Tuesday, October 6
5 pm PT on ESPN
New York Yankees (87-75) versus Houston Astros (86-76)
In the preseason, I compiled standings projections from eight sources: Clay Davenport, Sports Illustrated, Fangraphs, PECOTA, Bleacher Report, Rant Sports, The Sporting News, and Eastside Sports. Not one of them picked the Yankees or Astros to make the playoffs. The Yankees were projected to win between 77 and 84 games. The Astros were projected for 72 to 79 wins. Clay Davenport had the high projection for both teams, predicting the Yankees would win 84 games and the Astros would win 79.
Combining all sources, the Yankees were projected to go 81-81 and finish in fourth place in the AL East. The Astros were pegged for a 75-87 record and a tie for fourth in the AL West.
One way to judge the caliber of a team is by looking at their run differential. In the American League, the Toronto Blue Jays had by far the best run differential, at +221. They scored a league-leading 891 runs and allowed 670. By this metric, they are the favorites to come out of the AL and make it to the World Series.
The Astros’ run differential this year was +111, second in the AL. The Yankees finished fourth in run differential, at +66. Based on their run differential, the Astros were a 93-69 team and the Yankees were an 88-74 squad.
How They Got Here
The Houston Astros took over first place on April 19th, much to the surprise of most people in baseball. This was a team that lost over 100 games three years in a row from 2011 to 2013. Last year, they were 70-92. They had a good, young core and highly-rated prospects in the minor leagues, but it was expected that their future was still in the future. They were expected to improve this year, then really compete for the division title in 2016 or 2017. Instead, they came out strong and moved atop the AL West in April and kept it going into May, June, and July. They led the division by 6 ½ games at one point in May and still led by five games in early July. They hit some trouble in the middle of the season and fell to second place but regained their footing late in July and went back on top of the division. In mid-September they fell back to second place once again and were locked into a battle for the wild card spot with the Angels and Twins. They won six of their last eight games to outlast their competitors and make the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
The New York Yankees made the playoffs 17 times in 18 years from 1995 to 2012, winning five World Series titles along the way. In 2013, age and expensive contracts caught up to them and they finished in 3rd place in the AL East. Last year, they were second in the division. This year, the consensus was that they would be around a .500 team and would finish a few games out of the mix for the playoffs, but fter bouncing around a bit in the standings for the AL East through the first few weeks of the season, the Yankees moved into first place in late April. They had a rough patch in June then moved back into first place in early July and led the division by seven games as late as July 28th. Over the last two months of the season, the Yankees went 18-20 and watched the Toronto Blue Jays zoom past them to easily win the AL East. The Yankees staggered to the finish line by winning just one of their final seven games.
Hitting, Pitching, Fielding Rankings
Rankings are based on Fangraphs statistical data. For offense, I used the metric wRC+, which means “weighted Runs Created Plus.” This looks at how a team’s offense compares to league average and takes ballpark effects into account. For example, the Yankees outscored the Astros with 764 runs to 729 but played in a ballpark more suited to offense. Using this metric that adjusts for context shows that the Astros were a better team on offense. For defense, I used Fangraphs pitcher WAR (Wins Above Replacement) which compares a pitcher’s production to a hypothetical player who could be called up from the minor leagues. The defensive ranking is based on Fangraphs metric for defense.
That being said, anything can happen in a one game playoff. A pitcher could have an off day, a team could have one crucial call go against them, a ball might just hit fair instead of foul, and that could be the difference in winning or losing.
The Astros pitcher is Dallas Keuchel, who has a good chance to be the American League Cy Young winner. Keuchel was 20-8 this year with a 2.48 ERA and 1.02 WHIP. There are ERA estimators known as Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) and Skill Interactive ERA (SIERA) that try to estimate what a pitcher’s ERA would be based on the thing they control the most. Keuchel had good numbers in those areas also: 2.91 FIP, 2.75 xFIP, 2.84 SIERA. He’s a legitimate under 3.00 ERA pitcher. In the metrics that matter most, Keuchel upped his strikeout rate from 6.6 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) last year to 8.4 strikeouts per nine this year. He also reduced his walk rate slightly. Keuchel is a left-handed pitcher who generates a ton of ground balls. He had the second highest rate of ground balls of all starting pitchers who pitched 160 or more innings.
A potential red flag for Keuchel is his performance at home versus on the road. The Astros are playing in New York for this one game playoff. Keuchel has a terrific 1.46 ERA at home (2.04 FIP) with a strikeout rate of 9.7 batters per nine innings. On the road, it’s a different story: 3.77 ERA (4.10 FIP), 6.8 K/9.
