starts of seven-plus innings with his team facing postseason elimination.
  • Third straight playoff start against the Yankees giving up no more than one run (dating back to 2012 ALCS Game 3), the only pitcher ever to have a streak like that against the Yankees in October.
  • Combined with his 13-strikeout performance in Game 2, he is the fourth pitcher to strike out at least 20 Yankees in a single postseason series. Bob Gibson (31, 1964 World Series), Curt Schilling (26, 2001 World Series) and Sandy Koufax (23, 1963 World Series) are the others.

Aaron Judge helped the Yankees avoid the embarrassment of getting blanked with a mammoth solo blast in the eight inning, his third homer in the ALCS and fourth of the postseason. His four total dingers set the rookie franchise record for a postseason, while he joined Alex Rodriguez (2009 ALCS) and Hank Bauer (1958 World Series) as the only Yankee right-handed batters to go deep at least three times in a single playoff series.

The game turned into a rout thanks to a rare implosion by David Robertson in the eighth inning. He faced four batters, who went homer-double-single-double before he was pulled. His final line – four runs, four hits, no outs – was ugly and historic: Robertson is the only Yankee ever to cough up at least four runs and four hits while recording zero outs in a postseason game.

(New York Post)
(New York Post)

You can’t win them all …
The Yankees magical, rollercoaster season finally came to an end thanks to a 4-0 Game 7 loss on Saturday night in Houston. Their comeback mojo expired, the Fighting Spirit went dry and this never-say-die team was unable to survive another do-or-die game. Still, what the Yankees were trying to accomplish, defying all expectations to make the World Series under the toughest circumstances, would have been such an incredible and rare feat. Consider these odds:

  • Only two teams have ever defeated 100-win teams in both the Division Series and League Championship Series (2001 Yankees and 1998 Padres)
  • The Yankees were the fifth team to play the maximum number games in the LDS and LCS in the Wild Card era — only one of those five were able to win both series (2012 Giants)
  • Only two teams have ever comeback from multiple 0-2 series deficits in the same postseason (1981 Dodgers, 1985 Royals), and neither of those teams faced two 100-win teams, which was the unprecedented task facing the Yankees

Ultimately, the Yankees inexplicable road/home splits sealed their fate this postseason. Saturday’s blanking was the second time they were shut out in the playoffs — the other was Game 1 of the ALDS in Cleveland — making this the first postseason in franchise history they suffered two shutouts on the road. They were held to one run or fewer for the fourth straight road game, tied for the second-longest such streak in MLB postseason history, trailing only the Brooklyn Dodgers’ six-gamer from 1916-20.

The Yankees somehow finished 1-6 on the road while going a perfect 6-0 at home in the playoffs. They are the fourth team ever to complete a postseason with a 6-0 or better record at home. That’s good! The other three clubs (2008 Phillies, 1999 Yankees, 1987 Twins) each won the World Series. That’s … less than good.

Regardless of the bittersweet ending, this season was so so much better than good.

The Yankees are one game away from the World Series thanks to their pitching staff

(Abbie Parr/Getty)
(Abbie Parr/Getty)

In just a few hours the Yankees will look to clinch a spot in the 2017 World Series. I still can’t believe they’ve made it this far. They weren’t supposed to contend this year. They weren’t supposed to come back from down 0-2 to the Indians. They weren’t supposed to come back from down 0-2 to the Astros. Now here they are, one win away from the American League championship. Pretty amazing.

The story of the ALCS so far has been the Astros’ lack of offense, or, as I prefer to frame it, the Yankees’ pitching. They’ve completely shut down the highest scoring offense in baseball in the five games so far. The ‘Stros have scored nine runs (seven earned) on 22 hits and 16 walks in the five games so far. That works out to a 1.45 ERA for the Yankees and a .147/.234/.213 batting line for the Astros. Yeesh.

“It’s rare (for this lineup to struggle so much), because of how much offense we put up through the first six months of the season and even in the Division Series,” said Astros manager A.J. Hinch following Game Five. “We’ve swung the bats very well and to this day I believe we’re one game (away from) coming out of it. We’re going to go home. We hit well. We get a day off, which is probably the most important thing, and try to make some offensive adjustments … We haven’t stayed in our game plan quite well enough to make adjustments.”

The last few games, you could see the frustration beginning to mount in the Astros hitters based on their body language. Carlos Correa slammed his bat after popping up with the bases loaded in Game Four. Jose Altuve struck out in the same game and was yelling at himself as he walked back to the dugout. Josh Reddick threw his helmet after swinging at this pitch …

masahiro-tanaka-josh-reddick

… to strike out in Game Five, stranding two men on base in the fifth inning. The Astros are struggling offensively and they know they’re struggling offensively. The frustration has built up and now it’s boiling over. For the Yankees, that’s a wonderful thing. You want the Astros squeezing sap out of the bat. You want them trying to hit a five-run home run with each swing. The less relaxed and comfortable they feel at the plate, the better. The pressure is on big time.

Here are some quick numbers comparing Houston’s offense this series to their offense during the regular season and the ALDS:

Regular Season ALDS ALCS
AVG .282 (1st in MLB) .333 .147
ISO .196 (1st) .238 .067
wOBA .355 (1st) .419 .210
xwOBA .330 (3rd) .377 .293
Avg. Exit Velo 87.6 (3rd) 88.3 86.2
Avg. Launch Angle 12.0° (9th) 18.9° 7.1°
BABIP .313 (4th) .376 .183

Just about everything in that table is a descriptive stat. It’s telling you what actually happened on the field. The one exception is xwOBA, or expected wOBA based on exit velocity and launch angle and all sorts of other factors. It’s telling you what a player or team would be expected to hit based on the type of batted ball. A .293 xwOBA — wOBA is on the same scale as OBP, so .293 is terrible — tells you the Astros aren’t making good contact at all. There’s not much bad luck here, if any.

The Yankees, based on what I’ve seen, haven’t changed their pitching approach much in the ALCS. The Indians went breaking ball heavy in the ALDS, as we saw. The Yankees have not done that. Masahiro Tanaka pitched like Masahiro Tanaka. CC Sabathia pitched like CC Sabathia. So on and so forth. And yet, they’ve completely dominated. They’re not giving up much hard contact, and they’ve been able to limit baserunners. The Astros have had 44 offensive innings this series and in only ten of them have they multiple runners on base. Crazy.

Now, here’s the thing: the Astros aren’t really this bad. Give them enough time and their offense will snap out of it. And that’s why it’s important to end the ALCS as soon as possible, meaning tonight. I have to think the Astros will be energized by their fans and playing at home tonight, the same way the Yankees were energized by their home fans the last three games. Know how the Yankees are 6-0 at home this postseason? Well, the Astros are 4-0 at home.

What’s done is done though. The Yankees have silenced Houston’s offense through five ALCS games and, as a result, they lead the series 3-2. It happened. It’s in the books. As cool as it would be, I don’t think the Yankees have truly found the magic formula to shutting down the Astros. It’s baseball. This stuff happens, and it happened at a bad time for Houston. And if it continues in Game Six, great. If not, the Yankees are good enough to win anyway.

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.