NEW YORK, NY – MAY 30: (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT) Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees in action against Jose Altuve #27 of the Houston Astros at Yankee Stadium on May 30, 2018 in the Bronx borough of New York City. The Yankees defeated the Astros 5-3. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
The Houston Astros have once again established themselves as the clear favorites to win the American League West, carrying an 11.5-game lead into September over the Seattle Mariners. At 84-47, Houston is on pace for 104 wins – should they reach that number, the 2022 Astros would rank only behind the 2019 edition in franchise history. The shortened 2020 season notwithstanding, Houston has won at least 95 games in every season since 2017 while reaching the World Series three times in the past five seasons. As of now, the Astros are on pace to take home the top seed in the American League and home field advantage until they reach the World Series.
A number of good baseball teams in the American League would love to end the Astros’ season before they ever get a shot at New York. As it stands now, Houston would be looking at either the Cleveland Guardians or Toronto Blue Jays in the AL Division Series – of the two, Toronto carries the stronger pedigree despite entering the Postseason as the lower seed. Toronto defeated Houston four times in six games back in April, and carry a youthful confidence about them as their roster is packed with players who come from MLB pedigrees. Still, the Astros would enter this series as a heavy favorite – and if recent Postseasons are any indication (Houston has won 9 of 11 playoff series against American League opponents since 2017), they ought to find a way to get past Toronto.
Should they manage to do so, it is no secret that the New York Yankees are the favorite to oppose Houston in an ALCS. New York posted the best record in baseball for the majority of the first half, dominating their schedule as they avoided injuries better than any other team early on. While the Yankees have certainly cooled off since then, they remain six games ahead of Tampa Bay for the AL East lead and hold an American League leading +195 run differential. New York is expecting their pitching to get healthier in the upcoming weeks with the returns of Nestor Cortes Jr. and Luis Severino as well. As of now, New York would be looking at either the Seattle Mariners or Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS – like Houston, they’ll be the favorite in either matchup and playing at home.
A lot can change in a month’s time, and baseball is a high-variance game where no outcome can be ruled out – but as things currently stand, it certainly would appear that Houston and New York are destined to meet for the American League pennant. How would that look on a game-by-game basis, and who has the edge by the time all is said and done?
Game 1 would likely see a matchup of aces, with Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole doing battle. Home field advantage would play a role for Houston throughout the series, but especially in game 1 – Justin Verlander holds a 1.90 home ERA on the season, while Gerrit Cole’s 3.43 ERA on the road is rather pedestrian. Both of these righties are immensely talented, and they each pitched exceptionally well in this matchup earlier this season (7 innings, 1 earned run allowed in both starts).
Gerrit Cole has pitched in this matchup in the postseason before, but did so in an Astros uniform while dominating New York in 2019. He’ll be looking for redemption this season after his lone postseason appearance lasted just two innings in 2021, and may have a bit of extra motivation if he gets a chance at his former team in Houston.
Justin Verlander hasn’t appeared in a Postseason since 2019 due to injury, and will surely be chomping at the bit for another shot at the Yankees. New York managed six earned runs against Verlander over 13.2 innings in 2019, but he struck out sixteen and walked just two over those two starts. Assuming he produces a few more solid starts, Verlander has a very good chance to win a Cy Young award this season as well – an impressive feat at age 39 and a sign, Astros fans hope, of things to come this October.
In Game 2, I think the most likely scenario involves a pitching matchup between Framber Valdez and Frankie Montas. Valdez has been a ground-ball machine for Houston this season, inducing worm-burners at an absurd 67.8% clip that would rank second-highest all time behind only 2021 Framber Valdez (minimum 100 IP, last 30 years) per @CespedesBBQ on Twitter. After his masterful performance this week against the Rangers, Framber Valdez has also now produced 22 consecutive quality starts – which Houston Chronicle Astros beat writer @Chandler_Rome points out on Twitter is the longest streak by any lefty in MLB history. Valdez (14-4, 2.63) is unlikely to win the Cy Young, but very well might end up finishing second behind his own teammate when the votes are counted. He’s seen the Yankees once this season, allowing 3 runs in 6 innings of work on June 23 in the Bronx. He struggled to a 7.78 ERA in last year’s Postseason run, but has made clear strides in 2022.