The Yankees starting pitcher will be Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka was a high-priced free agent signed out of Japan by the Yankees prior to last season. His contract calls for 7 years and $155 million. In his final year in Japan, Tanaka was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA. He came over to the Yankees last year and had a good rookie season, going 13-5 with a 2.77 ERA (3.04 FIP). Unfortunately, he experienced arm trouble and only started 20 games. At the end of the season, it was reported that he had a partial tear of his UCL. Depending on the severity of a torn UCL, a pitcher can choose to have Tommy John surgery or try the rest-and-rehab route. Tanaka chose not to have the surgery and it was a big unknown as to how much he would be able to pitch this year. He ended up starting 24 games and went 12-7 with a 3.51 ERA (3.98 FIP). His strikeout rate dropped and his walk rate went up, so he wasn’t as good as he’d been in his rookie year, but the Yankees probably feel fortunate that he gave them 154 innings with a fragile elbow.
On offense, both of these teams hit for good power. The Astros finished 2nd in baseball in slugging percentage and 2nd in home runs. The Yankees were 4th in slugging percentage and also 4th in home runs. On the basepaths, they are quite different, with the Astros finishing 3rd in baseball with 121 stolen bases. The Yankees are older and less active on the bases, finishing 25th in baseball with just 63 steals.
The big, up-and-coming star for the Astros, and a name you will be hearing regularly in the future, is shortstop Carlos Correa. Correa just turned 21 two weeks ago and spent the first part of this year in AA and AAA. He came up to the major leagues in June and played in 99 games, hitting 22 homers, stealing 14 bases, and finishing with a .279/.345/.512 batting line (Average, On-Base Percentage, and Slugging Percentage). He should be named AL Rookie of the Year sometime in the next six weeks.
Another good bat in the Astros’ lineup is little Jose Altuve, who is listed at 5’6” tall, but that might be stretching it. Altuve is a sturdy little hitter who sprays line drives all over the place and steals bases. He led the league in hitting in 2014 with a .341 average and followed that up by hitting .313 this year, with a .353 on-base percentage and .459 slugging percentage. Despite his diminutive size, he also banged out 15 home runs. He’s a big threat on the bases, having stolen 30 or more in each of the last four years.
Outfielder George Springer was a big part of the early-season success for the Astros and the team really struggled when he was injured in July and August. When Springer was injured on July 1st, the Astros were 47-34 and 5 games up in the AL West. While he was out, the team went 26-27. He’s healthy now and is a big part of the team’s offense, with a good combination of power (16 HR) and speed (16 SB).
One of the big reasons the Yankees outplayed expectations was the play of a few of their older players. At the age of 35, Mark Teixeira rebounded from two terrible years to hit .255/.357/.548 this year, with 31 home runs in 111 games. The 111 games is the problem, though. Teixeira hasn’t played a game since August 26th because of an injury and won’t be available for the post-season.
Another big surprise was the play of 39-year-old Alex Rodriguez. Not only did A-Rod have his best year at the plate since 2009, he did this after missing the entire 2014 season and playing only 44 games in 2013. A-Rod missed a season-and-a-half and came back to be one of the Yankees’ best hitters. It’s remarkable, really, and if people didn’t hate him so much, they would appreciate how unlikely it is that he did this. The caution here is that A-Rod was much better during the season’s first four months than he was in August and September. August was particularly bad, as he hit just .153/.273/.259 for the month. He rebounded a bit in September to hit .224/.325/.480.
The last elder statesman who hit surprisingly well for the Yankees this year is 38-years-old Carlos Beltran, who hit .276/.337/.471. He’s no longer an asset in the field like he once was, but he can still hit a little.
Outlook For Today’s Game
The Astros are the hotter team, having won six of their last eight, while the Yankees have lost six of their last seven. The Astros are also the better team based on run differential and the rankings for their hitters, pitchers, and fielders are all higher than that of the Yankees. Astros starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel will either win the AL Cy Young award or finish second to David Price. The Astros have the likely AL Rookie of the Year winner. There are many reasons why the Astros should win this game.
On the other hand, one of the biggest problems for the Astros this year was a terrible record on the road. At home, they won 65% of their games. On the road, they won just 41%. The Yankees won 56% of their home games. Based on where this game is being played, the Yankees have the edge.
At this point in time, the Astros are the more talented team, but the more talented team doesn’t always win. I think the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka will pitch well. If he can get a lead to the dynamic duo in the Yankees’ bullpen, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, the game is as good as over. As good as Dallas Keuchel has been this year, his struggles on the road are a concern and Yankee Stadium is a particularly tough place to pitch.
I’d like to pick the Astros because they are such a good story, but I think the Evil Empire will take this one and advance to the next round.
My Prediction: Yankees 5, Astros 3