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It Was Always Going To Be Astros-Yankees, Wasn’t It?

MLB’s 2019 postseason has had more than its share of surprises, from Washington’s amazing comebacks — and the Dodgers’ meltdowns — to St. Louis’s 10-run first inning in a do-or-die game against Atlanta. Even the Tampa Bay Rays extended their plucky season by pushing the Houston Astros to the brink of elimination, before losing Game 5. All that chaos has left the National League in particular with a championship-series matchup (Cardinals-Nationals) that was tough to see coming just a week and a half ago.

But after the division-series dust settled, the powerhouse Yankees and Astros are the teams left standing in the American League. In addition to being one of the best league championship series matchups ever on paper, it’s the titanic showdown that baseball fans have been anticipating all year — literally so.

As of Thursday night’s ALDS clincher in Houston, the Astros and Yankees rank Nos. 1 and 2 among remaining teams in FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings, 3 points of Elo apart from each other but 18 points clear of the other two contenders. They are also the two most likely champions left in the field, with a combined 65 percent chance that the winner of the ALCS will also win the title. In many ways, Yankees-Astros will be this year’s de facto World Series.

If we look at the harmonic mean of preseries Elo ratings for Houston (1590) and New York (1587),1 this year’s ALCS is the second-most impressive league championship series matchup in the entire history of baseball (or, at least, since the LCS began in 1969). The only LCS with a better matchup on paper was last year’s ALCS between the Boston Red Sox — who were in the midst of a historic season — and the Astros:

Elo’s most epic League Championship Series clashes ever

MLB league championship matchups with the highest combined preseries Elo ratings (according to the harmonic mean), 1969-2019

Winner/Favorite Loser/Underdog
Year League Team Rating Team Rating Harmonic Mean
2018 AL Red Sox 1590 Astros 1609 1599.3
2019 AL Astros* 1590 Yankees* 1587 1589.0
2009 AL Yankees 1581 Angels 1570 1575.7
1999 NL Braves 1585 Mets 1566 1575.5
2002 NL Giants 1569 Cardinals 1581 1574.8
2004 NL Cardinals 1584 Astros 1560 1572.2
1975 NL Reds 1593 Pirates 1551 1571.8
2018 NL Dodgers 1584 Brewers 1560 1571.5
2017 AL Astros 1572 Yankees 1570 1571.2
1970 AL Orioles 1595 Twins 1546 1570.4

*The Astros are currently favorites, with a 54 percent chance of making the World Series according to Elo.

Source: ESPN, Retrosheet

Baseball has been trending toward more superteams for a while now, so it’s not overly surprising that the past two seasons have seen the top two LCS matchups ever. In fact, according to Elo, the American League since 2017 has played host to three of history’s nine best LCS showdowns — and the Astros have been involved in all of them (winning in 2017, losing in 2018 and … well, we don’t know yet in 2019).

But perhaps more noteworthy about this year’s ALCS is simply how long baseball has had to keep an eye on this particular matchup. Although some other AL teams had great years — including the Twins, Rays and A’s, all of whom won at least 96 ballgames — the Astros and Yankees stood out as the cream of the league’s crop for essentially the entire season. There wasn’t a single week during the regular season that Houston and New York were not the AL’s top two teams according to our Elo ratings:

Yep, in the 26 weeks of the regular season, the Yankees and Astros topped the AL … 26 times. Then they eventually met up in the ALCS. That’s only the second time in history (again, since 1969) that two teams ranked 1-2 in their league every single week of the regular season, then ended up meeting in the league championship series:

Few LCS matchups have been brewing for so long

Eventual league championship matchups with the highest share of regular-season weeks with the teams at Nos. 1-2 in league Elo rankings, 1969-2019

Year League Teams in LCS Weeks as 1-2 Share of Possible
2019 AL Astros Yankees 26 100%
1970 AL Orioles Twins 25 100
1978 NL Dodgers Phillies 24 96
2009 NL Dodgers Phillies 24 92
1971 AL Orioles Athletics 23 92
1992 NL Braves Pirates 21 84
1973 AL Orioles Athletics 20 83
1976 AL Yankees Royals 17 68
1972 NL Pirates Reds 16 64
1976 NL Reds Phillies 16 64
1986 NL Mets Astros 16 64

Source: Retrosheet, ESPN

The only other LCS in which both teams finished every week of the regular season as Nos. 1 and 2 in league Elo came in 1970, when the Baltimore Orioles and Minnesota Twins dominated their respective divisions all season long, putting themselves on an ALCS collision course. The Orioles ended up sweeping that one, but they also went into the series with a sizable 49-point Elo edge over Minnesota despite the two teams’ favorite status being solidified for so much of the season.

The Astros, by contrast, lead the Yankees by only 3 points of Elo right now, and New York is much better rested after sweeping the Twins in the ALDS. We still give the Astros an edge, with a 54 percent probability of going to the World Series, but there’s every chance this terrific on-paper battle lives up to the hype that’s been building up every single week of the entire season.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Taking the harmonic mean to make sure both teams in a matchup have very high ratings.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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