The long-awaited showdown between the AL’s two best teams and long-distance rivals begins tonight in the Bronx as the Yanks will take on the Houston Astros for the first time in 2022. Despite playing in different divisions, these four games from tonight through Sunday afternoon may have more impact on how the season ends up for both teams than we may realize with a cursory glance. More on that in a minute, but if you haven’t been following the Astros this season, here’s what you need to know:
They’re very good. In fact, their SRS (based on run differential and strength of schedule) has them ranked as the second-best team in the AL and fourth best in MLB overall. They’re currently 43-25 (a 102-win pace), in first place in the AL West, with a 10-game lead on the second-place Texas Rangers. They’re also coming in hot, having won six of their last seven games, including two in a row over the Mets.
It’s no surprise that they can hit. Their 114 team wRC+ is tied for the second-best in MLB and they boast six regulars with a wRC+ of 115 or higher. Although their runs per game average has been dragged down a little by horrid base running (second most outs made on bases in MLB but the second-lowest extra-base taken percentage – that’s 2021 Yankees stuff right there) this is not a team you want to count your chickens with should the Yanks get an early lead.
On an individual level, Houston is led by star right fielder Kyle Tucker who comes into tonight’s action with 3.3 WAR and a 139 OPS+ – the WAR is third-best among all outfielders behind only Mike Trout and Aaron Judge. Tucker runs the bases and fields at an above-average level and hits on a far above-average level – at age 25 he’s going to be a problem for Astros opponents for a long time.
Of course, even Tucker takes a back seat to the one-man juggernaut known as Yordan Álvarez. At age 25 and in his fourth season Álvarez has established himself as one of the game’s best hitters, if not the game’s best hitter. With a .315/.406/.658 triple-slash line, Álvarez’s 201 OPS+ is the best in baseball and is good for 3.3 WAR – the ninth-best in baseball despite splitting time between left field and DH. It’s not just a two-and-a-half-month hot streak with Álvarez either. In MLB since integration, among players with at least 1,000 PA who were under 26 years old, only Frank Thomas, Mickey Mantle, Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Ralph Kiner, and Dick Allen have posted an OPS+ better than Álvarez’s 161.
That said, Álvarez – as the Mets can attest – is also coming into the Bronx en Fuego. Over his last 13 games and 54 PA, the man has posted a ridiculous .391/.463.783 triple-slash line, including three long balls in two games in Queens.
On the runs prevention side of the game, the ‘Stros have excelled as well as they currently rank third in MLB in Runs Allowed Per Game. As one would expect, the pitching has been good as the staff ranks seventh league-wide in K-BB%, 10th in SIERA, and 11th in xFIP. Yet it’s been the team defense that’s stood out as they’ve posted the second-highest Defensive Runs Above Average in MLB this season.
If there is a soft spot for the Yankees to look for, it’s that the Astros pitchers are OK with giving up fly balls. They’ve allowed the 10th highest average launch angle and have the 25th lowest ground ball rate so far in ’22, and as I’ve noted here before, the Yanks are pretty good at elevating the ball with authority. Should be an interesting matchup.
On an individual level, Houston has been led – rather remarkably – by Justin Verlander. After not having been on a big-league mound for 21 months due to Tommy John surgery, Verlander has bounced back in a big way. He ranks in the top fifth of the league in virtually every significant category and his current 3.41 xFIP and 3.34 SIERA are both below his career averages. The Yankees will see the two-time Cy Young award winner Friday night and it should be interesting as he’s coming off his worst outing of ’22, having been knocked around by Texas to the tune of seven runs over 3.2 IP.
Of random note from the good news/bad news department, the Astros are still without star rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña as he’s still currently on the IL recovering from a thumb injury. He’s due to come off the IL on Friday but he just resumed swinging drills yesterday so his return date is up in the air. With a 129 OPS+ and an above-average glove at shortstop, Peña has been one of the best shortstops in baseball this season (his 2.8 WAR is second to only Xander Bogaerts) – speaking as a fan, I hope we get to see him this weekend, although it seems unlikely.
Keep in mind, with the new playoff format the two teams with the best records at season’s end receive a bye instead of having to play a Wild Card Series, which is a huge advantage. Both of these teams are likely to be in that discussion in September so this series may have some long-term impact if one of them gets pushed closer to the pack with a poor weekend showing. Currently, the Yanks have a seven-game lead on Houston for the best record while Houston has a three-game lead over Cleveland for the second-best record. There’s a long way to go obviously, but these games are more than just “let’s mock the Astros”. (Not that we won’t do and enjoy that…)
Pitching matchups and how to watch:
Tonight: Jameson Taillon vs. Framber Valdez, first pitch 7:30 pm. Watch on YES and the MLB Network.
Friday: Luis Severino vs. Justin Verlander, first pitch 7:05 PM. Stream on Prime Video.
Saturday: Gerrit Cole vs. Cristian Javier, first pitch 1:05 PM. Watch on YES.
Sunday: Nestor Cortes vs. TBD, first pitch 1:35 PM. Watch on YES and the MLB Network.
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