Anthony McCarron, SNY.tv | Twitter |
For months, it seemed destined to be this way, Astros versus Yankees, a trip to the World Series the prize. There were some tense moments for Houston - well, at least until the first inning of that deciding game against the Rays - but here we are:
Astro-geddon. Cole-pocalypse. A series of Judge-ian proportions. A Bunch of "Savages" versus Baseball's Best Team.
Whatever cornball moniker you prefer for the AL Championship Series - OK, maybe none of the above - this best-of-seven battle has the potential to be epic. Astros-Yankees is a rematch two years in the making between superpowers that can do it all. Megawatt stars such as Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Aaron Judge figure to add plenty of sizzle.
Here's a look at the matchup:
CATCHER: Gary Sanchez's defense was a flashpoint when the Yankees and Astros met in 2017 and it's never stopped being a story, even as he's worked to improve behind the plate. Standing beside it, he re-established his status as one of baseball's best mashing catchers with 34 homers and a .525 slugging percentage in 106 games. He was only 1-for-8 in the ALDS against Minnesota, but he had missed two weeks in mid-September. Sanchez can wreck a game with his power if he busts loose in this series. Houston's primary catcher, Robinson Chirinos had 17 homers and a .790 OPS and threw out 21% of runners trying to steal, six points below MLB average.
INFIELD: What a well of talent on the dirt on both sides. The Astros boast an MVP candidate, Alex Bregman, who profiles as the fiery soul of the entire club and also had a 1.015 OPS and 41 homers. The Yanks have their own MVP threat in DJ LeMahieu (.327 average, .902 OPS). Carlos Correa (.568 slugging) and Gleyber Torres (38 homers, .876) are the exploding young stars. Both Torres (.417, three doubles, one homer) and Yankee shortstop Didi Gregorius (.400, six RBI) starred in the ALDS. We'll see if Gregorius can add to his growing October rep for producing in big moments. José Altuve is rounding out a Cooperstown resume. Altuve (.550 slugging) became the all-time leader among second basemen in postseason homers by whacking his 11th in the ALDS. Altuve and first baseman Yuli Gurriel both hit 31 homers during the regular season. Gio Urshela provides a sweet glove and an .889 OPS at third for the Yanks.
OUTFIELD: Will Aaron Hicks play much of a role in the Yankee outfield? Or is he Giancarlo Stanton's late-inning defensive replacement? Stanton, who barely played during the regular season, was just 1-for-6 in the ALDS, but he walked four times. He could be an enormous factor against Houston or he could be the strikeout magnet that drives Yankee fans bonkers. Is it possible the series tilts on which one? Brett Gardner (28 homers) batted third during the ALDS and had a hit and an RBI in each of the three games. Judge is, well, Judge. He had three homers and a 1.065 OPS in the 2017 ALCS, but also struck out 11 times in 28 plate appearances.
For the 'Stros, UConn product George Springer had career bests in homers (39), average (.292), on-base (.383), slugging (.591) and OPS (.974) and is a playoff stud. He won the 2017 World Series MVP Award by smashing five homers, driving in seven runs and notching a 1.471 OPS. Josh Reddick was 1-for-10 in the division series, but is a reliable outfielder. Michael Brantley is only a career .182 hitter in the postseason, but he homered in Game 5 of the division series and had a terrific season (.311 average, .503 slugging and 22 homers). He's also really hard to strike out, fanning in only 10.4% of his at-bats, best on the Astros, who, as a club, are difficult to whiff.
DESIGNATED HITTER: Houston's Yordan Álvarez was a rookie revelation this year and probably ranks as the team's biggest lefty threat. In just 87 games, he hit 27 homers and had 78 RBI and a 1.067 OPS. He also batted .316 in against the Rays with three doubles. The Astros got Álvarez three years ago when they sent reliever Josh Fields to the Dodgers and it could be an all-time steal. Edwin Encarnación figures to be the Yanks' DH, unless they get funky with their lineup choices and he's at first base. In the division series, he did not look like a guy who had been out with an oblique issue, going 4-for-13 (.308) with two doubles. Between Seattle and New York, Encarnación blasted 34 homers in 109 games.
