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Fresh off a sweep of the Rays, the Yankees get what I believe is the best team in baseball coming to the Bronx for four games.

Their Story Thus Far

Despite losing their last four games, the Houston Astros are playoff locks in June at 48-27, carrying a 7.5 game lead in the AL West. Their 129 wRC+ trails only the Twins for the best in baseball while their 3.58 staff ERA in fourth in the game.

The offense does everything you would want. They’re fourth in home runs with 118 and strike out less often than any other contender. Meanwhile, they want at a strong rate and post a .265/.342/.468 line as a team. The Astros have both star power and depth in their lineup, giving away few easy outs. Rookie Yordan Alvarez has given the team added power the last couple weeks while Michael Brantley has extended their lineup.

Houston’s pitching staff controls the strikezone as well. Their rotation is tied for first in baseball with a 28.3 percent strikeout rate and are first with a K-BB rate (21.4). Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole headline the starters, though the Yankees miss Cole this series.

Injury Report

The Astros had to weather plenty of injuries, just like the Yankees. Star hitters Carlos Correa (fractured rib) and George Springer (hamstring) will miss this series while 2B Aledmys Diaz (hamstring) is also on the IL. C Max Stassi is on rehab assignment after suffering knee inflammation.

Meanwhile, RHP Collin McHugh just started a rehab assignment this week while reliever Joe Smith is nearing one. Lance McCullers Jr. is still out for the season with Tommy John surgery.

(MLB Gifs)

Player Spotlight: Alex Bregman

If you weren’t convinced by his 2017 World Series or his 2018 top-5 MVP finish, you should know now: Alex Bregman is a star.

Houston’s third baseman has cemented himself as one of baseball’s best hitters at just 25 years old. His 151 wRC+ is 10th in baseball and his 16.9 percent walk rate is third in the game. He’s essentially repeated his 2018 season (.285/.394/.532, 157 wRC+) with a just as impressive season (.264/.394/.533).

Bregman has struck out 12 fewer times than he’s walked. His 3.6 bWAR lead Houston as he goes for his first All-Star start next month.

What makes him even better is his versatility. He can bat at the top or in the middle of the order and has moved into the leadoff spot with Springer out. Correa’s injury has allowed him to shift over to his natural position of shortstop, where he’ll likely play the entire series.

Potential Lineup

  1. Alex Bregman, SS (.264/.394/.533, 151 wRC+)
  2. Michael Brantley, LF (.321/.380/.523, 145 wRC+)
  3. Jose Altuve, 2B (.236/.321/.459, 111 wRC+)
  4. Yuli Gurriel, 3B (.263/.297/.396, 86 wRC+)
  5. Yordan Alvarez, DH (.333/.444/.767, 218 wRC+ in eight games)
  6. Robinson Chirinos, C (.236/.365/.500, 135 wRC+)
  7. Tyler White, 1B (.237/.346/.349, 96 wRC+)
  8. Josh Reddick, RF (.293/.333/.434, 106 wRC+)
  9. Jake Marisnick, CF (.235/.301/.436, 100 wRC+)

The Astros’ bench consists of backup catcher Garrett Stubbs (5 wRC+), infielder Jack Mayfield (20 wRC+) and outfielders Tony Kemp (89 wRC+) and Myles Straw (125 wRC+).

Pitching Matchups

Thursday (7:05 PM ET) Chad Green (vs. Astros) vs. Framber Valdez (vs. Yankees)

Framber Valdez moved into the Astros’ rotation this month after spending most of the season in the bullpen. The left-hander produced back-to-back starts of six innings and no more than two runs, albeit against the Orioles and Blue Jays.

Overall, he has a 2.77 ERA and 3.30 FIP in 39 innings this season. He excels primarily by keeping the ball on the ground. His 61.7 percent groundball rate is well above league average, as is his 0.46 home runs per nine innings. His K-BB rates are OK, but he gets plenty of swings and misses with his curveball.

His repertoire features his low-90s sinker, high 70s curveball and mid-90s four-seamer in that order. The sinker and curve are worm killers and the curve has been nearly unhittable this season.

