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New York, New York: Potential Playoff Contender

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Will we see an Encore of last year’s epic ALCS?

League Championship Series - New York Yankees v Houston Astros - Game Seven Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Now that the American League playoff bracket is set, we’re examining the Houston Astros potential playoff opponents at The Crawfish Boxes. A couple of fantastic team profiles have already been published here, so if you haven’t seen the article on the Boston Red Sox or Oakland Athletics, check them out! There’s also a nice breakdown by Theo as to why the Cleveland Indians may present a favorable playoff matchup for the Astros.

Today, I will analyze the team the Astros faced in last year’s American League Championship Series: The New York Yankees. Apparently, the Baby Bombers made the Yankees lovable again last Fall.

Even though they will always be the Evil Empire to me, there’s no denying the Yankees are a good team—one of three 100-win teams in the AL this season. If the Astros and Yankees are to meet in the 2018 postseason, it will be a rematch of last year’s ALCS—and I’d venture to say most Astros fans would agree to a shot at returning to the World Series in a New York minute, no matter who the opponent. In anticipation of a potential encore ALCS, let’s compare how the two teams fared this season.

Standings

Team W-L Win % Home Road Exp W-L Exp Win % Pythag W-L Pythag Win % Run Diff .500+ 1-Run Last 30 SOS SRS RPI
Team W-L Win % Home Road Exp W-L Exp Win % Pythag W-L Pythag Win % Run Diff .500+ 1-Run Last 30 SOS SRS RPI
Astros 103-59 0.636 46-35 57-24 112-50 0.690 109-53 0.673 263 41-38 24-24 22-8 0.506 1.5 0.539
Yankees 100-62 0.617 53-28 47-34 100-62 0.617 99-63 0.611 182 41-30 23-17 16-14 0.496 0.9 0.526

The Astros have the edge over the Yankees in nearly every team standings metric. Houston finished three games ahead of New York in the final standings and had a whopping 10- and 12-game cushion using the Pythagorean and Expected Win-Loss calculations, respectively. The Astros are the first team to win 100 games in consecutive seasons since the St. Louis Cardinals in 2004-05, and the first defending champion to win 100 games since Oakland in 1990. I could go on and on about the franchise records Houston set this season (Wins – 103; Road wins – 57, second-most in MLB since 1961; Road wins in consecutive seasons – 110, an MLB record; Run differential – +263, third-most since Divisional Era (1969); Winning streak – 12, tied for most in a single season).

A contrarian point of view is that the metrics suggest the Astros underachieved a bit during the regular season. The Yankees had a much better record against teams .500 or above than Houston and were also more adept at winning one-run ballgames. That may help explain the relative proximity in the standings between the two teams, despite the Astros having a much higher run differential than New York. In fact, the Astros improved their run differential greatly this season compared to last (263 in 2018 vs. 196 in 2017), whereas the Yankees actually had a smaller run differential than last year (182 in 2018 vs. 198 in 2017).

A couple final notes: Simple Rating System (SRS) shows how many runs per game better (or worse) a team was than the average team that year; so, the Astros were 1.5 runs better than the average team in 2018 (best in MLB; Yankees were fourth). The Relative Power Index (RPI) was extracted from ESPN. Houston had the second-highest RPI this season, and the Yankees were ranked fourth. And, for what it’s worth, the Astros played a more difficult schedule than New York and have been hotter over the last month of the season.

Batting

Team AVG OBP SLG OPS OPS+ wOBA wRC+ K% BB% fWAR
Team AVG OBP SLG OPS OPS+ wOBA wRC+ K% BB% fWAR
Astros 0.250 0.329 0.425 0.754 109 0.326 110 19.5% 9.2% 24.7
Yankees 0.249 0.329 0.451 0.780 108 0.335 111 22.7% 10.0% 29.4

There are a lot of similarities in the team offensive statistics for the Astros and Yankees. New York hits for more power, walks a little more, and produces runs at a greater rate than Houston, and the Astros strike out a lot less. The Yankees slightly increased their run-scoring average from 5.19 in 2017 to 5.25 runs per game this year—which was second in baseball (Boston led with 5.41 runs per game, identical to Houston’s average in 2017)—not the gargantuan increase expected with the addition of 2017 National League MVP Giancarlo Station, but the lineup was hampered a bit by a wrist injury that cost Aaron Judge seven weeks of action (which our comrades at Pinstripe Alley wrote about). Of course, the Astros’ offense was also hindered by injuries to George Springer, Jose Altuve, and Carlos Correa.

