So, the Taylor Swift situation addressed last off season by the Astros led to quite a few guffaws around baseball. Swift's concert was indeed ultimately moved in date thanks to the Astros and their surprising playoff aspirations coming to fruition. This is well known and well covered by now...but perhaps a Taylor Swift song (which this writer knows of thanks to having young daughters, and has since learned thanks to an outstanding cover performed by ) might be of use to illustrate tonight's match up in the American League Wild Card game between the Houston Astros and New York Yankees.
Yes, that is the Ryan Adams version. No, you'll get no apologies.
There were a pair of incidents that raised some hackles on each side this season. The first was a Brett Oberholzer meltdown against the Yankees on June 27th that ultimately resulted in what appeared to be Oberholzer throwing at Alex Rodriguez before being ejected, causing a scene in the dugout and ultimately being demoted immediately following the game. Manager A.J. Hinch made clear that such antics have no place in Astros baseball and, before the ink even dried on Oberholzer's demotion papers, had sought out Yankees manager Joe Girardi as well as Alex Rodriguez himself to apologize and assure them that that's not the way the Astros do business. All was forgiven, and everyone moved on - with Oberholzer even briefly rejoining the team soon after in the weeks leading up to the Scott Kazmir trade.
Then, August 25th happened.
Carlos Gomez, not even a month into his Astros career, flipped his bat in flamboyant disgust after a fly out on a pitch he felt he should have handled better, and the Yankees bench took exception - in particular Brian McCann, with whom Gomez has some existing history:
Savvy Astros fans who are watching closely will note then-rookie Evan Gattis sharing a Braves uniform - but not harsh words or punches, thankfully - with McCann in the video as the benches cleared.
In the game on August 25th of this year, the benches cleared once again, though no punches were exchanged, and Carlos Gomez would stay in the game and later hit a three run home run in a game the Astros would win by stampede, 15-1.
Both sides said they've moved on from both incidents this season, and that's probably true. These are, after all, professional hitters.
But you can bet neither clubhouse has forgotten them, either.
The Set Up
Why the long intro to this piece, you ask? Because the stakes are at their highest point now. No game for the Yankees has been bigger in the last two seasons, as they've missed the post season in both years, and no game has been bigger for the Astros in the last decade. The stakes are high, and the emotion was already at a fever pitch between these two teams even under much lighter circumstances. Both teams are expected to bring their very best to the field in tonight's game, and that's why we examine each team position by position to determine who has the advantage at each...at least, on paper.
Así el lineup de Houston Astros y New York Yankees para este primer juego del, 'Wild card' !!. pic.twitter.com/sIfJ0Fse18
— Jennireth García⚽ (@Jrgg_96) October 6, 2015
One thing that jumps out immediately is the presence of Evan Gattis at DH. While most Astros fans likely aren't surprised to see the team leader in home runs and RBIs in the starting lineup, this writer certainly is - particularly so high in the lineup. It had seemed a much smarter call to me, previously, to start Tucker at DH against Tanaka with his home splits against right handed and left handed batters. Clearly, the management sees something I don't, and that's okay. Looking forward to seeing how it all plays out.
For the Yankees, the presence of several left handed bats in the starting lineup is no real shocker - they have largely been far more consistent this season with seven or eight of their starting players, which is why seven of their hitters have over 500 plate appearances this year, compared to only two players over the 500 plate appearance mark - Jose Altuve and Evan Gattis.
Now, with all of this established, let's look at a positional breakdown for each team.
As has been mentioned, Brian McCann has had a rough time at the plate as of late...but he still leads all Major League catchers in home runs and RBI. He would be an obviously huge advantage over Jason Castro on paper (given that their defense is roughly comparable) for the Yankees...were it not for the presence of Dallas Keuchel on the mound opposing him. Dallas dominates left handed hitters, and we should expect no less in today's Wild Card matchup...even on three day's rest. However, unless Dallas pitches a complete game on those three days of rest, McCann should still get at least one at bat against the Astros bullpen, and so the slight edge must be given to the Yankees here.
Chris Carter finished the season on a lightning streak, posting a gaudy .344/.432/.969 (1.401 OPS) slash line across 14 games in September. He stayed strong in October, posting a slash line of .308/.308/.462 (.769) in just the three games in October so far. He also homered off Tanaka at Minute Maid Park and added a double in four at bats in the only meeting this year between the two. He is opposed in this case by rookie first baseman Greg Bird, a left handed hitter who has struggled mightily against left handed pitching in limited exposure and who has been thrust into a starting role due to lack of first base options on the Yankee roster after they lost Mark Teixeira
The New York Yankees will start a 24 year old rookie, right handed hitting Rob Refsnyder, in tonight's game. His offensive numbers are impressive, particularly since he re-joined the big league club in September. He has supplied a .355/.412/.548 (.960 OPS) slash line since re-joining the Yankees in September over the course of eleven games with a wOBA of .405, an ISO of .194, and a 159 wRC+. However, he has an entirety of fifteen major league games under his belt...and he hasn't face Dallas Keuchel yet. Meanwhile, the Astros will be starting Jose Altuve, fresh off his second consecutive 200 hit season and second consecutive season leading the American League in both hits and stolen bases, of which he has thirty eight. Obvious call here.
