Astros-Yankees predictions: Who will rule the ALCS?

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Wednesday, October 19, 2022
Astros vs. Yankees: Who will rule the ALCS?
Here's what you need to know if you're heading to Minute Maid Park for the American League Championship Series.

HOUSTON, Texas -- Would you like a little chalk with your chaos? While the fifth-seeded San Diego Padres and sixth-seeded Philadelphia Phillies are playing in the NLCS, the American League gives us the two teams that carried the conversation all season in the junior circuit: The 106-56 Houston Astros, playing in their sixth straight ALCS, and the 99-63 New York Yankees, returning to the ALCS for the first time since 2019.

This is what we've been waiting for all season, especially after Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and Astros owner Jim Crane got into a little wrangling of words back in the spring when Cashman whined that the Yankees hadn't reached any World Series because of the Astros' cheating.

Of course, the Yankees failed to beat the Astros in the 2017 and 2019 ALCS, not so much because of Houston's hitting, but their own lack of it: They hit .205 and scored 22 runs in seven games in 2017 and .214 with 21 runs in six games in 2019. This Houston team is arguably better and deeper than those two the Yankees faced.

The Houston lineup, however, is not as deep, relying primarily on the big four: Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker. The Yankees hit just .182 in their five-game series win over Cleveland but hit nine home runs, including two apiece from Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, plus three from Harrison Bader. Judge and Stanton also went just 6-for-36 with 17 strikeouts, but if they swat a few over the fence, this series has a chance to go the distance, despite Houston's clear advantage on the mound.

Also of note: The condensed playoff schedule means the best-of-seven series will be played over eight days rather than the usual nine, with an off day after only Game 2. That will put a little added pressure on the pitching staffs and perhaps force the managers to dig a little deeper than usual into their starting rotations.

Ahead of Game 1, David Schoenfield takes a look at each team and our ESPN experts make their picks.

Houston Astros

Why they can move on: They have the best pitching depth of the remaining four teams. After all, the Astros allowed just 518 runs, the fewest in a full season by an American League club in the DH era (since 1973). Just look at that 18-inning ALDS Game 3 against the Mariners. Dusty Baker churned through six relievers, one power arm after another. The fifth reliever out of the pen was Ryne Stanek, who had a 1.15 ERA, and the sixth one used was Hunter Brown, a rookie with a Justin Verlander-like delivery and stuff who had a 2.55 ERA as a starter in Triple-A and then allowed two runs in 20 1/3 innings as a late-season call-up. Then the Astros still had starter Luis Garcia in reserve, and he tossed five scoreless innings. The LCS schedule means Garcia will probably move into the rotation, but that's the point: The Astros can roll him out as a No. 5 starter. No team is better equipped for the compact LCS schedule that more resembles the regular season.

Why they might not: The bottom of the lineup. The 7-8-9 batters hit .135 (5-for-37) against the Mariners with 15 strikeouts. This is a mirror of the regular season, when Houston's 7-8-9 hitters ranked 24th in the majors in OPS. They also all hit right-handed -- as do all the bench players, making it easy for opposing managers to match up through the bottom of the order and then the top of the lineup, in Altuve and Jeremy Pena, with a string of right-handed relievers.

Who's hot: Alvarez did go 0-for-7 in that 18-inning game, but he drove in seven runs in the first two ALDS games, including the memorable walk-off home run in Game 1 and a go-ahead home run in Game 2. What makes him so tough -- just ask the Mariners -- is you can't match up against him with a lefty given that Alvarez hit .321 against southpaws. Following a poor August when he played through a hand injury, he's been red hot, including a .355/.440/.677 line in September.

Who's not: Altuve went 0-for-16 against the Mariners with six strikeouts and several wild swings on pitches out of the strike zone. His chase rate on pitches out of the zone was 56.3% -- nearly double his rate of 28.7% from the regular season. The Mariners fed him a steady diet of sliders off the plate and fastballs up and out of the zone.

