The Yankees and Astros both went for it at the deadline. Which team is in better shape for October?

The Yankees and Astros both went for it at the deadline. Which team is in better shape for October? post thumbnail image

The New York Yankees and Houston Astros have been on a collision course since spring training. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman began a little war of words with Astros owner Jim Crane, blaming the Yankees’ lack of World Series appearances since 2009 on the Astros’ cheating scandal.

“The only thing that stopped [us] was something that was so illegal and horrific,” Cashman told The Athletic in March, referencing his 2017 club that lost to the Astros in seven games in the ALCS. “So I get offended when I start hearing we haven’t been to the World Series since ’09. Because I’m like, ‘Well, I think we actually did it the right way.’ … The only thing that derailed us was a cheating circumstance that threw us off.”

It was a strange thing to say. There have been many other years when the Yankees didn’t make it either, including in 2019 — when Jose Altuve hit his controversial, ALCS-winning walk-off home run off Aroldis Chapman to eliminate the Yankees.

And it seems like the Yankees and Astros could be headed for another ALCS showdown — their third in six years — as they have, yet again, dominated the American League this season.

That matchup isn’t inevitable; it is baseball, after all, and anything can happen in the playoffs. Plus, the Yankees are just 13-19 since July 3, snapping a season-high five-game losing streak on Monday. The slump has left fans wondering whether the team peaked in the first half of the season.

Still, with both clubs well ahead of the rest of the AL pack, it does feel like they spent the trade deadline making moves to counteract each other. Let’s take a look.

Pitching

Yankees acquire starter Frankie Montas

The Yankees’ rotation had been a strength all season and ranks fourth in the majors in ERA — but it did stumble a bit in July, with a 4.38 ERA. Thus, the belief from the Yankees’ front office that the team needed another power arm for the rotation, picking up Montas from the Oakland Athletics. With Michael Brantley sidelined, the Astros have just two lefties in the lineup in Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, so it makes sense that the Yankees would want to replace the left-handed Jordan Montgomery with the right-handed Montas in a playoff matchup against Houston.

Indeed, Montas has been particularly effective against right-handers, holding them to a .234/.266/.371 line with 64 strikeouts and nine walks, compared to .242/.320/.394 against lefties and a 47-to-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Montgomery, meanwhile, is devastating against lefties (.452 OPS allowed), but righties have hit .240/.296/.403 against him.

Montas has faced the Astros twice this season, allowing two runs in seven innings on May 31 and then three runs in five innings on July 26. In four starts against the Astros in 2021, he went 3-1 with a 1.82 ERA and 29 K’s in 24⅔ innings. He’s had success against Houston and probably lines up as New York’s No. 2 starter behind Gerrit Cole for the postseason.

Astros nab left-handed reliever Will Smith

With Blake Taylor on the 60-day injured list, the Astros had been going without a lefty in the bullpen, so they traded starter Jake Odorizzi to the Atlanta Braves for Smith, who closed out the Braves’ World Series title a year ago. The Astros bullpen has been excellent — it leads the majors with a 2.64 ERA — so Smith wasn’t acquired so much as a desperate need; he was acquired to get some key outs against the Yankees in October — in particular, against their two best left-handed hitters.

One of those lefties is Anthony Rizzo, who is third in the AL with 27 home runs. The other was Matt Carpenter, who had been doing his best Babe Ruth impersonation, hitting .305/.412/.727 in 47 games with the Yankees, but Carpenter broke his left foot when he fouled off a pitch on Monday night and will be out indefinitely. Carpenter was initially hopeful that he’d miss only a month, but that was before seeing a foot specialist.

Carpenter, after hitting .176 with seven home runs the past two seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, has been a huge force in the Yankees lineup. He hit his first home run for the Yankees on May 27. Since that date, 16 players in the majors have hit at least 15 home runs and three of them are Yankees: Aaron Judge (27), Rizzo (16) and Carpenter (15). And Carpenter has done it in a part-time role.

Assuming Carpenter gets healthy and eventually returns to the lineup, manager Aaron Boone will need to figure out how to get him and Giancarlo Stanton in there at the same time.

Smith is going to have to win manager Dusty Baker’s trust. While he got hot at the right time last year, pitching 11 scoreless innings in the postseason with six saves, the rest of his tenure in Atlanta was marked by home run issues: 25 in 121 innings, including seven in 37 innings this season. In his first outing with the Astros, he served up another one.

The Astros are hoping they get the 2021 playoff version of Smith, but there is considerable risk here. Of course, the Astros have a way of fixing pitchers — look what they’ve done this year with Rafael Montero (1.59 ERA, one home run in 45⅓ innings) and Hector Neris (3.56 ERA, two home runs in 43 innings) — and Smith has playoff experience that Montero and Neris lack. You can bet on Smith getting some key moments in the playoffs.

