Series Preview: Houston Astros @ New York Yankees (5/11-5/14)

This looks to be a fascinating four-game series at Yankee Stadium as it heads into the weekend. Two of the younger teams in baseball, each has had tremendous success to start the season. These teams lead their respective divisions and have fought for the best record in baseball for a few weeks now. At 21-10, the Yankees will look to take advantage of their home field against the 23-11 Astros.

GAME ONE (Thursday, May 11 | First Pitch: 7:05 PM ET)
Dallas Keuchel (5-0, 1.88 ERA) vs. Michael Pineda (3-1, 3.12 ERA)

Who would’ve thought Michael Pineda would be the best starter for a Yankees team that has started the season 21-10? Well here we are in mid-May and Pineda has sustained his high strikeout, low walk numbers while now also allowing far fewer runs. Ever since his opening start against Tampa Bay in which he couldn’t make it out of the fourth inning, Pineda hasn’t allowed more than three runs in his five starts since then and has allowed two or less in four of those starts. In the five outings since, he has pitched to a 2.32 ERA across 31 innings. He’s yet to have a start with less than six strikeouts so far this year. His 43 on the year is good for 10th in the AL to date and that’s with only 34.2 innings. The only starter that has matched that kind of volume of strikeouts is Chris Sale. Pineda has faced two of the best offenses in the league, the Orioles and Cubs, in his past two starts and passed each test admirably. This is another test against one of the younger offenses in baseball, to go along with having to go toe-to-toe with one of the best pitchers in baseball in Dallas Keuchel.

About a month and a half into the season, it’s safe to say the 2015 Dallas Keuchel is back. The Cy Young winner has never been known for having dominant stuff, but rather is an efficient, ground-ball pitcher. His durability into games has been quite impressive, as he has pitched at least seven innings in every start this year, something the Yankees could use. His ability to take so much pressure off of having to use multiple bullpen arms has been crucial to the Astros’ early season success. He leads the AL in wins (5) and innings pitched (52.2), while being fourth in ERA (1.88). He’s coming off his worst start of the season against the Angels in which he allowed five runs, while still lasting eight innings. He’s also been known to be a Yankees killer, as he has truly dominated the Yankees whenever he’s had the chance to face them in the past few seasons, including the 2015 Wild Card game we all remember.

This is a new-look, rejuvenated offense though that could give Keuchel some trouble. The only criticism of his early season success is the offenses he has faced. Having faced the Angels and Athletics each twice, to go along with the Royals and the Indians, Keuchel has only faced one top-20 offense all year, which was the Seattle Mariners. That happened to be his first start of the year, one in which he pitched seven scoreless innings, but it’s quite interesting that his past six starts have all been against bottom-12 offenses. This will be huge test against one of baseball’s best offenses in the Bronx Bombers.

Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

GAME TWO (Friday, May 12 | First Pitch: 7:05 PM ET)
Lance McCullers Jr. (2-1, 3.40 ERA) vs. Jordan Montgomery (2-1, 3.81 ERA)

Heading into the season, the fifth spot in the rotation was the only one that was up in the air, with many guys vying for a chance in the spring. That is, until Jordan Montgomery snatched the spot up. He has been relatively productive for the Yanks, especially as that fifth starter. He hasn’t been spectacular, but has been very solid and that’s all you need when you get to this point in the rotation. In five starts, he’s either allowed two or three runs each time he has taken the mound. Montgomery has had a very good 26 strikeouts in 28.1 innings, but has a high WHIP of 1.38, due in large part to his 14 walks. To the eye, Montgomery has actually pitched better than his 3.81 ERA shows, but the walks have played a large role in most of those runs. Montgomery will need to continue his production against one of the filthier, young pitchers in baseball.

Lance McCullers Jr. has been spectacular this year in his seven starts. The two starts in which he allowed five runs in have certainly hurt his ERA, but he’s been brilliant in the five other starts. If you take away the two aforementioned starts against Cleveland and Oakland, McCullers has a 1.64 ERA. He’s always been known for his stuff and he has lived up to that hype this year, with 50 strikeouts in 42.1 innings. This is only behind the ridiculous Sale for the league lead of a mind-boggling, uncatchable 72 K’s.

