Thoughts Following The ALDS
In the immortal words of Al Davis: "Just win, baby!" The 2022 ALDS was far closer than it ever should have been. I think there was mismanagement of the bullpen that cost the Yankees a game, Yankee infield shifts allowed hits that probably should have found a fielder's glove, and we saw some bats go cold (which often happens in the playoffs as the pitching improves, to be fair), but by last night's end, all I cared about was that the Yankees get another chance to knock off the Astros in the ALCS. Might the 3rd time be the charm? I sure hope so.
I really don't like writing bullet-point thought pieces, but with no time between the ALDS and ALCS, that's what we're looking at today. Let's talk Yankee baseball:
As I noted above, there aren't any days off between the ALDS and the ALCS for the Yankees. Why? MLB's brilliant scheduling decision to put a gap day between days one and two of the ALDS despite the fact that it wasn't a travel day. Per usual, it was a way to extract some extra revenue at the margins to ensure each playoff game across the sport had individual time to shine on the national stage. However, the majority of playoff baseball is played in locations where weather is variable. One rainout seriously impacted the ALDS such that the team that was supposed to have an advantage in the playoffs due to their regular season record, the Yankees, now are at a disadvantage because of money grubbing. MLB, and by extension its owners, are incapable of making even basic decisions in the best interest of the sport. The phrase, penny smart, pound foolish, consistently applies to MLB and its owners, and this situation is no different. I shudder whenever I listen to the commissioner's office try to claim that they are the keepers of the game.
OK, I'm going to stop being negative now, because today is a good day! How about Nestor last night?!? I thought Nestor would emerge as a solid mid-back rotation guy this season. I thought his stuff had ticked up enough to match his determination and guile to make a really solid pitcher. I thought I was bullish, but our own Cary Greene took it a step further and consistently predicted that Nestor would be a top-2 pitcher for the Yanks. Cary has been right all along (not that I was wrong, but I didn't go out on enough of a limb) - I've always said I'd ride or die with Sevy on the mound, but Nasty Nestor has also moved into that category for me. Nestor knew he had a very limited pitch count going on short rest, and he largely hit edges and pitched to contact, giving the Yankees 5 strong innings and largely saving the bullpen. You could see it written on his face that Nestor wasn't going to let the Yankees lose. All I can do is tip my cap; Nestor is for real.
Gerrit Cole also deserves a ton of credit. They needed him to pitch like an ace this series, and he did, throwing two beautiful starts (the second on short rest) while looking dominant once again. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote in-depth about Cole's struggles with the gopher ball in 2022, concluding that the issue was largely due to the deterioration of Cole's fastball command. There are multiple causes for that issue, all of which likely take some time to sort out. I noted some mechanical inconsistencies I saw when Cole overthrew the fastball, but with adrenaline pumping, those are tough issues to change in-season. What was clear is that Cole needed a better way to get guys off of his fastball in order to flip the script. In his final start of the regular season, Cole used his little-used curveball far more than he had in the past, and I noted to the people around me watching the game that increased curveball usage could be a key to unlocking better performance. I wanted to write an article about it, but Fangraphs beat me to it. I highly recommend reading the article, but Cole's curveball and four-seam fastball have the exact same spin axis, but wildly different movement profiles, making the two pitches ideal tunneling partners. The curve has Cole back to being an ace, and he deserves credit for finding some change in-season to get his performance right at the most important time of year.
I know that everyone has been hard on Aaron Hicks this year, rightfully so. I still felt awful watching him go down for the playoffs last night. I do think he gave the Yankees a solid defensive outfielder off the bench who could run the bases well and at least work an at-bat when needed. I think he would have seen the field a fair amount in the ALCS against the Astros. It's a shame for the Yankees and Hicks.
Another injury gives the Yankees quite the roster predicament. It doesn't sound as though Andrew Benintendi is healthy enough to play in the ALCS, judging by the fact that he needed a cortisone shot on his broken hamate bone just a couple of days ago. The whispers are that DJ LeMahieu could be available for the ALCS, but I really don't have confidence in his ability to play up to his normal standards. With Hicks hurt, I think the Yankees should be more aggressive: put Oswald Peraza on the ALCS roster. IKF clearly is wilting under the bright lights, and should not start at SS in the ALCS, though I think he's a nice bench player as a pinch runner who can also play around the infield. The best Yankee lineup right now has Cabrera in LF and Peraza at SS. The Yankees need to make it happen.
Matt Carpenter was among the best players on the field for the Yankees in the early summer, but he really hasn't hit against live pitching since August, save for his at-bat in the ALDS. I like having him on the bench as a lefty pinch hitter, but I'm not sure he's anything more than that right now. There are rumors around that he could play some left field in the ALCS, but I want to maximize run prevention against the Astros, so I'd minimize Carpenter's time in the field as much as possible.
I'm not big on gloating, but I'm going to for a moment: I think the people who frequently bludgeoned Brian Cashman for the Monty-for-Bader trade owe him an apology. While my very initial reaction to the deal was one of semi-confusion, a few hours of reflection made me see the error of my thinking. I wrote that there was much more to Bader than met the eye soon after the trade. While the benefits of having Bader in CF defensively were obvious, there were offensive keys that most observers were missing. I noted that Bader had well above-average success against fastballs over 94 MPH throughout 2022, even while playing hurt. You could also see from Bader's spray charts that his home ballpark had sucked some power out of his bottom-line stats for the last few seasons. I also noted that fastball velocity ticks up significantly in the playoffs, over 94 MPH on average. Sure the pitching gets better and secondary stuff is nastier in the playoffs, but that's all the more reason hitters should wait for fastball misses, assuming those hitters can catch the heat. Well, Bader did in the ALDS, and he was a key contributor to the series win. Bader hit 3 HR; 2/3 were against fastballs at or over 95 MPH. I don't think the Yankees get out of the ALDS without Harrison Bader, and I don't think Monty would have been a difference maker in the rotation or out of the bullpen. This was a great trade, possibly Cashman's best at the trade deadline in recent memory. Sometimes, I'm wrong. Sometimes I'm right, but for the wrong reasons. This time, I nailed it.
The Astros' pitchers throw a lot of 94+ MPH fastballs...just saying.
The Astros are a really well-built roster, and they present a tough challenge. They have pop from both sides of the plate, play good defense, and I think they have a deeper pitching staff right now, given all of the injuries the Yankees have faced in the bullpen. I still believe this will be an exciting, close series. I want this more than any series I've watched since the 2019 ALCS. I'm hoping third time's a charm.
The Yankees will throw Taillon-Sevy-Cole-Nestor in games 1-4, I presume, in the ALCS. So Taillon gets Verlander, Sevy gets Valdez, I'd imagine Cole gets McCullers, and Nestor gets one of Javier or Garcia. Dare I say that save for Game 1, this matches up nicely for the Yankees?
Boone has to be better in this series in managing the pitching staff. Loaisiga has now proven that he can be effective after sitting between innings, so he should be allowed to be pushed further as long as he's pitching well. Holmes also looks close to the guy he was in the first half, so he should be allowed to pitch in tough scenarios. The Yanks won't get away with managerial mistakes against Houston like they did against Cleveland.
On the bright side, I think the back of the bullpen is stabilizing, if the Yankees can stay away from the soft middle.
It felt really good to see both Stanton and Judge hit huge homers in Game 5 of the ALDS. If they both are getting hot at the same time, the complexion of this offense changes totally and completely.
I feel really good today. I want the Astros to finally get what's coming to them. The Yankees are playing with fire and personality for the first time in 3 years. I think they have just enough to get over the hump.
It's time to stop talking. Just win.