Yankees add relief pitchers Scott Effross and Lou Trivino

The Yankees also picked up sidearming, 28-year-old rookie reliever Effross from the Chicago Cubs. With Michael King — who had been one of the top setup men in the majors — out for the season with a fractured elbow, the Yankees needed bullpen depth and Effross should step into an important role. Effross is primarily a sinker/slider type, like most pitchers of his ilk, although he will mix in a changeup to left-handed batters as well as a few four-seamers. What’s interesting about his numbers in 2022 is that he’s been better against left-handed batters, holding them to a .115 average, while right-handers have hit .277.

That could mean potential matchups against the heart of the Houston lineup, including lefties Alvarez and Tucker. The Yankees do have three lefties in the pen in Chapman (relegated to a non-closing role these days), Lucas Luetge and Wandy Peralta, but Effross’ ability to get both lefties and righties means he can face any part of the Houston lineup.

Trivino was part of the Montas trade with the A’s and had been having a bad season, but as the A’s closer in 2021, he held righties to a .171 average. If he gets on track, he’s a guy to use against the Astros’ right-handed hitters.

Offense

Yankees trade for left fielder Andrew Benintendi

You might remember that for most of 2021, the Yankees’ lineup was heavily imbalanced with right-handed batters, so they finally traded for Rizzo and Joey Gallo at the trade deadline. Rizzo worked out and they re-signed him; Gallo hit .160 with the Yankees, yet still hit cleanup in the wild-card loss to the Red Sox, going 0-for-4. With Gallo struggling again in 2022, the Yankees decided to go in another direction, acquiring the anti-Gallo in the singles-hitting Benintendi.

The Yankees have gone just 2-5 against the Astros, scoring 22 runs in the seven games and hitting a woeful .151 with 67 strikeouts, nearly 10 per game. Gallo played in four of the games and went 0-for-12 with six strikeouts. Benintendi was hitting .320 for the Kansas City Royals and has experience playing in a big market and in big games from his World Series days with the Red Sox. For what it’s worth, he had also hit well against the Astros, .333 in seven games with just four strikeouts.

The early returns with the Yankees haven’t been positive as he’s hit .180 in his first 12 games with the club, but in a lineup with plenty of power (the Yankees lead the majors in home runs), Benintendi gives them a different option from the strikeout-prone Gallo.

Astros acquire 1B/DH Trey Mancini

Mancini’s numbers with the Baltimore Orioles looked fairly modest: .268/.347/.404, 10 home runs. But one of Houston’s weakest positions has been first base, where Yuli Gurriel is hitting just .238/.287/.380 with seven home runs. And there’s a secret component to Mancini’s game that the Astros found compelling: Several of his fly balls that were outs or doubles at Camden Yards — remember, the Orioles moved their left-field fence back 26½ feet and raised the height from 7 feet, 4 inches to 13 feet — would have been home runs into the Crawford Boxes in Houston.

The Astros improved their versatility with Mancini. They can start him at first base, bring him off the bench, or start him at DH and play Alvarez in left field. So far that’s exactly what they’ve done and Mancini has hit three home runs since joining the Astros. Houston has had one of the weakest benches among playoff contenders, but Mancini adds an important depth contributor, especially since there is no guarantee Brantley returns from his injured shoulder. The Astros can hit for their catcher or center fielder in a key moment if needed. One caveat: Mancini hasn’t hit well against the Yankees this season, batting .206 without a home run in 16 games.

Defense

Yankees improve outfield with Harrison Bader (and Benintendi)

The most controversial trade of the deadline was the Yankees sending Montgomery to the St. Louis Cardinals for Bader, who is currently on the injured list with plantar fasciitis and won’t be back until September. Even if the Yankees didn’t view Montgomery as one of their top four starters for the postseason, it’s always risky to trade starting pitching depth, especially since Luis Severino is out until mid-September with shoulder tightness.

Aaron Hicks and Judge have shared center field, and while Hicks has hardly been a disaster out there — his Statcast defensive metrics are actually pretty good — he hasn’t hit enough to ensure a spot in the lineup. If Bader is healthy, the Yankees can roll out three Gold Glove-caliber outfielders in Benintendi, Bader and Judge (Benintendi and Bader both won Gold Gloves in 2021).

How does this address the Astros? Houston has the seventh-lowest ground ball rate in the majors — meaning they hit line drives and they hit fly balls. They’re eighth in the majors in doubles and third in home runs. Against the Astros, good defense in the outfield is paramount. Of course, good outfield is always important! In general, recent World Series winners have had excellent outfield defense:

  • 2021 Braves: 0 defensive runs saved (DRS), which was tied for 12th in the majors. Probably the weakest defensive outfield of the recent champs.

