Saturday, October 12, 2019

Why the Astros are Better than the Yankees, and Why It Might Not Matter

As frustrating and annoying as Monday afternoon and Tuesday night were, Thursday was cathartic.  Astros bats came alive in the first inning due to sussing out Tyler Glasnow’s “tells” to know what pitch was coming. Gerrit Cole proved even better in the playoffs than he was in his remarkable regular season. And back-to-back homers from Michael Brantley and Jose Altuve sealed the 6-1 victory.

The Astros reward for their ALDS victory is a matchup against the New York Yankees. The consensus is that this is a matchup between two evenly matched, or nearly evenly matched teams. This preview described the series as a “Goliath vs. Goliath showdown.” While the consensus is that the Astros have a slight edge, most commentators I have read over the last 36 hours have emphasized the slight part of that phrase.

I’m writing to emphasize the edge part of that phrase. The Astros enter the ALCS with a clear edge over the Yankees. They should win the series, and, if the Astros and Yankees played 1000 games, the Astros would win a clear majority of them.

Here’s why:

3rd order wins

The metric of 3rd order wins shows that the Astros are a substantially better team than the Yankees. So what's a 3rd order win?  Baseball Prospectus calculates these numbers, based on each player's "underlying statistics and adjusted for quality of opponents." It is a number that is designed to reduce the amount of "luck" that goes into the standings and tell you how good each team really is.

According to this measure, the Astros "should" have won 116.5 games this year, and the Yankees 95.5. The Astros were 21 games better by this measure. That's not a small margin.

So how did the Yankees win 7.5 more games than they "should" have, and the Astros 9.5 wins less?  The answer is "cluster luck." Teams that cluster their hits together score more runs. If a team gets 4 base hits over 4 innings, they will likely score 2 runs if they get them all in the same inning, and 0 runs if they get one per inning.

But this is described as "luck" because teams can't choose to cluster their hits.  It's basically a random process. The Yankees have gained 65.1 runs this season by cluster luck, the largest in baseball by 13 runs. The Astros have lost 37.7 runs through cluster luck, fourth worst in the majors. These numbers help to explain how the Yankees scored more runs than the Astros (943 to 920) despite having worse number in all three slash line categories (.274/.352/.495 for the Astros to .267/.339/.490 for the Yankees).

And even before one accounts for cluster luck, the Astros pitchers gave up 99 fewer runs than the Yankees this year (640 to 739).

Lineup

Examining 3rd order wins and cluster luck shows that the Astros have a better offense and pitching staff than the Yankees.  But we don't need to go into detailed Sabr-metric theory to show the Astros are better.

The chart below shows the projected lineup for each team for tonight's matchup of right handed pitchers. It shows that the Astros have a higher OPS and OPS+ for 7 of the 9 spots in the order. In short, the Astros have a better lineup than the Yankees.

 Astros OPS wRC+ Yankees OPS OPS+ 1 Springer .974 156 LaMahieu .893 136 Altuve .903 138 Judge .921 141 3 Brantley .875 133 Gardner .829 115 4 Bregman 1.105 168 Encarnacion .875 121 5 Alvarez 1.067 178 Stanton .894 139 6 Gurriel .884 132 Torres .871 125 7 Correa .926 143 Sanchez .841 116 8 Chirinos .790 113 Gregorius .718 84 9 Reddick .728 94 Urshela .889 132

The Yankees have an advantage at the #2 spot in the order (Judge over Altuve), and in the #9 spot (Urshela over Reddick).  Another way to show the Astros advantage: they boast the 4 best OPSs and wRC+s in the series (Alvarez, Bregman, Springer, and Correa).  The Yankees will add Aaron Hicks to their ALCS roster, and he may take a start from somebody in their lineup. But his .768 OPS and 102 wRC+ does not change the results.

The Astros advantage in hitting--which is the Yankees strength--is clear.

Rotation

We can do the same thing for the rotation.  We know who will start Games 1-3, and I projected Jose Urquidy and J.A. Happ as the Game 4 starters.  Again, the Astros have an advantage. Their starter has a lower ERA and higher ERA+ in three of the four spots in the rotation.

 Astros ERA ERA+ Yankees ERA ERA+ 1 Greinke 2.93 154 Tanaka 4.45 100 2 Verlander 2.58 179 Paxton 3.82 116 3 Cole 2.50 185 Severino 1.50 304 4 Urquidy 3.95 41 Happ 4.91 90

Of course, the one advantage for the Yankees is Luis Severino over Gerrit Cole.  Severino pitched only 12 innings in the regular season, and Cole has earned Pedro Martinez comparisons for his run over the last 4 months.  So Astros fans many not think that advantage is truly with the Yankees there.

This analysis shows how big the Astros edge is in the rotation.

Why it Might Not Matter

The numbers above show that the Astros have  big advantage among the players who will play the most in the series. They have better hitters and better starting pitchers.

Yet despite these advantages,  there are substantial reasons why those advantages might not play out in the series.

1. That's a really impressive Yankee lineup. As mentioned,  they led the league in runs, and 8 of their batters have a wRC+ greater than league average.  They can score runs, especially if the Astros have some bad starts.
2. The heart of their bullpen is excellent.  Closer Aroldis Chapman had a 2.21 ERA during the season, and his set-up men were better. Adam Ottavino had a 1 90 ERA and Zack Britton's was 1.91.  Yankee manager Aaron Boone has proven aggressive in using his bullpen--Yankee starters went 4 2/3, 4, and 5 innings in the ALDS.
3. In a short series, anything can happen. The depth chart based odds at Fangraphs give the Astros a 65% chance of winning. In context of playing an excellent team like the Yankees, that's a massive edge (and other metrics have a smaller but still clear edge for the Astros). But that still says the Astros lose 35% of the time. That's the equivalent of rolling one die and getting s 5 or a 6. It would not surprise you to see a die come up that way.

So there is good news for us Astros fans. We are cheering for the team with the better offense and the better pitching staff. Heck, our boys are better defensively and on the base paths than the Yankees.  We should be as confident as any fan base can be. And we can be nervous as hell at the same time.