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2015 American League Wild-Card Preview: Astros vs. Yankees

Can Cy Young contender Dallas Keuchel thrive on short rest? Is Masahiro Tanaka ready to tame the homer-happy Astros? Which struggling bullpen can get it together in time? The answers will determine which side advances to the ALDS.

Do you smell that? It’s the combination of crisp autumn air and abject, overwhelming fear that can presage only one thing: postseason baseball. And since that postseason baseball will take place in New York City on Tuesday night, there are a few other smells mixed in, as well, for better or worse.

The 2015 MLB playoffs begin at 8 p.m. ET with a Loser Goes Home match between the Astros and Yankees, two teams that, despite being constructed very differently, took similar routes to October.

Midway through the season, this looked likely to be an ALDS matchup, and it probably would have been if the Rangers and Blue Jays hadn’t each picked up the trade-deadline equivalent of the blue shell in Mario Kart. At close of business on July 28, the Yankees held a seven-game lead over the then-second-place Orioles and an eight-game lead on the then-fourth-place Jays; as late as August 26, the Astros, who led the division by seven games in early May, still maintained a 5.5-game lead over Texas.

Now, Houston and New York are tasked with regaining in one molar-grinding evening what they squandered over the previous two months. Here’s a look at what to expect.

Houston Astros

Dallas Keuchel has thrived at home this season, but has enjoyed less success on the road.

Denis Poroy/Getty Images Dallas Keuchel has thrived at home this season, but has enjoyed less success on the road.

The knock on the Astros offense is that it relies too much on the home run: No team generated a greater percentage (47.6 percent) of its runs through homers than Houston did this season.

That’d be a problem for a team that hit fewer home runs, but the Astros hit bucketloads of them: 230, to be precise, the second most in baseball this year and the product of a very balanced lineup. Eleven different Astros totaled double-digit home runs for Houston this year, while Jed Lowrie and Jake Marisnick each hit nine in what amounted to half a season’s worth of plate appearances, and Carlos Gomez hit four for Houston after hitting eight for Milwaukee before he was traded at the deadline.

The Astros go about 15 deep in position players who can be useful in some situation or other, which gives first-year manager A.J. Hinch tremendous flexibility in terms of playing matchups. How much flexibility? Hinch has used 151 different lineups this season, not even counting the lineups he’s had to adjust because of the pitcher’s spot in interleague games, and has never used any lineup more than twice. And once the game’s under way, he’s fond of using Marisnick to pinch run for Evan Gattis or Preston Tucker, then keeping Marisnick in the game to play center field between George Springer and Colby Rasmus, which is the best late-game defensive outfield this side of the Kansas City Royals. Meanwhile, Marwin Gonzalez has quietly turned into a Zobristian figure for the Astros. Two years ago, he was the punch line of a second-division shortstop best known for breaking up Yu Darvish’s perfect-game bid on Opening Day, but this year he’s got an OPS+ of 106 while playing wherever the hell Hinch feels like putting him at a given moment: Gonzalez has made 10 or more appearances at five different positions this year.

The Astros have two legitimate stars in Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve, but by substituting liberally, Hinch has been able to piece together star-level performances from platoons or defensive time-shares across the diamond. Altuve, Correa, and Springer are really the only three Astros who play all the time, and that strategy has not only cultivated a deep bench, but has allowed everyone else to play only in the situations that suit their strengths.

Now for the bad news.

You might wonder how, with all this depth and young talent and an MLB-leading 130 team wRC+ in September and October, Houston managed to go 13-17 in its last 30 contests and dump 7.5 games in the standings over six weeks.

The obvious weak spot is the bullpen, which GM Jeff Luhnow bolstered at some expense this offseason by adding Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek, but which posted a 5.72 ERA over the past 30 days, the worst mark in baseball over that time.

In a win-or-go-home contest, how much that matters will depend on Dallas Keuchel. In a vacuum, Keuchel is the perfect pitcher to start in this game: He’s been one of the American League’s best pitchers this year, and Houston’s top starter by far, and the reason people like no. 1 starters so much is because they tend to come in handy when a team needs to win one game to keep the season going.

