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Yankees vs. Astros: Previewing the ALCS pitching matchups

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The Astros’ offense is their calling card, so getting to their starters is even more important.

MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Astros had an historic campaign this year. While it’s easy to say that about any team during any given year, this isn’t hyperbole. It’s worth looking at the best single-season team offenses by wRC+ in the live-ball era:

1. 1927 Yankees: 126
2. 1930 Yankees: 124
3. 1931 Yankees: 124
4. 2017 Astros: 121
5. 1976 Reds: 120

Think about that for a second. Of all the teams in the past 97 years, the Yankees’ current ALCS opponent is among the best offenses of all of them. This means that on one side of the ball, they are going to be the hardest opponent they face in the postseason, no matter how far they go.

What that also means, though, is that what happens on the other side of the ball could be even more important. If we assume that the Astros will score more runs on average than even the best playoff opponent, then the Yankees need to also score more runs on average, even more than they usually would. That means their pitching matchups are critically important.

As of now, the Astros have two starters lined up, their co-aces: Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander. Keuchel, as we know, has had the Yankees’ number. He shut out the Yankees in the infamous 2015 Wild Card game, and his career split also reflects this. In six regular season starts, he has a .452 OPS allowed.

Verlander, unlike Keuchel, does not have those same splits. He has a .770 OPS allowed against the Yankees in his career, although that covers quite a few years. In reality, the important thing is that he’s a really great starter, one of the best of the era. After a 2014-15 stretch where he only had a 96 ERA+, he has bounced back to elite; he has a 136 ERA+ in his last 433.2 innings.

These two pitchers are the key, though. Lance McCullers (93 ERA+), Charlie Morton (109 ERA+), and Brad Peacock (132 ERA+) will certainly play a part, but their rotation is notably top-heavy. This is completely unlike the Yankees, where Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino, CC Sabathia, and Sonny Gray will pitch in that order; in the case where they’re at their best, it gives them the flexibility for their incredible bullpen, a weapon that the Astros likely won’t have.

If there’s one thing to be gleaned from all of this, it’s that the Yankees need to take at least one of those first two games—by that I mean they need to rock one of them. Get to the starter early, dig into their bullpen, and at least make one of the games where they have an ace flop. That puts the pressure on the underbelly of their rotation and bullpen. That was the only thing that gave the Red Sox a whiff of a chance, and you have to hope that a team with this level of resiliency gets more than that. I bet they do.