New York’s State of Mind
By Ric Sweeney
The Astros-Yankees rivalry is about to take off.
Can we talk about the New York Yankees?
(More? I need to write to more? For some reason, that’s not enough? Because it pretty much says everythin– OK, OK…)
When Major League Baseball approved Jim Crane’s purchase of the Astros in 2011, it was on the condition he move his team to American League.
The news enraged many Astros fans and rightfully so; the league ripped 50 years of history with the National League from their favorite team’s identity, trashing the memories and rivalries that had always been a part of the franchise’s DNA.
I didn’t have a column back then so you’ll just have to take my word for it – but I was never among the enraged. I understood the anger – but I argued then and will argue now that the Astros’ history didn’t deserve such reverence. Sure, they had pockets of success and fleeting flashes of genuine rivalries, first with the Dodgers in the 70s and 80s and then with the Braves, Cardinals (warning: link is NSFW because it contains pictures of Albert Pujols from Game 5) and, for a brief time, the Cubs in the 90s but… the Astros were never public enemy #1 with any of those franchises.
Oh, I’m sure they disliked us when we yanked on their pant legs and had the audacity to be good – but far more often than not, they went back to their first-hates: the Giants for the Dodgers, and each other for the Cardinals and Cubs.
What the move to the AL gave the Astros was the chance to build their first honest-to-goodness rivalry.
This time with their intra-state rivals, the Texas Rangers (who, like the Astros, had rivalries here or there – but never any one team consistently). And sure enough, as both teams jockeyed for division supremacy in 2015 and again in 2016, the sparks were ignited.
But then something unexpected happened: the Yankees became relevant again.
After a four-year stretch in which the Yankees won 85, 84, 87 and 84 games, they roared back to life in 2017 behind Aaron Judge’s MVP campaign and their deeper-than-expected postseason run, both of which were ultimately undone by Jose Altuve and the Astros. Stack that on top of the Astros beating the Yankees – in New York – to claim the 2015 American League Wild Card and suddenly, two teams who had almost no history together, save for an odd pitching anomaly, were making up for lost time.
Ultimately, the Astros-Yankees rivalry may go the way of all those NL-era rivalries I mentioned earlier.
But, for right now, with the Red Sox a bit of an afterthought, the Astros-Yankees might very well be the best rivalry in baseball.
Both teams are very good and built around a young, mostly homegrown nucleus – they could be competing with each other for years to come. And the Astros’ winning a World Series last season – while leaving the Yankees in their postseason wake – only served to legitimatize Houston. They may lack the history, but right now, the Astros have something the Yankees (and their fans) covet and that can light all kinds of fires.
And the rivalry has extended into the off-season, generating heat during an otherwise frigid off-season as the teams seemingly swapped giant hay-makers aimed at one another. The first jab was New York having to trade for a most valuable player (Giancarlo Stanton) after Altuve won the award over Judge in the American League. The Astros quickly countered by stealing starting pitcher Gerrit Cole, a priority off-season target of the Yankees.
That got the Yankees’ sizable media conglomerate (and their shameless mouthpieces) busy desperately trying to convince everybody that they – and not the defending champions – were the team to beat in the American League.
That, understandably did not go over so well with some prominent Astros.
Verlander doubled down on the first day of spring training, telling reporters, “The American League goes through us.”
The Astros’ rise from worst to first was fast; their taking up permanent residence in the Yankees’ heads may have been even faster.
In a matter of a just a few short months, they’ve reduced the once-mighty Yankees, holders of 27 championships, to celebrating championships on paper.
And here’s the absolute best part – no, really – this is sooooo great: Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs have updated their 2018 season projections and both sites believe the Astros – and not the Yankees – will be the better team in 2018*. Houston will win more games, score more runs, and give up fewer runs than New York.
(* FanGraphs projects the Astros will win 98 games, score 855, allow 680; the Yankees 91; 839; 740. Baseball Prospectus is projecting 99; 850; 660 for the Astros and 96; 823; 671 for the Yankees.)
Next: Welcome to Spring Training!
So the Yankees aren’t the best team on paper. It’s still the Astros.Even in the off-season, the Yankees can’t seem to beat the Astros.
**Statistics and information courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectsus**