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The Astros are supposed to be here. They were the big bad bullies of the American League for most of the year, barging their way through games with a seemingly endless parade of sluggers and quality pitching. Almost everything went right for the Astros. The only reason they didn’t get to tackle the Yankees in the first round is because the Indians simply decided to stop losing for a while. Instead, they got to pick their teeth with what was left of John Farrell’s tenure with the Red Sox.

The Yankees aren’t supposed to be here. But we know that story by now. We know that this was supposed to be a rebuilding year, that this was to be a year to let the pieces fall where they may so that they could be studied and evaluated for 2018. That rebuilding turned into a playoff spot and a place in the proverbial final four. When they’re right, the Yankees are just about as good as anyone. They’re probably going to be an even better team next year, so whatever happens from here on out is kind of gravy. They’re not supposed to be here, but they beat Cleveland. They can certainly win the World Series.

Houston and New York are both excellent teams. This could be a bloody one.

Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv)

Yankees:
LF-L Brett Gardner (.264/.350/.428/.271)
RF-R Aaron Judge (.284/.422/.627/.339)
SS-L Didi Gregorius (.287/.318/.478/.282)
C-R Gary Sanchez (.278/.345/.531/.297)
1B-L Greg Bird (.190/.288/.422/.261)
2B-R Starlin Castro (.300/.338/.454/.269)
CF-S Aaron Hicks (.266/.372/.475/.286)
DH-R Matt Holliday (.231/.316/.432/.259)
3B-R Todd Frazier (.213/.344/.428/.268)

The fact that the Yankees won the ALDS is kind of remarkable when you consider that Judge got just one hit. He’s likely going to finish in the top two in the MVP voting (more on the other guy in a moment) because of his ability to carry a lineup, and he’s the one who needed carrying. Much like his midseason swoon, Cleveland got Judge out by throwing him a steady diet of up-and-in heat paired with curveballs and sliders down and away. Judge sometimes can’t help but bite on the junk, and when he decides to stay in take mode, the junk moves into the strike zone. If the Astros use the same formula, there could be more golden sombreros in his future.

Sanchez also struggled a bit in the opening round. Gregorius, however, did not. He’s found his dinger stroke and it’s a sight to behold. Bird is also firmly back and healthy, and Castro looks like his old free-swinging, somehow-getting-hits-besides-looking-like-Wile-E.-Coyote self. Joe Girardi hinted that Holliday would get the start at DH in Game 1 against lefty Dallas Keuchel, despite Holliday not seeing game action since October 1.

Astros:
CF-R George Springer (.283/.367/.522/.297)
RF-L Josh Reddick (.314/.363/.484/.296)
2B-R Jose Altuve (.346/.410/.547/.322)
SS-R Carlos Correa (.315/.391/.550/.320)
LF-S Marwin Gonzalez (.303/.377/.530/.303)
3B-R Alex Bregman (.284/.352/.475/.282)
DH-S Carlos Beltran (.231/.283/.383/.233)
1B-R Yulieski Gurriel (.299/.332/.486/.282)
C-L Brian McCann (.241/.323/.436/.262)

There are only so many superlatives one can use to describe the Astros' offense. It's a fine-tuned machine of death and destruction. It was thus even before Gonzalez turned into one of the most underrated players in the game and Gurriel started to hit like he did in Cuba (and he’s still only batting eighth). This offense is a force of nature not to be trifled with. It eviscerated the Boston pitching staff and then ground it into a fine powder. That’s not rosin that Keuchel is going to be dabbing onto his arm tonight, it’s what’s left of Rick Porcello.

They’ll hit their dingers, sure. But the Astros are doing this freaky thing where they’re making contact like the Royals of yesteryear, and now they can play pinball with your soul for a little bit before they launch it into the Crawford Boxes. It’s not fair, man. Fear them.

Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv)

Yankees:
C-R Austin Romine (.218/.272/.293/.208)
IF-R Ronald Torreyes (.292/.314/.375)
OF-L Jacoby Ellsbury (.264/.348/.402/.266)
IF-S Chase Headley (.273/.353/.406/.272)

Astros:
C-R Evan Gattis (.263/.311/.457/.253)
OF-R Cameron Maybin (.186/.226/.441/.237)
1B-R Tyler White (.279/.328/.525/.303)
C-L Juan Centeno (.231/.286/.346/.208)

Ellsbury and Headley combined for a grand total of zero hits in shared ALDS time in the DH spot. Ellsbury did reach on one of his trademark catcher’s interference calls, but there’s a problem when that was the high point. Headley had been one of the better hitters on the team for a while, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him turn it on a bit.

