Astros vs. Yankees: Who's hot, who's not and what to watch in this matchup of AL heavyweights

The 2022 ALCS was a rout, a decimation, a thorough dismantling.

Across four games, the eventual world champion Houston Astros ran roughshod over the New York Yankees. The final scores were close — Houston took Games 1, 2 and 4 by a single run each — but the gap in talent was cavernous. At no point did it feel like the Yankees, long the sport’s most inevitable force, would emerge victorious. And a sweep is a sweep no matter how small.

The series victory gave Houston, at the time, its sixth consecutive ALCS appearance. New York, meanwhile, extended its American League pennant drought to 13 years, the second-longest fallow stretch in franchise history.

“We got beat by a better team right now, and that’s the reality of it,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone admitted in his postmortem media conference. “They’re clearly setting the mark in this league that we’re aspiring to get to.”

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Fast-forward to today, and the canyon appears bridged as the two clubs prepare to face off this week in their second of two regular-season meetings.

The Yankees, at 23-12, are one game behind Baltimore in the AL East and have an 87.6% chance of making the playoffs, per FanGraphs. Gerrit Cole, the currently injured reigning AL Cy Young, hasn’t thrown a pitch yet. Aaron Judge, the mammoth, all-world slugger, slogged his way through the first month. Nonetheless, the Yankees have shined. The rotation has weathered the Cole-less storm, and offseason addition Juan Soto has electrified the offense (and the entire city of New York).

The Astros, at 12-22 and seven games behind Texas in the AL West, have been an exercise in perplexing frustration. They are not nearly as bad as their record indicates and not nearly as good as their recent track record would suggest. Houston’s offense has performed almost identically to last year’s 90-win outfit, but the starting rotation, ravaged by injuries, has scuffled. Yet the bullpen, strengthened over the winter by the big-money acquisition of Josh Hader and heralded by many as the best in the game, has been the most damning disaster.

New York took all four games in Houston to start the season, mopping the Astros in what, in retrospect, looks like quite the harbinger. This go-around, the Yankees have a salivating opportunity to bury the 2024 Astros once and for all. A three-game sweep would push Houston to 12-25. No MLB club has ever made the playoffs after starting in such a hole.

The Astros, on the other hand, have a chance over the next three days to salvage their season. A series win in the Bronx would be invigorating, the type of fulcrum narratives are built around.

Let’s handicap the matchup.

Houston first baseman Jon Singleton is scorching, with three long balls in the past week. The stout left-hander — whose windy road back to MLB was one of last year’s most delightful stories — has stepped in admirably since José Abreu was sent to Houston’s Florida complex for a reset after a historically horrendous start to the season.

Even with all the turmoil brewing around these Astros, both Kyle Tucker and Jose Altuve have performed up to their supersonic standards this season. They aren’t abnormally “hot” at the plate; they’re just indisputably good all the time.

Jeremy Peña, who terrorized the Yankees in the 2022 ALCS, appears to have taken a meaningful step forward at the plate so far this season. The muscular shortstop has shrunk his strikeout rate while improving the quality of his contact.

Juan Soto is just so freaking good. He does not take plate appearances off. He does not swing outside the strike zone. He does not flinch in big moments. He is everything the Yankees hoped he would be and more.

Austin Wells was the victim of bad batted-ball luck for much of April, a trend that’s starting to turn for the rookie catcher. Wells is walking a ton, not striking out much and barreling up the ball quite often. Expect more good things here.

After a meh start, Aaron Judge looks back. The Yankees captain has three homers in his past nine games.

Alex Bregman hasn’t looked like himself all year. The free-agent-to-be is still making elite swing decisions, which has kept his profile afloat, but he isn’t elevating the ball with any power. At least he finally hit his first home run last week against Cleveland.

Yordan Álvarez is going through something of a cold stretch, with only three extra-base hits and an 8-for-46 line over his past two weeks. Part of this has been batted-ball misfortune, but the hulking slugger has also been too passive toward pitches in the strike zone. Perhaps the Yankee Stadium short porch will rouse him from his slumber.

As a whole, Giancarlo Stanton has looked healthier and less infuriating at the plate this year, but he’s currently mired in a strikeout-heavy rut. The lead-footed slugger has 10 punchouts in his past 20 trips to the dish.

Anthony Volpe is 11 for his past 64, with just three extra-base hits in that span. Before that, the 23-year-old got off to a great start in his sophomore season, earning a move into the leadoff spot behind a more contact-oriented swing path. Under-the-hood metrics suggest the recent cold stretch is more of a blip than a problem, so watch out for Volpe against Houston.

Tuesday: Future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander will take on Yankees rookie Luis Gil. Verlander, 41, has made only three starts thus far after shoulder soreness delayed the start of his season. He has looked solid but is currently sporting a concerningly poor 1.86 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Gil, 25, who won the club’s final rotation spot in spring training after Cole hit the IL, has been the Yankees’ best pitcher so far. A power four-seam, changeup and slider combo has him missing bats and limiting hard contact, which gives him a shot to stick in the rotation even after Cole comes back.

Wednesday: Houston will send Spencer Arrighetti to the hill against Carlos Rodón. Arrighetti has an eye-popping 8.27 ERA in his first four starts but has pitched better than that figure. Getting ahead in counts and locating his secondary stuff for strikes will be crucial if he is to keep Yankees hitters off his fastball. Rodón was enjoying a bounce-back season until his most recent start against Baltimore, in which the O’s blasted him for seven runs in four innings. The big lefty relied a bit too much on his fastball and slider in that start, and the Orioles were all over his heater, which produced only two whiffs.

Thursday: Surprise breakout Ronel Blanco will toe the slab against veteran Marcus Stroman. Blanco, who threw a no-hitter in his first outing of the year, has helped keep Houston’s rotation somewhat afloat in the early going. He has a five-pitch mix but relies mostly on his four-seamer, slider and changeup, all of which he has superb command of right now. Stroman’s sinker, which he throws 40% of the time, has experienced a dip in velocity and is sitting at 90.3 mph right now. That makes the short righty’s margin for error smaller, but panache, a deep repertoire and feel to pitch have fueled a solid start to Stroman’s first year in pinstripes.

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