AL Wild Card Game 2015: Yankees vs. Astros Breakdown and Predictions
It took exactly 162 games to get here, but the matchup for the 2015 American League Wild Card Game is set. The Houston Astros will visit the New York Yankees for a do-or-die showdown on Tuesday (8:05 p.m. ET on ESPN) with a trip to the division series on the line.
The Yankees (87-75) haven't been to the playoffs since 2012, while the Astros (86-76) last went to the dance in 2005.
Houston won the season series against New York 4-3, splitting a four-game set at Minute Maid Park in its first meeting (June 25-28) and taking two of three at Yankee Stadium (Aug. 24-26).
The most obvious disparity between the two clubs is the depth of their pockets. The Yankees' payroll tops out at $218.9 million, per Spotrac.com, dwarfing the Astros' $81.2 million budget. To put an even finer point on it: New York spends almost as much on pitching ($71.3 million) as the 'Stros do on their entire roster.
Speaking of pitching, the Astros will send left-handed ace and AL Cy Young Award contender Dallas Keuchel to the hill, while the Yankees will counter with their No. 1, right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, meaning an old-fashioned pitchers' duel is a distinct possibility.
Which squad will emerge victorious from this winner-take-all battle and advance to the ALDS?
While we await the game—and a definitive answer—let's break down the variables and matchups and arrive at an educated guess.
You may proceed when ready.
Masahiro Tanaka vs. Astros Lineup
It's been an up-and-down season for Tanaka, his second in the big leagues after a storied career with Japan's Rakuten Golden Eagles. The 26-year-old imported ace has shown flashes but has battled forearm and hamstring injuries and at times failed to live up to his top-of-the-rotation pedigree.
Overall, Tanaka owns a 3.51 ERA with 139 strikeouts in 154 innings pitched. He threw eight innings of one-run ball with 10 strikeouts on Sept. 8 and followed that up with seven shutout frames and seven strikeouts on Sept. 13.
But in his last two outings, both Yankees losses, he's surrendered six runs in 11 innings.
Tanaka made his only career appearance against the Astros on June 27 and surrendered six runs on seven hits, including three home runs, at Minute Maid Park.
"Obviously, I understand how important the game is," Tanaka said through an interpreter, per Newsday's Erik Boland. "I just want to go out there and do my best, be able to contribute to the team's win so that we can advance to our next step."
Asked about the pressure, Tanaka replied, per Boland, "We live in a word full of pressure."
Here's a look at the career numbers the Astros' projected starting nine have posted against Tanaka. Keep in mind, this is only a guess, as rosters and lineups for the Wild Card Game haven't been announced. We're including Carlos Gomez, who has missed time with an injury to his left intercostal muscle but plans to give it a go on Tuesday, per the Houston Chronicle's Evan Drellich.
1. 2B Jose Altuve (1-for-3, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 1 SO)
2. RF George Springer (1-for-1, 1 RBI, 2 BB)
3. SS Carlos Correa (2-for-3, 1 HR, 2 RBI)
4. DH Evan Gattis (0-for-3)
5. LF Colby Rasmus (0-for-3, 1 SO)
6. CF Carlos Gomez (2-for-2, 1 2B, 1 BB)
7. 3B Luis Valbuena (3-for-9, 2 2B, 2 SO)
8. 1B Chris Carter (2-for-2, 1 2B, 1 HR, 2 RBI)
9. C Jason Castro (0-for-2, 2 SO)
It's an admittedly tiny sample size across the board, with only Valbuena logging more than three at-bats against Tanaka.
Still, the 'Stros have to glean some measure of confidence from the fact that they roughed up the Yankees' stud, with Altuve, Correa and Carter each taking him deep.
Another interesting facet here: The Astros led the American League with 121 stolen bases, but the Yankees ranked eighth in MLB in cutting down would-be thieves.
"They’re young, they’re fast," Yankees skipper Joe Girardi said, per Dan Martin of the New York Post. "The big thing is we have to shut them down and keep them off the bases."
In a game featuring a pair of top-shelf arms, where every 90-foot increment could be crucial, that'll be a dynamic worth watching.