How's the defense? Very good. Pena is capable of making spectacular plays at shortstop, and the Astros are masters at positioning, allowing the second-lowest batting average on balls in play in the regular season at .268. Alvarez is a little slow in left field, but does have a strong arm and threw out a runner at home plate in the Seattle series.

Final thought: No Dodgers? No Braves? No Mets? Entering the ALCS, the Astros are now overwhelming favorites to win it all. If Altuve continues to struggle, however, the lineup becomes even more dependent on the Alvarez/Bregman/Tucker trio. Remember last year's World Series: Alvarez went 2-for-20, Bregman went 2-for-21 and the Braves upset the Astros. They can be beat ... but I wouldn't bet against the Astros at this point. -- Schoenfield

What to know if you're going to Games 1 and 2:

ALCS Game 1

Roof: Closed

Giveaway: Rally Towel, provided by Houston Methodist, for all fans

Street Fest: Opens at 3:30 p.m. to all fans with a game ticket

National Anthem: Jack Ingram, country singer from Houston

Colors presented by: Joint Forces Color Guard

Ceremonial first pitch: Roger Clemens, former Astro and seven-time Cy Young Award-winning pitcher

'Play Ball' call: Josh Reddick, former Astro

ALCS Game 2

Roof: To be announced at later time

Giveaway: Rally Towel, provided by H-E-B, for all fans

Street Fest: Opens at 3:30 p.m. to all fans with a game ticket

National Anthem: Belinda Munro, singer-songwriter

Colors presented by: Houston Fire Department Color guard

Ceremonial first pitch: Roy Oswalt, Astros Hall of Fame pitcher

'Play Ball' call: Jonathan Daviss, 'Outer Banks' star from Conroe

If you're going to Minute Maid Park, you can enjoy the Street Fest before the game, but you must have a ticket to attend. Gates to the stadium will open shortly thereafter.

The ballpark also has a bag check policy.

New York Yankees

Why they can move on: They hit home runs. The Yankees led the American League with 254 home runs, 40 more than the No. 2 team -- which just happened to be the Astros with 214. And guess who was one and two in the AL in preventing home runs? The Astros (134) and Yankees (157). Of course, hitting more home runs isn't a lock for anything, although that's usually how teams win in the postseason. The Yankees outhomered the Astros 6 to 4 in the 2017 ALCS, and the Astros won in seven games in a pitching-dominated series. The Yankees outhomered the Astros 10 to 8 in the 2019 ALCS in another pitching-dominated series -- and the Astros won in six games.

Why they might not: The bullpen is a little shaky, as seen in blowing a lead in Game 3 against Cleveland. Clay Holmes wasn't the pitcher in the second half that he was in an All-Star first half. Aaron Boone didn't use him to close it out (there were mixed messages on his availability), and rookie Clarke Schmidt allowed the game-winning hit. Aside from Wandy Peralta, Holmes and Schmidt, next in line in terms of leverage are Lou Trivino (4.53 ERA on the season, although 1.66 in 21 2/3 innings with the Yankees) and Jonathan Loaisiga (4.13 ERA). This is a bullpen that lacks the depth and the pure stuff of the Houston bullpen.

Who's hot: Gerrit Cole won both his starts in the ALDS, allowing three runs over 13 1/3 innings. He did allow one home run in each start and has now allowed at least one in 10 consecutive starts going back to the regular season. After starting on Sunday, Cole's next start in the ALCS might not come until Saturday in Game 3, although maybe Boone pushes him up starting on Thursday in Game 2 on three days of rest. In fact, that's a very likely option, because for Cole to get two starts in this series, he's going to have start on short rest at least once. Since the final five games of the series are scheduled over five days, if he starts Game 3, he would then have to start Game 7 on short rest.

Who's not: Judge hit two home runs in the five-game series, but he also struck out 11 times, drawing just one walk. It wasn't a matter of him chasing out of the zone -- his chase rate was 22.9% in the regular season, 20.8% against Cleveland -- just a little more swinging and missing: 29.8% in the regular season, 41.3% against the Guardians.