Two factors complicate matters, however. First is Keuchel’s home/road splits. At home this season, he’s 15-0 with a 1.46 ERA and a 9.7 K/9 ratio, while on the road he’s 5-8 with a 3.77 ERA and a 6.8 K/9 ratio. Given that the former Enron Field is such a hitter-friendly environment, a split that extreme is surprising, and I’d be tempted to write it off as noise if (1) it weren’t so extreme, and (2) it didn’t seem to affect the entire team. The Astros are tied for the third-best home record in baseball (53-28) but have the seventh-worst road record in the game (33-48), easily the poorest mark of any playoff team. Every club plays better at home than on the road, but a split that extreme makes you wonder how much comfort an adult man can derive from eating Whataburger.

The second factor is that Keuchel is pitching on three days’ rest, which probably wouldn’t be happening if Scott Kazmir hadn’t fallen apart down the stretch like no great pitcher has since Don Draper cried in the Hershey’s meeting. Even so, I don’t like this decision; there’s no way to know how Keuchel will react to pitching on three days’ rest because he’s never done it before in the big leagues. Short rest affects different pitchers in different ways, but a large part of the reason that the Astros even made the playoffs is that on Sunday afternoon, the Angels started Garrett Richards against the Rangers on three days’ rest, and he struggled without anything resembling his typical good command. Maybe Keuchel, who’s more of a finesse pitcher than Richards, will be unfazed by the change in routine, or maybe he’ll completely go to pieces. There’s no way to tell, and that’ll probably be the deciding factor.

Houston Astros’ Projected Starting Lineup
Order Player Bats Slash Line wRC+ PA
1 2B Jose Altuve R .313/.353/.459 120 689
2 RF George Springer R .276/.367/.459 129 451
3 SS Carlos Correa R .279/.345/.512 133 432
4 3B Jed Lowrie S .222/.312/.400 91 263
5 DH Evan Gattis R .246/.285/.463 99 604
6 LF Colby Rasmus L .238/.314/.475 115 485
7 CF Carlos Gomez R .255/.314/.409 97 477
8 1B Chris Carter R .199/.307/.427 101 460
9 C Jason Castro L .211/.283/.365 77 375

New York Yankees

Masahiro Tanaka's worst start of the season came against Houston in June, when he allowed six runs.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images Masahiro Tanaka’s worst start of 2015 came against Houston in June, when he allowed six runs.

Speaking of bullpens that have had bad Septembers! At the trade deadline, I said that the Yankees were one good reliever away from being able to go with a three-man rotation and six one-inning relievers. Since then, not only have they failed to pick up that extra reliever, they’ve also lost CC Sabathia for the foreseeable future and Nathan Eovaldi at least until the divisional round, which would likely move Adam Warren and Luis Severino to the rotation if the Yanks advance to the ALDS. Moreover, Chasen Shreve, a key middle reliever all year, has allowed nine of his 20 earned runs since September 8, and the Yankees won’t carry him on the wild-card roster. The upshot is that the Yankees bullpen could have gone seven knockout relievers deep, but now relies more heavily than ever on closer Andrew Miller, setup man Dellin Betances, and lefty specialist Justin Wilson.

The Yankees are the only team other than the Astros to post a bullpen ERA higher than 5.00 over the past 30 days, but that team number is a little misleading. In that time, Shreve, Bryan Mitchell, and Chris Capuano are responsible for 42.1 percent of the bullpen’s earned runs, but have pitched only 17.7 percent of its innings, and none of those pitchers will see high-leverage action against Houston.

That’s not to say there’s no cause for concern. In addition to the loss of depth, Betances is walking almost a batter an inning over the past month. Now, one down month for a relief pitcher isn’t cause for concern on its own, but Betances has thrown by far the most relief innings in baseball over the past two seasons, so it’s possible that he’s starting to wear down at an inopportune time.

But if Betances isn’t actually broken, he and Andrew Miller have the potential to lock down a game after six innings the way Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland did for the Yankees in 1996.

