American League Wild Card Game: Astros at Yankees. It's pretty ridiculous to try to predict the result of a short series. Say there are two teams, A, and B. They play 100 games against each other. A wins 60, B wins 40. In terms of won-lost percentage, that's roughly the Pirates playing the Braves. If you do the math, you'll see that the inferior team take a seven-game series 29% of the time. It'll win a best-of-five series 32% of the time. And, of course, it'll win one game 40% of the time. For closely-matched teams, the difference is negligible. And that's over five or seven games. The fewer games, the greater the variance. A one-game play-in? That's why Joe Sheehan calls the wild card the "coin flip game."
Anyway, the American League Wild Card game will have the Yankees hosting the Astros. Neither have exactly covered themselves in glory of late, as the Yankees lost six of their last seven games, going 10-16 since September 7. The Astros are 13-17 since the end of August. Both teams were in first place, the Astros as recently as September 14 and the Yankees on August 24, before losing their leads. But, as Rob Neyer recently pointed out, there is little evidence that performance at the end of the year has a bearing on postseason performance, and I found the same last year. So let's look at Tuesday's game without the baggage of recent play.
When you consider a postseason series, you evaluate each team's pitching, hitting, and defense as a whole. In a one-game play-in, though, one player--the starting pitcher--plays an outsized role. Last year, the Giants eliminated the Pirates because Giants starter Madison Bumgarner had a very good game (four hit, ten strikeout complete game shutout) and Pirates starter Edinson Volquez didn't (five runs allowed in five innings). That's not always the case--last year's crazy Royals-Athletics wild card game came down to bullpens and baserunning--but in one game, one starting pitcher can dictate the outcome.
The Yankees will go with Masahiro Tanaka. He got lit up (six runs in five innings) in his one career start against the Astros, on June 27 against in Houston, but you can't draw any conclusions from one start. He has the lowest ERA in the team's rotation (3.51; rookie Luis Severino's is 2.89 only 62 innings). He had a 3.22 ERA in April, was shut down in May, 4.35 in June, 3.67 in July, 3.18 in August, and 3.06 in September, during which he sandwiched three very strong starts (21 strikeouts, one walk, 15 hits in 21 innings, 1.29 ERA) around two bad ones (eight strikeouts, two walks, 11 hits in 11.1 innings, 6.35 ERA). One worrisome trait: He allowed 1.46 home runs per nine innings, the fourth highest rate in the league for pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched, which isn't ideal against an Astros team that hit 230 home runs this year, second only to the Blue Jays' 232.
The Astros are going to start Dallas Keuchel. Keuchel had a fantastic season. He led the American League in wins (20), WHIP (1.017), innings (232), and ERA adjusted for home park (62% better than average). He was second in ERA (2.48), home runs per nine innings (0.7), and hits allowed per nine innings (7.2). He was fifth in strikeout/walk ratio, tied for fifth in strikeout (216), and tenth in strikeouts per nine innings (8.4). He'll probably win the Cy Young Award, and if he doesn't, he'll almost certainly finish second. On paper, Tanaka can't compare to him. But there are two problems with Keuchel against the Yankees:
- He had a crazy home/road split: 15-0, 1.46 ERA, .474 OPS allowed at home; 5-8, 3.77 ERA, .698 OPS allowed on the road. He'll be pitching on the road. (In fairness, his one start this year at Yankee Stadium was fantastic: seven innings, three hits, no walks, no runs, nine strikeouts.)
- He pitched six innings, throwing 99 pitches in Friday's 21-5 Houston victory over Arizona. That means he'll start Tuesday's game on three days rest. He's never done that as a starter. This article, by FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan, explains that the history of starters pitching on short rest in the postseason is not good.
If Keuchel falters, Houston's game will be in the hands of its relievers. The Astros have a better bullpen ERA, but that's misleading. New York has two of the best relievers in baseball, Dellin Betances (1.50 ERA, struck out 39% of the batters he faced) and Andrew Miller (1.90 ERA, struck out 41% of the batters he faced). In a close game, those two, and perhaps former Pirate Justin Wilson (3.10 ERA) are all that opponents will face. The rest of the bullpen's 4.72 ERA shouldn't be a factor in a close game. The Astros, whose 3.27 bullpen ERA was better than the Yankees' 3.70, have more evenly distributed quality arms but don't have anyone to match the Yankees' top two, arguably top three.
On offense, the teams have similarities. The Yankees were eighth in the league in batting average, the Astros were eleventh. The Yankees were sixth in on base percentage, the Astros were eighth. The Yankees were third in slugging percentage, the Astros were second. The Astros, as noted, were second in the league in home runs, and the Yankees were fourth. They can each draw walks; New York was second in walk rate, Houston fifth. They both like to hit the ball in the air; the Astros and Yankees were 1-2 in fly ball rate and 15-14 in ground ball rate. They had some differences: The Astros led the league in stolen bases with 121 while the Yankees were third to last with 63, and the Astros led the league in strikeout rate while the Yankees were ninth. But overall, the offenses are similar.
It's worth mentioning that the Astros have the youngest team in the league at the plate (average age, per Baseball Reference, 26.6 years) while the Yankees have the oldest (31.1). But the Yankees have the third-youngest pitching staff (27.4) and the Astros the second-oldest (29.4). I can't see how that's relevant in a one-game play-in, though, unless the game lasts, I don't know, four or five years.
The Yankees finished the year with a 45-36 record at home, the seventh best in the league, and were 42-39 on the road, one of only four American League teams with a winning record on the road. The Astros somewhat famously tied Toronto for the best home record in the league, 53-28, but their road record of 33-48 was second worst in the league and enough, in my view, to make them the underdogs Tuesday night. Keuchel on short rest and the Yankee bullpen are additional reasons to favor the home team.
National League Wild Card Game: Cubs at Pirates. Listen, and understand! Jake Arietta is out there! He can't be bargained with. He can't be reasoned with. He doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And he absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.