The Astros won that game two years ago, and they may very well be favored here in the AL Championship Series presented by Camping World as well, given that the series will start in Houston on Friday night (8 p.m. ET, FS1) rather than in New York. Yet if the Yankees have proven anything, it’s that this is no mere “rebuilding year” for them, not after a pair of huge midseason trades rebuilt their pitching staff — and their deep bullpen is specifically built to win in October, as the Indians found out.
|Gm 1||Oct. 13||8 p.m.||NYY @ HOU||FS1|
|Gm 2||Oct. 14||4 p.m.||NYY @ HOU||FOX|
|Gm 3||Oct. 16||8 p.m.||HOU @ NYY||FS1|
|Gm 4||Oct. 17||TBD||HOU @ NYY||FOX/FS1|
|*Gm 5||Oct. 18||TBD||HOU @ NYY||FOX/FS1|
|*Gm 6||Oct. 20||TBD||NYY @ HOU||FOX/FS1|
|*Gm 7||Oct. 21||TBD||NYY @ HOU||FOX/FS1|
But how well do these two teams break down? Let’s find out. First, two important notes. When making evaluations, we are looking at far more than a player’s postseason so far, and that works both ways. If you think that Aaron Judge is better than his disappointing .125/.276/.292 slash line for October, Yankees fans, than you have to also accept that Marwin Gonzalez is better than his .200/.294/.267 slash line, too. As great as Jose Altuve is, he’s probably not going to sustain a .533/.632/1.133 slash line, either. A player is far more than what he’s shown over a few games.
Second, batting numbers are presented with traditional BA/OBP/SLG and Weighted Runs Created Plus, or wRC+, a park- and league-adjusted number where 100 is set as “league average” for easy comparison.
In what’s a very tightly-matched series overall, catcher is one of the few places with a clear advantage, as Gary Sanchez (.278/.345/.531, 130 wRC+, 33 homers) is probably the best-hitting regular catcher in the game, with the AL’s strongest throwing arm to go with it. Astros backstops Brian McCann and Evan Gattis, who combined to hit .251/.318/.445 (104 wRC+), are more than capable, of course, but not only is Sanchez the better hitter, Yankees catchers had a clear framing advantage too, putting up +13 runs as opposed to the -6 from Houston.
It’s already getting more complicated. Looking at overall season lines, Yuli Gurriel (.299/.332/.486, 118 wRC+) easily outpaces Greg Bird (.190/.288/.422, 86 wRC+), but we also know that Bird put up most of those disappointing numbers while playing through an early right ankle injury that required surgery. After returning in late August, Bird slugged .575 with eight homers, and he supplemented that with two more in the ALDS, one off Andrew Miller. That’s upside that Gurriel doesn’t have, but we can’t overlook his entire season of reliable production, either.
We’ll take a brief second to point out that Starlin Castro is a good player who had a good season (.300/.338/.454, 110 wRC+) before moving on to point out that Altuve is a strong candidate for the AL Most Valuable Player Award (.346/.410/.547, 160 wRC+), and that he started off the ALDS with a three-homer game, two coming off Sale. Altuve is the best all-around second baseman in the game, so by default, he’s going to get the edge against any competitor.
The edge here goes to Carlos Correa (.315/.391/.550, 152 wRC+), because he’s maybe baseball’s best all-around shortstop, depending on how you feel about Corey Seager or Francisco Lindor, but we have to give Didi Gregorius an enormous amount of credit for making this a lot closer than it ought to be. Gregorius had a strong season (.287/.318/.478, 107 wRC+, 25 homers), then hit two of his three postseason homers off Corey Kluber in Game 5.
Todd Frazier did Todd Frazier things after joining the Yankees, hitting .222/.365/.423 (114 wRC+), adding good defense to nice power and a low batting average. Alex Bregman‘s season line (.284/.352/.475, 122 wRC+) was slightly better, but remember that came after a poor first half. After the All-Star break, he put up a .315/.367/.536 (141 wRC+), and at just 23 years old, he looks to be blossoming into the star the Astros expected when he was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 Draft.
It may seem like Brett Gardner (.264/.350/.428, 108 wRC+) won the ALDS himself with his unforgettable 12-pitch battle against Cody Allen that led to two runs scoring in the ninth inning of Game 5, but it was merely the cherry on top of what’s been a strong October so far. He did, after all, give the Yankees their first lead of the AL Wild Card Game with a second-inning home run. But as we said, we’re looking at more than just postseason performance, which is why this one’s a tie. Gardner has a much longer track record of success than Gonzalez (.303/.377/.530, 144 wRC+) does, yet Gonzalez’s breakout 2017 was better than any year Gardner has had.
Slight advantage: Astros
George Springer hit 34 homers this year with a very strong overall line of .283/.367/.522 (140 wRC+), making him the second-best AL center fielder behind only Mike Trout. For the Yankees, Aaron Hicks (.266/.372/.475, 127 wRC+) has taken over the regular job from Jacoby Ellsbury, and he had a pretty fantastic season himself. That said, Springer is one of the big three cogs of Houston’s offense along with Altuve and Correa, and he’d gain the edge over most any non-Trout center fielder here.
Here’s where our “it’s not just about the postseason” stance gets tested, because Judge had an extremely difficult ALDS, striking out 16 times in 24 plate appearances, with just one hit. (He did, of course, make an impact by robbing Lindor of a home run.) Still, Judge is either going to win the AL MVP Award or finish a close second to Altuve, after hitting 52 homers with a .284/.422/.627 (173 wRC+) line, and erasing memories of his summer slide with a massive September. He’s not likely to see as much breaking stuff from Astros pitchers as he did from the Indians (after seeing 52.5 percent fastballs this year, it was just 31.7 percent in October), so despite Josh Reddick‘s good year (.314/.363/.484, 127 wRC+) and go-ahead hit off Kimbrel, Judge gets the edge as a potential series-changer.
Yankees designated hitters Matt Holliday, Ellsbury and Chase Headley have combined to go 0-for-20 in the postseason, which makes DH a pretty big trouble spot right now. Of course, their combined season line of .258/.340/.413 (101 wRC+) is that of a league-average hitter, and it’s better than the .244/.294/.412 (88 wRC+) put up by Houston’s Gattis and Carlos Beltran. Neither team is getting all that much from its DH spot, honestly, so we’ll call this one a toss-up for the ALCS.
Credit the Yankees for making this one an actual discussion, because any rotation that’s fronted by Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel (plus the quietly very good Brad Peacock and the talented Lance McCullers Jr.), as the Astros’ is, ought to have a big edge. Instead, it’s a pretty small one, because a Yanks rotation that was thought to be a weakness early in the year when Michael Pineda was injured and Masahiro Tanaka was struggling has instead become a strength. Luis Severino was arguably the third-best starter in the AL behind Sale and Kluber, while Sonny Gray arrived from Oakland and CC Sabathia has been reborn.
Slight advantage: Astros
Of course, it’s here in the bullpen where the Yankees do have a big edge, because baseball’s most dangerous relievers can throw arm after arm after arm at you, and they all throw heat. (On Monday, the slowest fastball was 96 mph. Think about that.) Whether it’s Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Chad Green, Dellin Betances or Adam Warren, manager Joe Girardi has a seemingly endless wealth of talent here. That doesn’t mean that the Astros can’t say something similar; Ken Giles is an elite closer, Will Harris never gets enough credit, and Joe Musgrove and Chris Devenski can offer multiple innings of relief. This is what the Yanks are built for, though. This is the bullpen that could take them all the way.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.