One of these Astros players may be exchanged for a pitcher. White doesn’t exactly fit very well on the roster given Gonzalez’s existence and capacity to play anywhere, so don’t be surprised if he’s traded out for someone like Collin McHugh.

Starting Pitchers (IP, ERA, DRA)

Yankees:
RHP Masahiro Tanaka (178, 4.74, 3.66)
RHP Luis Severino (193, 2.98, 3.05)
LHP CC Sabathia (149, 3.69, 4.46)
RHP Sonny Gray (162, 3.55, 3.27)

Astros:
LHP Dallas Keuchel (146, 2.90, 2.65)
RHP Justin Verlander (206, 3.36, 3.24)
RHP Brad Peacock (132, 3.00, 2.83)
RHP Charlie Morton (147, 3.62, 3.46)

Gray won’t have taken the mound for a total of 12 days when he toes the rubber in Game 4. Many thought that he would start Game 1 given his long layover and Tanaka’s Tyler Chatwood-esque home/road splits, but here we are. When Tanaka’s right, as he was in his masterful ALDS outing against Cleveland, he’s just about as good as any pitcher in baseball. He turns into a junk-balling virtuoso with a splitter from hell. When the splitter doesn’t split and the slider doesn’t slide, they go over the fence. The Astros aren’t a team you want that to happen against.

A.J. Hinch has only confirmed Keuchel and Verlander thus far. Peacock started Game 3 and Morton got Game 4 in the ALDS, so we’ll assume that’s the order for now, but it’s worth remembering that Lance McCullers is pretty darn good too. There’s also the aforementioned McHugh. Keuchel and Verlander are the guys who really matter, though. If they win, the Astros are going to be very hard to beat.

Relief Pitchers (IP, ERA, DRA)

Yankees:
LHP Aroldis Chapman (50, 3.22, 3.34)
RHP David Robertson (68, 1.84, 2.22)
RHP Chad Green (69, 1.83, 2.66)
RHP Tommy Kahnle (63, 2.59, 2.79)
RHP Dellin Betances (60, 2.87, 3.03)
RHP Adam Warren (57, 2.35, 2.53)
LHP Chasen Shreve (45, 3.77, 3.14)

Astros:
RHP Ken Giles (63, 2.30, 3.20)
RHP Chris Devenski (81, 2.68, 3.40)
RHP Luke Gregerson (61, 4.57, 3.40)
RHP Joe Musgrove (109, 4.77, 5.76)
LHP Francisco Liriano (97, 5.66, 5.39)
RHP Will Harris (45, 2.98, 3.75)
RHP Lance McCullers (119, 4.25, 3.52)

The Yankees are better on paper here, but it depends largely on which version of Betances shows up. If he’s Good Dellin, he’s the monstrous strikeout machine we all know and love. If he’s Bad Dellin, he throws back-to-back ugly walks in an elimination game, is promptly pulled, and becomes the last man on the roster. The Yankees also lack a true lefty reliever, given that Chapman is relegated to the end of the game. It wouldn’t be a shock to see Jaime Garcia or Shreve once rosters are officially announced, but the rest of the group is good enough that playing matchups doesn’t matter quite as much. The majority of Houston’s great hitters are right-handed as well.

That’s not to say that Houston’s bullpen is bad, of course. Devenski has shown he can be a multi-inning fireman of the highest order, and Giles is a bad, bad man. The group would look much more intimidating if this was last year’s Harris, or if Liriano always knew where the ball is going. This is a quality group, and they’re pitching behind a quality rotation with an offense that should give them some relatively large leads to protect.

Defense

New York generally runs a somewhat tighter ship, ranking second in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (PADE) compared to 15th for Houston, but the Astros put the ball in play so much that they put pressure on opposing defenses to execute flawlessly. That could lead to some Starlin Castro Signature Moments, but that’s just a fact of life when the Astros are involved.

Prediction

This was supposed to be the biggest throwdown of the year between Cleveland and Houston. It was supposed to be the two best teams in the American League, and perhaps in all of baseball, going at each other’s throats for seven beautifully chaotic games. That’s not to say that this is going to be a letdown. The Yankees are genuinely fun to watch. They’ve got a little bit of everything going for them.

Yet this feels like Houston’s series to lose. They are clearly better, and it feels like destiny at this point that they get into the ring against the Dodgers or Cubs for a seven-round prizefight to defend the honor of that famous Sports Illustrated cover. The Yankees can win this series. They are good enough, and this team has beaten the odds many times over to get to this point. It’s insane that they’re even here, and it would be wrong to put a World Series title beyond them. Houston in six, for now, but anything can happen.

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