After two contrasting Division Series, the matchup we have all been waiting for finally arrived. The ALCS lineups are juggernauts, therefore the biggest difference between the two teams are their pitching staffs. The Yankees are dependent on their elite bullpen arms, while the Astros’ have workhorse starters but a lesser relief staff. Both teams have their strengths, but whichever club finds a way to cover their weaknesses more often throughout this series will have an advantage.
Rotations have been set through Game Three of the ALCS, but the Game Four starters or openers will be critical for this series. The Astros added Zack Greinke at the trade deadline, but lost Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton to free agency. Having one less reliable starting pitcher forced their hand during the ALDS as they had to use Justin Verlander on short rest. Fortunately for the Astros, the ALDS schedule format allowed them to put Gerrit Cole on the mound with regular rest after losing Game Four. In a seven-game series, though, whoever pitches Game Two won’t have the luxury of starting Game Five on short rest.
The reason I’m highlighting Game Four is because the strengths of both teams will be tested during this game. Allow me to elaborate: if the Astros decide to use another pitcher besides Greinke to start Game Four, they will need to put their hopes on someone else to step up, truly testing their rotation depth for the first time this postseason.
If they choose to go with Greinke, though, they would be relying on one of their big three on short rest and could start a trend for the Astros they would like to avoid. Because of a three-game stretch at Yankee Stadium bookended by days off, Verlander would either need to pitch a possible Game Five on short rest, or Game Six on extra rest. Considering the Astros threw 43 innings in the ALDS, and 26.1 of those innings were thrown by Verlander and Cole for about 61% of their total frames, it seems unlikely Verlander will pitch in Game Two then Game Six. With each win the Yankees are able to get, the more likely the Astros will continue to roll out their pitchers on short rest. This all could begin with Game Four.
On the other hand, the Yankees’ bullpen will be tested during Game Four, because with no definite pitcher after Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, and Luis Severino , they will need to rely on many arms to come out of the bullpen at the top of their game. J.A. Happ and CC Sabathia are both on the roster and could provide length, but their leash during the ALCS should be short. This decision will not only shape Game Four, but it could affect Game Five if needed. The Yankees’ bullpen may be heavily taxed by the two previous games.
The Yankees saw a blueprint on how to make the Astros adjust during the ALDS. The Tampa Bay Rays took one game of the first three, and all of a sudden Houston had no one else to go to. Now that the Yankees have taken game one of the ALCS, they could once again force the Astros to use their pitchers on short rest—an advantage for Yankees hitters. This could lead towards the Yankees seeing more at-bats against the Astros’ bullpen, which would be preferred over their rotation arms.
With a win the Yankees have taken the first step in the right direction while also swinging home-field advantage back in their favor. The more games the Yankees continue to win early in this series, the harder it becomes to figure out how the Astros will use their horses to pitch the majority of their innings like they were able to in the ALDS. It’s still early in the series, but the battle to have a rest Yankees bullpen versus a rested Astros rotation, is so far Yankees’ advantage.