The 2015 MLB playoffs get started Tuesday night in the Bronx when the Houston Astros take on the New York Yankees in the American League Wild Card Game. The winner will face the Royals, the team with the best record in the AL, in Kansas City starting on Thursday.
For the Astros (86-76), this is their first playoff appearance since 2005, when they were still in the NL. This is a young team that surprised many by spending the majority of the season in first place in the AL West. In the end, Houston couldn’t hold off a surging Texas team, but no one in baseball is no longer underestimating the Astros’ talent level.
The Yankees (87-75) are certainly no stranger to the postseason, having won 27 World Series titles. But this is the first playoff appearance for New York since winning the AL East in 2012. A far more veteran (read: older) team than the Astros, the Yankees rode their offense and the back end of their bullpen to a wild card berth.
Houston won the season series against New York, taking four of the seven games, including two of three at Yankee Stadium.
Houston at New York
Time: 8 p.m. ET (Tuesday)
Matchup: LHP Dallas Keuchel (20-8, 2.48 ERA) vs. RHP Masahiro Tanaka (12-7, 3.51 ERA)
Three Things to Watch
1. Youth vs. Experience
The Astros are one of the youngest teams in baseball, with an average age of 26.6 years, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Shortstop Carlos Correa, who is fifth on the team in home runs (22) and second in RBIs (68) even though he played in just 99 games, just turned 21 two weeks ago. Contrast that to the Yankees, who have an average age of 31.1, making them the oldest roster in MLB. The youngest everyday starter for New York is shortstop, Didi Gregorius, who is 25.
The age gap, if you will, doesn’t end there either. New York’s roster is full of guys with considerable playoff experience, including Alex Rodriguez (.263-13-41 in 75 career postseason games), Carlos Beltran (.333-16-40 in 51 games), and Jacoby Ellsbury (.301 in 38 games). The Astros’ lineup and most of their pitching staff is full of postseason rookies, as the most experienced playoff performer on the team is DH Evan Gattis, who batted .357 in 14 at-bats in the 2013 NLDS when was with the Braves. The difference is even more pronounced among the managers, as in one dugout you have Joe Girardi and his 21-17 record in four playoff appearances leading the Yankees, including a 2009 World Series title, while on the other you have A.J. Hinch, who is in just his third season as a manager and will be participating in his first playoff game as either a skipper or a player in his professional career.
2. Ace vs. Ace
Each team is sending its respective No. 1 starters to the mound for this survive-and-advance affair. Houston’s Dallas Keuchel led the AL in wins (20), innings (232) WHIP (1.02), was second in ERA (2.48) and fifth in strikeouts (216). The left hander started the All-Star Game in Cincinnati and is considered the leading contender for the AL Cy Young along with Toronto’s David Price. For New York, Masahiro Tanaka didn’t have the best of seasons, as injuries and stretches of ineffectiveness produced a 12-7 record and 3.51 ERA in only 24 starts. Still, his WHIP was impressive (0.99) and games like this are why the Yankees signed him to a seven-year, $155 million deal when he came over from Japan in December 2013.
Keuchel win 2-0 in two starts against New York this season, not allowing a run in 16 innings, while giving up just nine hits, one walk and striking out 21. Included in this was an Aug. 26 start at Yankee Stadium where he went seven scoreless frames. Tanaka faced the Astros just once, and it didn’t go well. On June 27, he gave up six runs on seven hits, including three home runs, in five innings. The good news is that game was at Minute Maid Park, but Tanaka’s results at home (3.71 ERA in 14 starts) haven’t been all that impressive either.
Whichever starter pitches more like an ace Tuesday night will probably set themselves up for at least one more start in the ALDS.
3. Home Runs or Nothing?
Offensively speaking, Houston and New York are similar teams. Both scored a bunch of runs and both rely on the long ball. The Yankees were (a distant) second to Toronto in both the majors and AL in runs (764), while the Astros were fifth (729) in their league and sixth overall. Houston was second only to Toronto in home runs (230), while New York was fourth (212) in baseball. If there’s one disparity when it comes to this swing-for-the-fences approach, it’s in the young Astros’ approach to come up empty. Houston was second only to another relatively inexperienced team (Cubs) in strikeouts with 1,392. The Yankees came in 21st in MLB with 1,227 whiffs. Seven different Astros racked up 100 or more strikeouts during the season, compared to just three Yankees.
Yankee Stadium is known for being a hitter-friendly park and the Astros have already had success there, scoring 21 runs in the three-game set in August. However, everything is magnified in the postseason, including the need to produce some sort of result at the plate. Can Tanaka take advantage of Houston’s aggressive approach at the plate and force the Astros to have to manufacture runs in some fashion rather than relying on the long ball? On the other side, even though the Yankee hitters can be viewed as more patient, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be successful against Keuchel. He has yet to give up a run to them in 16 innings and has struck out 21 over that span. Both teams are capable of scoring runs, but don’t be surprised if they are at a premium Tuesday night.
New York has the experience advantage pretty much in whichever area you look and it’s not close. Consider that many of Houston’s players weren’t even in the majors when the Yankees won their last World Series title in 2009. There are plenty of other similarities and just as many differences when it comes to these two teams, so the key is finding the biggest advantages for each. For Houston that appears to be in the form of Keuchel, who has held the Yankees scoreless this season, and the Astros’ team speed (121 SB, 3rd in MLB). The Bronx will no doubt be buzzing Tuesday night, but I think youth will be served in Yankee Stadium thanks to a filthy lefty and a bunch of athletic, talented players who are too young to realize they are supposed to be this good this soon.