Luis Valbuena has had a very strange year, statistically - a plethora of home runs early in the season without much else, and then a late season run of 23 games which has brought his periphery metrics up to respectability. In those 23 games (50 at bats) in September and October, he has posted a slash line of .320/.407/.580 (.987 OPS) with a .260 ISO, a .414 wOBA, and an absurd 166 wRC+. Chase Headley, on the other hand, has been absolutely abysmal down the stretch. In September/October, his slash line has been .179/.252/.223 (.475 OPS) with an ISO of .045, a .220 wOBA, and a wRC+ in the cellar at 32. This is a massive advantage to the Astros.
Didi Gregorius has had a below average season offensively - which is pretty normal for shortstops, truth be told - but has played strong defense (110 out of zone plays) and has been improved offensively down the stretch for the Yankees. He is opposed here by 21 year old phenom Carlos Correa. The end.
In one of the more interesting positional debates in this article, Colby Rasmus will eke out a slight edge over Chris Young. Young has absolutely annihilated the Astros pitching during his career, with the notable exception of Dallas Keuchel. Against Keuchel, he is "only" 6-20 in his career. He should be a nuisance for the Astros ace at the top of the order, but Colby Rasmus is a hot stick from the left side of the plate in Yankee stadium, already a good hitter's park for left handed hitters, against a starting pitcher in Tanaka who gives up home runs in Yankee stadium to left handed hitters in bunches. In September and October, Rasmus has a slash line of .289/.385/.614 (1.000 OPS) with a 13.4 BB% (higher than any other month of the season for him), a flatly ridiculous .325 ISO, a .424 wOBA, and a huge 176 wRC+. He also hit eight home runs in September/October, or 26 games. Hot take prediction: Rasmus hits at least one home run tonight. You heard it here first.
This is a case where someone has to win the comparison. We can go on a gut feeling and say that, with the bad blood mentioned before, Carlos Gomez is fired up and ready to go and has a big game...like he did on August 25th, when the benches cleared and he later hit a three run home run. However, that doesn't strike me as very scientific, so we'll examine Brett Gardner and compare him to Carlos Gomez. First, for Gomez, he's coming off an injury. The intercostal is a painful, debilitating injury for a hitter, and we saw him relegated to bunting hitter in his last appearance with the Astros. He says he's good to go, and he'd know better than I would if he's ready to play baseball, but I am on record as recently as yesterday saying that I believe Rasmus should start in center, Tucker in left, Valbuena at first, Lowrie at third and Carter at DH because that maximizes left handed at bats against Tanaka, and saves Gomez for pinch running or late game defense. It appears he's ready to start, and if he's healthy it's a safe bet that he will be starting even if other scenarios might make slightly more mathematical sense. He was a big deadline acquisition and a frontline baseball player when healthy. His numbers in Houston have thus far been uninspiring, but he was showing signs of life leading up to his intercostal injury, so Astros fans will have to hope he's indeed fully healed and not shaking off rust while privately wondering about what the possibilities might have been with one more left handed bat in the lineup and Gomez available off the bench. As for Gardner, his offense has been abhorrent down the stretch but somehow still slightly better than that of Jacoby Ellsbury. Gardner's September and October slash line of .198/.271/.321 (.592 OPS) with a .123 ISO, .264 wOBA, and paltry 62 wRC+ aren't scaring anyone.
Here is the million dollar question. Do you take Carlos Beltran in a game started by Dallas Keuchel - against whom Beltran has had marked success, hitting .444 with a home run and two RBI against the bearded wonder - or do you take George Springer, another red hot young Houston hitter with six consecutive multi-hit games and eight games out of his last ten with more than one hit - two of which were home runs? Short answer is, you call this one a push and hope (if you're an Astros fan) that George Springer stays hot while Carlos Beltran proves more manageable for Dallas Keuchel this time around. This one is a little too close to call, in this writer's estimation.