Valdez (Baseball Savant)

Friday (7:05 PM ET) James Paxton (vs. Astros) vs. Brad Peacock (vs. Yankees)

Brad Peacock has gone back-and-forth between the rotation and bullpen in recent seasons, but he’s been almost exclusively in the starting staff this year. He’s been an above-average pitcher, sporting a 3.67 ERA and 3.85 FIP in 76 innings over 15 starts.

His strikeout rate is down this season, likely as he’s unable to go all out when going for longer outings. His hard hit rate is up as well to 41 percent, which is well worse than league average. Though down, his 3.17 K/BB ratio is still strong.

The right-hander focuses on his low-90s sinker and four-seam fastball with heavy doses of his low-80s slider. His slider has generally been his most effective pitch, but it doesn’t wipe hitters out in the same way in the rotation.

Peacock (Baseball Savant)

Saturday (7:15 PM ET) Masahiro Tanaka (vs. Astros) vs. Wade Miley (vs. Yankees)

Wade Miley was nearly out of baseball two years ago after having a 5.61 ERA and league-leading 93 walks in 2017 with the Orioles. However, he’s reinvented himself with Milwauke and Houston and has a 3.30 ERA over 84 2/3 innings in 2019.

He has a similar approach to CC Sabathia, going with a whole bunch of high-80s cutters and trying to suppress exit velocity. His average exit-velocity is up from last season, but his strikeout and walk numbers have improved to around league-average while he still have a strong .217 expected batting average.

Miley uses his cutter 47 percent of the time and turns to his changeup, four-seamer and curveball each between 11 and 18 percent of the time. The changeup has been his best swing-and-miss pitch and his most effective one overall.

Miley (Baseball Savant)

Sunday (2:05 PM ET) J.A. Happ (vs. Astros) vs. Justin Verlander (vs. Yankees)

Welp. At least the Yankees got to avoid Cole, but dread him, run from him, Verlander still arrives. The perennial Cy Young favorite has not slowed down at 36. He’s fourth in the AL with a 2.59 ERA, fourth among pitchers with 3.5 bWAR and he leads everyone with a .743 WHIP and 5.01 hits per nine innings. Last May at Yankee Stadium, he walked off the field like this:

Verlander still issues very few walks and strikes out a ton of players. Maybe not quite as prolific as a year ago, but he does it well all the same.

There are two caution flags for Verlander. He’s been extremely fortunate while stranding 92.9 of baserunners. Part of that is talent, but it exceeds both league-average and his career-norms.

He also is allowing more home runs than ever before in his career. They’re almost all solo or two-run homers as he has given up 20 home runs and only 32 overall runs. Thanks to a slightly diminished K/BB ratio and rising home run rate, his FIP is a full run higher than last season.

Will the Yankees get to him? Maybe. Though he feels like a Yankee-killer (and is based on postseason alone), he has a 3.54 ERA against the Yankees all-time vs. a 3.36 career ERA. So it’s more than he’s an everyone-killer than a Yankee-killer.

Verlander (Baseball Savant)

Bullpen Status

The Astros’ closer is still Roberto Osuna, who blew a save and took a loss Wednesday. He should still be fresh to pitch in multiple games this weekend.

Beyond him, Ryan Pressly and Will Harris are two of Houston’s main setup men. The two righties pitched Wednesday as well, and Pressly has been one of the best relievers in baseball period since coming to Houston. Hector Rondon gets middle relief work as well.

The last three guys in Houston’s bullpen are also right-handers — Miley and Valdez are the only lefties on the 25-man roster — in Josh James, Chris Devenski and Rogelio Armenteros. James shot onto the scene as a rookie last year has struggled in middle and long relief in 2019. Devenski’s changeup-heavy act hasn’t been the same since the 2017 World Series with a 4.40 ERA this year.

Armenteros or James would be able to give Houston length, though Armenteros has only pitched in one game in his MLB career, a three-inning save last weekend.

Keys to watch:

Green and Paxton rebounding from April

In the Houston series two months ago, Chad Green was lit up while James Paxton struggled as he apparently tipped pitches. Both have looked much better since then, though they’ll have tough tests in their Thursday and Friday starts.

Avoiding the crooked numbers

The Astros’ lineup has a few easier outs when Springer and Correa are out, but they still can put up crooked numbers in a hurry, just as the Yankees did to the Rays. If you can hold rallies to 1-2 runs instead of 4-5, you can hang with this juggernaut.