Yankees vs. Astros American League Championship Series Preview and MLB Playoff Picks

It was a bit of a surprise and a big loss for bettors when the New York Yankees recorded the final out in Game 5 of the ALDS against the World Series favorite, Cleveland Indians. New York isn’t used to the underdog role, but the team is relishing in it right now. The Baby Bombers have already unseated the AL favorites and will look to do the same against a Houston Astros team that made easy work of the Boston Red Sox. Houston has home field advantage in this series, but is that enough against a surging Yankees’ team?

Starting Pitching Matchups

The Astros had more time to set their rotation going into the ALCS than the Yankees who took their ALDS all the way to Game 5. With Luis Severino and C.C. Sabathia throwing the last two games, Masahiro Tanaka will take the ball in Game 1.

Tanaka had a lights-out performance in the pivotal Game 3 of the ALDS. In an elimination game, the right-hander held the Indians to three runs and a walk over seven scoreless innings. New York eventually won that game 1-0.

That Game 3 was the best pitched of the series, so it only makes sense to give Tanaka the ball in Game 1; he’ll be throwing on full rest.

There is a big concern with Tanaka, however. The righty was an ace coming into the year, but he had an uneven season, going 13-12 with a 4.74 ERA. He was better than that down the stretch, but he’s posted huge home/away splits that cannot be ignored.

At home, Tanaka is still one of the better pitchers in the game. He was dismal on the road, though, going 4-7 with a 6.48 ERA. He’s striking out less and walking more on the road. He’s allowing 50 percent more base runners and has allowed five more homers in the same number of games. That’s particularly shocking since Yankee Stadium isn’t exactly a pitcher’s haven.

By sending him out in Game 1, Joe Girardi is showing faith in his right-hander, but it’s a gamble. In his only start against Houston this year, he didn’t even make it out of the second inning before allowing eight runs and four long balls.

Pitching opposite Tanaka in Game 1 is Dallas Keuchel. Justin Verlander threw in relief in Houston’s Game 4 clincher, so he’ll be pushed back a day and take the ball in Game 2.

Keuchel has been an ace this year when healthy. He made only 23 starts but went 14-5 with a 2.90 ERA. Like Tanaka, Keuchel was better at home. Unlike Tanaka, the southpaw will be starting Game 1 on a familiar mound. Keuchel went 6-3 with a 2.26 ERA at Minute Maid Park this season and has an ERA a run and a half lower at home over his career.

While Game 1’s pitching matchup brings a ton of intrigue, Game 2 is the better matchup with Verlander and Severino going head-to-head.

Verlander is 34 and an established big league ace. Severino is only 23 and trying to get to that level. Over the regular season, Severino outperformed Verlander, tossing a sub-3 ERA, but Verlander is a former Cy Young winner and should’ve taken home the award last year. He started 2017 slow but ended strong with five straight wins and a 1.06 ERA since joining the Astros. He was pitching lights out even before the trade.

In the ALDS, Verlander pitched in two games and got the win in both. He threw well, allowing three runs in 8.2 innings.

Severino’s postseason so far has been a Jekyll and Hyde experience. The nerves got to Severino in the AL Wild Card Game. He didn’t have his stuff and got just one out. In the ALDS, he bounced back strong, going seven innings and giving up three runs.

Houston has the apparent rotation edge with their first two starters, but the other two for both teams are a lot closer.

C.C. Sabathia didn’t give New York much length in the ALDS, but he did give them quality. Girardi counted on his veteran in Game 5, and he came through. He’s not the dominant power arm he once was, but he’s a pitcher now who can find a way to get you out without his best stuff. The other Yankee starter slated for this series is Sonny Gray.

Gray started the ALDS Game 1 for the Yankees, but pitched in tough luck as Trevor Bauer was nearly unhittable on the other side.

Gray was relegated to the bullpen thereafter. His first start in the ALCS will be 12-days after his last start. That’s got to have an impact on his command.

For Houston, Brad Peacock and Charlie Morton were the other two arms in the ALDS. Peacock was 13-2 with a 3.00 ERA in the regular season but went 2.2 innings and allowed three runs in the ALDS. Morton, on the other hand, allowed a ton of base runners in 4.1 innings, but limited the damage.

