You know how Batman movies can’t seem to resist going back to the Joker as the villain? They might dabble in a Riddler, Bane, or Scarecrow from time to time, but there’s a reason why the audience is utterly fascinated by the Joker. He is the perfect foil to Batman and a charismatic antagonist in his own right — as much as Batman might only grudgingly make such a confession.
Well, here we are again at the outset of another Yankees/Astros playoff showdown, which will be their fourth in eight years and their third rumble in the ALCS. The Red Sox remain the Yankees’ most important historic rival, but for this generation of Yankees baseball, the Astros are their Joker (though some reports had him in the Bronx last night). They just can’t seem to figure them out.
The cast of characters at Minute Maid Park has rotated a bit, as the names in the front office shuffled following the sign-stealing scandal, and major figures like George Springer and Carlos Correa recently departed in free agency. But Kyle Tucker and Jeremy Peña have capably filled the voids, José Altuve and Alex Bregman are still the heartbeat of this Astros lineup, and even after Tommy John surgery at age-38, future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander continues to lead this rotation with gaudy numbers. The biggest bogeyman looming is the 2019 Rookie of Year Yordan Alvarez, who is now probably the most terrifying hitter in baseball.
The Astros’ home-field advantage helped them in both 2017, when they won all four games at Minute Maid Park to outlast the ascendant Baby Bombers in seven, and 2019, when Altuve’s drive off Aroldis Chapman put a sudden end to it all in Game 6. Once again, Houston will have that edge by virtue of finishing seven games better than New York at 106-56. This club is absolutely loaded with pitching for days beyond the offense, and the Yankees have a serious challenge ahead of them if they want to finally flip the script.
So with the Yankees’ roster set, we’re firing up an appropriate soundtrack for this peek ahead at the pitching matchups. It’s time for the Yankees to make ALCS showdown No. 3 the magic number.
Wednesday (Game 1): Jameson Taillon vs. Justin Verlander (7:37 PM ET, TBS)
The Yankees’ five-game marathon of an ALDS put them in a bit of a weird spot for the beginning of the ALCS. After being forced to play four games in five days and electing to start Nestor Cortes on three days’ rest in the Game 5 clincher, New York will have to turn to Taillon in ALCS Game 1 for his first start since October 4th.
Taillon is not a Jaret Wright-esque fourth starter by any stretch, as he was perfectly solid in the regular season. On the whole, he had a 3.91 ERA, 3.94 FIP, and 1.128 WHIP in 177.1 innings, second on the team only to ace Gerrit Cole. At his best (like in his first 10 starts of 2022), Taillon is stingy with his control and induces weak contact with his six-pitch mix led by the four-seamer. He reverted from stellar to “fine” in the second half, so if he can simply give the Yankees five innings with just a couple runs allowed to this potent Houston lineup, the Yankees would take that in a heartbeat.
As for Verlander ... well he’s Justin Verlander. Post-Tommy John, he’s not the same Verlander who could dial up to 100 mph on a regular basis, but the dreaded 2017 ALCS MVP still gets wicked spin on his fastball while using the slider more than ever (38.4 percent), suppressing power (0.6 HR/9), and fanning a batter per inning. The 39-year-old is in excellent shape to take home his third career Cy Young Award, as he finished 2022 with a league-leading 1.75 ERA, 220 ERA+, 0.829 WHIP, 6.0 H/9, and 6.1 fWAR in 175 innings. The Mariners reminded folks that Verlander can be human by clobbering him in ALDS Game 1; can lightning strike twice?
Thursday (Game 2): Luis Severino vs. Framber Valdez (7:37 PM ET, TBS)
Although Cole’s the ace, all Yankees fans know just how electric Severino can be at his best, and he has more reason than anyone on this team to want to beat the Astros; he’s the only player left from the 2015 club that first fell to Houston in the Wild Card Game (though he didn’t pitch) and has no interest in suffering defeat at the Astros’ hands for a fourth time.
In Severino’s first full season after Tommy John surgery in February 2020, he had a 3.18 ERA, 3.70 FIP, and a WHIP of exactly 1.000 in 102 innings. He’s still mostly a four-seamer guy, but he’s good at picking his spots to mix in a nasty slider or a changeup (less effective, per Baseball Savant). Severino missed two months on the IL with a lat strain that the Yankees handled cautiously, and he looked sharp as the season came to a close with seven no-hit innings against the Rangers on October 3rd. In his first playoff start against Cleveland in Game 2, he allowed three runs on eight hits and no walks with six strikeouts in 5.2 innings, though only a few of those knocks were actually hit with any authority.
Turning to Houston, Valdez is quietly the co-ace of the staff with JV. En route to making his first All-Star team in 2022, he led the AL with 201.1 innings pitched and was the toughest player to homer against in the league, coughing up just 11 bombs (0.5 HR/9). The southpaw specializes in sinkers and other secondaries rather than heat, and posted a 2.82 ERA, 3.06 FIP, and 4.4 fWAR. Valdez threw 5.2 innings of two-run ball against Seattle in the ALDS, albeit while walking three batters.
Saturday (Game 3): Gerrit Cole? vs. Lance McCullers Jr.? (5:07 PM ET, TBS)
The Yankees and Astros haven’t done us any favors, as at the moment, there are no confirmed starters beyond Game 2. Nonetheless, we can do some educated guessing to figure out who each team will probably pitch through the first four games. What makes it tricky with Houston in particular is that they have five legitimately good starters at their disposal, and you could do a lot worse than José Urquidy at No. 6.
