Yankees-Astros position-by-position breakdown
It’s time for the Astros League Championship … er, the American League Championship Series.
The Astros haven’t obtained automatic entry into this portion of the postseason; it just feels that way now that they’ve advanced to the ALCS for the sixth straight year (the Braves of 1991-99 are the only other team to reach the LCS round at least six consecutive years).
But the other end of this ALCS is also familiar. Because, for the third time in this streak, the Astros will be pitted against a Yankees team that is hoping to reach the World Series for the first time since 2009. The Yankees, who come into this series directly off their Game 5 win over Cleveland in the ALDS on Tuesday, have yet to defeat Houston in the playoffs, losing the 2015 AL Wild Card Game and the ALCS in both '17 and '19.
Before the ALCS begins Wednesday at Minute Maid Park (otherwise known as the ALCS Capital of the World), let’s see how the top-seeded ‘Stros and second-seed Yanks match up, position by position.
Let’s just say that neither of these teams is sending Johnny Bench to the plate. The Astros tried to address their offense from the position with the midseason acquisition of Christian Vázquez to pair with Martín Maldonado, but Vázquez struggled after the transition (.759 OPS with Boston, .585 with Houston). The Yankees got an All-Star first half from new acquisition Jose Trevino, but his production fell off in the second half (.626 OPS, including a .461 mark in September/October).
Instead, the priority for both of these teams is how these catchers work with the pitching staff and control the running game. The Astros threw out 23.2% of opposing baserunners (ranking in the middle of the pack in MLB), while the Yankees ranked second at 36.4%. Vázquez and Maldonado have loads of experience on this stage, but because Trevino and Kyle Higashioka were particularly adept at throwing out runners (and because Trevino did show more with the stick in the season, at large), we’ll give the Yanks the edge.
Though the Yuli Gurriel we were once accustomed to showed up in the ALDS against the Mariners (6-for-15 with a homer), it’s hard to know how to weigh that against the much larger sample of a disappointing age-38 season in which he had a mere 85 weighted runs created plus (15% worse than league average).
Anthony Rizzo, on the other hand, had his best season since 2019. His 32 homers tied a career high, and his 132 weighted runs created plus was second on the Yankees to Aaron Judge among qualifiers. He had some big hits in the ALDS.
This was an important turnaround year for Gleyber Torres, who had looked like a star in the making in 2018-19 only to see his production take a nosedive in the ensuing seasons. In 2022, Torres managed a respectable .257/.310/.451 slash line with 24 homers and 10 steals, and, though it didn’t carry over into the ALDS, he did finish the regular season strong. Versatile veteran DJ LeMahieu, nursing a toe injury, could be back for the ALCS.
No question, though, the Astros have the edge in this series at second base. Jose Altuve had one of the best offensive seasons of what could well turn out to be a Cooperstown-worthy career. Altuve slashed .300/.387/.533 with 28 homers and 18 steals at age 32. He slumped badly in the ALDS (0-for-16 with six strikeouts), but we’ve seen him step up too many times on this stage (including, notoriously, the series-clinching walk-off homer the last time these two met in the ALCS in 2019) to count him out.
Jeremy Peña had the seminal moment of a solid rookie season when he hit the solo home run that broke the longest postseason scoreless tie in history in Game 3 of the ALDS. He was also an igniter, hitting the singles that set up Yordan Alvarez’s two game-changing home runs in Games 1 and 2. For the year, Peña had a respectable 102 wRC+ with reliable defense while replacing Carlos Correa.
For the Yanks, well, it’s never good when you’re benching the guy you’ve started all year in an elimination game. That’s what happened in the ALDS with Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who didn’t do much offensively and who was iffy as a defender. Rookie Oswaldo Cabrera bumped him.
Alex Bregman had his strongest season since 2019, slashing .259/.366/.454 with his characteristically low strikeout rate, high walk rate and good defense. He also went 5-for-15 with a dinger in the ALDS.
Things didn’t go nearly as well for former MVP Josh Donaldson in his first season in the Bronx. Though he still graded out well on defense (plus-7 outs above average), he slashed just .222/.308/.374. It was his worst healthy season since his rookie year in 2012 with Oakland.
Yordan Alvarez is the most feared hitter on the planet right now. With two swings of the bat, he changed the ALDS, and that’s coming off a .306/.406/.613 slash line with 37 homers in the regular season. Going back to the 2019 World Series, he has a 1.053 OPS, five homers, five doubles, two triples and 18 walks in 107 postseason plate appearances. That’ll play.
Between the Joey Gallo disaster and Andrew Benintendi’s broken hamate bone after a midseason trade, the Yankees have had a lot of trouble in left field this year. They had begun to give starts to Cabrera, but then used Cabrera to replace Kiner-Falefa, putting the struggling Aaron Hicks back in the lineup … until he left Game 5 with a knee injury after a collision. Giancarlo Stanton and Matt Carpenter are options here in the ALCS.
