Astros vs. Yankees ALCS: Why this matchup involves better teams than 2017 ALCS meeting
Both teams have made upgrades up and down the roster
HOUSTON -- What felt like an inevitability throughout the summer is now a reality: The Houston Astros and New York Yankees will meet in the 2019 ALCS. The Yankees swept the Twins in the ALDS while the Astros needed the full five games to knock off the Rays. and .
"We're excited that we're here. The fact that they're here, congratulations to them," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said Friday. "I think this is a matchup that a lot of people around baseball expected ... Both teams deserve credit for winning as many games as we did and doing it with a lot of different names and a lot of different configurations of the roster."
The 2019 ALCS is a rematch of the 2017 ALCS. The Astros defeated the Yankees in seven games en route to the first World Series championship in franchise history two years ago. The home team won every game that series, and the Astros held the Yankees to three runs in four games at Minute Maid Park. The Astros again have homefield advantage in this year's ALCS.
The cores of the 2019 Astros and Yankees are mostly the same as the cores of the 2017 Astros and Yankees. It's still Alex Bregman and Aaron Judge, Justin Verlander and Luis Severino, Jose Altuve and Gary Sanchez. The supporting casts have changed these last two years, naturally, and both teams are better now than they were when they met in the 2017 ALCS.
|W-L||Runs scored||Runs allowed||Run differential|
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"Seven-game series, there's going to be a lot of emotion," Hinch said. "This is a rivalry that's been created over the last few years, and everybody will think back to the 2017 epic seven-game series and expect this to top it. I hope it does. And I hope it's the same result. I liked celebrating at the end of that one."
Over these last two years the Astros and Yankees have improved in similar ways, mostly by promoting from within and making shrewd free agent pickups. Here's how the 2019 Astros and Yankees are better than the 2017 versions.
The new starting pitchers
When the Astros beat the Yankees in the 2017 ALCS, their four starting pitchers were Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers Jr., and Charlie Morton. Verlander is still around and will start Game 2 on Sunday. Keuchel and Morton both left as free agents, however, and McCullers missed the 2019 season after Tommy John surgery.
Replacing Keuchel and Morton in the rotation, at least in terms of 2017 ALCS vs. 2019 ALCS, are Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke. Cole had a historically great regular season -- his 39.9 percent strikeout rate is the highest ever for a qualified starter -- and he was utterly dominant in the ALDS, striking out 25 Rays in two starts and 15 2/3 innings of one-run ball.
With all due respect to Keuchel and Morton, neither is Cole, and the 2019 Astros feature arguably the two best starters in baseball at the moment in Cole and Verlander. Greinke is no slouch either, and he can more than capably fill the "crafty veteran who frustrates hitters with the kitchen sink" role Keuchel filled in 2017. 2019 Cole and Greinke or 2017 Keuchel or Morton? I'll take the former.
The Yankees rotation is still led by Severino, their Game 3 starter, and Game 1 starter Masahiro Tanaka. Their latest big name rotation addition will start Game 2: James Paxton. For whatever reason Sonny Gray did not work out in New York, and the Yankees only started him in Game 4 of the 2017 ALCS because they had no other choice. Gray's spot now belongs to Paxton.
The overall season numbers are good but not overwhelming great (3.82 ERA and 3.38 K/BB), but Paxton hit his stride in late July, and pitched to a 2.51 ERA with 69 strikeouts in his final 11 starts and 61 innings. He became the first Yankee to win 10 consecutive starts since Ron Guidry won 11 straight in 1979. That's the guy the Yankees are getting in the ALCS over the New York version of Gray.
Here are the announced ALCS pitching matchups:
- Game 1: Tanaka vs. Greinke
- Game 2: Paxton vs. Verlander
- Game 3: Severino vs. Cole
- Game 4: TBA vs. TBA
Cole had to start Game 5 against the Rays on Thursday night, which is why he is not available to start Game 1 or 2 against New York. Both managers said they'll see how Games 1-3 go before deciding on a Game 4 starter. The Yankees will likely go with J.A. Happ, or pair him with an opener. The Astros could give the ball to Jose Urquidy. In 2017, Game 4 was McCullers vs. Gray.
The Astros and Yankees have both strengthened their rotation since the 2017 ALDS. Houston allowed Keuchel and Morton to walk, replacing them with Cole and Greinke. The Yankees effectively swapped Gray for Paxton. Upgrades for both clubs.
The new kids
Within the last five years or so, the Astros and Yankees have been two of the best player development organizations in the game. This current Astros team is built around homegrown stars like Altuve, Bregman, Carlos Correa, and George Springer. Yordan Alvarez joined the mix in 2019. The rookie masher clubbed 27 homers in 87 MLB games this season, plus another 23 in Triple-A.
The Astros used Carlos Beltran and Evan Gattis as their primary DHs in 2017. Beltran is a future Hall of Famer, but he was at the end of the line that year, managing only an 81 OPS+ during the regular season. Gattis was a good yet flawed hitter who had big power and would post low on-base percentages. Alvarez, 22, represents a substantial DH upgrade from 2017 to 2019 for the Astros.
Similar to the Astros, the Yankees are built around homegrown stars like Judge, Sanchez, and Severino. Gleyber Torres was called up last year -- as was Rookie of the Year runner-up Miguel Andujar, though he missed most of 2019 with shoulder surgery -- and the 22-year-old wunderkind is already a two-time All-Star. Torres put on a show against the Twins in the ALDS.
Back in 2017 the Yankees employed Starlin Castro, a solid big-leaguer, at second base. Castro was (and still is) prone to being overly aggressive at the plate, and he went 5 for 24 (.208) with eight strikeouts in the 2017 ALCS. He was largely a non-factor, similar to Beltran and Gattis for the Astros. Now the Yankees have the wildly talented Torres manning second base.
It seems like the Astros and Yankees have broken in a new top prospect each year the last four or five years running. Alvarez spent 2017 in Class A. Torres played in Double-A and Triple-A that year, and needed Tommy John surgery at midseason. They were a long way from the ALCS. This year Alvarez and Torres will be front and center.
The stud free agents
Bryce Harper and Manny Machado were the big names on the free agent market. The Astros and Yankees ignored them both. Well, no, the Yankees did wine-and-dine Machado, but that's about it. , but they didn't pursue him as a free agent.
Instead, the Astros and Yankees sought upgrades on short-term contracts. That led the Astros to Michael Brantley (two years and $32 million) and the Yankees to DJ LeMahieu (two years and $24 million), both of whom outproduced Harper and Machado in 2019:
- DJ LeMahieu, Yankees: 6.0 WAR
- Michael Brantley, Astros: 4.7 WAR
- Bryce Harper, Phillies: 4.2 WAR
- Manny Machado, Padres: 3.1 WAR
Marwin Gonzalez was Houston's primary left fielder during the 2017 ALCS. He had a career year that year (146 OPS+) but ultimately fell flat against the Yankees during the ALCS, going 3 for 22 (.136). That left field spot -- and middle of the lineup spot -- now belongs to Brantley. Would you rather have 2017 Marwin and Beltran/Gattis or 2019 Alvarez and Brantley? Yeah, me too.
It's impossible to say who LeMahieu replaces relative to the 2017 ALCS because he plays so many different positions. The Yankees have used him at first base in the postseason, though LeMahieu started more games at second (66) and third (47) than first (28) during the regular season. They're comfortable with him anywhere, and he adds a high-contact presence their 2017 lineup lacked.
Rather than pursue the big names last offseason, the Astros and Yankees went for lower cost value buys in Brantley and LeMahieu, and they have been rewarded handsomely. Every free agent signing should work out so well. Those two bring a fresh and exciting element to the 2019 ALCS.
New-look relief crews
The Astros had major bullpen questions heading into the 2017 postseason. Closer Ken Giles had some high-profile meltdowns during the regular season and setup man Chris Devenski faded a bit in September. Others like Luke Gregerson and Joe Musgrove did not inspire much confidence with the game on the line. The bullpen was a concern that year.
How did the Astros solve it? They used their starters out of the bullpen. McCullers recorded a four-inning save in Game 7 of the ALCS, Brad Peacock got a 3 2/3-inning save in Game 3 of the World Series, and Charlie Morton closed out Game 7 of the World Series with a four-inning save. Hinch avoided his relievers whenever possible. That's how they solved their bullpen problem.
This year's Astros have a more formidable bullpen. Roberto Osuna has been far more stable in the ninth inning that Giles was during his time in Houston. Ryan Pressly has been outrageously good since joining the Astros, though late-season knee surgery did throw him off track a bit. Will Harris had the best season of his career in 2019. Houston's 2019 bullpen is more reliable than their 2017 unit.
The Yankees clearly place a premium on having a deep and powerful bullpen given how much they've invested in it (both in money and trade chips) in recent years. Closer Aroldis Chapman and setup men Chad Green and Tommy Kahnle remain from the 2017 ALCS relief crew. Veteran righty David Robertson has been replaced by Zack Britton and Adam Ottavino, giving added depth.
Also, while Dellin Betances was active for the 2017 ALCS, he was persona non grata at the time. Betances really struggled late in the regular season, allowing seven runs and 11 walks in his final 12 2/3 innings. Then-manager Joe Girardi didn't trust him much in the postseason. Betances is hurt now, so he and Robertson have been replaced on the roster by Britton and Ottavino.
The Astros and Yankees use their pitching staffs very differently. The Astros ride their starters deep into the game because those guys are aces who can pitch deep. The Yankees prefer to get their bullpen involved as early as possible. Compared to 2017, both teams will go into this year's ALCS with a better and deeper relief crew.
That Stanton guy
Oh yeah, the Yankees have added Giancarlo Stanton since these teams last played in the postseason, and he doesn't fit neatly into any category because the Astros don't have an obvious counterpart. The Yankees acquired Stanton on the cheap following his 2017 NL MVP season, though various injuries limited him to 18 regular season games in 2019. He's healthy now though.
Stanton went 1 for 6 (.167) with four walks (.455 on-base percentage) in the ALDS as the Twins pitched around him. He saw nothing but breaking balls away in the ALDS and I imagine the Astros will employ a similar strategy, though they also have the high-octane fastballs to challenge him up in the strike zone. Also, the Yankees have Edwin Encarnacion now, and he's still a big threat.
Do you know who the Yankees used at DH in the 2017 ALCS? Chase Headley. He had a perfectly league average 100 OPS+ that year. That's who Encarnacion is replacing. Stanton effectively replaces Aaron Hicks, who is on the 2019 ALCS roster, but is coming off an elbow injury and is unlikely to start. Brett Gardner goes from left to center with Stanton settling into left field.
Between Encarnacion, LeMahieu, Stanton, and Torres, the 2019 Yankees look quite a bit different than the 2017 team that faced the Astros in the ALCS. The side-by-side comparison of their ALCS starting position players:
|2017 Yankees in ALCS||2019 Yankees in ALCS|
C Gary Sanchez
C Gary Sanchez
1B Greg Bird
1B DJ LeMahieu
2B Starlin Castro
2B Gleyber Torres
SS Didi Gregorius
3B Todd Frazier
3B Gio Urshela
LF Brett Gardner
LF Giancarlo Stanton
CF Aaron Hicks
CF Brett Gardner
RF Aaron Judge
RF Aaron Judge
DH Chase Headley
DH Edwin Encarnacion
The 2019 Yankees scored almost 100 more runs than the 2017 Yankees -- they hit 65 more home runs too -- and it's pretty easy to see why when you compare their ALCS lineups side-by-side. Since the 2017 ALCS the Yankees have upgraded three of the four infield positions, one outfield spot, and their DH spot. This lineup doesn't resemble what the Astros saw two years.
As for the Astros, the only differences between their 2017 and 2019 ALCS lineups are Gonzalez to Brantley in left, Beltran/Gattis to Alvarez at DH, and Brian McCann to Robinson Chirinos/Martin Maldonado at catcher. Brantley and Alvarez are clear upgrades, otherwise it's the same core group, and hey, that's fine. The Astros have a heck of a lineup. They didn't need to make many upgrades.
The 2017 ALCS was only two years ago but a lot -- a lot -- has changed since then. Both the Astros and Yankees have upgraded their starting rotation, added quality youngsters and free agents to their lineup, and overhauled their primary bullpen arms. The young cores are pretty much the same, the Bregmans and the Judges. Everything else is a reminder that these two clubs are much better now than they were just two postseasons ago.
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