Game 3 will be the most likely spot for the Yankees to use their ace, as he’ll be fully rested and raring to go at Yankee Stadium. Cole is coming off an MLB-best 257 strikeouts in 200 innings with a 3.50 ERA, 3.47 FIP, and 1.017 WHIP in the regular season, not to mention an MVP-worthy Division Series against the Guardians that saw him twirl 13.1 innings of two-run ball across a pair of starts — both Yankees wins. Without him, Cleveland is probably prepping to face Houston for the pennant instead.
The Astros matchup carries its own intrigue for Cole, who had back-to-back Cy Young-caliber seasons with them in 2018-19 after being traded from the Pirates. He’s probably still a little bitter that Houston never used him in relief during their 2019 World Series Game 7 loss to the Nationals, too. This will be his first time facing the Astros in the playoffs, but the story is pretty much the same as it has been for Cole throughout 2022: avoid the gopher ball. Houston hit 214 homers and Cole led the league with 33 allowed. That’s a bad recipe, and even if he strikes out 14, he needs to keep the ball in the park — or at the very least, limit them to solo shots (as he did in the ALDS).
We’ll defer to Baker’s ALDS rotation and wager that McCullers gets the Game 3 nod. Yankees fans probably still have nightmares of his barrage of curveballs in Game 7 of the 2017 ALCS, when he tag-teamed with starter Charlie Morton to end that magical season. McCullers missed the 2019 edition with Tommy John surgery, and didn’t pitch this year until August due to a flexor tendon forearm strain. However, he returned with a vengeance and has sparkled despite occasionally shaky control. In eight starts, the right-hander had a 2.27 ERA and 3.49 FIP with more of a mix between his curve, slider, sinker, and changeup. The Mariners began their 18-inning scoreless nightmare finale against McCullers, who tossed up six zeroes with just two hits and two walks to go with his seven punchouts.
Sunday (Game 4): Nestor Cortes? vs. Cristian Javier? (7:07 PM ET, TBS)
After jumping up on three days’ rest to give the Yankees a much-needed assist in the ALDS Game 5 clincher, Cortes should have his normal schedule to prepare for ALCS Game 4. The crafty southpaw and once-36th round pick has been a revelation this year, making the All-Star team with a 2.44 ERA, 3.13 FIP, and 0.922 WHIP in 158.1 innings. There was even a legitimate case for him to start Game 1 of the ALDS over Cole, but obviously the strategy that the Yankees took paid off. Cortes pounds the zone with four-seamers, cutters, and sliders to generate weak contact and garner K’s without high velocity. He allowed three runs on nine hits and four walks across his ten innings of ALDS starts.
Baker offered up Javier as a possible ALDS Game 4 starter, though of course Houston didn’t need it. So they could turn to him for this big spot in the Bronx, and why not? After all, Javier no-hit the Yankees for seven innings at Yankee Stadium on June 25th, striking out 13 batters as part of the combined no-no. All told, he had a 2.54 ERA, 3.16 FIP, and 0.948 WHIP on the season in 148.2 innings, tying Valdez for the team lead in K’s at 194 despite pitching 50 fewer frames. If it feels like every single pitcher the Astros have is nasty, it’s because it’s unfortunately true. Javier was only called upon for four outs in relief during the ALDS, but if you want to be inspired, he gave up a solo homer to Eugenio Suárez.
*Monday (Game 5): Jameson Taillon? vs. Justin Verlander? (4:07 PM ET, TBS)
*Tuesday (Game 6): Luis Severino? vs. Framber Valdez? (6:07 PM ET, TBS)
*Wednesday (Game 7): Gerrit Cole? vs. TBD (7:37 PM ET, TBS)
We’re combining all three games here for brevity’s sake and since previewing them involves even more hazy guesswork without divining future pitcher usage over the next several days. Maybe if the Yankees are facing elimination they’ll turn to Severino on short rest over Taillon in Game 5 (as they did with Cortes in the ALDS), but otherwise, he’d be the only man available unless they went to a bullpen game or Domingo Germán. So I’m hopeful that the Yankees won’t need to start Sevy early and can keep him for a possible Game 6. In this setup, Game 7 pretty much has to be Cole on three days’ rest, and at least he has experience doing so if needed.
For the Astros, I have Verlander in Game 5, though Baker did seem open to using him on short rest in the ALDS for Game 4. So that’s a possibility in this Game 4 as well, particularly if Javier and Luis Garcia — who is rock solid and dominated Seattle over long relief into the 18th but I didn’t mention as a possible starter — end up getting more use in the first three games. From there, it’s Valdez and a big ol’ TBD, which will probably just be whichever potent arms the Astros have remaining to cover the potential winner-take-all Game 7. The scary thing is that as Josh will discuss tomorrow, the Astros’ bullpen is filled with lockdown arms, too.
The Yankees have a difficult road ahead if they want to reach the World Series. I think that this is a better Astros team than the ones that sent them home for the winter in 2015, 2017, and 2019. But as a wise philosopher once said, never tell me the odds. When this Yankees ballclub is firing on all cylinders, it can beat anyone. Let’s make the magic happen and bring the Fall Classic back to the Bronx.