Dallas Keuchel vs. Yankees Lineup
Even on three days' rest, Dallas Keuchel is the only choice to start the Astros' biggest game of 2015.
You can cite Keuchel's 2.48 ERA, or his MLB-leading 232 innings, or even the 20 games he won in an era when that milestone matters less than it once did.
Or you can just watch the hirsute 27-year-old southpaw dominate the way he did all year, including a pair of shutout appearances against the Yankees.
On June 25, Keuchel twirled a complete game with 12 strikeouts against the Bronx Bombers at Minute Maid, and on Aug. 25 he authored seven scoreless in the Big Apple.
"I think he'll be just great, just like he has been all season,'' outfielder Jake Marisnick said, per USA Today's Bob Nightengale. "He's been doing it all year. We're ready to show people how good we are, and there's no one else we'd rather have than Dallas on the mound.''
Here's how the Yankees' projected lineup has fared against Keuchel:
1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury (2-for-7, 1 BB, 1 SO)
2. LF Brett Gardner (0-for-4)
3. DH Alex Rodriguez (1-for-7, 4 SO)
4. RF Carlos Beltran (4-for-9, 1 2B, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 BB, 1 SO)
5. C Brian McCann (N/A)
6. 1B Greg Bird (0-for-1, 1 SO)
7. 3B Chase Headley (3-for-13, 1 2B, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 6 SO)
8. 2B Dustin Ackley (0-for-7, 1 RBI, 4 SO)
9. SS Didi Gregorius (0-for-2, 1 SO)
As with the Astros and Tanaka, there's not a lot of history here. Headley, a switch-hitter, has a couple of extra-base hits including a home run, but has been punched out six times in 13 at-bats. Beltran, who also swings from both sides, has likewise taken Keuchel deep and boasts a .444 average against him.
Other than that, there's not much success to speak of, as Nightengale highlighted:
[Keuchel is] 2-0 with a 0.00 in 16 innings against [New York] this year, limiting them to nine hits, one walk and 21 strikeouts. If you want to break down the numbers, they're even uglier for the Yankees: .161 batting average, .175 on-base percentage and .179 slugging percentage.
No wonder [manager A.J.] Hinch, with his eyes stinging from the champagne, refusing to wear goggles, had his arm draped around Keuchel in the clubhouse, giving him the official word that he will be the one starting Tuesday...
If Keuchel can replicate his two 2015 regular-season starts against the boys in pinstripes, there'll be more bubbly flowing.
Girardi, meanwhile, neatly summed up the Yanks' philosophy, per the New York Post's Martin: "I hope the third time's the charm."
Overall, the Astros' bullpen boasts a lower ERA and opponents' batting average and has surrendered fewer walks than the Yankees' relief corps.
New York, however, can lock things down in the late innings with the tandem of closer Andrew Miller (2.04 ERA, 61.2 innings pitched, 100 strikeouts) and setup man Dellin Betances (1.50 ERA, 84 innings pitched, 131 strikeouts), plus lefty Justin Wilson (3.10 ERA, 61 innings pitched, 66 strikeouts).
Unfortunately, as Brendan Kuty of NJ Advance Media noted, "They're the only members of the Yankees' bullpen Girardi can trust—along with spot starter Adam Warren, a reliable righty reliever who's expected to rejoin the bullpen for Tuesday's Wild Card play-in game."
That means it'll be incumbent upon Tanaka to get through at least six and preferably seven innings before handing over the ball.
As for the 'Stros, their pen wobbled in a big way down the stretch, posting a league-worst 5.63 ERA in September and October as Houston ceded first place and barely held on to the second wild-card slot.
There's talent in the late innings, including closer Luke Gregerson, who closed out the regular season with four scoreless outings, converting all three save attempts and striking out five in 3.2 innings over that span.
Still, with others—including right-handers Chad Qualls and Pat Neshek and southpaw specialist Oliver Perez—faltering in the final month, the best-case scenario is for Keuchel to go deep.
