HOUSTON -- The highly anticipated matchup between the American League's two best teams starts on Saturday at Minute Maid Park, where the Yankees will take on the Astros in Game 1 of the AL Championship Series.
The chess match already has begun. At this very moment, both managers are pondering strategies and considering the advantages -- or disadvantages -- their respective team has in the series. Aaron Boone and AJ Hinch are thinking about the buttons they need to press on both sides of the ball, knowing full well the wrong move could send their team home for the offseason.
There will be plenty of “tells” in this series, signs that things are going right, and they will appear early and will be impossible to miss.
The Yankees will be in a very good place if they're able to do these three things.
Get to the Astros' starting trio early
Easier said than done, right?
Justin Verlander will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Gerrit Cole had a Cy Young-worthy regular season and has carried that dominance into the postseason. Zack Greinke, Houston's Game 1 starter, is an incredible third wheel. But if the Yankees hope to advance to the World Series, they are going to have to go through the Astros' aces.
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Here’s how Houston’s vaunted triple threat fared against the Yankees this season:
• Verlander (two starts): 4.15 ERA over 13 innings, 15 strikeouts, .224 batting average against.
• Cole (one start): 3.86 ERA over seven innings, six strikeouts, .167 batting average against.
• Greinke (two starts, both with the D-backs): 2.13 ERA over 12 2/3 innings, 14 strikeouts, .163 batting average against.
Simply put, the Yankees will have to force the three right-handers to throw a lot of pitches and get into the Astros’ bullpen as soon as possible. Cole threw 225 pitches between his two starts in the AL Division Series and has shown no signs of fatigue, but he will be tested by New York’s “savages in the box.” As for Verlander, his normal routine was disrupted by pitching against the Rays on short rest in Game 4, and it will be interesting to see if that has any lasting impact moving forward. Greinke gave up six runs, including three home runs, in 3 2/3 innings in Game 3 against Tampa Bay in the previous round.
This is what we know: The Yankees will make the Astros starters work. New York ranked second in pitches seen per plate appearance in the Majors in 2019 with 4.05, trailing only the Mariners, who saw 4.11 pitches. The Yankees would love nothing more than to see the pitch counts of Houston’s starters skyrocket early.
Something else to consider: According to Statcast, New York’s expected batting average -- which is based on launch angle and exit velocity of balls in play plus real-world strikeouts -- against pitches 95 mph or greater tied for ninth in the big leagues at .246. The Twins ranked No. 1 at .276. The Yankees' Weighted On-base Average -- also based on launch angle and exit velocity of balls in play plus real-world strikeouts -- against fastballs 95 mph or greater in 2019 was .333, good enough for eighth. The Nationals led that category at .359.
The Yankees will see plenty of heat in this series against Verlander and Cole, and their chances in the ALCS would be greatly helped by doing some damage against those pitches.
Expose the Astros' bullpen
Astros relievers pitched only 13 innings in the ALDS. Of those innings, 2 2/3 innings and three of the seven runs they allowed came off Wade Miley, who was a starting pitcher throughout 2019 and had his share of ups and downs during the regular season. Excluding Miley’s struggles, Houston’s bullpen had a 2.38 ERA over 10 1/3 innings against Tampa Bay.
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So, while the bullpen is perceived as the Astros Achilles’ heel, their relief corps were strong in the ALDS. There’s a chance Miley is left off Houston’s ALCS roster in place of the postseason-tested Brad Peacock or unknown Bryan Abreu, both right-handers.
Ryan Pressly, who had been near unhittable since being acquired by the Astros at the 2018 Trade Deadline, has not been himself since returning from the injured list due to a knee injury and was hit hard in Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Rays, allowing two runs on four hits in two-thirds of an inning. He retired the only batter he faced in Game 4.
Pressly’s four-seam fastball velocity before his stint on the injured list was 95.7 mph, and since coming back, it’s at 94.2 mph. In the postseason, which, it’s back up to 94.7 mph, which could be credited to the adrenaline of pitching in the postseason or his improved health. He’s also throwing a ton of strikes -- eight of his nine four-seamers in ALDS were in the strike zone -- which could work in the Yankees’ favor, since they will be ready for Pressly’s fastball.
Closer Roberto Osuna, who nearly blew Game 2 of the ALDS, appears vulnerable, especially if he throws too many sliders. In Game 2, Osuna threw 13 sliders -- the second most of any game in his career -- and gave up two hits and a run in two-thirds of an inning before Will Harris got the last out. Of Osuna’s 49 ALDS pitches across his three appearances, 18 were sliders and 17 were four-seam fastballs. Osuna threw one slider in Game 5, which could be an indication that he’s not confident in the pitch.
Think about what the Yankees what would do to a hanging slider, especially if they saw one in the late innings.
Leverage their bullpen advantage
The Yankees had one of the Majors’ best regular-season bullpens, and that group's success has carried over into the postseason due to more aggressive mixing and matching of relievers against the Twins by Yankees manager Aaron Boone, who made 15 pitching changes in three games. The results speak for themselves.
Yankees relievers gave up three runs on 10 hits across 13 1/3 innings against Minnesota. They struck out 16, posted a 2.03 ERA and limited the Twins to a .200 batting average.
“It's clear the bullpens will have to get important outs,” Boone said. “You would expect some close games. So, games that come down to the end where if you're going to be able to win a ballgame, you're going to have to close it out. So, obviously, we lean on our bullpen heavily.”
The teams are evenly matched in most areas, but the Yankees have a clear advantage in the bullpen. Ultimately, Boone’s goal is to get more length from his starters against the Astros than he did in the previous round, but the Yankees are still in good shape if that isn’t the case.
“If you're going to get where you want to go, you've got to get good starts out of it, as well,” Boone said. “Usually, when we look back at the end of these things, the teams that are able to close out leads keep on advancing.”
Jesse Sanchez, who has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2001, is a national reporter based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook.