Yankees vs. Astros: Prediction, how to watch and things to know as two AL division leaders meet in New York

NEW YORK -- Thursday night, the New York Yankees and Houston Astros open a four-game series at Yankee Stadium. The two powerhouses have predictably been among the best teams in baseball this season, and this weekend's series is a potential postseason preview.

Here are the five best records in baseball going into Thursday's series opener:

  1. Los Angeles Dodgers: 50-25
  2. Minnesota Twins: 48-25 (1 GB)
  3. Houston Astros: 48-27 (2 GB)
  4. New York Yankees: 46-27 (3 GB)
  5. Atlanta Braves: 44-31 (6 GB)

The Yankees and Astros go into this series riding very different streaks. New York has won five straight games, including an authoritative three-game game sweep over the Rays earlier this week. Reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell did not make it out of the first inning in Wednesday afternoon's series finale. The Yankees have a season-best 3 1/2-game lead in the AL East.

The Astros, meanwhile, have lost four straight games, including the last three to the Reds. Closer Roberto Osuna blew a 2-1 lead on a Jesse Winker walk-off single in Wednesday afternoon's series finale. The four-game losing streak is Houston's longest of the season and their longest overall since a five-gamer last August. They still have an 8 1/2-game lead in the AL West.

Here are the details for this week's four-game series in the Bronx:

DateStart TimeStarting PitchersTV

Thurs., June 20

7:05 p.m. ET

RHP Chad Green (1-2, 7.54) vs. LHP Framber Valdez (3-2, 2.77)

YES, AT&T SportsNet Southwest

Fri. June 21

7:05 p.m. ET

LHP James Paxton (4-3, 3.93) vs. RHP Brad Peacock (6-4, 3.67)

WPIX, AT&T SportsNet Southwest, MLBN

Sat., June 22

7:15 p.m. ET

RHP Masahiro Tanaka (5-5, 3.23) vs. LHP Wade Miley (6-4, 3.30)

Fox

Sun. June 23

2:05 p.m. ET

LHP J.A. Happ (7-3, 4.59) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (9-3, 2.59)

YES, AT&T SportsNet Southwest, MLBN

Games on YES Network, Fox and AT&T SportsNet Southwest can be streamed regionally with fuboTV (try for free).

"We know when they come in, it's a great club. Obviously a club we may have to go through to realize our ultimate goal," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said earlier this week. "You know any time you're playing a team like the Astros, you're playing an elite club and you have to play really well to have a chance to beat them. But that's about as far as I look at it. I don't look at it as a measuring stick or anything like that. It's one game at a time."

Because it is Yankees vs. Astros, prepare yourselves for many photos of 5-foot-6 Jose Altuve and 6-foot-7 Aaron Judge standing side-by-side these next few days. They make for wonderful broadcast fodder. Anyway, here is what you need to know going into this weekend's 2017 ALCS rematch at Yankee Stadium:

The Astros hold the season series edge

This is the second meeting of the season between these two teams. Back in April, in the fourth series of the season, the Astros swept three games from the Yankees at Minute Maid Park in Houston. Here is the series recap:

The Astros won all three games in come-from-behind fashion. The Yankees had a lead in all three games, including a seventh inning lead in the first two games of their series. Their vaunted bullpen blew it late twice in that series.

Even with the sweep in Houston earlier this year, the Yankees and Astros are a dead even 5-5 in head-to-head games since Opening Day 2018. The Yankees have scored 39 runs in those 10 games. The Astros? They've scored 38. Pretty even, that is.

Judge is expected back Friday

View Profile
Aaron Judge NYY • RF • 99
BA.288
R13
HR5
RBI11
SB2

The Yankees added Edwin Encarnacion (trade) and Giancarlo Stanton (return from IL) to their lineup earlier this week. On Friday, they are expected to welcome Aaron Judge back from the injured list as well. He has been out since April 20 with an oblique strain.

Judge went 2 for 16 with a home run and seven strikeouts during his five-game Triple-A rehab assignment. He is expected to be activated Friday after meeting the team in New York and having a rest day Thursday.

Judge's return will force the Yankees to make a tough roster decision -- Cameron Maybin and his .307/.383/.491 batting line appears most in danger of losing his roster spot -- though it will add another potent power bat to a lineup that is averaging the fourth most runs per game (5.48) and has hit the sixth most home runs (117) in baseball despite all their injuries this year.

Houston's offense is struggling

The Astros welcomed back a star player of their own earlier this week. Jose Altuve, who beat Judge out for the 2017 AL MVP award, returned from his hamstring injury Wednesday. He missed 36 games and went 0 for 4 in his first game back.

