Ultimate AL Wild-Card Preview: Houston Astros @ New York Yankees

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What to watch for in the matchup

Aug 9, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Houston Astros relief pitcher Luke Gregerson (44) pitches the ball against the Oakland Athletics during the ninth inning at O.co Coliseum. The Athletics won 5-4. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

What to watch for:

1. Bullpen usage. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs has long advocated abandoning conventional pitcher usage in single-elimination games. Today, he has a must-read piece tailored to this year’s Yankees/Astros game. Cameron believes the Astros should go to the bullpen very early to blow up the Yankees platoon matchups and avoid trusting a short-rest version of Keuchel with a second — or certainly third — trip through a lineup geared towards him.

In reality, this won’t happen. Let me go on record: Keuchel will throw 105 pitches, no matter how it’s going. Hinch is simply too conservative in staff management for the most modern approach. Yesterday, I argued on Twitter that Lance McCullers should have been pinch-hit for to start the top of the 5th inning, following an inning in which he dropped a routine toss covering first base and then balked in the same runner with the go-ahead run. Evan Drellich, a tremendous beat writer for the Chronicle, disagreed with my request:

McCullers was left in. He struck out to lead off the 5th; the next three batters reached, and McCullers promptly gave up the lead in the bottom of the inning — his third time through the heart of the Diamondbacks order — and did not pitch after that. Hinch has routinely let his starters throw an extra inning in debatable spots, going a third and even fourth time through the lineup. It’s ironic, but the Moneyball 2.0 Astros who receive so much national attention for being progressive have the playoff manager who is unquestionably most likely to pull a Grady Little. Like many managers who are “players’ managers”, he trusts his veterans and values stability and predictability. Players like that. Number-crunchers disagree.

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Girardi, however, is almost certainly going to get creative. Tanaka will start, but most analysts expect to see Betances and Miller for multiple innings of relief each. My best guess is that the well-rested Tanaka will go four innings, five if he’s cruising, followed by 12-15 outs from Wilson, Betances, and Miller. That doesn’t quite qualify as a bullpen game, but it’s close.

The best way I can put it: for Carlos Correa’s third plate appearance, I fully expect a reliever to be in. For Alex Rodriguez’s third trip, I am equally confident Keuchel will still be in.

Knowing this, and being aware of the research on pitcher performance later in games, how Keuchel does in that third trip through the order will go a long way towards deciding who wins this game.

2. Can we flip the offensive approach mid-game?

Knowing Tanaka is a) likely not in for long, and b) doesn’t walk people (1.5 BB per 9 in his career), the Astros are going to be swinging away, as they usually do. This strategy worked well for them against Tanaka in June, when they erased a six-run deficit with home runs from Correa, Altuve, and Carter. In some ways, that’s the great hope in this game: Tanaka is not the type of pitcher who will use the Astros’ lack of a sophisticated approach to plate appearances against them.

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But Betances and Miller are. They thrive on working ahead in the count and getting chases. Betances allowed only 4.8 hits per nine innings, an insane figure. But he also walked a very high 4.3/9 and allowed six homers. Miller is similarly unhittable, with a slightly less erratic 2.7 BB/9. The same aggressive approach that might get Tanaka on the ropes in the third inning will absolutely not work against the twin aces of the Yankee pen. Discipline and waiting for a hittable pitch in each at-bat are necessary to success.

Next: Winning Formula for Both Teams