The Astros have had a lot of moving parts in center field ever since George Springer departed in free agency after 2020. Right now, they are using a combo of Chas McCormick and Jake Meyers. With Meyers coming back from shoulder surgery, McCormick saw the bulk of time this year and slashed .245/.332/.407. Both McCormick and Meyers graded out above-average at the position, defensively, per outs above average.
But the Yankees appear to have found their man in center. Harrison Bader was in a walking boot, dealing with plantar fasciitis, when he was acquired at the Trade Deadline. But the Bronxville-born Bader has made a triumphant return, with three homers in the ALDS. And the reigning Gold Glover was primarily acquired because of his excellent defense, which can be a big difference-maker in a playoff series.
Though Kyle Tucker has established himself as one of the best bats in baseball (he’s had consecutive 30-homer seasons and three straight years in which his wRC+ was more than 20% better than league average) and Aaron Judge did show some signs of potential fatigue in the ALDS after his dazzling 62-homer season, it’s pretty much impossible not to pick Judge here.
As we saw when he pounded a middle-middle fastball 449 feet in Game 3 of the ALDS and when he went deep again in the Game 5 clincher, even when he’s not his superhero self, you simply can’t make a mistake to Judge. Like Alvarez, he is always a threat to change this series with a single swing, and his arm and legs make an impact, too.
If Alvarez is slotted in here in a given game, we’d likely give him the advantage over his counterpart. But because we already projected Alvarez in left (where he played every game of the ALDS), the Astros’ top options at DH are Trey Mancini, who hasn’t done much at the plate since coming over from Baltimore midseason (.622 OPS in the regular season and 0-for-6 in the ALDS), and Aledmys Díaz, who had a .243/.287/.403 slash this year.
For the Yankees, we’ll focus on Stanton here, because he’s played exclusively as a DH since returning from an Achilles injury in August. As noted above, though, he is an option in left field. Stanton has slumped, overall, going back to mid-June. But he’s another guy you simply don’t want to make a mistake against, as he showed with two homers in the ALDS. Stanton has 11 postseason homers in 23 games -- a rate of one every 7.3 at-bats that is the best all-time among those with at least 30 postseason at-bats.
First off, keep in mind that this is not the typical LCS schedule we are accustomed to seeing. There is only one off-day -- between games 2 and 3, with the traditional off-day between Games 5 and 6 eliminated. When you combine that schedule with the fact that the Yankees are coming off a five-game ALDS extended a day by rain, the Astros have a very clear advantage.
Having not played since Saturday, Houston’s arms are rested and ready. They have Cy Young favorite Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez and Lance McCullers Jr. available for Games 1-3. Verlander and the Game 2 starter (as of this writing, it is not confirmed whether that would be Valdez or McCullers) can both pitch a second time on full rest, while their Game 3 starter will be an option on short rest.
Contrast that with the Yankees’ situation, in which fourth starter Jameson Taillon gets the Game 1 assignment and staff ace Gerrit Cole cannot pitch on full rest until Game 3. For Cole to get a second start would require him to pitch on three days’ rest in a Game 7. Nestor Cortes, who started Game 2 and Game 5 in the Division Series, cannot go on full rest until Game 4.
So while -- all hand-wringing about Verlander’s dud against the Mariners in the ALDS aside -- there was already statistical reason to give the Astros the edge here (their 19.4 fWAR was the highest for any starting staff in MLB this year), the schedule makes it a slam dunk.
The Astros’ starting depth -- in the form of Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia and José Urquidy, any of whom would be an option for a Game 4 -- bleeds into the bullpen. We saw the benefit of that when Garcia delivered five scoreless relief innings in the marathon win over the Mariners. And the Astros’ actual bullpen was pretty darn good this year, with the AL’s best fWAR (7.6) and strikeout-minus-walk percentage (19.0) and second-best WHIP (1.11). The bullpen kept the Astros in Games 1 and 2 of the ALDS, putting them in position to rally. And it was unbelievable with 12 scoreless innings in Game 3. In 20 1/3 relief innings in that series, Houston allowed just a single run.
The Yankees have been plagued by injury in their bullpen this season, and, as we saw in the ALDS, Clay Holmes’ shoulder issue could compromise his availability on a given day. While the Yankees do have good options like Wandy Peralta, Jonathan Loáisiga and Lou Trivino -- with the possibility that Ron Marinaccio returns for this round -- you would be hard-pressed to argue they are in a better bullpen position than the Astros.
These two clubs have appeared to be on a collision course all season, and, finally, here we are. Just because it took more for the Yankees to get to this point in the postseason doesn’t mean they can’t take down the rested Astros. That would be far from the craziest upset we've seen this October. But it’s hard to love the way the pitching and the schedule sets up for them. While both clubs have big question marks in the lower halves of their lineups, there is really no question that the Astros have the superior pitching depth, and that will carry them to their second consecutive AL pennant.
Astros in six.