Unlike the National League Championship Series, the American League Championship Series will feature no underdogs. The 107-win/+280 Astros had the best record and run differential in baseball and the 103-win/+204 Yankees were second best in the AL, with only the Washington-toppled 106-win/+273 Dodgers relegating New York to the third spots in all of MLB. While this was the NLCS matchup people have been expecting all season, the postseason routes that both teams took to get here were extremely different.
After taking the first two games from the Rays in Houston, Tampa rallied back to win Games 3 and 4 and force the mighty Astros into a winner-take-all Game 5. Tampa’s pitching was the key to success in their wins, limiting the damage to 4 runs total by Houston. The question was whether they could hold off one of the best offenses in baseball history for a final game. The answer was no.
It wasn’t exactly a Cardinals-Braves level first inning shellacking, but Houston’s first four hitters went single-single-single-double and all eventually scored for the Astros, giving Gerrit Cole more than enough run support, given that he would go on to pitch eight innings of one-run baseball. Cole’s only blemish was a solo home run on the first pitch in the second, and after that he only faced one more batter than the minimum. It wasn’t as dominant an outing as his 15-strikeout Game 2 performance, but it was more than enough to remind us why the Astros’ combination of ridiculous starting pitching and world-beating offense was so tough to overcome this season. Tampa assembled a remarkable team with the lowest payroll in all of baseball and took the Astros as far as they could, but in the end the better team won.
The Yankees, on the other hand, cruised past the Twins via the sweep, and it wasn’t even really close, as New York outscored Minnesota 23-7 over three games. The best story in baseball this year ran into the juggernaut that was the Yankees. That’s doubly unfortunate given Minnesota’s particular history with New York, as their loss in Game 3 gives the Twins a 0-6 record in postseason series against the Yanks. There was a heaping helping of batted-ball luck that went in New Yorks’ favor in the final game, further adding to the “what if…” nature of the Twins’ loss.
Then there’s the fact that the Twins suffered some injuries heading into the postseason, while the Yankees finally got healthy just in time to unleash a monster of a lineup. The now (mostly) healthy New York hit .293/.403/.525 in the series. That’s not quite the 296/.423/.592 line that possible MVP Astro Alex Bregman put up this season, but it’s close enough that it should put how potent New York’s offense is in perspective.
Houston’s pitching, however, is a different beast from Minnesota’s. Cole might win the Cy Young Award this year, and if he doesn’t then it will almost certainly go to his teammate Justin Verlander, who was dominant (7 IP, 0 ER) in Game 1 of the ALDS but struggled in Game 4 on short rest. Zack Greinke, the likely Game 1 starter, may have struggled in Game 3 (3.2 IP, 6 ER), but his 2.93 ERA on the season suggests that we might not read too much into one game and, while a few Yankees have been able to get to him, he’s limited the damage against most of their big bats, especially Aaron Judge (0-for-3, 3 Ks), Edwin Encarnacion (1-for-7) and Giancarlo Stanton (3-for-18). The longer series will require another starter, and they’ll likely turn to rookie Jose Urquidy (3.95 ERA, 3.68 FIP, 7 starts, 41 IP) to bridge the gap. That they’ll be able to turn to Cole and Verlander in Games 6 and 7, if necessary, gives Houston a pretty clear edge in terms of the rotation, but the series has to go that long for them to be able to take advantage of their aces more than once, thanks to the Rays making them work so hard to move on.
The Yankees have the luxury of lining up their rotation however they want, although it’s still not clear how exactly they’ll approach it. We can certainly expect to see James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino in the one, two and three spots, but it’s not clear whether Chad Green or J.A. Happ might get the nod in Game 4. Paxton was the Yankees nominal ace during the regular season (3.82 ERA, 3.86 FIP) and the lone starter to struggle at all in the DS, surrendering three earned runs on five hits in 4.2 innings. Tanaka had the strongest start, allowing one run in 5 innings, while Severino pitched 4 innings with a couple of walks while not allowing the Twins to score. Both Chad Green and Happ worked out of the bullpen and didn’t allow a run, with the former throwing two innings and the latter one.
If Houston has a clear advantage in the rotation, Yankees manager Aaron Boone has the better options in his pocket once his team can actually get Houston’s starters out of the game, and New York’s bullpen is the strongest left standing now that Houston knocked Tampa out of the postseason. Along with Green and Happ, New York can roll out Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Tommy Kahnle and Adam Ottavino. That group, along with Green and Happ, only allowed two runs in 11.1 innings. Whether Green or Happ start Game 4, you can expect the bullpen to enter soon, as was true in the division round, where Tanaka was the lone pitcher to reach five innings pitched. When you have a super bullpen, you might as well use it.
Houston doesn’t have reliable relief depth the way New York does, but their core group of Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressly, Will Harris, Hector Rondon and Josh James, who allowed four runs in 7 innings, is still a pretty damn good collection of bullpen arms. Houston’s bullpen might actually be the best non-Yankees pen remaining in the postseason, but the Yankees’ is pretty far ahead of the pack. Whether the Yankees are able to get the Astros’ starters out of the game early will go a long way to determine the series, so you’ll want to keep an eye on those pitch counts.
Now that the Dodgers are out of the picture, these are MLB’s best offenses. Houston’s lineup hit .274/.352/.495 for a 125 wRC+ that is the best mark since the notorious Yankees of 1927. They’re ridiculously difficult to strike out (18.2 K%, 1st in MLB), they walk more than any other team (10.1 BB%) and they rank third in home runs (288). The Yankees strike out more frequently (23.0 K%), but they launch more long balls (306, 2nd in MLB), which is especially impressive given that they didn’t even get full seasons of noted dinger artists Judge, Encarnacion and Stanton.
While the hitters in the one-two spots for Houston struggled in the ALDS, with George Springer (.143/.182/.143) and Michael Brantley (211/.250/.368) not living up to the standards set by their much stronger seasons and careers, Bregman (.353/.450/.647), José Altuve (.350/.381/.900) and presumable Rookie of the Year Yordan Álvarez (.316/.350/.474) carried the torch. If all of Houston’s bats are going, they are the scariest offense around.
Despite all of the Yankees’ power, it wasn’t on full display in the opening round. The team “only” hit five home runs, with none of those coming from players like Judge, Gary Sanchez or Stanton. Whether or not MLB has, in fact, de-juiced the ball for the postseason, the fact remains that this is a power-laden lineup with a penchant for taking pitchers deep, and that should be a concern for Verlander, who, for all his strengths, does give up quite a few of them.
In terms of other things to keep an eye on, Houston was a much better team defensively. Choose your metric--DRS (90 to -18), UZR (14.9 to 2.7) or defensive efficiency (.717 to .686)--regardless, Houston has the edge. In a series where one defensive play can make all the difference, Houston gets the nod here.
We’d also be remiss if we didn’t discuss the postseason history between these teams, even if there’s not a lot of it to work with. In 2015, the Astros sent the Yankees home in the WIld Card Game before falling to the eventual champion Royals in the ALDS. They met again in 2017 in the ALCS, where they went the distance of seven games, with the home team winning each game and the Astros moving on and claiming their first ever World Series championship.
Regardless of who wins it, this should be a great series between the two best teams left in the mix. In terms of a prediction, a best-of-seven series is really no easier to predict than a five-game set, but predict I must. If the Yankees can get to Houston in at least one of the first two games, they’ll be in pretty good shape. If we get a repeat of 2017 and the series goes the distance, the edge certainly goes back to Houston with a normally rested Verlander and Cole in the final two games. Let’s go with that, with Cole putting up another remarkable performance for Houston en route to a World Series appearance.
Pick: Astros in 7