Positional Breakdown

Aaron Judge struggled through the ALDS against the Indians, but that didn’t matter. Even without much from their young slugger, New York advance in five games with big series from Brett Gardner and Didi Gregorius, amongst others.

This is a lineup that can produce top-to-bottom and one that has plenty of depth. We didn’t even see Matt Holliday in the ALDS. What we did see, however, was a nice series from Greg Bird at first base. That position had been a black hole for the Yankees most of the year. He struggled early and was injured for the bulk of the year. He was slow to come back, too, but looked really good in the final weeks of the regular season and carried that into October.

The Yankees have the most powerful lineup in the game. They led baseball in home runs in the regular season and outslugged Cleveland. That’ll be harder to do against Houston.

The Astros, statistically, were an even better offense club than the Yankees in the regular season. They’ve also swung the bat well so far in the playoffs.

The most interesting storyline in this series may be the battle between Judge and Jose Altuve. We have one of the biggest players in baseball and one of the smallest, and both are likely to finish in the top two in MVP voting in the AL.

Altuve may be short, but he’s got some pop himself. He hit three homers in Game 1 of the ALDS to get the Houston offense rolling in the series. Two of those homers came against Chris Sale.

The speedy second baseman ended the ALDS 8-for-15 with four walks. He was constantly on the base paths.

The Astros have been fantastic getting on base all season long and carried that into the postseason. Yuri Gurriel had a strong ALDS in that category, too, while Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa added more pop alongside Altuve.

The depth of this offense is as good—or better—than New York. This is a team that can go to Derek Fisher or Cameron Maybin off the bench and has Brian McCann hitting at the bottom of the order.

Bullpen Analysis

In the rotation, the edge goes to the Astros. On offense, the Astros had the better season statistically, although the gap is quite small. The one area that Houston doesn’t quite stack up against the Yankees is the bullpen.

We saw the New York bullpen steal the show in the AL Wild Card Game, and they kept dominating in the ALDS against Cleveland.

Tommy Kahnle has been lights out this postseason with five perfect innings. David Robertson has two of the four wins and has shown he can give length and quality. Sabathia is the only pitcher on the Yankees’ roster with more postseason innings here in 2017 than Robertson. We’ll see how the heavy workload weighs on him as this series progresses.

Adam Warren and Chad Greene haven’t been great in their appearances, but they were both effective bullpen arms in the regular season and should still have the trust of the Girardi.

There was a stretch in the second half were Aroldis Chapman wasn’t getting strikeouts at his normal pace. That’s changed. He’s already got 13 postseason strikeouts in 6.2 innings. Really, the only questions about New York’s bullpen are durability given the large workload and the ability of Dellin Betances to be a difference maker. The right-hander has been a workhorse for the Yanks over the years, but his command is a major issue.

Houston doesn’t have nearly the number of dependable arms in the pen and will need more out of its starters than the Yankees do. Fortunately, their rotation is good enough to provide that.

If the Astros can get to the sixth or seventh, Luke Gregerson, Chris Devenski, Joe Musgrove, Will Harris and Ken Giles form a strong group. They’re not quite Chapman and company, but they should get the job done more often than not.

Devenski was hittable in the ALDS, but he needs to be the reliable Andrew Miller-like arm that can come in and shutdown the opposition at any time. Giles also needs to prove himself as a big game closer. He’s still young and has shown he can get frazzled from time-to-time.

Quick Pick: Astros over Yankees in Six

New York will keep this series interesting with the bullpen and could steal a couple games late. The main thing to watch is whether the Astros can grab an early lead by the fifth or sixth. If so, they’re in good shape.

The Astros can match up with, and often beat, the Yankees position by position at the plate. The offense is dynamic. The starting pitching hasn’t provided New York with too much length to this point, and that’s sure to wear on the bullpen. Look for the bullpen workload to take a toll as well.

In the end, Altuve, Correa and Bregman will have a big series and lead Houston to the World Series.

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