Bregman (MLB Gifs)

On Saturday night, the Yankees take on the AL West champion Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series.

Their Story So Far

The Astros went 107-55 in the regular season and outpaced the rest of baseball to earn homefield advantage throughout the postseason. They earned the right to face the AL Wild Card winner in the Division Series and were pushed by the Rays to five games, potentially to the Yankees advantage.

Houston’s lineup produced on a level with some of the best in baseball history, led by MVP candidate Alex Bregman. Their 125 wRC+ as a team was best in the league, handily beating out the second-place Yankees (117 wRC+). Their hitters sport both the highest walk rate and lowest strikeout rate in baseball and control the strike zone as much as anyone.

The lineup isn’t too dissimilar from the 2017 team that defeated the Yankees in seven games. Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer still anchor the lineup, though Correa’s injuries have sapped at his production, while Yuli Gurriel has had career year. Added to the fray are Rookie of the Year favorite Yordan Álvarez and steady left fielder Michael Brantley. Attacking Houston one-through-seven is a chore.

As you likely know, Houston’s status as World Series favorites rests on the backs of its starting rotation. Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole should finish 1-2 in Cy Young voting, while Zack Greinke is a former Cy Young winner with plenty left in the tank.

If the Astros have a weakness, it stems from their bullpen. They aren’t needed as often with starters going deep into games, but the likes of Will Harris, Roberto Osuna and Ryan Pressly were called upon in the ALDS and looked shaky at times.

Injury Report

The Astros are missing a trio of right-handed starters: Lance McCullers Jr. (Tommy John surgery), Collin McHugh (elbow discomfort) and Aaron Sanchez (shoulder surgery). That thins out their rotation depth, though the top-line talent is still there.

Spotlight: Season Series Takeaways

The Yankees went 3-4 in seven games against the Astros, a fine finish after getting swept in the fourth series of the season. In the first two games of that series, Houston got to the Yankees’ bullpen — including Chad Green, Zack Britton and Adam Ottavino — before roughing up James Paxton in the finale.

A lot changed before the next meeting. Paxton figured out that he was tipping pitches in Houston, while Green was demoted and figured out his own issues in Triple-A. That led to the Yankees winning three of four in late June, a week before the London Series.

Paxton gutted his way through five innings of one-run ball to earn one win, while the Yankees rode a bullpen game to another. Masahiro Tanaka and the heroics of Austin Romine and Giancarlo Stanton put New York on the verge of a sweep, but J.A. Happ was soundly defeated by Verlander and co. on Old Timers’ Day.

What should we remember from these series? First, Tanaka and Paxton can handle Houston’s lineup. I know, Paxton wasn’t very good the first time around, but he has solid numbers against Houston dating back to his Seattle days and that came through in his second start. Tanaka, meanwhile, dealt in both outings despite not picking up a win.

Beyond them, this will be the toughest test for the Yankees’ bullpen. Neither NL squad could pose the variety of attack Houston brings to the table. Álvarez, who homered off both Tommy Kahnle and Happ, will be a menace. Kahnle and any other lefty in the pen will have to tame him.

But the Yankees also put a dent into Houston’s pitching staff. They got three runs in seven innings against Cole and scored three runs in both starts against Verlander. They ran up Greinke’s pitch count in his one start against the Pinstripers before the trade deadline. Lastly, they beat up on Pressly for their most recent win against Houston, and made the top reliever look fallible.

Potential Lineup

Note: All numbers here are regular season numbers.

  1. George Springer, CF (.292/.383/.591, 156 wRC+)
  2. Jose Altuve, 2B (.298/.353/.550, 138 wRC+)
  3. Michael Brantley, LF (.311/.372/.503, 133 wRC+)
  4. Alex Bregman, 3B (.296/.423/.592, 168 wRC+)
  5. Yordan Álvarez, DH (.313/.412/.655, 178 wRC+)
  6. Yuli Gurriel, 1B (.298/.343/.541, 132 wRC+)
  7. Carlos Correa, SS (.279/.358/.568, 143 wRC+)
  8. Josh Reddick, RF (.275/.319/.409, 94 wRC+)
  9. Robinson Chirinos, C (.238/.347/.443, 113 wRC+)

Houston’s bench starts with backup catcher Martin Maldonado (108 wRC+), who typically catches Cole’s starts. INF/OF Aledmys Díaz (119 wRC+) can play a plethora of positions and is a fine pinch hitter vs. lefties. OF Jake Marisnick (86 wRC+) is the go-to defensive replacement, while OF Kyle Tucker (122 wRC+) could get a start in right field. OF Myles Straw is mostly a pinch runner (8-for-9 in steal attempts)

Possible Pitching Matchups

DateNYY StarterHOU Starter
Game 1Sat, Oct. 12James PaxtonZack Greinke
Game 2Sun, Oct. 13Masahiro TanakaJustin Verlander
Game 3Tue, Oct. 15Luis SeverinoGerrit Cole
Game 4Wed, Oct 16J.A. Happ/BullpenJosé Urquidy/Bullpen
Game 5Thu, Oct. 17PaxtonGreinke
Game 6Sat, Oct. 19TanakaVerlander
Game 7Sun, Oct. 20SeverinoCole

These matchups are mere projections as neither team has announced their plans yet.

Though he was touched up in ALDS Game 3, Greinke is a force. He doesn’t have his old velocity, but he has a cunning to him that few pitcher possess.

Meanwhile, Cole and Verlander are absolute wrecking balls. Cole tossed 15 2/3 innings in the Division Series, allowed six hits and one walk, and struck out 25 batters. He won’t be facing the Rays’ lineup again, but he can still win a game by himself. However, if the Yankees play well enough, they only have to face him once.

Verlander is coming off short rest in ALDS Game 4 and that could have a cumulative effect on him. However, he is still Cy Young caliber and was as dominant as Cole in his first ALDS start.

Urquidy has a total of 42 2/3 innings of MLB experience, including one ALDS appearance, after debuting in July. The Astros are keen on him joining the rotation for next season, but he could make his eighth career start in Game 4. The veteran Miley was rocked in the second half and is unlikely to get the start.

Bullpen Status

RHP: Will Harris, Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressly, Héctor Rondon, Joe Smith, José Urquidy, Josh James

LHP: Wade Miley

Despite needing to go five games in the Division Series, the Astros’ bullpen is well rested after Cole went eight innings in the clincher.

Based on their usage in Round 1, the Astros seem to have an established hierarchy in their bullpen; Harris, Osuna and Pressly are the team’s top three right-handers, while Urquidy, James and Miley are the potential long men.

As shown above, Urquidy or Miley might take the Game 4 start, so their availability elsewhere in the series is questionable. Overall, that shouldn’t matter. Houston is going to ride their top three starters and hope to get straight to the back-end of their bullpen.

Rondon or Smith could get work against the Yankees’ righty-heavy lineup, particularly the submariner Smith, but they won’t be getting the high leverage outs.