AL wild-card game preview: Keuchel duels Tanaka as Astros face Yankees
The Yankees are back in the postseason for the first time since 2012, ending their longest drought since the wild-card era began in 1995. The Astros are not only back for the first time since 2005, but they're also just a year removed from the last of six consecutive seasons of sub-.500 baseball and two removed from a 111-loss season, their third straight of at least 106 losses. Even so, based upon how each team played for most of the 2015 campaign, neither expected to wind up in this one-and-done scenario.
New York spent a total of 100 days atop the AL East before finally being overtaken by the streaking Blue Jays in late August and went just 15–17 from Sept. 1 onward. Houston spent 139 days leading the AL West before being passed by the Rangers in mid-September; it went 13–17 on the month. But for as much as they wheezed while approaching the finish line, remember: There's no carry-over effect between teams' September performance and their postseason success.
What does matter is matchups, and by having to face Keuchel, the leading candidate for the AL Cy Young award, the Yankees have a very tough draw. Relying primarily upon a sinker-slider-changeup combination, Keuchel led the league in Wins Above Replacement (7.2), innings (232), ERA+ (162) and ground-ball rate (61.7%), and ranked second in ERA, eighth in walk rate (2.0 per nine) and 10th in strikeout rate (8.4 per nine). Much has been made of his home/road splits—he's 15–0 with a 1.46 ERA at Minute Maid Park, 5–8 with a 3.77 ERA elsewhere—but Keuchel did throw seven shutout innings while striking out nine at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 25. He also tossed a six-hit, 12-strikeout complete game against them in Houston on June 25.
The bigger issue for New York is that Keuchel held lefties to an AL-low .461 OPS (that's a .177/.201/.260 line), and the Bronx Bombers' regular lineup currently features six lefties: Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, Didi Gregorius, Brian McCann and latecomers Dustin Ackley and Greg Bird, the last of whom is in place of switch-hitter Mark Teixeira, who is done for the year due to a fractured tibia. Those players' numbers against lefties this year were generally respectable overall, but table-setters Ellsbury and Gardner have been dreadful against pitchers of either hand in the second half (.220/.266/.326 in 308 plate appearances for Ellsbury, .206/.300/.292 in 293 PA for Gardner), and McCann (.200/.306/.395 with 12 homers but a .191 BABIP) has been all-or-nothing.
Given that, Yankees manager Joe Girardi considered using righty-swinging backup John Ryan Murphy (.266/.314/.456 in 86 PA against southpaws) behind the plate before sticking with McCann, but he did choose to bench Ellsbury, move Gardner to center and have lefty-mashing Chris Young (.327/.397/.575 in 175 PA against lefthanders) start in leftfield. Young has seen Keuchel more than any other Yankee, hitting .300/.333/.500 in 21 PA for his career—not a huge sample, but encouraging relative to the struggles of some of his teammates, and something that may not be a fluke given that his uppercut is a good match for Keuchel's ground-ball-intensive style. Likewise for switch-hitter Carlos Beltran, who has had more success than any other current Yankee against extreme ground-ball pitchers. The Yankees also will start rookie Rob Refsnyder, another righty who hit .302/.348/.512 in 47 plate appearances, at second base in place of Ackley.
One interesting wrinkle for tactical purposes will be the presence of Rico Noel, a speedster who swiped five bags in seven attempts for New York but got just two plate appearances in 15 games, that after going 23-for-28 in 67 minor league games this year.
A potential problem for Houston is that Keuchel is pitching on three days' rest for the first time in his career, though he threw just 99 pitches in his Oct. 2 outing against the Diamondbacks. In the last 10 years (2005–14), postseason starters have averaged just 87 pitches on three days' rest, with only three out of 21 lasting at least seven innings. For the Astros, his likely inability to work deep into the game means turning the the ball over to a bullpen that was rocked for a 5.63 ERA in September, with the high-leverage relievers—closer Luke Gregerson and righties Pat Neshek, Will Harris and Chad Qualls—taking more than their share of lumps and only situational lefty Tony Sipp shining. The other situational lefty on the roster, Oliver Perez, was also among those who scuffled in September, though he has generally been solid in that role since his days with the Mets. Starter Mike Fiers is the long man if something goes wrong with Keuchel early or if the game heads into extra innings.
As for New York's starting pitcher, Tanaka managed to survive the season despite pitching through a slight tear in his ulnar collateral ligament, though he did miss time due to a wrist and forearm concern and was forced to skip a late-September start due to a mild right hamstring strain. The 26-year-old righty was rusty in his lone start since that break, allowing four runs in five innings to the Red Sox on Sept. 30, three via a first-inning homer by Travis Shaw; if he does something similar on Tuesday night, the Yankees' postseason could be nasty, brutish and short. That said, only twice this year did Tanaka allow four runs in back-to-back starts: on April 6 and 12 against the Blue Jays and Red Sox, respectively, and then on June 21 and 27, against the Tigers and (gulp) Astros. In that latter start, Tanaka yielded three homers (to Chris Carter, Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve) and six runs in five innings.
Tanaka, whose splitter-slider combo also mixes in two- and four-seam fastballs, a cutter and even an occasional curve, has a relatively minimal platoon split; he's more vulnerable to lefty power, which means that Colby Rasmus (.238/.314/.475 with 25 homers) and Luis Valbuena (.224/.310/.438 with 25 homers) will likely both be in the lineup and could pose problems for him along with righty thumpers Carter, Correa, Evan Gattis and George Springer. Indeed, the Astros ranked second in the league with 230 homers, and Tanaka was particularly homer-prone in 2015, especially at Yankee Stadium, where he survived a 1.8 HR/9 rate thanks to a low walk rate (1.5 per nine) and a .235 batting average on balls in play.
Also worth noting is that the Astros had the league's highest strikeout rate (22.9%), and that Tanaka misses plenty of bats (22.8% strikeout rate). Late-game relievers Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller do as well, at 39.5 and 40.7% clips. In Girardi's ideal world, Tanaka can hand off to those two after seven innings, though more likely, righty Adam Warren and lefty Justin Wilson will be needed to help bridge the gap. Rookie lefty James Pazos is one of the extra arms on the roster for this game, along with righties Ivan Nova and Bryan Mitchell, but if they see action, it’s likely that things are unraveling for the Yankees. With the loss of CC Sabathia, 21-year-old rookie Luis Severino is the likely long man for emergency or extra-inning purposes, though it's worth noting that Warren is also stretched out.
As for Houston's lineup, beyond the likely use of lefties Rasmus (.233/.294/.476 with 18 homers in 345 PA against righties) in leftfield and Valbuena (.247/.327.481 with 20 homers in 361 PA against righties) at third base, one wrinkle will be the return of Carlos Gomez from a strained intercostal muscle that cost him 13 games in September; he had just four plate appearances spread over three games since returning. Injuries limited Gomez to just 115 games this year and a .242/.288/.383 line since being acquired by the Astros from Milwaukee at the July 31 deadline after a trade to the Mets fell through, though he did steal 10 bases in 13 attempts in that span, making him one of five Houston players in double digits, led by Altuve (38 steals in 51 attempts). Tanaka allowed just one stolen base on his watch this year, but Betances yielded 17, all of which is to say that speed could be a factor late in the game.