Postseason baseball is riddled with myths. But one in particular, involving Tuesday's AL wild-card game between the Yankees and Astros, seems to be garnering a lot of attention—the seemingly critical importance of homefield advantage.
While this truism has been routinely dispelled by the number-crunchers, much has been made of the Astros’ lousy road record, and how Dallas Keuchel’s equally shoddy performances on the road will impact Tuesday night’s matchup in the Bronx.
The Astros tallied a 33–48 clip away from Minute Maid Park this season, the seventh-worst road record in the majors. Not only are they the worst road team in the playoffs, they’re also one of the most inept in baseball history. In fact, the only team to qualify for the playoffs in the last 100 years with a worse road record was the 1987 Twins (29–52). Before going 5–2 on their final road trip of the season, Houston had won just one road series of three or more games since the end April.
Keuchel is a legitimate Cy Young candidate and has pitched out of his mind at home (15–0, 1.46 ERA). Anywhere else, he’s a mere mortal, registering a 5–8 record with a 3.77 ERA. But perhaps the biggest differences lie in the strikeout and home-run numbers: Whereas Keuchel has struck out 28% of batters and allowed just four homers in 129 1/3 innings at home, he’s charting a strikeout rate of 18% with 13 home runs allowed in 102 2/3 innings on the road.
Considering his woes away from home, Keuchel’s ability to suppress homers at a hitter-friendly park like Minute Maid might seem like a fluke. But a comparison of his heatmaps at home (left) and on the road (right) shows that, when it comes to the latter, he’s simply leaving too many pitches over the heart of the plate:
Houston’s bearded ace relies heavily on sinkers to generate grounders, but that pitch hasn’t been nearly as effective for him on the road. In fact, Keuchel’s groundball rate falls from 66% to 58% when he’s not pitching in Houston, with opponents slugging his famed sinkers at a .388 clip (compared to .254 at home).
Despite the seemingly ominous optics, the Astros may be better positioned to flourish at Yankee Stadium than any other postseason team. The most obvious reason: They’ve done it already, taking two of three games against the Yankees in late August and outscoring them 21–4 in the series. After all, when you have the league’s leading home-run-hitting team (the Astros) batting in a home run hitter’s paradise of a ballpark, such incendiary numbers should hardly come as a surprise.
More encouraging still, Keuchel dominated the Yankees’ lefty-leaning lineup in his two Bronx starts. Over 16 innings, the Astros ace fanned 21 batters, walked one and allowed zero runs — a stretch that included seven shutout frames on Aug. 25. His 16 scoreless innings were the most by any pitcher in a single season against the Yankees in the last 50 years. Indeed, Keuchel’s worm-burning sinker appears to be the perfect pitch to neutralize the Bronx Bombers in their homer-friendly confines.
One element that might complicate the equation: Keuchel will be pitching on three days’ rest for the first time in his career (although he did go on two days’ rest once in May 2013 following a relief appearance). Still, Keuchel is nothing if not a workhorse, having led the majors in innings pitches. With a go-to pitch as hard as the sinker, it’s possible he could be less affected by the short rest. On the other hand, the history of pitchers on short rest isn’t promising, with the data showing a rash of poor performances over the years.
If the Yankees aren’t able to bounce back from their late-season slump, though, the dangers of a compressed schedule may not matter a whit. New York finds itself limping into the postseason, having dropped six of their last seven games and seeming utterly anemic at home over the past few months. Since Aug. 7, the Yankees are just 13–18 in the Bronx, averaging 3.6 runs per game with a batting average of .229 at in that span.
Of course, this isn’t the first time the Bombers have entered the postseason in a freefall. In 2000, New York dropped its last seven (finishing with 87 wins — the same mark as this year’s Yanks) before catching fire in October and dispatching the Mets in the World Series.
To borrow a line from one legendary Hall of Fame catcher, could this be “deja vu all over again”? Or will Houston’s Yankee-killer be too much for the wounded Bombers to bear?