GAME THREE (Saturday, May 13 | First Pitch: 1:05 PM ET)
Mike Fiers (1-1, 5.64 ERA) vs. Luis Severino (2-2, 3.40)

Severino had the misfortunate of starting the 18-inning marathon at Wrigley field this past Sunday, which concluded with a 5-4 Yankees victory after Aroldis Chapman blew a 4-1 lead in the ninth inning. In seven dominant innings of work, Severino out dueled former-Red Sox ace Jon Lester, only giving up one earned run and four hits, while striking out nine. Severino rebounded nicely from a loss to the Toronto Blue Jays, in which he was pounded for five earned runs in five and two thirds innings. It appears that Severino has moved past the sophomore slump that came to define his 2016 season, prior to a late season move to the bullpen. This start will be a huge test for the young righty, who hopes to silence the Astros' bats in the Bronx. Thus far, Severino has already had his way with the potent Red Sox and Cubs lineups. Behind Michael Pineda, Severino has been the Yankees' second best starter this season. Let's hope 2017 will indeed be the year Severino emerges as a front line pitcher. The signs are certainly point that way.

Mike Fiers has continued his struggles since leaving the NL, following up a below-average 2016 season with an even worse start to the 2017 season. His stats are actually similar to Sabathia, but he hasn’t really had any great outings. His 5.64 ERA is even worse when you take away his opening start, when he only allowed one earned run against the worst offense in baseball, the Royals. Fiers had a few good seasons in Milwaukee, but has been unable to regain that form against AL offenses. With both guys up near a 6.00 ERA, expect this to be a high-scoring game in the Bronx.

GAME FOUR (Sunday, May 14 | First Pitch: 7:38 PM ET)
Charlie Morton (3-2, 3.97 ERA) vs. Masahiro Tanaka (5-1, 4.36 ERA)

The Sunday series finale features a struggling Masahiro Tanaka against former Pirate Charlie Morton. Tanaka has struggled since Opening Day and instead of building off of his complete game gem against the Red Sox, he has followed it up with back-back pedestrian outings. In the two starts, against the Blue Jays and Reds, he’s struggled to keep runners off base, allowing 18 hits in 13.1 innings pitched. Besides two excellent starts against the Red Sox and White Sox, he’s had five starts that have all allowed at least three runs. Rather average numbers for a guy who’s getting paid the type of money he is, especially coming off a year in which he finished top 10 in the Cy Young voting. Tanaka could possibly hit free agency this offseason, or even the trade market, and if he continues pitching like this the Yankees will likely let go of him.

Charlie Morton has continued his up-and-downs. The first three seasons of his career were some of the worst numbers in the league, pitching a 5.98 ERA over 50 starts for the Braves and Pirates. He then became a solid back-of-the-rotation option over the course of 2011-2014 with the Pirates before a below-average 2015 season. His 2016 season was an injury-filled one, only making four starts for the Phillies. Now on his fourth team, Morton has found success for the Astros. Morton has easily been the third best starter for Houston and is coming off of back-to-back one-run performances against Texas and Atlanta. He has pitched better than his counterpart Tanaka and has displayed quite high strikeout numbers. With 44 K’s in 39.2 innings, he will look to continue his successful pitching to date.

Keys to the series for the Yankees:

Don’t play Chris Carter
First base production has been just as bad since an injury landed Greg Bird on the DL. Bird, who was just six for 60 with one homer, was a burden to the team in the first month. Things have not gotten better though, as Chris Carter looks completely lost in the batter’s box. Yes, he might eventually start hitting homers after leading the NL in 2016 with 43, but he’s currently not hitting those and he doesn’t bring anything else to the table. He constantly strikes out, having 22 in 57 ABs thus far, along with possessing below-average defense. With Matt Holliday and Austin Romine both being capable of playing first base, or even Bryan Mitchell, it’s time to stop giving this guy at-bats. Once Tyler Austin and Greg Bird return from their injuries, look for Carter to hopefully be let go of.

Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius build off of strong returns from DL
The two best hitters of the 2016 Yankees, with the exception of Carlos Beltran, have barely been able to see the field so far. Didi was having an excellent WBC before suffering an injury and being forced out the first month of the season, but has now returned to form. Through his 48 ABs, he’s hitting .313 and hit a long homer for his first of the season against Cincinnati on Tuesday night. These numbers look even better when you exclude his hitless night against the Cubs in the 18-inning marathon, in which he went hitless in. His average jumps to .375 when taking out that game, including being nine of his last 16. Didi has also been the same, energetic shortstop on defense, though coming off a season in which he had a career-high 15 errors in 2016. On the other hand, El Kraken is starting to heat up for the Yanks. Like Gregorius, Sanchez hit a long HR Tuesday against the Reds, his second of the season. Gary didn’t look at all like the 2016 version of himself to start, including before the DL stint, but has since picked up the pace, going seven for his last 13. If he performs even near what he did last season, this scary Yankees offense will become even scarier.

Photo Credit: AP

Don’t fall behind if you don’t have to
The impressive part of the fast start for the Yankees has been their ability to come from behind. In multiple situations with their backs against the wall, they have come out of nowhere to steal a victory. This includes last week against the Cubs when they were down to their last strike and Brett Gardner lined a game-winning, three-run homer to right. The most notable was against division foe Orioles when they came back from down 9-1 to earning the win. Despite these, the Yanks can’t make falling behind a habit. Yes they’ve shown resiliency, so why is it bad if it’s working? Well, first off some of those wins involved quite a bit of luck and as the season goes on and the playoffs draw closer and closer, the Yanks will need to be less reliant on coming from behind against teams, specifically playoff-caliber ones.

Keys to the series for the Astros:

Get Correa going
Just a few seasons ago, Correa was considered a surefire superstar by many and was expected to only get better from his impressive rookie season, in which he lead the Astros to the playoffs. The first overall pick from the 2012 draft, Correa underperformed in 2016 and has been the same in 2017. After hitting 22 homers in 387 ABs his rookie year, he hit two less in 2016 despite having 190 more ABs. Don’t get me wrong, this guy is a stud and is still producing solid numbers, as .270 and 20 homers are solid. But they are nowhere near the MVP-caliber numbers many of us were expecting and he has yet to make that leap. That leap from being a .270, 20 home run hitter to a .300, 30 HR, 120 RBI guy. He’s still only 22 and is apart of a very young Houston core, that includes him, George Springer, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Yuri Gurriel.

Photo Credit: Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle

Put Gattis and McCann in the lineup together
This duo has been very impressive for this high-octane offense to date. Despite being known for their youth, these two veteran catchers have stepped up for Houston so far. After spending the past few seasons at a variety of positions, including catcher, DH, and left field, Evan Gattis has split time with McCann at catcher. McCann has registered 89 ABs, compared 72 for Gattis. There productivity has been very similar, as Gattis is hitting .292 and McCann’s average is at .281. They have a combined eight homers, 34 RBIs, and 24 runs scored at the catcher spot. These two in the lineup at the same time should be presented as a daily idea to manager A.J. Hinch, with McCann, the better defender, at catcher and Gattis at the DH spot. What’s probably holding Hinch back from this lineup decision though is how similar these two are, neither possessing much speed at all. Regardless, these two power hitters have been crucial for the ‘Stros and this should continue in the Bronx, specifically with McCann and how well he’s accustomed to that short porch in right.
Utilize the short porch
The Astros have had a very good start to the season and quite a bit of their players can even improve from their early season stats. One bright spot has been the long spot though, as they ranked tied-for-sixth in the MLB heading into Wednesday. Like their opponent, the Astros have many long ball threats throughout their lineup and off the bench as well. It starts with the George Springer and Correa, utilityman Marwin Gonzalez, along with Altuve, who actually has quite underrated, above-average power for his 5’6” stature. Two guys that were playing on the other side of this matchup last year will get the chance to play the Yankees in McCann and Carlos Beltran. While McCann has found success, Beltran hasn’t been the same guy he was last season with New York. He’s currently hitting a mediocre .252 average with three homers and 11 RBIs. McCann meanwhile has had 30 less at-bats and has found far more success. Look for a lot of these guys to tee off in this series and hit quite a few of long balls against an overachieving pitching staff.

These two teams are known for their offenses and this long series will include multiple high scoring affairs, but don’t be surprised if there’s some pitcher duels, as each team possesses a few underrated pitchers. In the Bronx, vying for the best record in all of baseball, look for the series to end up in a split, with the Yankees tying it up on Sunday Night Baseball in the series finale.

Article by: Spencer Schultz
Follow me on Twitter @spenceschultz63
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