ALCS Preview: The Children Of The Long Ball

For the second time in three years, the New York Yankees will meet the Houston Astros in the MLB Playoffs. There’s even more on the line this time around as they get ready to face off in the 2017 American League Championship Series, each hoping to earn a trip to the World Series.

Dallas Keuchel pitched a shutout at Yankee Stadium in the 2015 AL Wild-Card Game, and the Astros went on to lose a five-game series to the eventual champion Kansas City Royals. The reality was that neither New York nor Houston had rosters that could win a title. A lot has changed in two years, and both teams have a real chance to win this year’s Fall Classic.

The Yankees have taken a flamethrower to everyone’s expectations, and they’re going to have to do it again in Houston. After thriving as the underdogs in an intense, 3-2 win against the Tribe in the best-of-five American League Division Series, many expect Joe Girardi’s group of baby-bombers to get trashed in Texas in the Championship Series.

These teams are so different yet the same. That trip to the postseason was the start of the Astros’ evolution into a contender. Home-grown talent like Keuchel, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, and George Springer have turned into some of the best players in baseball. They were good enough to give Houston 101 regular-season wins, and the only reason they didn’t finish with the AL’s best record because the Cleveland Indians went on a record-setting winning streak.

New York’s youth movement didn’t truly begin until last year, but it’s far ahead of schedule in terms of making the Yankees a winning team. Aaron Judge set a rookie record for home runs, and Gary Sanchez has become the MLB’s best hitting catcher. Add in the likes of shortstop Didi Gregorius, starting pitcher Luis Severino and reliever Chad Green and you’ve got a 91-win team.

What’s turned these teams into real championship contenders are the moves they made before and right after the trade deadline. The Yankees strengthened their pitching staff by acquiring Sonny Gray, David Robertson, and Tommy Kahnle. The Astros added former Tiger Justin Verlander, a bonafide ace, to a rotation that already included one of the AL’s best starters.

So which team has the edge in this series? The betting odds lean toward Houston, who have home-field advantage. The Astros are -180 favorites, (via My Bookie), and the Yankees are +158 underdogs.

The Astros had the AL’s best offense in the regular season. New York finished second behind Houston in runs, total bases, and on-base percentage. Altuve, Springer, and Correa all finished in the top 10 in AL WAR. Outfielder Marwin Gonzalez was sixth in OPS.

The AL MVP award will likely come down to a two-player race between Altuve and Aaron Judge. If the playoffs factored into the voting, it would be no contest. Judge went 1-for-20 in the ALDS against the Cleveland Indians with 16 strikeouts. Altuve hit three home runs in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Boston Red Sox, ending the series with a 1.765 OPS.

New York only scored 38 fewer runs than Houston over the course of the 162-game season. They scored six runs per game against Cleveland, who easily had the AL’s best pitching staff. If Judge comes out of his slump, the Yankees will be even more dangerous.

Houston’s top hitters came to play in the postseason. Altuve is hitting .533 and Springer has a .412 batting average. Altuve even had a rare 3-homer game against Boston last week, something fewer than 10 hitters have done in the history of the MLB. Correa hit two homers against Boston, while Yuli Gurriel totaled 12 bases in 17 at-bats. Carlos Beltran isn’t even a regular starter, but he continued his legacy as one of the great playoff performers in baseball history with an RBI double that turned out to be the game-winner in the ALDS clincher.

In terms of starting pitching, the Astros also seem to have the edge. Houston finished just a touch behind New York with a 4.03 ERA from their rotation, though Verlander was only with the team for a month. The ability to start the series with Keuchel and Verlander in consecutive games alone might make Houston the ALCS favorite.

Having the edge on paper in the lineup and the starting rotation doesn’t mean the Astros will cruise past the Yankees. New York’s bullpen is a game-changer. Other than the inexplicable meltdown in Game 2 of the ALDS, the Yankees’ relievers have been just about perfect. Joe Girardi has four relievers — Chad Green, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle and Aroldis Chapman, hell even Dellin Betances — who can change a game when one of New York’s starters is in trouble. It’s what happened in the wild-card game, as well as Game 5 of the ALDS.

The Yankees can set up their rotation to succeed in the ALCS. Sonny Gray (3.11 ERA on the road) and Luis Severino (2.24 ERA on the road) would make sense as the team’s Game 1 and Game 2 starters, but Masahiro Tanaka, who has been unhittable at Yankee Stadium, allowing six earned runs in 49 innings over his last seven home starts will be the one taking the mound in Game 1. C.C. Sabathia gave the Yankees big-time performances both times he took the ball in the ALDS.

Houston’s bullpen ranked 10th in the AL with a 4.27 ERA. The Yankees can wear down starters and get into the bullpen like no other team. Closer Ken Giles and relievers Chris Devenski and Will Harris had big years, but they don’t pose quite the same threat that New York’s relievers do.

Going the distance with Cleveland might work out to New York’s benefit. Their pitching staff will be rested after one day off, but the team heads to Houston with plenty of momentum. The Astros will start the ALCS having not seen a pitch in four days.

It’s anybody’s series, but the Yankees have what it takes to pull off the upset. I wish we were still in this so badly.

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Series Prediction: Houston in 7


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