Friday, October 13, 2017

American League Championship Series Preview

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The 2017 American League Championship Series is now set.

The New York Yankees punched their ticket to the ALCS with Wednesday night's Game 5 win over the Cleveland Indians (NYY 5, CLE 0), completing the comeback after losing the first two games of the ALDS. The Houston Astros dispatched the Boston Red Sox in their ALDS matchup in four games earlier this week.

At 101-61, the Astros had the AL's second best record during the regular season, behind the 102-win Indians. The Yankees went 91-71 during the regular season, though they had a slightly better run differential (+198) than the Astros (+196). Here is the ALCS schedule:

Game 1
Fri., Oct. 13 at 8pm ET
Minute Maid Park
Dallas Keuchel vs. Masahiro Tanaka
Game 2
Sat. Oct. 14 at 4pm ET
Minute Maid Park
Justin Verlander vs. Luis Severino
Game 3
Mon. Oct. 16 at 8pm ET
Yankee Stadium
TBA vs. CC Sabathia
Game 4
Tues., Oct. 16 (time TBA)
Yankee Stadium
TBA vs. Sonny Gray
Game 5*
Weds., Oct. 17 (time TBA)
Yankee Stadium
Game 6*
Fri. Oct. 20 (time TBA)
Minute Maid Park
Game 7*
Sat. Oct. 21 (time TBA)
Minute Maid Park
* Games 5-7 are if necessary in the best-of-seven series.

Here are eight things to know about the ALCS.

The Astros won the season series
These clubs played seven games during the regular season -- four at Yankee Stadium in May and three at Minute Maid Park in late June/early July -- and the Astros won the season series 5-2. That includes a doubleheader in the Bronx on May 14, the day the Yankees retired Derek Jeter's No. 2, which the Astros swept. New York's starters that day:
Severino in the first game: 2 1/3 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 2 K
Masahiro Tanaka in the second game: 1 1/2 IP, 7 H, 8 R, 8 ER, 1 BB, 3 K
The Astros outscored the Yankees 21-13 during the Jeter day doubleheader sweep, and they outscored the Yankees 43-41 in the season series overall.

They have some postseason history
The Astros have spent the bulk of their existence in the National League, and these two clubs never met in the World Series. This is Houston's fifth season as an American League team and their second postseason trip. Their first came two years ago, when they beat the Yankees in Yankee Stadium in the AL Wild Card Game. Keuchel threw six shutout innings on short rest that night.

The Astros then lost to the Royals in the ALDS. That 2015 wild-card game was the only time the Yankees and Astros met in the postseason prior to this ALCS.

These are the top two power hitting teams in MLB
No surprisingly, the ALCS will feature the two most prolific power-hitting teams in baseball. Here is the regular season home run leaderboard:
Yankees: 241
Astros: 238
Rangers: 237
Athletics: 234
Orioles: 232

The Yankees hit seven home runs in their five-game ALDS win over the Indians while the Astros went deep eight times in their four ALDS games against the Red Sox. Both Minute Maid Park and Yankee Stadium are hitter friendly ballparks. There figure to be no shortage of home runs this series, even as each team shortens its pitching staff and relies on its best arms.

The Astros strike out much less, however

The Astros pair all of those home runs with the game's lowest strikeout rate. Houston's hitters struck out in only 17.3 percent of their plate appearances during the regular season, well below the 21.6 percent league average.

The Yankees, meanwhile, had baseball's 13th highest strikeout rate at 21.8 percent, so they were essentially league average. That's the big difference between these two offenses. They both hit for a ton of power, but the Astros swing and miss less often. More contact is generally a good thing, as long as you don't bang into a double play.

The Yankees need Judge to rebound

Judge, the runaway AL Rookie of the Year favorite, had a brutal ALDS against the Indians, going 1 for 20 with 16 strikeouts in the five-game series. The Indians fed him a steady diet of breaking balls. The 16 strikeouts are a new record for a postseason series, including seven-game series.

The Yankees beat the 102-win Indians despite getting nothing from their best player because, well, they're a really good team. It's not an accident they qualified for the postseason and reached the ALCS. The Yankees probably can't count on that happening again, though. They'll need Judge to contribute to beat the Astros this series.

The Yankees will be able to run on the Astros

No team threw out a lower percentage of base-stealers during the regular season than the Astros. It's not even close. Here are the bottom five teams in caught stealing percentage:
Astros: 12 percent
Blue Jays: 18 percent
White Sox: 18 percent
Rays: 21 percent
Mets: 22 percent
The MLB average was 27 percent in 2017. The Astros weren't even half that. Catchers Brian McCann, a former Yankee who was traded to the Astros in the offseason, and Evan Gattis both struggled throwing out runners during the regular season.

The Yankees, who ranked 12th in baseball with 90 stolen bases and first with a 80 percent stolen base success rate, figure to try to take advantage of those weak arms behind the dish. Speedsters Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury and Aaron Hicks will likely have the green light at all times.

New York's bullpen might be short in Game 1
The Yankees built their team from the ninth inning forward, meaning they hoarded power strikeout arms and have a postseason-ready bullpen. We saw it in the wild-card game last week, when Severino bowed out after recording only one out, and four relievers combined for 8 2/3 innings of one-run ball.
That bullpen is crucial to the Yankees' success so far this postseason, though in Game 1 of the ALCS on Friday, that bullpen might be slightly compromised. Closer Aroldis Chapman and setup man David Robertson, manager Joe Girardi's two most trusted relievers, both threw multiple innings in ALDS Game 5 on Wednesday. Chapman threw two innings and 32 pitches while Robertson threw 2 2/3 innings and 29 pitches.

The two clubs had an off-day Thursday, so Chapman and Robertson will get one day to rest, but chances are they won't be ready to go multiple innings again in Friday's series opener, not after going multiple innings multiple times in the ALDS. Girardi has had to work his top two relievers hard and they need a rest. That means others like Chad Green, Dellin Betances, Tommy Kahnle and Adam Warren will have to pick up the slack.

Winning Game 1 is important
Obvious statement is obvious: Win Game 1 of a best-of-seven series and your odds of winning the series increase. According to, the team that wins Game 1 of a best-of-seven series has gone on to win the series 64.1 percent of the time. Win Game 1 at home and it jumps to 67.3 percent. You always want to grab that first game to put pressure on the other team.

That said, the Yankees just showed winning Game 1 isn't everything. It's important, but it doesn't guarantee a series win. They were down 0-2 in the best-of-five ALDS to the Indians and came back to win the next three. The Indians hadn't lost three consecutive games since July before Games 3-5 of the ALDS. So yes, you want to win Game 1 and improve your odds of the series. Just don't think the series is over after the first nine innings.

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