Anyone who was hoping for Cleveland to get another shot at breaking the now longest running World Series drought is probably shellshocked after the Yankees finished them off on Wednesday night. Even though they went down to a two game deficit right off the bat, New York was able to rattle off three wins in a row, with the clincher coming against potential Cy Young-winner Corey Kluber. Of course, we still have a serious World Series drought in the mix, as the Astros have yet to win one in their 55 years of existence, giving them the third longest drought in the MLB.
With the Yankees back in the postseason mix far sooner than anyone expected, and the Astros on track to be exactly where some folks famously predicted them to be, it's time to figure out what to make of the series. Who's most likely to take home the pennant and advance to the World Series?
While it's easy to look at the Astros' 101 wins and the Yankees' 92 and pick Houston as the clear favorite, it's certainly not all that cut and dry. Through the regular season, the teams had nearly identical run differentials, with New York checking in with +198 and Houston with +196. If we turn to projected standings, Houston very slightly overperformed, as BaseRuns had them as a 99-win team and their Pythagorean record had them as a 100-win team. The Yankees, on the other hand, drastically underperformed and BaseRuns has them as a 102-win team and their Pythagorean record has them as a 101-win team.
The Yankees went 2-5 against the Astros this season, so perhaps we could look to that for some inspiration as to how the series might play out. But when you you look at the fact that the Yankees scored 5.9 runs per game on average against 6.1 for the Astros and you see that we're going to have to dig deeper than their season records. Then there's the fact that the last of those games was played on July 2, well before the trade deadline and before either team had done anything to strengthen its position. Nope, we're going to have to through the individual elements of each team and see if we can figure anything out.
The Astros had the best lineup in baseball by fWAR (33.0). So, it comes as little surprise that they lead MLB across every element of the slash line (.282/.346/.478) and posted the best wRC+ (121). The Astros struck out less than any other team in baseball (17.3 K%) and they really make opposing pitchers work. Jose Altuve was my pick for AL MVP and he's not proving my decision wrong so far, as he's hitting .533/.632/1.133 so far this postseason. The rest of the lineup is no joke, either, as it's difficult outs up and down the lineup.
The Yankees' offense was the third best in MLB by fWAR (27.3), and those numbers are close enough that you never know what's going to happen over a best-of-seven series. New York led all of MLB in home runs (241), although this was only three ahead of of the Astros' mark.
Altuve's biggest competition for MVP was Aaron Judge, and it's basically a coin toss between them. Unlike Altuve, Judge struggled in the DS against the Indians, going 1-for-20 with 16 strikeouts. It might be surprising to discover that Judge was not only the least clutch player in MLB, but the least clutch player in MLB going back to 1974. While the clutch stat doesn't offer much in the way of predictive power, the fact that he struggled mightily in the ALDS might at least raise some eyebrows about his ability to hit as a rookie in his first postseason appearance.
- Advantage: Astros
By fWAR, the Astros' and Yankees' rotations clocked in at the exact same 15.2 on the season. Of course, this doesn't account for the fact that the Yankees added Sonny Gray prior to the non-waiver trade deadline and that Houston added Justin Verlander (a move I wholeheartedly endorsed) literally right before the waiver trade deadline. Both of these pitchers would certainly have changed the WAR calculus had they been on their teams all season.
So far in the postseason, Gray only made it into the third inning of his lone ALDS start, walking 4 batters and giving up 3 runs. Verlander, on the other hand, actually gave Houston a rather rare (in the 2017 postseason, at least) quality start (6 IP, 2 R) in his Game 1 start against Boston. Then, in another show of emerging trends, he came in for over 2 innings of relief in Houston's Game 4 clincher and despite allowing a two-run homer, still ended up as the winning pitcher of record.
Dallas Keuchel, who will start Game 1 for Houston, has absolutely flummoxed current Yankee hitters, holding them to a .181/.214/.287 slash line. We've already talked about Verlander, who will start Game 2, and, while he's been an excellent pickup for Houston, he's had some issues with some of the Yankees hitters, and Chase Headley (.400/.400/.800 over 15 ABs) in particular, with the team as a whole hitting .257/.323/.451 off him. Charlie Morton will presumably start one of the games, but it's not clear yet whether Brad Peacock will get one after his atrocious outing in Game 3 against Boston. It's quite possible that Colin McHugh or Lance McCullers might be in the mix, with Peacock moved back to the bullpen where he has plenty of experience.