Frankie Montas was acquired by the Yankees at this year’s trade deadline in a blockbuster deal with the Oakland Athletics, and is plenty familiar with the Houston Astros. Montas has made 15 appearances (13 starts) in his career against Houston, going 8-5 with a 3.40 ERA. The elephant in the room for Frankie Montas in 2022 has been his resume when pitching anywhere other than RingCentral Coliseum in Oakland. When pitching there, he’s been excellent (2.36 ERA) – but his road statistics this season leave a lot to be desired, as do his numbers at Yankee Stadium (both splits over 5.00). Houston and New York both play in hitter-friendly ballparks, which could cause issues for the Yankees’ righty in this potential series.
As the series heads to the Bronx, my best guess is that the Astros turn to Lance McCullers Jr. while the Yankees send Luis Severino to the mound. For Astros fans, McCullers taking the mound in meaningful October games is certainly going to be a welcome sight. On their World Series winning run in 2017, McCullers was instrumental in series wins over both the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers. He pitched 10 ALCS innings against New York that year, only allowing 1 earned run. He’s only seen the Yankees in two regular season games since, allowing 6 runs in 13 innings of work. McCullers has looked strong in limited action in 2022, and certainly is not one to be intimidated by the bright lights of the Bronx in the Postseason.
Luis Severino and Lance McCullers Jr. have in common the injury struggles they’ve endured in recent seasons. For Severino, matchups with Houston have produced middling results (2-3, 3.82 ERA) and he’s picked up the loss in both of his starts against the Astros this season. For the Yankees, the first step is to get Luis Severino healthy – he hasn’t made a start since July 13, and will have limited time to build his stamina back before the Postseason arrives. Should Severino build to where he needs to be, Game 3’s pitching matchup ought to be must-watch television.
If either of the two teams has pushed the other up against the ropes by Game 4, we might see Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole on short rest. Otherwise, I’m projecting Cristian Javier and Nestor Cortes on the mound. For Cristian Javier, 2022 has been an impressive breakout campaign – and the advanced metrics fully support the statistics he’s put up. His xERA is a miniscule 2.65, and he dominated the Yankees for 7 scoreless innings back on June 25. Javier’s 2022 success has bolstered Houston’s rotation, making it one of the deepest in Major League Baseball.
Nestor Cortes got off to an unbelievable start this season, posting a 1.94 ERA through his first 12 starts while going 6-1. He’s allowed less than one baserunner per inning this season, and has been especially strong at Yankee Stadium (4-1, 2.20). The Astros touched him up for 3 runs in just 5 innings in June, and have dominated left handed pitching this year (118 wRC+). Cortes has never pitched in the Postseason either, so it’s hard to know what to expect from the lefty if called upon for such a massive start.
All four potential starting pitching matchups have potential to produce entertaining games, a statement that ought to still ring true if the order of starters inevitably ends up shuffling by the time this series comes to pass. When the starting pitchers exit, the quality of pitching certainly won’t drop off between these two staffs – Houston (#1) and New York (#2) have produced the two best bullpen ERA’s in MLB this season. Both teams’ offenses have produced consistently as well, ranking top 10 against both righties and lefties in wRC+. Astros versus Yankees is a strength-on-strength matchup all over the diamond.
With margins so slim, it’s an ALCS more than capable of going a full seven games. Two massive markets and fan bases doing battle with no love lost between them will make for great television, so neutral fans certainly wouldn’t complain if it goes the distance. As far as an edge, though, I feel the Houston Astros are the clear favorites. The Astros have consistently found a different gear in October, making consistent World Series appearances and posting a 9-2 record in series against American League foes since 2017. Aaron Boone’s Yankees have yet to break through in the Postseason, and Houston’s 5-2 record against them this season suggests Dusty Baker’s team is more than comfortable with the challenge. As teams like New York, Toronto, Boston, and others have grabbed headlines and hype in recent seasons, the Astros have quietly been the class of the American League when it matters most – I’m predicting more of the same in 2022.