The Yankees defeated one 100-plus-win, talented-in-every-phase team in the Indians to earn the right to play another just like that in the Astros.
“They are such a well-balanced club,” said a scout who has the Astros as part of his coverage. “They have power and speed and they are aggressive. They are in attack mode. They can swing the bat so well 1-to-9. There is no weak link in there. They can beat you in several ways, speed, power, a walk. It really is an unbelievable club.”
An AL executive said: “Their offense is an A, with [Justin] Verlander, their rotation is an A-minus and their bullpen is a B-plus. Think about that: Their weakest area is actually a strength for most teams.”
Two scouts and an executive helped dissect the team the Yankees will try to beat in the ALCS to get to the World Series:
Dallas for Houston
Dallas Keuchel will start Game 1 and to say he has dominated the Yankees is like saying Texas is big. His 1.41 ERA is the best regular-season mark against the Yankees (minimum six starts) in the last 60 years. Plus, the lefty shut them out over six innings in the 2015 wild-card game.
In all, the Yankees have 188 plate appearances against Keuchel and zero homers — and homers are central to the 2017 team’s offense.
But No. 3 on that regular-season ERA list against the Yankees is Chris Sale, whose Red Sox lost four times in five starts against the Yankees this year — and would have lost another except for an Aroldis Chapman blown save. No. 4 on that list is Corey Kluber, and the Yankees beat Kluber up in Division Series Games 2 and 5 to advance to face Keuchel and the Astros.
And despite the dominance, Keuchel actually has two losses against the Yankees. Remember how the dynastic Yankees teams beat the Red Sox when facing prime Pedro Martinez? It began with an excellent Yankees start. Believe it or not, the two who beat Keuchel were Brandon McCarthy and Michael Pineda.
Keuchel had two DL stints due to a nerve issue in his neck, but pitched well down the stretch and against Boston in the Division Series (1.90 ERA in his last four starts). Keuchel seduces on (and off) the corners with changeups, sliders and a two-seamer that helped him produce the highest groundball rate (minimum 140 innings) in the majors at 66.8 percent. Who the home plate ump is will matter because if Keuchel gets an extra ball or two off the corners, he becomes all the tougher. A tighter strike zone might help the Yankees get into some better counts.
“That ball a little off the plate, you must take it and make him work more toward the middle of the zone,” Scout 1 said.
Keuchel also is a Gold Glove-caliber defender and has allowed just three steals of second base in seven tries the past two years.
The Astros scored 896 runs, 38 more than the second-place Yankees and the most by any team since the 2009 champion Yankees.
And this is about an accumulation of talent. The Astros are the first team to have 10 players with at least 250 plate appearances and an OPS 9 percent or better than MLB average factoring in park and league, and the last two teams that had nine — the 2013 Red Sox and the 1986 Mets — won it all.
They had a record eight players at least 20 percent over the MLB average, and the last team that had seven — the ’09 Yanks — won it all.
“They are hard to prepare for because they have a lot of options,” said an AL executive. “They are not afraid to use their bench. They can hurt you up and down the lineup and then suddenly [Jake] Marisnick or [Cameron] Maybin is in the game, helping them on one side of the ball or the other.”
In the four-game Division Series knockout of the Red Sox, the Astros had a .974 OPS.
Swing and no miss
The records for both homers and strikeouts in a MLB season were smashed this year, mainly because they go together. Pitchers throw harder than ever, batters swing harder than ever and that combination is going to lead to lots of long balls and lots of whiffs.
The Astros, though, were second to the Yankees in homers and last in strikeout percentage at 17.3 percent. Players such as Jose Altuve, Yulieski Gurriel, Brian McCann and Josh Reddick were among the majors’ toughest players to whiff.
George Springer’s progression of lowering his whiff percentage annually from 33 percent in 2014 to 17.6 percent this year shows the growth of this team in this area.
Yankees pitchers struck out 25.7 of batters they faced — fourth highest in the majors — and their bullpen mark of 29.1 percent led MLB. And keep this in mind: During the regular season, the Indians were second to the Astros in lowest strikeout percentage at 18.5 percent. But in the five-game Division Series, they whiffed in 32.6 percent of plate appearances against Yankees pitching.
“The most fascinating matchup will be the Yankees’ high-strikeout staff against the Astros’ ability to hit for power, but not give up contact to do it,” Scout 2 said.
Though the lineup features lots of outstanding hitters, including Carlos Correa, Altuve is the engine of the offense.
“Don’t ask me how to get him out,” the executive said, “I don’t know how.”
Scout 1 summed up why: “He is such a tough out. He can handle any velocity. He can hit in any quadrant of the strike zone. He is probably the best bad-ball hitter in the sport, so if you think you can work around him with runners in scoring position, beware. This guy always gets the barrel to the ball.”
He has led the AL in batting average three of the past four years and finished third in the other season. Altuve hit 24 homers for the second straight year, stole more than 30 bases for the sixth straight season and tortured the Red Sox in the Division Series.
The weakest spot
The deeper you get into the Astros rotation and bullpen is where they have their greatest fallibility. Keuchel and Verlander provide Houston an excellent starting 1-2, but with Lance McCullers Jr. not able to make it all the way back to the rotation, Charlie Morton and Brad Peacock are the Nos. 3-4 starters. Both had good 2017 seasons, but still are a drop-off from 1-2.
The Astros invested a three-year contract on Tony Sipp and traded for Francisco Liriano at this year’s deadline, but still do not have a trusty lefty setup man. Chris Devenski, using his outstanding changeup, can both handle lefties and give manager A.J. Hinch multiple innings. But he can be homer susceptible.
Ken Giles is not in the elite tier of closers, but is a tough at-bat. He averages 98 mph with his fastball, but wants to get to his wipeout slider as his out pitch.
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