The Yankees have had to deal with genuinely historic opponents at each stop during their postseason journey. Well, okay, maybe the middling Twins didn’t quite count as an intimidating foe in the Wild Card round, but the Indians and Astros have both offered challenges of epic proportions.
By some measures, Cleveland had the best pitching staff of all time. The way the Indians missed bats and limited walks and strikeouts meant they posted the best fWAR figures in baseball history. No matter, the Yankees felled that mighty staff thanks to a couple of shellackings of Corey Kluber, and a well-timed home run off Andrew Miller.
Likewise, the Astros entered the ALCS with a historic offense. Houston ran a triple slash line of .282/.346/.478. Their overall wRC+ of 121 was better than the career wRC+ of Pete Rose, Paul O'neil, and Derek Jeter. In fact, that team wRC+ has only been surpassed by the 1927, 1930, and 1931 Yankees, some of the greatest teams ever, led by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
And yet, the Astros' bats have been silenced. The old adage goes, "Good pitching beats good hitting," and while that assertion is of questionable veracity, it has held up so far. The story of the ALCS is the unbelievable performance of the Yankees pitching staff in shutting down the dominant Houston lineup.
It's not quite Murderer's Row, but the Houston lineup really is nightmarishly deep. The Astros feature no fewer than 10 hitters with an above average wRC+ and at least 250 plate appearances in 2017. In simple terms, that means essentially every hitter, one through nine, is good.
Not satisfied with depth, though, the Astros also have tremendous top-flight talent. Four hitters, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Marwin Gonzalez, posted a wRC+ above 140 this year. It's one thing to have exclusively good hitters; it's another to have truly great hitters on top of that enviable depth.
It's also not like the Astros came into the ALCS cold. Houston entered their ALDS matchup with the Red Sox slated to face a Boston staff that ranked 4th in fWAR and 2nd in RA-9 WAR. The Astros left Fenway Park having torn the Red Sox to shreds, to the tune of a .333/.402/.571 slash line.
That lineup, the one that was historic during the regular season and got off to a red-hot start in the postseason, is the one that has been entirely submissive to the Yankees pitching staff. The ALCS was billed as power vs. power, of great hitting versus great pitching, but it has been the Yankees pitching that has won the day.
There's only so much that can be made from five games of at-bats, but the results have been staggering. The Astros have posted a microscopic line of .147/.234/.213. That's a .447 OPS! Jon Lester (Jon Lester!) posted a higher OPS at the plate this season. The Yankees have effectively taken the best hitting team ever that didn't employ Babe Ruth and turned them into nine pitchers trying to hit. That's mind-boggling.
Yankees pitchers through five games have a 1.45 ERA. They have allowed just 22 hits in 43.1 innings—basically a hit every other inning. There's certainly some batted ball luck at play there, but it’s impressive nonetheless.
The bullpen, of course, has been as good as advertised, but the starting rotation is where the Yankees have truly exceeded expectations. Masahiro Tanaka has dazzled in a pair of starts, CC Sabathia shut out the Astros over six innings, and Sonny Gray had his best outing in weeks in Game 4.
We can turn to Statcast to see that this hasn't entirely been a fluke, either. Statcast calculates expected wOBA, based on batted ball quality and walks and strikeouts. The Yankees have yielded just a .293 xwOBA to the Astros in the ALCS. That worst team wOBA's in MLB this year came courtesy of the Giants (.296) and Padres (.298). The Astros have hit worse than perhaps the two worst teams in the league this year, a pair of teams that both play in pitcher's parks and don't have access to the DH.
Of course, this is all small-sample stuff, a trend that would likely even out if these team's played dozens of games over time. That the Astros' strikeout rate at the plate (up to 20% from 17% in the regular season) hasn't exactly skyrocketed as their results have plummeted suggests that they are still putting the ball in play against a brutal pitching staff, and that given time, they would eventually manage to turn more balls in play into hits.
That doesn't matter though. The playoffs aren't played over the course of months. The Yankees only need to dominate over the space of a week in order to advance to the World Series. With ace Luis Severino on the mound tonight, coming off an abbreviated but still effective Game 2 start, the Yankees have every chance to put a bow on this magnificently-pitched series. If they pull it off, this will go down as one of the most legendary team pitching performances of all time.