Getting to Betances and Miller will be Masahiro Tanaka’s job. Tanaka’s about average in terms of ground ball/fly ball ratio, and he’s seen an increase in both fly ball rate and HR/FB ratio since last year, which makes him a less than ideal matchup for the power in Hinch’s Flying Circus. In fact, Tanaka’s worst start of the season (six earned runs in five innings on June 27, with a season-low game score of 32) came in his only appearance against Houston.

It’s a data point to consider, small though it may be. On the other hand, one start three months ago means less than a long track record of Tanaka being a good pitcher overall. If you’re looking for good news, Tanaka followed up that rough outing in Houston with 14 straight starts of six innings or more, and unlike the Astros, the Yankees not only get to use their top starting pitcher, they get to use him on five days’ rest.

Offensively, the Yankees aren’t that different from the Astros: They’ve scored the second-most runs in baseball this year (764) on 212 homers, and while manager Joe Girardi doesn’t platoon and substitute quite as much as Hinch does, he’s perfectly happy to play matchups. For example, Chris Young struck out against a pitching machine this spring, but he’s hitting .327/.397/.575 against lefties this year, so there’s a pretty decent chance you’ll see him against Keuchel. We could also see some movement at second base, where Girardi’s been playing a shell game with Brendan Ryan and Stephen Drew (who can defend the position but probably couldn’t hit a pitching machine either) subbing in and out with Rob Refsnyder and Dustin Ackley (who can both hit at least a little but are really outfielders). Drew’s out with a concussion, but it’s not inconceivable that the Yankees could carry and use all three of the others against Houston. We are, after all, dealing with a manager who once gave up the DH on purpose in an AL playoff game.

Meanwhile, Alex Rodriguez leads all qualified Yankees hitters in OBP and SLG, and his 33 home runs are tops among players who will take part in this game. It brings me no end of joy to see A-Rod return from his yearlong exile as a Jason Giambi– or Jim Thome–type dinger-smashing team dad.

Which brings up the last point on the Yankees. I usually don’t buy into the narrative of a young team becoming all tight-sphincter in big moments, and even if I did, the Astros have their share of guys with playoff experience. With that said, though, Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Jacoby Ellsbury have been around the block — those guys aren’t going to be intimidated by the bright lights and big TV audience, because they’ve seen it all already. That’s one of those intangible factors that won’t be as important as whether Keuchel has his good stuff, for instance, and that might not even matter at all. But if it does, it would seem to favor the Yankees.

New York Yankees’ Projected Starting Lineup
Order Player Bats Slash Line wRC+ PA
1 CF Jacoby Ellsbury L .257/.318/.345 83 501
2 LF Chris Young R .252/.320/.453 109 356
3 DH Alex Rodriguez R .250/.356/.486 129 620
4 C Brian McCann L .232/.320/.437 105 535
5 RF Carlos Beltran S .276/.337/.471 119 531
6 3B Chase Headley S .259/.324/.369 91 642
7 1B Greg Bird L .261/.343/.529 137 178
8 SS Didi Gregorius L .265/.318/.370 89 578
9 2B Rob Refsnyder R .302/.348/.512 130 47

The Pick

Alex Rodriguez's 33 home runs are the most on either team in this matchup. Also, this face!

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images Alex Rodriguez’s 33 home runs are the most on either team in this matchup. Also, this face!

When two teams finish within a game of each other over the course of a full season, saying that a matchup between them is even and unpredictable is more than just a diplomatic platitude — it’s the truth. But while the NL wild-card game is going to be hard to call because I’m not sure anyone’s ever going to score off Gerrit Cole or Jake Arrieta, the AL matchup is hard to call because it could go one of about 14 different ways.

But the key here is Keuchel. He’s a better pitcher than Tanaka, so if starting on the road on three days’ rest doesn’t bother him at all, and if he pitches well and goes deep into the game, the shaky bullpen won’t enter into it, and I like Houston’s position players better than I like New York’s.

But given Keuchel’s lack of a track record on three days’ rest and given his struggles away from home, I’m nowhere near confident enough to pick Houston in this game. With Kazmir struggling the way he has been, I don’t know that Hinch has a better option, but there’s still enough uncertainty to make the Yankees and their reliable, well-rested starting pitcher the favorite to advance.