Despite Judge’s 45-game absence—during which New York went 25-20—he still led the Yankees offense in WAR, whether you go by Baseball Reference (5.5) or FanGraphs (5.0). And the Yankees still led baseball in home runs by a wide margin, slugging an MLB record 267 longballs (the Los Angeles Dodgers were second with 235). Stanton paced New York with 38 home runs this season, and four Yankees each hit 27 homers (Judge, Didi Gregorius, Miguel Andujar, and Aaron Hicks). Houston ranked 11th in home runs (205) and only Alex Bregman eclipsed 25 home runs.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Although the Yankees only hit .249 as a team (8th in AL, 16th in Bigs), their slugging-percentage (.451) was second in baseball—narrowly behind the Red Sox (.453)—and they were third in walks (625). The aforementioned Hicks was a surprise contributor for the Yankees. The switch-hitting veteran was second on the team in WAR (fWAR – 4.9; bWAR – 4.7) and had the fifth-most walks in the AL (90). Rookie third-baseman Miguel Andujar had an outstanding offensive season (not so much defensively) in which he finished Top 10 in the AL in batting average (.297), slugging percentage (.527), hits (170), total bases (302), doubles (47), and extra-base hits (76). The Astros received contributions from a few unexpected sources as well, namely Tyler White and Tony Kemp, and Bregman ambushed the league with an MVP-caliber season.

When healthy, these are two of the best offenses in baseball. The Yankees can mash, but they also strike out at a much higher rate than the Astros. A key factor is the status of a few ailing superstars. Judge has only played 13 games since returning from the disabled list, Gregorius is banged up with nagging heel and wrist injuries, and Gary Sanchez is having a lousy season. Similarly, Springer has been managing a thumb injury that’s sapped some of his power, Correa hasn’t been himself since his back injury, and Brian McCann is still rounding into form following knee surgery. All of these guys will play, but their performance may be limited. I’m tempted to give New York a slight edge here because of the power numbers, but I prefer the mix of patience and aggression the Astros display (second-best K% and fifth-best BB% in MLB). Let’s call it a push.

Starting Pitching

Team IP ERA FIP xFIP K/9 BB/9 K-BB% HR/9 WHIP BABIP fWAR
Team IP ERA FIP xFIP K/9 BB/9 K-BB% HR/9 WHIP BABIP fWAR
Astros 955.1 3.16 3.28 3.37 10.37 2.81 20.6% 0.94 1.12 0.284 22.5
Yankees 861.2 4.05 3.84 3.77 9.20 2.79 16.9% 1.15 1.26 0.302 16.9

Let’s not even mess around here: The Astros have the best starting rotation in baseball. Houston’s starters led MLB in ERA, FIP, K/9, K%, K-BB%, LOB% and were second in IP, xFIP, WHIP, HR/9, fWAR. The only area the Yankees come close to the Astros is BB/9, and that difference is negligible.

Luis Severino, CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka have, at times, all been good-to-great pitchers for the Yankees, and the trade for J.A. Happ has certainly bolstered New York’s starting staff. But the Astros have three starters capable of finishing in the Top 10 of the Cy Young race this year (Verlander, Cole, Morton), whereas the Yankees have only one (Severino). And Dallas Keuchel, who has had a resurgent second half, typically steps it up against the Yankees.

Big advantage to Houston.

Bullpen

Team IP ERA FIP xFIP K/9 BB/9 K-BB% HR/9 WHIP BABIP fWAR
Team IP ERA FIP xFIP K/9 BB/9 K-BB% HR/9 WHIP BABIP fWAR
Astros 499.2 3.03 3.14 3.33 10.56 2.47 22.3% 0.94 1.06 0.281 8.2
Yankees 594.2 3.38 3.33 3.38 11.40 3.44 21.1% 1.01 1.21 0.297 9.7

There is much more of a debate to be had about which is the best bullpen in baseball, and these two teams headline that conversation. The Yankees have Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, Dellin Betances, and Zach Britton, amongst others. The Astros have Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressly, Collin McHugh, and likely McCullers, Jr. Each side has star power and under-the-radar options that can be trusted.