How's the defense? This is a weird one. The Yankees led the majors in defensive runs saved during the regular season at +129 (and ranked fourth in ultimate zone rating). They did tie with the Astros for the second-lowest batting average allowed on balls in play at .268, and that was mostly without Bader, the speedy center fielder thatonly played 14 regular-season games. On the other hand, the defense didn't exactly play at that level against Cleveland. Boone benched light-hitting shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa (a very good defender via DRS, but terrible range via Statcast) for rookie Oswaldo Cabrera the final two games, even though Cabrera is pretty clearly a defensive liability. The big strengths are Bader and Judge in the outfield and catcher Jose Trevino, who topped the metrics in pitch framing.

Final thought: This is the ALCS showdown we've anticipated most of the regular season, ever since the Yankees separated themselves from the rest of the AL East in the first half. However, they've gone just 44-44 from July 2 through the ALDS, and injuries have cut into the bullpen depth. Houston's incredible pitching depth will be hard to beat and, like their previous matchups in 2017 and 2019, I would expect a low-scoring series. The Yankees are at a disadvantage since Cole won't get two starts on full rest, although Cole pitched well on short rest against Tampa Bay in the 2020 ALDS. Unless Judge heats up, this looks like it will go Houston's way again. -- Schoenfield

ESPN expert picks

Tristan Cockcroft: Astros in 6

MVP: Alvarez

The one thing we'll all be talking about: The Astros' pitching depth was the No. 1 reason that longer rest periods between series didn't impact them to the degree that they did the Dodgers and Braves. If they enter the World Series rested and with their rotation in good shape, isn't it a forgone conclusion that they'll make quick work of their opponent?

Bradford Doolittle: Astros in 5

MVP: Bregman

The one thing we'll all be talking about: While many have well-founded concerns about the playoff format and its relationship to regular-season integrity, maybe what they should really be talking about is why the Astros seem to be immune to sample size-related despair.

Alden Gonzalez: Astros in 5

MVP: Bregman

The one thing we'll all be talking about: We'll be having the really difficult discussion about whether the Astros -- gulp -- are a dynasty.

Eric Karabell: Astros in 5

MVP: Verlander

The one thing we'll all be talking about: Another Astros combined no-hitter, but in the playoffs!

Tim Keown: Astros in 5

MVP: Tucker

The one thing we'll all be talking about: How the Astros continue to put distance between themselves and the trash-can scandal with manager Dusty Baker's leadership and the continual development of terrific young players.

Tim Kurkjian: Astros in 7

MVP: Altuve

The one thing we'll all be talking about:The depth and length of the Houston pitching.

Joon Lee: Yankees in 6

MVP: Cole

The one thing we'll all be talking about: That the concerns around the bullpen were overblown with guys like Wandy Peralta and Jonathan Loaisiga stepping into the vacancy left by the injuries to Michael King and Scott Effross.

Kiley McDaniel: Astros in 6

MVP: Alvarez

The one thing we'll all be talking about: The Astros have been on an incredible series of postseason runs with this group.

Buster Olney: Astros in 5

MVP: Bregman

The one thing we'll all be talking about: How the Astros keep winning despite the constant changes in the cast -- from George Springer to Tucker in the outfield, from former manager A.J. Hinch to Baker, from Carlos Correa to Penaat shortstop. The only consistent threads seem to be Altuve, Verlander, Bregman and owner Jim Crane.

Jeff Passan: Astros in 6

MVP: Alvarez

The one thing we'll all be talking about: How good Houston is. Among a lineup that's top-to-bottom tricky, a rotation loaded with talent and a deep-and-dominant bullpen, the Astros are clear favorites to win it all with good reason.

Jesse Rogers: Astros in 4

MVP: Tucker

The one thing we'll be talking about: The Astros' complete domination of the postseason will continue to thwart any negative thoughts about the new playoff system. They got a bye and still dominated.

David Schoenfield: Astros in 5

MVP: Bregman

The one thing we'll all be talking about: Houston's incredible pitching depth from the No. 1 starter down to the last man in the bullpen.

ESPN contributed to this report.