We all knew this was coming, didn’t we? The clash of the two major titans has loomed large over the American League ever since it became clear that the Boston Red Sox were mere mortals. Only death, taxes, and Thanos could rival its inevitability.
Despite needing to take the Tampa Bay Rays to Game Five in order to win, this is truly among the worst possible outcomes for the Yankees, as the Astros have both the best lineup and pitching staff of all the teams left in the postseason. Not to mention, the last time these two teams faced off in the ALCS, the Yankees ended up on the losing end of Game Seven.
But that doesn’t mean things are going to go the same way this time around.
The Yankees had the second-best lineup in the AL in both 2017 and 2019, according to OPS+ (they were second-best in 2017 in terms of runs scored, and led the AL in 2019). In all honesty, this is more of an indictment of American League lineups in 2017, as the 2017 Yankees had merely a 105 OPS+.
This was the lineup that they trotted out in Game Seven in 2017, complete with their season statlines:
- Brett Gardner, LF, .264/.350/.428, 104 OPS+
- Aaron Judge, RF .284/.422/.627, 171 OPS+
- Didi Gregorius, SS .287/.318/.478, 106 OPS+
- Gary Sanchez, C .278/.345/.531, 126 OPS+
- Greg Bird, 1B .190/.288/.422, 84 OPS+
- Starlin Castro, 2B .300/.338/.454, 106 OPS+
- Aaron Hicks, CF .266/.372/.475, 122 OPS+
- Todd Frazier, 3B .222/.365/.423, 107 OPS+
- Chase Headley, DH .273/.352/.406, 100 OPS+
Everybody in the Yankees lineup, with the exception of Greg Bird, finished the season at least league average — and, if you remember, Bird was in the midst of one of his few hot streaks. However, it does not hold a candle to the lineup that the Yankees have put out in each of the last three games:
- DJ LeMahieu, 2B .327/.375/.518, 136 OPS+
- Aaron Judge, RF .272/.381/.921, 143 OPS+
- Brett Gardner, CF .251/.325/.503, 117 OPS+
- Edwin Encarnacion, DH .249/.325/.531, 123 OPS+ (44 games)
- Giancarlo Stanton, LF .288/.403/.492, 138 OPS+ (18 games)
- Gleyber Torres, 2B .278/.337/.535, 128 OPS+
- Gary Sanchez, C .232/.316/.525, 119 OPS+
- Didi Gregorius, SS .238/.276/.441, 87 OPS+
- Gio Urshela, 3B .314/.355/.534, 133 OPS+
Although two of the team’s biggest bats have admittedly small sample sizes on the season, the improvement is obvious, especially adjusted for league average. Five 2019 Yankees have higher OPS+ than the second-best hitter on the 2017 Yankees. The Yankees may be facing one of the best pitching staffs in the league, but they’re doing it with some of the best hitters in baseball.
The Four Horsemen and Friends
The 2017 Yankees initiated the “super-bullpen” as a core function of the Yankees. The trade deadline acquisitions of David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle from the White Sox bolstered a bullpen that had been leading the league in blown saves up until that point. That led to the creation of a bullpen that added Robertson and Kahnle, two closer-quality arms, to Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Chad Green, and Adam Warren.
Despite losing Robertson and Betances to free agency and injury, respectively, this year’s group has the potential to be even better. Last season, the Yankees added top closer Zack Britton, who has returned to form as a groundball generator, and brought in Adam Ottavino this past winter. Chapman, Britton, Kahnle, Green, and Ottavino would be closers on a lot of other teams (although Green’s stats are inflated by a terrible April), and have embraced the flexibility of their roles with open arms.
Furthermore, whereas the 2017 Yankees had to fight tooth and nail to clinch a playoff spot, the Yankees have had the AL East all but officially locked up for all of September. Because of this, these relievers were able to get most of the month off, allowing them to be fresh for the playoffs.
The ALDS Sweep
Back in 2017, the Yankees had to take the Cleveland Indians the whole way, in order to rally back from a 2-0 deficit when returning to Yankee Stadium. The Astros, meanwhile, won their series over Boston in four games, giving them an extra day.
This time, the roles are reversed. Since they won their series in a sweep, the Yankees have been resting since Monday night, giving the pitching staff five full days of rest and allowing the Yankees to set up their pitching staff however they like. The Astros, meanwhile, were forced to use Justin Verlander in Game Four and Gerrit Cole in Game Five, which means that the Yankees will likely get Zach Greinke in Game One and Verlander in Game Two in Houston and Cole in Game Three in the Bronx — not much easier than Verlander and Cole on the road and Greinke at home, but any advantage on the road is good.
It’s not a huge advantage, but it’s something.
That’s baseball, Suzyn
Most importantly, it’s 2019. The 106-win Dodgers can blow a 3-run lead to the 93-win Nationals to lose Game Five. The Boston Red Sox can win 24 fewer games than they did in 2018. The Yankees can lose literally an entire team’s worth of players and still win 103 games. Anything can happen.
Cuz you can’t predict baseball.