The Astros bullpen led the league in ERA, FIP, and xFIP, and the Yankees were in the Top 4 of all those categories, too. The Yankees bullpen struck out hitters a higher clip, but also walked nearly a full batter more per nine innings than the Astros (who had the lowest BB/9 in MLB). Houston relievers permitted the least amount of hard contact in the Majors (28.6%), whereas New York was fairly average (35.6%, 16th in MLB). The Astros bullpen also had the lowest batting-average against (.212) and WHIP in the Majors by a large margin; the Yankees ranked in the Top 5 in both (.219 Opponents’ BA, 1.21 WHIP). Astros relievers stranded runners at the highest rate in MLB (78.8 LOB%) and the Yankees were middle of the pack (74.7 LOB%) in that regard.

It will be interesting to see which relievers make the postseason roster for the Astros and how the bullpen is utilized. Houston relied on converted starters out of the ‘pen last year in the playoffs because it was difficult to trust any of the relievers (Astros’ bullpen ranked 17th in ERA in 2017). Fortunately, that approach worked out well for the Astros against the Yankees last year, but the bullpen is more reliable heading into the playoffs this season. Going by the numbers, I believe there is enough evidence to say the Astros bullpen has the edge, but it’s certainly an area of strength for both teams.

Fielding

Team Fielding % DefEff wOBACON xwOBACON xwOBACON - wOBACON 1-10% (Remote) 10-40% (Unlikely) 40-60% (About Even) 60-90% (Likely) 90-100% (Almost Certain)
Team Fielding % DefEff wOBACON xwOBACON xwOBACON - wOBACON 1-10% (Remote) 10-40% (Unlikely) 40-60% (About Even) 60-90% (Likely) 90-100% (Almost Certain)
Astros 0.989 0.717 0.353 0.342 -0.011 5.6% (160) 35.3% (122) 53.3% (105) 82.1% (201) 98.1% (2310)
Yankees 0.984 0.700 0.375 0.365 -0.010 4.3% (162) 26.2% (149) 43.4% (99) 80.3% (213) 97.5% (2418)

As I was scrolling through the comments of HebrewHammah’s playoff profile of the Red Sox, I noticed a suggestion from Willie McGee’s Twin to include wOBACON and xwOBACON in the Fielding table as a measure of team defense (thanks for the recommendation, WMT). Ask, and ye shall receive. I added wOBACON and xwOBACON along with the original fielding metrics used by HH, just to maintain consistency.

As mentioned by HH, DRS/UZR are not great tools to measure defense for a single season (they require larger samples to normalize), so I will not extrapolate much from those statistics. The Astros had a better Defensive Efficiency than the Yankees this year, which means they produced a greater percentage of balls in play into outs.

wOBACON and xwOBACON represent the actual and expected weighted on-base average, respectively, when contact is made. I’m not yet entirely familiar with the use of xwOBACON minus wOBACON as a measure of team defense, but from what I can surmise the difference between the two figures can be interpreted as a result of a combination of factors, including luck and the ability of defenders to produce outs when contact is made (see comment from Willie McGee’s Twin below for a more thorough explanation). For the Astros and Yankees, there is no meaningful difference when subtracting wOBACON from xwOBACON. (Note: The Fielding table was updated to reflect current wOBACON and xwOBACON statistics)

I also investigated the Inside Edge Fielding statistics from FanGraphs. A good summary on how to interpret these stats is provided here and here. Simply put, the Inside Edge Fielding categories represent how often a player at that position has made a very similar play. As can be seen in the Fielding table, the Astros were more likely to record an out on any play, regardless of difficulty, than New York. Houston was particularly more adept at making the “Unlikely” or “About Even” plays than the Yankees. (Note: The numbers in parentheses refer to the number of opportunities in a given category).

On an individual level, the Yankees have been weak defensively at third base. Andujar had the second-worst DRS in baseball (-25, which seems bad enough to report). He did not convert any of his “Remote” opportunities into outs and was successful on only 7% and 11% of his “Unlikely” and “About Even” chances, respectively—all of which ranked last or next-to-last in MLB. Conversely, Bregman converted 3.9% of his “Remote” chances into outs, which—while admittedly small—was still fourth-best in the league. He also made 25.0% and 47.6% of his “Unlikely” and “About Even” chances, respectively, which were Top 10.