View Profile
Jose Altuve HOU • 2B • 27
BA.236
R21
HR9
RBI21
SB1

The Astros hope Altuve's return will reignite their offense because wow, have their bats struggled lately. Houston has scored seven runs total during its four-game losing streak, and the team has gone 3 for 23 (.130) with runners in scoring position in those four games. That's usually how it works, right? An offense struggles when those hits with men in scoring position don't come.

Of course, you only need to look back to last week to see what the Astros can do offensively. They scored 10 runs against the Brewers last Tuesday and dropped 15 on the Blue Jays last Friday. Even with George Springer (hamstring) and Carlos Correa (rib) out, manager A.J. Hinch can still build his lineup around Altuve, Alex Bregman, Michael Brantley, and Yordan Alvarez.

Every team -- every single team -- goes through tough stretches like the one the Astros are going through right now. It is part of the long 162-game season. Houston will snap out of it soon enough, likely this weekend in a very home run happy ballpark given the talent on the roster. The last few games haven't gone well. I don't expect it to last much longer.

Thursday's pitching matchup is ... unexpected

I can't imagine many people anticipated a Chad Green vs. Framber Valdez pitching matchup on June 20. It took quite a series of events for both teams to end up here.

For the Yankees, injuries to Luis Severino (shoulder, lat), Domingo German (hip), and Jonathan Loaisiga (shoulder) have forced them to improvise. Green, who has been one of their top setup men the last few years, has been working as an opener the last few weeks. The combined numbers for Green and the long man who has followed him are pretty good:

GamesRecordInningsERAStrikeout RateWalk RateHome Run Rate

5

5-0

27 2/3

4.29

31.5%

5.4%

0.98 per 9 IP

Considering the average American League starter has a 4.57 ERA this season, I'd say getting a 4.29 ERA from your makeshift eighth starter is pretty good. The Yankees will try to get two innings from Green on Thursday night with finesse lefty Nestor Cortes likely to follow as the bulk innings guy, which he's done three times already. Righty David Hale is the other option.

As for the Astros, Valdez is in their rotation because Collin McHugh struggled earlier this year and was demoted to the bullpen (and eventually landed on the injured list), and hotshot rookie Corbin Martin struggled in his five-start cameo (5.59 ERA). Valdez pitched to a 3.12 ERA in 26 relief innings before moving into the rotation. Thursday will be his third start. He allowed three runs in 13 innings in his first two starts combined, though the Yankees are a tad more formidable than the Orioles and Blue Jays.

Baseball America ranked Valdez as the seventh best prospect in Houston's system coming into the season, and, personally, he is one of my favorite pitchers to watch right now. The movement Valdez gets on his fastball and curveball is cartoonish:

Green vs. Valdez may not be the big name pitching matchup many were expecting this series, but it'll be fun in its own way.

These are two very modern pitching staffs

Sticking with the pitching theme, I don't think there are two teams that better exemplify pitching in the year 2019 than the Astros and Yankees. Both staffs throw very hard, they elevate their fastball, they have high spin rates on everything, and they strike out a ton of batters. 

Here are numbers and each team's MLB rank in parenthesis:


Astros Yankees

Average fastball velocity

94.8 mph (1st)

93.8 mph (7th)

Average fastball spin rate

2,412 rpm (1st)

2,340 rpm (5th)

Average breaking ball spin rate

2,672 rpm (1st)

2,470 rpm (10th)

Strikeout rate

27.4% (1st)

25.1% (6th)

The Astros are tops in the game across the board and the Yankees still manage to rank pretty high in everything despite getting a combined zero pitches from velocity and spin rate (and strikeout rate) darlings Luis Severino and Dellin Betances this season. These two pitching staffs throw hard and can really spin the ball. That is baseball in the modern era.

On the offensive side, the Astros have the second lowest strikeout rate (18.0 percent) in baseball while the Yankees have the 12th lowest (22.6 percent). New York is a tick better than the 22.8 percent league average, though with Stanton and Judge back, the team strikeout rate will inevitably tick up a notch going forward. Those two are the only high strikeout hitters in the lineup though. This weekend pits two strikeout-heavy pitching staffs against two lineups that don't strike out excessively.

Prediction

It's a cop out, sure, but with two teams this good, I am predicting a four-game split. I'll call it alternating wins and losses: Green and his opener pals stifle the Astros on Thursday, Peacock outduels Paxton on Friday, New York's power righty bats overwhelm Miley on Saturday, and Verlander dominates the Yankees on Sunday. Although the game results are obviously important, I'm guessing the Astros want to see Altuve healthy and the Yankees want to see Stanton and Judge healthy more than anything these next four days. Getting those guys back up to speed as soon as possible equals a lot of wins going forward.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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