  • 2020 Dodgers: +13 DRS (tied for fifth). Cody Bellinger in center and Mookie Betts in right. Both made several key defensive plays throughout the postseason.

  • 2019 Nationals: +25 DRS (fifth). Victor Robles had an excellent defensive season in center field.

  • 2018 Red Sox: +25 (tied for fifth). Benintendi in left, Jackie Bradley Jr. in center and Betts in right. Benintendi saved one game against the Astros with a diving catch in left for the final out and Betts had a huge assist in another win against the Astros.

  • 2017 Astros: +22 (sixth). George Springer in center and Josh Reddick in right were plus defenders.

  • 2016 Cubs: +23 (fifth). Jason Heyward was a Gold Glove winner in right and Dexter Fowler had his best season in center.

  • 2015 Royals: +22 (fifth). Alex Gordon in left and Lorenzo Cain in center. Then they would bring in Jarrod Dyson in the late innings.

This is the best defensive Yankees team in a long time and a healthy Bader makes it even better. This is also a reason the Astros didn’t acquire a center fielder at the deadline. Jake Meyers, Chas McCormick and Mauricio Dubon all have positive defensive metrics. No, they don’t have a regular out there, but the Astros have three good defensive options for center. A McCormick-Meyers-Tucker outfield is also excellent defensively (the Astros are atop the majors in outfield DRS in 2022).

Astros upgrade at catcher with Christian Vazquez

Many expected the Astros to go after Cubs catcher Willson Contreras to replace the light-hitting Martin Maldonado and improve production at the bottom of their lineup, but they instead acquired Vazquez from the Boston Red Sox in perhaps the most underrated deadline pickup. Not only is Vazquez an offensive upgrade over Maldonado, but he comes with the same strong defensive reputation as Maldonado (one that Contreras doesn’t have). In fact, as much as the Astros love how Maldonado works with the pitching staff, Vazquez may even be a defensive upgrade overall.

According to Statcast catcher framing metrics, Vazquez is a small upgrade over Maldonado. Neither rate as elite, but according to Umpire Scorecards (a sabermetric site run by a couple of college students), the Astros are last in the majors in percentage of games where the umpires “favored” them in ball/strike calls. Vazquez may actually help them a bit in this regard. Yes, just what Justin Verlander needs: A couple extra borderline calls going his way each start.

Beyond that, Vazquez is obviously intimately familiar with the Yankees, having faced them for years as division rivals. The disappointment that Red Sox players showed after he was traded is also a strong indicator of his clubhouse leadership and how he should fit seamlessly into a catching rotation with Maldonado. Framber Valdez is the one Astros starter who basically used Maldonado as his catcher, so maybe that duo remains paired together, but Verlander and the others should have no issues pitching to Vazquez.

So, which team looks best prepared for October?

At the moment, it’s too early to answer that with full certainty given the unknown health status of Carpenter (and Stanton and Severino). Also, Lance McCullers Jr. will soon return to the Houston rotation, as he just completed a fourth rehab start and threw 86 pitches (although he allowed seven hits, five runs, three walks and two home runs in five innings). McCullers has been a huge postseason performer for the Astros with a 2.83 ERA across 57⅓ innings — they may have won the World Series last year if he hadn’t been injured in the division series.

Another important note. The cliché is that October is about power pitching; of course, the entire sport these days is about power pitching, but that gets us back to the Yankees making the decision to acquire Montas and trade Montgomery.

Look, Montgomery is hardly Jamie Moyer, but while he’s averaged 7.4 K’s per nine innings in 2022, Montas has averaged 9.3 — and Montas throws a 96-mph four-seamer and 95-mph sinker. Why is that important? The Astros have a .700 OPS against pitches of 95 mph or faster — just 16th-best in the majors. Against pitches slower than 95, the Astros have the fifth-best OPS in the majors. With Cole, Montas and a healthy Severino, the Yankees can roll out three power right-handers to attack Houston’s biggest vulnerability.

Now, the Yankees haven’t exactly lit up Houston’s pitching. If these two teams do meet again, just like the 2017 and 2019 ALCS, expect a low-scoring series. Incredibly, the Astros won both series despite hitting under .200 both times. The other key: Who ends up with home-field advantage? It’s neck and neck, but it’s a little more important for the Yankees to finish with the top seed given that they’re 41-15 at home and 30-25 on the road.

The Yankees didn’t trade for Juan Soto, but they made the right additions at the deadline. If they can secure home-field advantage, this may finally be the year Cashman won’t have to make any excuses.




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