Yankees' Projected Bench
C John Ryan Murphy
IF Brendan Ryan
OF Chris Young
OF Rico Noel
OF Slade Heathcott
The exact sizes and compositions of both benches will depend on a number of variables, including how many pitchers each team carries. (Remember, rosters can be re-set for the division series.)
This core group for the Yankees, though, gives them a lefty-masher in Chris Young, who has six hits in 20 career at-bats against Keuchel and is actually a long shot to start the game with his .972 OPS against southpaws.
Backup catcher John Ryan Murphy also has a couple of hits against Keuchel in five career at-bats. Brendan Ryan provides infield flexibility. And Rico Noel and Slade Heathcott give Girardi late-game pinch-running options in case he needs to swap out tired veteran legs (A-Rod, McCann, Beltran) in a key spot.
Astros' Projected Bench
C Hank Conger
IF Jed Lowrie
IF Jonathan Villar
OF Jake Marisnick
OF Preston Tucker
Jed Lowrie, who is hitless in three at-bats against Tanaka with a strikeout, will likely be the first bat off the bench.
Jake Marisnick, who was 24-for-33 on stolen base attempts on the year, provides speed, as does utility infielder Jonathan Villar.
Lefty-swinging outfielder Preston Tucker owns a career .807 OPS against righties, while switch-hitting catcher Hank Conger offers insurance behind the dish.
Joe Girardi vs. A.J. Hinch
Girardi is in his eighth year at the helm of the Yankees, and has nine years of big league managerial experience overall. He guided New York to a World Series win in 2009 and four consecutive postseason appearances between 2009 and 2012.
Overall, Girardi owns a 21-17 career record in the playoffs and Fall Classic.
By contrast, Hinch has never managed a team into October. He spent part of two seasons as manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2009 and 2010, and is in his first year as the 'Stros skipper.
Both men are former catchers, and each could receive Manager of the Year votes, with Hinch a decent bet to win the award after guiding the Astros to a surprise playoff berth.
Here's another place where the similarities diverge: Hinch was described by Daniel Schoenfeld of Beyond the Box Score as "the paramount new-age managerial fit," while Girardi's style tends more toward the old school.
Yankee Stadium Outfield Dimensions
|Left Field||314 ft.|
|Left-Center Field||399 ft.|
|Center Field||408 ft.|
|Right-Center Field||385 ft.|
|Right Field||314 ft.|
Yankee Stadium 2015 Park Factors
|Category||Park Factor||MLB Rank|
The new Yankee Stadium is a hitters' park, and is particularly conducive to the long ball. That's good news for the Astros, who cracked 230 home runs this year, second only to the Toronto Blue Jays.
Of course, the Yankees can go deep, too, as they finished fourth in MLB with 212 dingers.
The Yankees were 45-36 at home this year. More strikingly, Houston went a dismal 33-48 on the road.
Yankees fans tend to be a bit jaded to postseason baseball, what with their franchise's storied history and all. But considering the Bombers haven't been to the dance in three years, an eternity by New York standards, expect the crowd to be into it from the first pitch.
All park information is courtesy of ESPN: "Park Factor compares the rate of stats at home vs. the rate of stats on the road. A rate higher than 1.000 favors the hitter. Below 1.000 favors the pitcher."
It's a cliche to say a game could go either way; technically that's always true. In this case, however, it really is a difficult call.
On the one hand, the Astros have been absolutely horrendous away from Minute Maid Park this year. They're a young team with minimal postseason experience on their roster, and they'll be playing under the blinding glare of the New York City spotlight.
On the other hand, Keuchel dominated the Yankees twice this season, while Tanaka was dinged by Houston in June and looked rusty coming off his hamstring injury. Plus, Yankee Stadium's cozy dimensions play to the Astros' home run-happy ways.
The key for Houston will be to get to Tanaka early, plating some runs in the first few frames to take the pressure off themselves and put it on the Yankees' bullpen, which can be shaky before the late-inning stoppers come into play.
Pair a well-timed dinger or two and a little disruption on the base paths with a sparkling Keuchel start and we'll hand this one to the upstart 'Stros. Though, truly, it could go either way.
Game Prediction: Astros 4, Yankees 2
All statistics current as of Oct. 5 and courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.