The American League Championship Series begins Friday in Houston, and it promises to be a good one. On one side stand the — dare we say — plucky underdog Yankees, who upset the Indians in a five-game ALDS. On the other side are the powerful Astros, who bashed their way to 101 wins, the AL West crown and a four-game triumph over the Red Sox in their ALDS series. New York and Houston now square off with a World Series berth on the line.
Let’s break it down.
When the Yankees are at bat
The Yankees can hit. In the regular season, Aaron Judge and company scored more runs than all but one team, while also ranking second in the Majors in the offensive value stat wRC+. In six playoff games, they have averaged 4.7 runs, well above the league’s postseason average.
It’s not just Judge, either. Gary Sanchez somewhat quietly followed up his big rookie campaign with a season that established him as the best offensive catcher in baseball. Didi Gregorius, the hero of New York’s decisive win over Cleveland on Wednesday, hit 25 home runs with an OPS near .800 as a shortstop. Brett Gardner had a typical Brett Gardner year. Starlin Castro and Aaron Hicks overachieved. Chase Headley and Jacoby Ellsbury showed signs of life. As Judge slumped through the ALDS, the Yankees scored runs just fine.
That offense will face an Astros rotation that went from a weakness to a strength with the second-half acquisition of Justin Verlander, who joins Dallas Keuchel to form an imposing top two. After that duo, however, things get a bit shaky. Charlie Morton and Brad Peacock, both competent pitchers but hardly stars, combined for just seven innings in their two ALDS starts, while allowing five runs.
The Astros’ bullpen was one of baseball’s bests in the regular season, but key set-up men Francisco Liriano and Chris Devenski were both hit hard against Boston, while Will Harris got only 2/3 an inning of work in the ALDS. In the crucial Game 4, manager A.J. Hinch called on Verlander instead of his true relievers, hinting that he doesn’t quite trust anyone in the bullpen outside of closer Ken Giles. If the Yankees can knock out Verlander and Keuchel early, they can expose a suddenly uncertain bullpen. And if they can beat one of Houston’s two aces, they can capitalize on a soft back of the rotation. Of course, neither of those possibilities is remotely guaranteed.
When the Astros are at bat
Remember how we said the Yankees were second in baseball in runs scored and wRC+? The Astros were the one team to have them beat. Remember how we said the Yankees have averaged 4.7 runs per game in the playoffs? The Astros have averaged 6.
This Houston lineup is scary. Jose Altuve will likely win AL MVP, while George Springer and Carlos Correa could finish in the top 10. Each member of that trio posted an OPS over .950 in the ALDS, as did first baseman Yuli Gurriel and designated hitters Carlos Beltran and Evan Gattis. Brian McCann would bat fifth for many teams. He bats ninth for this one. The Astros’ lineup may be the only one in baseball with not a single true weak spot.
Facing that lineup will be a Yankees staff full of question marks. Joe Girardi will send out Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino, CC Sabathia and Sonny Gray, in that order, but it is near impossible to tell who is the best (or the worst) of the four. While Houston has two great pitchers and two average starers, New York has four guys who could either pitch a gem or get shelled on any given night.
The Yankees’ biggest advantage comes in their bullpen, where David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle and Chad Green form a sturdy bridge to closer Aroldis Chapman, who again looks like the best reliever in baseball. Girardi has shown his willingness to pull his starters early, and the Yankees can survive a bad start or two thanks to their impressive relief corps.
With the two top offenses in baseball (including the two leading AL MVP candidates) involved, this could be an extremely high-scoring series. We’ll see pitchers replaced early and bullpens pressed hard. And the more the series becomes a battle of relief pitchers, the more it will tilt in the Yankees’ favor.
The problem for Girardi and company is that Keuchel and Verlander will likely pitch four of the seven games, and they could give the Astros the type of length the Yankees can’t expect from any of their starters. Those two aces, plus Giles, could easily account for 60 percent of Houston’s innings in this series, negating the Yankees’ edge in middle relief.
The Yankees may very well win innings six through nine, but the Astros and their imposing offense should comfortably win innings one through five. That will be enough. Acknowledging that it’s silly to predict the results of a short baseball series… let’s say Astros in 6.