The Astros have elected to start the club leader in home runs and RBIs over the left handed hitting rookie slugger Preston Tucker against Masahiro Tanaka. I generally am vociferously opposed to this, but there are certainly compelling reasons for wanting Gattis in the lineup. Since addressing his approach at the plate earlier this season, he's been more patient and chased fewer bad pitches. Like several other Astros on this list, he's put together a very solid (torrid, compared to earlier in the season for him) September and October, bear-pawing his way to a .270/.327/.490 (.817 OPS) slash line - each number well above his season marks. All told, he's seen second half improvements in wRC+ (113 second half, 89 first half), wOBA (.337 second half, .301 first half), ISO (.236 second half, .204 first half) and OPS (.794 second half, .712 first half) while continuing to be a positive, well-liked clubhouse personality. He is opposed by Alex Rodriguez, as legendary a right handed hitter as the game has in spite of his off the field issues over the past couple of seasons. After a horrendous, disastrous August, A-Rod has rebounded some in September and October by posting a .224/.325/.480 (.804 OPS) slash line in the final month plus three games of the regular season. Perhaps the most telling statistic for Alex Rodriguez to this point of the season is that his walk rate was lower (13.2%) in September and his strikeout rate (29.8%) was higher over these final weeks of the season than they were at any other point in his remarkable comeback season. He appears to be tiring down the stretch, and for that reason alone the Astros receive a slight edge from us in this category, too.
The Astros will run out one of the most dominant starting pitchers in the American League to face a left handed heavy New York Yankees lineup. Keuchel's stats - both the traditional "gramps" stats like wins and losses and ERA, as well as the more currently vogue metrics like FIP, xFIP, DRA, K/9, etc. - are largely well known. He's very, very good. He's pitching on three day's rest, but as this article by the Wall Street Journal examines, that might actually bode well for such an extreme ground ball pitcher. Masahiro Tanaka, meanwhile, has given up 25 home runs on the season. Seventeen of them have come in Yankee stadium. His HR/FB% against lefties in his home park is, again, 25.7%...while his HR/FB% in his home park is 14.8% to right handed batters. Yes, I've mentioned those statistics already in this article. The Astros are tied for the MLB lead with 230 home runs, and feature several powerful left handed bats. One metric of concern for Astros fans is that Tanaka is excellent at inducing hitters into chasing pitches out of the zone - he's pretty much the best in baseball (38.6%, which is actually second best) at getting hitters to chase his pitches out of the zone. Whereas the Astros are the second worst team in baseball (22.9%) at chasing pitches out of the zone. If Masahiro Tanaka is on his game and the Astros hitters are not, this could be a very low scoring affair. However, given the track records of each pitcher against the other team this year, I am giving the edge to Keuchel - he has, after all, held the Yankees scoreless for 22 consecutive innings, dating back to 2014.
This is where you'd also expect the Astros to have the edge, right? After all, they've had one of the best bullpens in all of baseball (even considering a terrible September) for the majority of this season.
Well, I wouldn't be so sure.
The thing about this game is, it's one and done. So a team doesn't really have to lean on their weaker arms, usually. An extra innings game might be one thing, but in a regulation nine inning single elimination game, I'll take the team with the more electric options, even if they're not as deep. The Astros have survived handily with one of the lowest average fastball velocities as a unit all season. They are opposed by Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, and several other fireballers for the New York Yankees. I believe in the Astros bullpen, but I believe we have to pounce on Tanaka early - because I truly don't think there's any beating the Yankees bullpen late in the game.
Examining each bench, the most notable players from Houston's bench are Marwin Gonzalez, Preston Tucker, Hank Conger, and Jake Marisnick - who is possessed of valuable speed if not much else from an offensive standpoint. Jed Lowrie hasn't been himself while dealing with nagging injuries, Jonathan Villar is primarily present as a pinch running option, and Matt Duffy to add a potential right handed bat against one of the Yankees strong left handed relievers. The Yankees boast Jacoby Ellsbury and his speed and veteran presence off the bench, John Ryan Murphy (who has been fairly hot recently), Brendan Ryan, Dustin Ackley, Slade Heathcott, and superhuman speedster Rico Noel off the bench. This is a tough one to call, but the advantage in my mind has to go to the team which has Preston Tucker, who was the fifth best hitter on the entire Astros roster from May through August, on the bench available to pinch hit. It's not a coincidence or a matter of luck that Tucker has come off the bench and delivered some huge clutch hits - he's hitting .360 with two home runs in high leverage situations, per fangraphs - at crucial times. He's a good hitter.
The Final Word
On paper, this appears to be the Astros' game to lose. They have their ace starting pitcher opposing a home run-prone right hander that they've already beaten once this year. Several key Yankees hitters are in the midst of slumps - some prolonged - while several key Astros hitters are surging. It's been convincing enough that Las Vegas has listed the Astros as favorites to win by 1.5 runs.
Several Astros fans have been noted on social media as skeptical of the Yankees considering themselves underdogs in this matchup. A common misconception is that the Yankees' $200 million payroll excludes them from the role of underdog. However, those who follow the ins and outs of the machinations of baseball front offices would probably agree that the baseball adage "money doesn't buy success" is absolutely true - you can spend a lot and succeed, and you can spend a lot and fail - and is personified no better than in the 2015 Yankees.
Make no mistake, sports fans. The Yankees are very much the underdogs tonight.