When the Yankees came just one win away from the World Series in 2017, it seemed like a Herculean effort even for a team that has yet to have a below-.500 season since 1992. This team had gone through their first rebuild since that very same 1992, and they had not made the postseason in 2013, 2014, or 2016, making one brief stop in 2015 to get wiped by—you guessed it—the Houston Astros in the Wild Card game, an absolute crusher.
By 2017 they both were fundamentally different clubs, yet still completely different than their composition today. The Astros seemed to be a full and complete actualization of every theory put into place when the rebuild began under the Luhnow general manager-ship, and it paid immediate dividends, with the acquisition of Justin Verlander being the crowning achievement. Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Jose Altuve formed a core that would ultimately win the World Series that year in a thriller of a series with the once-again-disappointed Dodgers, and the Astros now have made three straight LCS appearances.
Despite all of that, it’s hard to imagine how they could get better, and they very much did. The 2019 club won 107 games, and won their division so handily that they have had higher World Series odds than their opponent currently has since about August. They sport a 125 wRC+, good for second-best in the live ball era, with the only better club being... the 1927 Yankees.
Sure, the team may have suffered a loss in pitching depth with the losses of Aaron Sanchez and Lance McCullers Jr. to injury and Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton to free agency, they added Gerrit Cole in the offseason, as well as Zack Greinke at the deadline. Cole subsequently put up a 1.62 ERA between the beginning of the second half and Game Five of the ALDS, where he capped off his excellent stretch with eight innings of two-hit ball against the pretty formidable Rays. Greinke is definitely the number three of the bunch, but he’s probably better than every third starter in the league, and a future Hall of Famer in his own right.
The Yankees, on the other hand, look completely different than the team that shocked the league with both a comeback against Cleveland in the ALDS, and then three straight wins at Yankee Stadium to send the series to six and then seven games. This team won “only” 103 games, but they’re probably better than that as a true talent club in October.
Aaron Judge missed 60 games, and Giancarlo Stanton played just 18 games. Luis Severino pitched just three abbreviated starts, and then one solid four-inning appearance in an ALDS where they dominated their counterpart in the Twins, sweeping a 100-win team for the first time. Overall, just four of the top ten in plate appearances in 2017 were the top ten in 2019, and the player with the highest WAR was DJ LeMahieu.
Which is why it would be unfair to say that the Yankees are the “underdog” mostly because this team, by definition, would have been equal to the Astros’ record had the players currently playing were playing all year, and their offense wasn’t far behind Houston, hitting to a 117 wRC+ themselves.
The flip side is that the Astros claimed home-field advantage, for one, and they will ultimately still get four turns at both Cole and Verlander in this series despite being forced into a five-game set. The bullpen has its issues, obviously, but the math starts to look a little different when either one of those pitchers can toss a near or full complete game, basically unheard of in this era.
That’s why this series, in all honesty, it lives and dies with the Yankees’ pitching. Severino looks largely the same as 2018 but still hasn’t been stretched to go deep into games, and despite the possible dejuicing of the baseball, Masahiro Tanaka has consistency issues that could absolutely bleed into the offseason. James Paxton has largely been a plus, but his first innings, where he has a ghastly 9.00 ERA, have been a major wart. Houston, unsurprisingly, is near the top (fourth overall) in runs scored in the first inning.
There’s no reason predicting, because there’s a good chance this series makes everyone look totally foolish in some way. Whatever one expects, one facet of it likely does not come true. If the Yankees do hit Cole and Verlander, the Astros likely respond in kind and it’s more of a back-and-forth. If the Yankees sweep, everyone is shocked that the “best team” was washed out. If the Yankees are swept, people will still be pretty surprised. At the bare minimum, the first few games should hopefully live up to the billing as a heavyweight rematch.