Houston's First-Five Chances Are Astronomical vs. Yankees

Tuesday, May 1, 2018 11:45 AM UTC

Tuesday, May. 1, 2018 11:45 AM UTC

Houston hosts the Yanks on Tuesday night at 8:10 ET in a rematch of last year's ALCS. The Astros are heavy chalk to win, but the value lies in a first-half play.

New York Yankees (18-10) at Houston Astros (20-10)Free MLB Pick: Houston 1st 5 RLBest Line Offered: Bookmaker

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Both bullpens are ranked in the top four in terms of FIP (like ERA, but factors out luck). Because the Yankees' bullpen is a strong candidate to achieve damage control for a struggling pitcher, the full-game run line seems too risky. But a play is worth making on the first five innings because of Houston's starting pitching advantage.

Veteran Justin Verlander (4-0, 1.36 ERA) starts for Houston. Current Yankee batters are hitting .213 against him in 61 at-bats. They last faced him in in the regular season in June 2016, producing one run in 6.2 innings. After struggling in 2017, Verlander has been in even better form since he joined Houston late last August than in 2016 while with the Tigers. As an Astro, Verlander has achieved an FIP of 3.02 or better in four of five regular-season home games, indicating his comfort with his new home ballpark.

Verlander is finding the strike zone more effectively. Despite seeing more pitches in the zone, opposing batters are making contact less frequently. They are also swinging-and-missing at more pitches out of the zone. Verlander has reestablished his slider as a strong second-favorite pitch. He is reducing its vertical movement, which makes it less easy for opposing batters to track and making it slide more so that it better eludes the opposing bat. Hitters are slugging a career-low .200 against it. Additionally, Verlander can rely on his fastball. Despite throwing it 63% of the time, opponents are hitting .155 against it. He allows minimal variance in the vertical release points of his fastball because he is so comfortable throwing it.

He matches up well against New York because of his 95 mph fastball. Dating back to last season, the Yanks are 20th in terms of BA, .225, against this pitch at this velocity. This season, their BA is .217 against a fastball of at least 95 mph. The Yanks are starting to cool off, producing three runs in their past two games. They rank 23rd in strikeouts and lead the league in the category in the past three games. Verlander, who is averaging a career-high 10.89 strikeouts per nine innings, is prop bet material tonight.

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The youngster Jordan Montgomery (2-0, 3.76 ERA) counters for New York. Montgomery is a foil of Verlander in four regards. He is showing poor form, yielding an FIP of over 4.00 in three of his last four outings. Additionally, he is struggling with velocity since his average fastball is down two mph from last season. Third, his command is weak, indicated by his 4.10 walk-per-nine-innings rate. His weaker command could derive from his struggle to prevent contact on pitches outside of the zone, which is because, fourth, he is getting less movement in his fastball, less "sink" in his sinker and less "slide" in his slider so that his pitches are less frequently eluding opposing bats.

Yankee backers could cite Houston's recent struggles at home against left-handed pitchers. Houston has struggled against southpaws with pronounced ground ball-inducing tendencies but has done well against the left-handed fly-ball pitchers, inducing an FIP of over 6.00 against both Mike Minor and Cole Hamels of the Rangers. Montgomery is a fly-ball pitcher because of his low 40.7 opposing ground ball percentage last season. His pitches are showing even less verticality and he is throwing less frequently in the bottom quadrants of the strike zone.

The Astros match up well against Montgomery because they are achieving an .837 OPS (on-base plus slugging; average is .720) against fly-ball pitchers. Watch out especially for Jose Altuve, who is batting over .400 both against left-handed starters and fly-ball pitchers. He leads Houston with a .347 BA. Carlos Correa is averaging .330 overall and over .350 against both lefties and fly-ball pitchers. The Astros have a lot of pop with which to help Verlander secure a first-half lead in our MLB Picks.

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