After overcoming an 0-2 start against the Indians in the ALDS, the Yankees find themselves up against it once again, with the 101-win Houston Astros awaiting them in the American League Championship round. It’s hard to argue that the Bronx Bombers have worked up a bit of mojo heading into this matchup after their escaping act in Cleveland, but it’s also hard to argue with 100-plus wins and the dominance of the Astros. Aside from Game 3 of their series against Boston — in which they jumped out to a 3-0 lead before unraveling — the Astros have played like a team primed for the World Series.
Game 1 (Friday, 8:00 p.m.)
RHP Masahiro Tanaka (13-12, 4.74) vs. LHP Dallas Keuchel (14-5, 2.90)
Game 2 (Saturday, 4:00 p.m.)
RHP Luis Severino (14-6, 2.98) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (15-8, 3.36)
Game 3 (Monday, 8:00 p.m.)
LHP CC Sabathia (14-5, 3.69) vs. TBD
Game 4 (Thursday, TBD)
RHP Sonny Gray (10-12, 3.55) vs. TBD
Game 5 (Wednesday, TBD)
Game 6 (Friday, Oct. 20, TBD)
Game 7 (Saturday, Oct. 21, TBD)
Will the Yankees’ road woes play a factor?
Among teams with more than 90 wins this season, the Yankees are the only club to have a sub .500 record on the road. With the current 2-3-2 format — and the Astros’ home field advantage — it’s important to note that both Games 6 AND 7 will be played in Houston if need be.
The Yankees were able to dig themselves out of an early hole in the ALDS thanks to the boost they received from the home faithful in Games 3 and 4, but if they find themselves facing another 0-2 deficit the pressure will be even greater for them to hold serve at home. And, in the MLB playoffs, winning three consecutive games in a Championship Series is no easy task — whether you’re home or away. Keep in mind that the Yankees are 4-0 so far in elimination games this postseason, and surely they will be looking to avoid playing another altogether against the ‘Stros.
Will Masahiro Tanaka’s road woes play a factor?
Tanaka comes into this ALCS brimming with confidence after his Game 3 heroics against the Indians, pitching seven shutout innings to lead the Yankees to a 1-0 win (and keeping their playoff hopes alive in the process). Girardi has decided to hand Tanaka the ball for Game 1 in Houston — which is no surprise — but what might be surprising to most casual baseball fans is the discrepancy between Tanaka’s numbers at home and on the road.
In 2017, Tanaka boasts a 9-5 record and a 3.22 ERA in home starts. However, on the road, these numbers drop off to just 4-7 with a 6.46 ERA away from the Bronx. Thankfully for Tanaka, postseason magic has been known to defy statistical data — and Yankee fans will certainly hope this is the case when their ace takes the mound for Game 1 in Houston. If the Yankees can steal a win in Houston behind the strength of Tanaka and head back home with the series tied 1-1, it would be a huge shot in the arm for the Bombers.
Can the Astros neutralize the Yankees’ strikeout-oriented pitching staff?
The Astros led the majors in team batting average (.282) and OPS (.823) in 2017, but what’s even more impressive about their offense is their balance against both right and left handed pitching. Against righties, the Astros hit .283 — which is the best in the majors — and, against lefties, the Astros hit .278, which is good enough for top five in the league. The Yanks, in contrast, have a top five average vs. RHP, but, against lefties, it tapers off to .255 — which is just around the league average.
Aside from hitting both lefties and righties with efficiency, the Astros are an extremely difficult team to strike out — accounting for the lowest strikeout percentage in the MLB (17.3 percent). This is a complete 180 from last season, which saw the Astros strike out more than any team in the majors. It will be interesting to see how the Yankees fare against this lineup considering how reliant the Yanks are on the strikeout (they boast the fourth-highest strikeout rate in the MLB at 25.7 percent).
How much does Luis Severino have left?
We’ve seen glimpses of Severino’s vulnerability this offseason, specifically in the Yanks’ Wild Card game against the Twins where Severino failed to record more than one out before getting yanked in the first inning. Severino was improved (but not stellar) in his second postseason start, against the Indians, giving up three earned runs over seven innings (and striking out nine), but there are question marks for the young pitcher heading into the ALCS.
And many of these questions stem from the amount of mileage on Severino’s arm. With Severino’s last start, he is now up over 200 innings on the season. Before now, Severino had never logged more than 120 innings in a season, so it’s very possible that fatigue could finally be catching up with him. Severino is set to pitch Game 2 against Justin Verlander, who has enjoyed something of a renaissance since coming over to Houston, and will be looking to expand on his last postseason start with another win.
Can Keuchel be the Yankee Killer?
Few pitchers have been as dominant against the Yanks over the years as Dallas Keuchel, who boasts a 4-2 record with a 1.42 ERA in six career regular season starts against the Bronx Bombers. Yankees’ fans will surely remember his 2015 Wild Card gem, which ushered the Yankees from playoff contention, and Astros fans will be hoping for much of the same this postseason.
In those starts, the Yankees have actually never hit a homer vs Keuchel.
Keuchel will likely have two starts in this series: Game 1 against Tanaka and (most likely) one of the last three. Whatever the case is for the Astros, it’s crucial for them to handle business when Keuchel’s toeing the rubber.
Who will win the battle of the bullpens?
If the Yankees can get to the fifth or sixth inning with a lead, it’s a huge advantage for them given the depth — and class — of arms they have in their bullpen. In 28.2 innings so far this postseason, the Yanks’ pen has held opponents to a .153 batting average — which is the lowest this season — and a stingy 2.20 ERA. And Girardi has used his pen aggressively thus far this postseason, including flame-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman for an inning-plus on three separate occasions in the ALDS.
The Astros, in contrast, have a key weakness in their bullpen. In 2017, the Astros’ bullpen has posted a 4.27 ERA, 21 blown saves and 77 home runs allowed — which is the 11th most in the majors. This could ultimately be a telling statistic for the Astros against this Yankees ball club which led the MLB in home runs in 2017. Houston closer Ken Giles had a strong regular season with 34 saves, but the Red Sox got to him in both of his ALDS appearances, so it’ll be interesting to see how the Astros’ bullpen fares against this Yankees lineup in more-high pressure situations.
Can the Yankees exploit the Astros on the basepaths?
Late in close games, much is decided on the base path — and, at first glance, there doesn’t appear to be much that separates these two clubs in terms of team speed. However, after looking at the numbers, the Astros are dead last in the MLB in throwing out baserunners, and the Yankees, on the other hand, flaunt the best steal percentage in the majors (80 percent). It will be interesting to see how the Astros fare against Yankee runners in this series, especially in the late innings with scoring position just 90 feet away from first base.
Given the Yankees’ home/road splits and Tanaka’s struggles on the road — in conjunction with Keuchel’s home dominance – I’d wait until after Game 1 to hit the Yankees if you like them for the series, especially given Sabathia and Gray’s past success against the Astros (and the Yankees’ overall success against Charlie Morton).
But, ultimately, I think the Astros — who absolutely crush fastballs — will eventually get to the Yankees’ pen the longer the series goes, despite how dominant it’s been. There is simply too much talent in this Astro lineup, from top to bottom, and — despite the lack of advantage that home field offers in baseball — I think it will ultimately be the difference here.
I like the Astros in seven.