ALCS Game 1 Notes

The New York Yankees and Houston Astros are set to kick off the ALCS tonight in Houston. Here are some notes about two teams that have been on a collision course all season.

Houston had the best lineup in baseball this year, leading the league in wOBA (.355) and wRC+ (125). Even the mighty Yankees trailed Houston, ranking third (.346) and second (117) in those categories.

No team walked more than the Astros this season, who took free passes at a 10.1% clip. In addition to their superior plate discipline, the Astros displayed elite bat-to-ball skills: no team struck out less than the Astros, who did so at an 18.2% rate. The Yankees ranked twelfth in both, at 9.1% and 23.0% rates, respectively.

Houston’s domination of the strike zone doesn’t when their hitters are digging in: the Astros pitching staff struck out a league-best 27.9% of hitters in 2019. Their 7.5% walk rate ranked fourth-lowest. The Yankees? Seventh at 25.0% and tenth at 8.3%.

Masahiro Tanaka goes for the Yankees in Game 1. Tanaka used his famous splitter 26.7% of the time in 2019 despite having trouble with the pitch earlier in the season, potentially due to the 2019 baseballs. There’s evidence that the baseballs have changed this postseason and have more drag than they’ve had since 2016. That could be good news for Tanaka’s splitter. Here are some results against the pitch from Tanaka’s Game 2 ALDS start against the Minnesota Twins compared to Tanaka’s season averages.

Date RangeUsagexwOBASwStr%Vertical BreakSpin Rate
201926.7%.30911.2%-27.67 inches1588 rpm
10/5/201934.9%.14724.1%-30.72 inches1557 rpm

That 24.1% swinging strike rate is much closer to the 23.7% and 21.7% marks that Tanaka put up with the splitter in 2017 and 2018. According to Brooks Baseball, in 2019, Tanaka only got more vertical break on his split-finger in his final regular season start against the Texas Rangers than he did in ALDS Game 2 against the Twins. In that start against Texas, however, all of Tanaka’s pitches registered season-high vertical break numbers and his vertical release points on all pitches also registered season-lows, which might indicate an issue with the tracking system in Texas. If the baseballs actually have changed, and the numbers from October 5th certainly look encouraging, the Yankees Game 1 starter might have the most powerful version of his most dangerous weapon back in his arsenal.

Even better news for the Yankees: according to Pitch Info data available at FanGraphs, the Astros struggled as a lineup against splitters this season. They rank eleventh-worst in MLB with a -1.45 run value per 100 splitters seen. According to Baseball Savant, the Astros rank thirteenth-best at hitting the splitter with a .254 xwOBA in 2019, the worst of any playoff team and lower than Minnesota’s third-best .296 mark. The Astros juggernaut just might have one weakness the Yankees right-hander is uniquely positioned to exploit.

The Astros were the best team in baseball at handling sliders in 2019 (0.85 run value per 100 sliders seen and .312 xwOBA), so Tanaka will need to be cautious with his most frequently thrown offering (36.3% usage rate in 2019).

The Astros Game 1 starter Zack Greinke uses a four-seam fastball (40.9%), changeup (21.9%), slider (16.1%), curveball (14.6%), and sinker (5.3%) in addition to the occasional eephus, splitter, and cutter (1.2% combined). Interestingly, Greinke’s changeup only averages 2.5 less miles per hour than his four-seamer (87.5 mph to 89.9 mph).

As a team, the Yankees crush four-seamers and changeups.

Pitch TypeRun Value/100MLB RankxwOBAMLB Rank
4-Seam0.643rd.3746th
Changeup0.811st.3173rd

Against the power-laden Bomber lineup, if Greinke isn’t sharp, he could find himself in trouble with his two primary offerings. Greinke is likely to go to the slider more, especially against a righty-heavy Yankees lineup, but he won’t find much more safety there: the Yankees ranked fifth in run value/100 against sliders at -0.05 and second in xwOBA with a .296 mark.

ALCS Roster Note: The Yankees dropped Tyler Wade in favor of Aaron Hicks, a major upgrade if Hicks is fully healthy. While Hicks’ inclusion complicates some decisions about lineup construction, he certainly upgrades the Yankees outfield defense by manning center and allowing Brett Gardner to take over in left for Giancarlo Stanton, whose knee was clearly not 100% for the ALDS. In Game 1, with a starter who keeps the ball on the ground going for the Yankees and a starter who doesn’t strike a ton of hitters out on the hill for the Astros, the Yankees may opt for better infield defense and less contact in exchange for more power in the lineup, playing DJ LeMahieu at first, Gio Urshela at third, and Stanton in left with Edwin Encarnación at DH and Gardner starting the game on the bench.

The Yankees also left first baseman Luke Voit off the ALCS roster and included lefty CC Sabathia. The Astros don’t feature a single left-handed pitcher on their ALCS roster. That being the case, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Voit was going to play in this series. An extra lefty out of the bullpen against Michael Brantley, Yordan Alvarez, Josh Reddick, and Kyle Tucker is probably going to be more crucial. Sabathia’s splits in 2019 are below.

Batter HandednessFIPxFIPK%xwOBAExit Velocity
vs. L5.794.1025.5%.27984.5 mph
vs. R5.634.9322.1%.31686.9 mph

Sabathia was bit by the home run bug against lefties in 2019, resulting in a high FIP, but his xFIP against lefties shows that he may have suffered from some bad luck in that department. Sabathia’s xwOBA against lefties ranks him 100th of 479 pitchers with at least fifty plate appearances against lefties in 2019. His exit velocity allowed ranks even better at 21st among 371 pitchers.

When you leave a bat like Voit’s off a playoff roster, you can only marvel at the Yankees’ organizational depth. It’s a hard choice, but Cameron Maybin’s usefulness as a pinch runner who can also take real at bats and play the outfield and Sabathia’s ability to neutralize some tough lefties in the Astros lineup edged out the right-handed slugger.

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