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The Astros weren’t unbeatable; the Yankees just failed

The Yankees weren’t doomed the second they stepped on the field in Houston. They just lost.

Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Three Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Yankees’ season ended on Sunday after their loss in ALCS Game 4 to the Astros, though in actuality, their season felt like it ended by the sixth inning of Game 3. After Gerrit Cole departed his start that afternoon, and as Houston pulled away in what ultimately became an easy 5-0 victory for the road team, the mood at Yankee Stadium was downright funereal.

It’s an understatement to say that the vibes were off. Most fans wrote off the season even as the Yankees were technically still alive. Many went as far to declare the Yankees never even had a chance against the Astros, that the team that has been the Yankees’ bogeyman for the last six seasons was always going to crush their little brothers and waltz to the AL pennant. In the eyes of even keen observers and reporters, the Yankees were outclassed by their rivals from Houston, always doomed to lose to a team that had outstripped them in every facet of the game.

Most of these sentiments came just as or after the Yankees were getting run off the field by Houston, and they’re understandable. The Astros did crush the Yankees, sweeping them away in four games, with the Yankee lineup in particular looking as though it was sleepwalking through the series at times.

But it’s worth noting for posterity that, in spite of how awful this latest round of Yankees-Astros went, there was nothing inevitable about this. There was nothing unbeatable about this iteration of the Astros, and in no way does Houston winning four games demonstrate an enormous gap between the two clubs. The Yankees just failed.

A failure this spectacular may feel inevitable in retrospect, but prior to the series, those of us at PSA actually figured the Yankees would advance. Sure, we may be fans with pinstripe-tinted glasses on, but ahead of the ALCS, 12 of 17 of us picked the Yankees to advance.

We were probably more optimistic than the general public: experts from around the game certainly leaned towards Houston. But if we leave it to the cold, unfeeling computers, the series looked much more like a toss-up and far from a slam-dunk sweep. Prior to the series, FanGraphs had the Astros as 54-46 favorites, while Baseball Prospectus had Houston at 56-44. No, those odds didn’t indicate a complete coinflip, but it was sure close.

Moreover, you don’t have to look deep into the Astros’ own history to find that when you cut them, they bleed. In the second half of this very season, the Astros got swept by the A’s. The A’s! Elsewhere, Houston dropped stretch-run series to Boston, Baltimore, and Arizona. Sure, the Astros may have some playoff mystique to them, but even there, they’re clearly fallible, with Houston dropping playoff series to inferior opponents like the 2019 Nationals and 2021 Braves, as well as more formidable foes like the 2020 Rays and 2018 Red Sox.

The Astros aren’t invincible, and the Yankees didn’t lose the ALCS because of inevitability, or some unpassable chasm that has opened between them and Houston. They lost because they simply failed to execute at the worst possible time.

By OPS, the Yankees’ third-best hitter in this series was the much-maligned Isiah Kiner-Falefa at .714. Only Harrison Bader and Anthony Rizzo, easily the club’s best offensive performers in October, showed up. Giancarlo Stanton hit two homers but could only manage a .625 OPS, while Gleyber Torres, posted a meager .450. Josh Donaldson (.400) and Matt Carpenter (.200) looked unprepared. Aaron Judge notched just one single and one walk in 17 plate appearances.

It may be tempting to argue that these underperformances were inevitable, thanks to the Astros’ ownage of the Yankees. Yet these same Yankees have shown before they can hit Astros pitching! In the 2019 ALCS, Stanton produced a 1.000 OPS, and Torres a .933 OPS. Judge struggled a bit in that series too, but clubbed three homers the first time these two teams faced off in the ALCS back in 2017.

Astros pitching did own the Yankees on the whole in 2022, shutting them down in both the regular season and playoffs, but there’s nothing in their recent history to indicate that that’s an immutable trend. In 2021, the Yankees generated a robust .264/.379/.413 line against Houston, the second-best batting line produced by an opposing team versus the Astros. The two sides didn’t play in 2020, but in 2019, the Yankees hit .243/.302/.457 with 13 dingers against Houston, producing the third-best overall line the Astros allowed that year. Tons of digital ink is spilled every year on how the Yankees struggle with the Astros’ brand of high-spinning fastballs and breaking balls, but in reality, they seem to have struggled with it less than the rest of the league!

The Yankees’ failure here was just that: a failure. It was neither predetermined, nor excusable. It just is. They no-showed on the biggest stage, and will have to lick their wounds through a long winter while their rivals advance to another World Series.

But we shouldn’t act like this was the only way it could’ve happened, and we also shouldn’t act like there’s no way the Yankees can ever climb this hill. As easy as it is to claim the Astros have lapped the Yankees, there exists no massive gulf between them.

Sure, the Astros won more games than the Yankees in 2022, but by any other objective metric, the Yankees were at least their equal. The Yankees outpaced the Astros in run differential, and by Baseball Reference’s schedule-adjusted run differential. The Astros ranked second in wOBA differential with the Yankees in third, while the Yankees ranked second in xwOBA differential, with the Astros in fourth (the Dodgers led both metrics, if you want to look at a team that has actually opened up a gulf between themselves and the field).

The Yankees are good enough to beat the Astros, and they just didn’t. Of course, that they are happy with being “good enough” is itself its own problem, and one beyond the scope of this article (see instead Matt P.’s eloquent dissection of The Plan and the Yankees’ contentedness with where they are). The Yankees should of course spend more money to fill obvious lineup holes (hello Carlos Correa last year, Manny Machado/Bryce Harper four years ago), but Hal Steinbrenner’s refusal to do so doesn’t change the fact that this team was in fact good enough to get the job done.

They didn’t get the job done, and because of that we’re consigned to another winter of frustration. But don’t let that frustration turn into hopelessness, because that’s not what this situation entails. The Yankees may have played like the Astros’ little brothers, and may seem dedicated to sounding like them too, but they’re not. The Astros aren’t unbeatable, and the Yankees aren’t second-rate. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait another whole year to get another chance to prove it.