The Yankees are strong defensively at shortstop with Gregorius, but so are the Astros with Correa, who actually led all shortstops in percentage of “Unlikely” and “About Even” plays made—albeit, in fewer chances than many of his counterparts, primarily due to his extended absence. Both clubs have talented and underrated defenders in the outfield (Judge is Top 20 in all of baseball in DRS and UZR and Josh Reddick was sixth amongst all outfielders in “Unlikely” plays converted into outs), even if they don’t have the strongest arms.

Catcher could present itself as a position of interest as well. Martin Maldonado ranked in the Top 2 of catchers in “Remote,” “Unlikely,” and “About Even” plays made. Sanchez did not play enough to qualify, but we are all familiar with his defensive foils.

League Championship Series - New York Yankees v Houston Astros - Game Two Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Additionally, Maldonado has thrown out 46.4% of would-be basestealers, whereas Sanchez has only thrown out 25.8%.

Defense had a strong impact on the outcome of last year’s ALCS. The Astros recorded crucial outs on the basepaths that the Yankees could not. In Game 1, Marwin Gonzalez threw out Greg Bird at the plate to preserve the lead in a win that was ultimately decided by one run. In Game 2, Brett Gardner was thrown out trying to stretch a double with two outs and, of course, Sanchez literally dropped the ball when Altuve would’ve been out by feet in extra innings. In Game 7, Bird was out at the plate again, this time by Bregman, in really the only threat the Yankees posed that evening.

All those TOOTBLANs add up. Ultimately, I give the Astros the advantage on defense.

Manager

The Yankees manager is first-year skipper Aaron Boone, so obviously this will be his first time managing in the postseason. Boone is no stranger to the drama presented by the playoffs, however—he sent the Yankees to the 2003 World Series with a walkoff home run in extra innings against the Red Sox in Game 7 at Yankee Stadium—and he has done an admirable job leading New York to a 100-win season.

World Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Houston Astros - Game Four Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Meanwhile, AJ Hinch has overseen consecutive 100-win seasons in Houston and deftly maneuvered the Astros to a World Series title last year. This will be the third time Hinch has led the Astros to the playoffs, and they are looking to become the first team to repeat since the 1998-2000 Yankees. Hinch’s managerial experience, regular season and playoffs, gives him the edge here, but I like Boone and expect him to push the right buttons.

Advantage Astros.

Conclusions

Any potential opponent for the Astros in the ALCS will be a tough challenge. If it’s Astros-Yankees for the second time in as many years, it should be another classic. By the numbers, the Astros appear to have an edge in most facets over the Yankees, though the offense and bullpen advantage can certainly tilt either way. If the rematch does happens, I’ll probably be headed to New York again. Even though we lost both games I attended (and I think we only scored one run in the two games combined), it ultimately worked out well last time, right?

Crawfish Bites

  • This is the seventh season in which three teams have won 100+ games, most recently occurring last year (Dodgers, Indians, Astros)
  • Per ESPN, 37% of teams with 100+ wins have won the World Series
  • Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole became the first pair of teammates to strike out 250+ batters since the Diamondbacks’ Randy Johnson (334) and Curt Schilling (316) in 2002.
  • The last two teammates to finish 1-2 in MLB in Strikeouts were Verlander (239) and Max Scherzer (231) with the Detroit Tigers in 2012
  • The Astros were the only team to have three pitchers toss 200+ innings this season
  • Aroldis Chapman ranked 2nd in MLB in average Fastball Velocity this season (98.9 MPH)
  • According to Baseball Info Solutions, Masahiro Tanaka tied for the MLB lead in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) for Pitchers this season (DRS of 7.0)
  • Aaron Judge had the fourth-highest average Exit Velocity in MLB (95.0 MPH) and Giancarlo Stanton was sixth-best (94.9 MPH)
  • The 11-highest exit velocities on a batted ball this season all belong to Yankees, and each generated an Exit Velocity of 119 MPH or greater
  • Stanton has nine of the 11, including the hardest hit ball of the season (121.7 MPH – Home Run). Gary Sanchez has the second-highest (121.1 MPH – Fly Out) and Judge the fifth-highest (119.9 MPH – Single)
  • Keuchel is the first Astros pitcher since Roy Oswalt to throw 200 innings in at least three different seasons with the club