AL Wild Card preview: youth versus experience

by Paul West

It’s an old cliche, but tonight’s American League Wild Card game is is a classic youth versus experience matchup between two teams who weren’t supposed to make it this far.

Correa, Altuve and George Springer are at the top of a potent Astros lineup.
Correa, Altuve and George Springer are at the top of a potent Astros lineup.

The New York Yankees were predicted to finish as far back as fourth this season, in an American League East that’s been a powerhouse division for several years. The Yankees were seen as an aging, patchwork squad with questionmarks in their starting rotation and at key positions. They had finally seen the end of the Core Four Era, with the retirements of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, and the rest of the division was finally poised to take over. This narrative proved premature. Alex Rodriguez had a resurgent season at age 40, hitting 33 home runs and driving in 86 runs. 38-year-old Carlos Beltran‘s numbers don’t jump off the page, but he carried the Yankees’ offense for much of the second half of the season. Brian McCann is only 31, but that’s older for a catcher than most other positions; he finished the season with 26 home runs and led the team with 94 RBIs. Manager Joe Girardi pushed the right buttons and kept a steady hand, and with the help of a strong bullpen and several surprising contributors the Yankees led the division for much of the season and finished with 87 wins.

The Houston Astros have slowly rebuilt themselves, after spending years as one of baseball’s laughingstocks. They’re built around youth: lightning-bug Jose Altuve is a hit machine who combines blazing speed with surprising power for his stature, and Carlos Correa is one of the most intriguing young shortstops since A-Rod’s early days. George Springer is another talented youngster with speed and power, and he’s been heating up at the plate for the past week. Meanwhile., a peek at the Astros’ list of regulars reads more like a list of near-busts than All Stars. Carlos Gomez has shown flashes of brilliance but can’t stay consistently healthy or our of controversy, and Colby Rasmus‘ rep was always that his production never matched his talent. Collin McHugh made his way to the Astros’ starting rotation after not quite cutting it with the New York Mets, and Chris Carter and Luis Valbuena came into the season known for prodigious power and low career batting averages. The Astros, coming into the season, were seen as a team that was streaky and could put up crooked numbers once in a while but wasn’t yet fit for contention. This narrative, too, turned out to be wrong. For much of the year, the Astros looked as if they’d run away with the American League West–and even though they came back to Earth down the stretch, they held off a spirited charge by the Los Angeles Angels and finished with 87 wins.

A-Rod, Beltran and the Yankees come in with a lot of big-game experience.
A-Rod, Beltran and the Yankees come in with a lot of big-game experience.

Both teams will be starting pitchers who can dominate hitters without overpowering them. Masahiro Tanaka has struggled at times in his return from Tommy John surgery, but he’s been strong down the stretch and is a big reason the Yankees are in the postseason. His fastball is currently about the league average, but he’s still got fierce downward action on his sinker and can induce a ton of swings and misses. But he’s struggled with the home run all season, and the Astros were second in the American League in home runs with 230–just two behind the canonating Toronto Blue Jays. The Astros’ left-handed ace, Dallas Keuchel, went 20-8 this season with a 2.48 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 216 strikeouts in 232 innings. His fastball is below average in velocity, but he’s good at keeping hitters off balance and staying low in the strike zone. He doesn’t struggle with the home run as much as Tanaka, but he’s given up most of his homers on the road and to righties. This could be a problem against Beltran, A-Rod and the resurgent Chris Young, who hits lefties well.  Tanaka is generally more likely to struggle with going deeper into a game, but Keuchel will be pitching on shorter-than-usual rest, and this could be a factor. If it comes down to the bullpens, the Yankees have a distinct advantage–led by Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, maybe the best one-two bullpen punch in baseball.

The Yankees and Astros are both high scoring teams. The Yankees were second in the American League with 764 runs (behind the Blue Jays’ stupefying 891), and Houston was fifth with 729. They’re virtually even in team batting average: the Yankees finished at .251, and the Astros at .250. The difference that jumps off the page, statistically and to the naked eye, is team speed: the Astros led the AL with 121 stolen bases almost double the Yankees’ 63. Altuve, Springer and Correa are all fast and aggressive on the bases, and Rasmus and Gomez have speed in the middle of the lineup. The ability to take extra bases might make it easier for the Astros to put pressure on the defense and perhaps chase Tanaka too early for the Yanks’ bullpen to shorten the game.

WHO WINS?

Both teams are explosive, and the game will be in home-run-friendly Yankee Stadium. Both starting pitchers are capable of throwing gems, but also subject to blow-up innings. Keuchel has dominated the Yankees in their past two matchups, holding them scoreless in sixteen innings while striking out twenty-one. The Astros’ ability to take extra bases, and the fact that their best hitters are at the top of their lineup whereas the Yankee order is middle-heavy, should be the difference.Be prepared for a pitchers’ duel or a shootout.

Prediction: The Yankees make some adjustments to Keuchel, but Tanaka only lasts twice through the lineup. Astros win 5-3.

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