The New York Yankees didn’t win their division and had to settle for a Wild Card. That Wild Card put them into a completely unpredictable one-and-done game to get to the ALDS. They won that and then had to beat a heavily favored 102-win Indians team to move on to the ALCS. They won that too.
Their reward: another 100-win team in the Houston Astros.
Which isn’t to say that they’re some historic Cinderella story. Indeed, the Yankees are a better-than-usual Wild Card team by most measures. They led all of baseball in home runs, have an MVP candidate in Aaron Judge, one of the best bullpens in the game and had the second best run differential in all of baseball. They’re a strong match for the Astros and this ALCS appears to be an utter tossup.
Power is the name of the game here. Power in terms of homers, as the Yankees and Astros were number one and number two in the majors, respectively, in home runs this season. Power in terms of arms too, with the Yankees bullpen featuring four relievers — Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green, Dellin Betances and Tommy Kahnle — with fastballs averaging over 96 m.p.h. Countering that is an Astros lineup, led by Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Marwin Gonzalez and George Springer — with feasts on fastballs. The Astros strike out less, far less, than any other team in baseball, and that’s largely a function of them not being intimidated by the sort of heat that pervades the game these days. Figure the late innings of these games to feature epic power-on-power matchups.
Each club features a deep lineup, with any number of bats who could inflict game-changing damage. Aaron Judge has slumped in the playoffs, going 1-for-20 with 16 strikeouts in the ALDS. He’s been picked up, however, by ALDS Game 5 hero Didi Gregorius as well as Aaron Hicks and Greg Bird. For the Astros, Jose Altuve has been on fire, going 8-for-19 with three homers and four walks in the Astros’ four-game series against the Red Sox. All of the Astros hitters have been tearing it up, in fact, with Yuli Gurriel, Carlos Beltran, Correa, Alex Bregman and Springer all hitting well so far this October. Each team has so, so many offensive weapons, so handling any one hitter at a given time will not be enough to contain their attack.
For all of the similarities between the teams, there is at least a little daylight between them when it comes to the starting pitching, at least a difference in kind if not overall quality. The Astros will present something of a top-heavy rotation, with aces Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander going in Games 1 and 2. After that it’s somewhat fluid, with some combination of Brad Peacock, Charlie Morton and possibly Lance McCullers slotting in Games 3, 4 and 5. It would not be shocking, however, to see A.J. Hinch bring back Keuchel or Verlander on short rest depending on how the series goes. The Astros bullpen is good, but not spectacular, so you might likewise see starters in relief depending on the situation, just as we saw Verlander pitch in relief against Boston on Monday.
The Yankees’ 1-2 guys aren’t quite the horses the Astros boast. Masahiro Tanaka is an ace to be sure, but he had an overall down year and has struggled mightily on the road (6.38 ERA in 15 starts), so he’ll be closely watched as he takes the bump in Minute Maid Park tonight. After him is Luis Severino, CC Sabathia and Sonny Gray. None of the Yankees pitchers are likely to be go-on-short-rest candidates, so expect that rotation to hold. If more than one of their starters gets knocked out of the box early, the Yankees biggest strength — its bullpen — could suffer from fatigue as the series wears on.
The Astros won the season series between the clubs five games to two. The last of those seven games came on July 2, however, so don’t put too much weight in the predictive power of their previous matchups. Since that time the Yankees improved themselves, adding Gray, third baseman Todd Frazier, and Kahnle, who has proven to be a key part of New York’s dominant bullpen. The Astros added Verlander, who has been otherworldly since coming over from the Tigers. The big stars are all basically the same, but the nature of these teams has changed a bit since they last faced off.
Coming in to the playoffs, it seemed like the Astros and Indians were the alpha dogs in the American League. The Yankees impressive showing against the Indians, however, showed that, as of this moment, they are among the best teams in baseball. This ALCS figures to be an epic matchup of power and heat. Picking a winner seems like a fool’s errand.