ROTATION: This is a huge advantage for the Astros, who had a rotation ERA of 3.61, third in MLB and nine-tenths of a run better than the Yanks' mark. We'll find out if it was good for the Yankees that Tampa Bay pushed Houston to five games in the ALDS. Sure, that means Verlander and Cole won't start the first two games, but they'll still start twice in the series if it goes the distance. And is Zack Greinke in Game 1 a bargain? No. The Rays hit him in Game 3 of that series, but had a 2.13 ERA and 0.87 WHIP in two starts against the Yankees earlier this season as a member of the D-backs. Just think if the Yanks lose Game 1 with Verlander and Cole lined up for the next two games. Ugh. As for that duo, maybe they should share the AL Cy Young Award, because neither deserves to not win it. Verlander (21-6, 2.58 ERA, 300 strikeouts) and Cole (20-5, 2.50 ERA, 326 strikeouts) both put up huge numbers and have plenty of mound swagger, too. Verlander stumbled on short rest in Game 4 of the Tampa Bay series, but Cole has been practically unhittable for months, going 18-0 with a 1.66 ERA in his last 24 starts, including the playoffs. He has struck out at least 10 in 11 consecutive starts. Against the Rays, he faced 54 batters and allowed just six hits over two starts. In the one game not started by Houston's Big Three, figure 24-year-old righty José Urquidy (2-1, 3.95 ERA in nine games, seven of them starts) gets the ball.
The Yanks' rotation will feature, in some order, the same guys who started against the Twins: James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino. Tanaka has proven chops in the postseason, recording a 1.54 ERA in six playoff starts. The Yanks likely will push their starters a tad longer in this round; they got only 13.2 innings from that trio in the ALDS, but they combined for a 2.63 ERA. Game 4 could be J.A. Happ or it could be a bullpen game. That's TBD and might hinge on how the series goes before that.
BULLPEN: The Astros have some quality relievers - Roberto Osuna (2.63 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 38 saves), Will Harris (1.50 ERA in 68 games) and Ryan Pressly (2.32 ERA in 55 games) - and were third in MLB with a 3.75 bullpen ERA this season. Pressly had arthroscopic knee surgery during the season and returned in September, so he may just be rounding into form after giving up four hits in one inning of work in the division series. Houston's relievers had a 4.15 ERA and allowed Rays hitters a .339 average in the ALDS, throwing just 13 innings in five games, the fewest of any team that advanced. The Yankees rely on the power arms in their pen and will try to get them into games quickly. Their bullpen was third in MLB in strikeouts per nine (10.16), so it'll be fascinating to see the battle between whiff artists and a team that does not strike out much, even in this heavy swing-and-miss age. The Astros had a strikeout percentage of 18.2%, best in baseball. The league average was 23%. Watch Aroldis Chapman (13.42 K/9) against the likes of Brantley (10.4%), Gurriel (10.6%) and Bregman (12%).
OVERALL: This is a daunting task for the Yankees, who are facing MLB's best home team (the Astros were the 13thteam ever and first since the 1998 Yanks to win at least 60 games at home), and don't have home-field advantage. Houston walked the most and struck out the least this season and scored 920 runs, third in MLB and just 23 fewer than the Yanks, who led with 943. The Astros have homered in 30 consecutive games, too. Oh, and they made the second-fewest errors (71) in MLB this season. Still, the Yanks are healthier than they've been all year and romped through their schedule even with all the injuries. Paxton's ace-level arsenal could be key. Perhaps the Yankees can bash Houston's bullpen. The Yanks went to seven games with the Astros two years ago and they're better now. Maybe Torres, LeMahieu or a seasoned Judge is the difference or perhaps this is Stanton's October breakout.
PREDICTION: Yankees in seven games.