For the Yankees, their ace, Luis Severino, has struggled with a mess of players on the Astros, who collectively have hit .354/.436/.625 off of him. The only saving grace is that Altuve hasn't figured him out yet, with a .167/.167/.167 line over 6 ABs. Masahiro Tanaka was the Yankees' best pitcher in the ALDS, going seven innings without allowing a run, but he also has had issues against the Astros, who have hit .322/.394/.729 against him.
It's been noted that, on Monday night, the slowest fastball that a Yankees pitcher threw was 96 miles per hour and the average fastball was 98 miles per hour. Process that for a moment, it's ridiculous. But we should also note that the Astros' offense led MLB in contact percentage (81.2%), and, when you combine that with the fact that they were just behind the Yanks in terms of home runs and the heat that the Yankees' pitchers are putting on in the postseason, we can probably expect to see a lot of Astros sending balls out of the park, especially at Yankee Stadium. All in all, the Astros' top pitchers look to fare better against the Yankees than the other way around, which looks to be very important in terms of keeping the aggressive bullpen use by the managers to turning into overuse as the postseason wears on.
- Advantage: Astros
Speaking of the bullpen, we've seen just how important the bullpen has become so far this season (and will surely be a topic we revisit during the slog through the offseason), and this is the spot where the Yankees hold their biggest advantage over the Astros. The Yankees' pen led MLB in fWAR (9.2) and in K/9 (10.92). They also came in third in MLB by RE24 (54.92), which is very telling stat for evaluating relievers. A relief corps consisting of Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Dellin Betances and Chad Green should strike fear into opposing hitters, both because of their talents and their ability to go for longer than an inning. This is a really, really deep, really, really good bullpen.
The Astros had the 9th best bullpen in baseball by fWAR (5.6) and clocked in all the way down at 20th by RE24 (-15.46). After Ken Giles, Chris Devenski and Will Harris, things peter out a bit, although Peacock in a relief role (pitching as well as he has recently before the ALDS as a starter) gives them some depth. There was a reason that Houston's manager A.J. Hinch gave the ball to Verlander in Game 4, after all.
It's worth noting that Yankees relievers have pitched 46.6% of New York's innings so far this postseason, so it's fair to start worrying at some point about overuse. For the time being, however, the advantage clearly rests in the hands of New York.
- Advantage: Yankees
The Astros rate very poorly by most defensive metrics, and, by DRS, they were the 21st worst team in baseball with -17 DRS. This was largely due to catcher Brian McCann and his -12 DRS. The Yankees came in at 14th with 14 DRS and are a better fielding team.
Houston graded out as below-average on the basepaths, with an overall -0.9 BsR. Altuve is the Astros biggest threat, with 32 swipes this season. Although he didn't take any bases in the ALDS, New York should probably keep an eye on him in this series if he keeps getting on base as much as he has. New York had the 5th best BsR (10.6) this season, second only to the Nationals (12.2) of the remaining playoff teams.
The management situation is probably a wash, with Yankees manager Joe Girardi botching a review call in the ALDS, but he's managed his bullpen aggressively with his eye keenly set on winning the game. Hinch made the right decision to bring Verlander into the game in the final game against Boston, but it was also a bit of a risk if they weren't able to pull off the win since he wouldn't be available to start Game 5. While I'd give the advantage to Houston here, it could go either way.
- Advantage: Yankees
If you don't have any skin in the game, it's hard to imagine rooting for the Evil Empire this time around. I'm from Houston originally and have family and friends there, so I am personally aware of how badly Hurricane Harvey decimated the city and, while it's not as if winning a championship will undo any of that, it's certainly a welcome civic unifier and distraction from worrying about the aftermath and rebuilding. So there's a narrative there worth rooting for. Another trip to the World Series for the Yankees, well, not so much.
Whether or not Houston "deserves" to win the series, of course, has nothing to do with what will actually happen. We also know that the baseball gods seem to have quite a fondness for the Yankees. That being said, and while the teams are fairly evenly matched in a lot of ways, Houston still looks to have a slight edge in the series. I'll go with:
- Astros over Yankees in 7