The Houston Astros had to overcome the New York Yankees and their own underperforming bullpen to win the ALCS in seven games on Saturday night.
They did the former by neglecting the latter, a novel approach to a postseason in which most teams have used their bullpens more, not less, as a series was extended.
Not the Astros. In the final two games, their relief pitchers — if we stipulate that Lance McCullers, who has appeared in 25 games this season, 23 as a starter, is not one by trade — were entrusted to pitch only two innings. And one of them, Brad Peacock’s eighth inning of Game 6, might have been the most tense for Houston of the final two games.
The ALCS was the most stirring series of an otherwise predominantly blah postseason, from Justin Verlander’s persistence in a 124-pitch Game 2 complete game; to the Yankees, dormant for six innings of Game 4, ignited by an Aaron Judge homer and scoring six runs in their last two at-bats; to an emotional Masahiro Tanaka, in what might be his final Yankee start, exorcising and outpitching Dallas Keuchel in Game 5; to an exhausted Verlander applauding George Springer’s perhaps season-saving catch in Game 6; to Brian McCann, 0-for-10 in the first five games but 3-for-6 in the last two, finally releasing more than a week of built-up tension with his two-run double for the 4-0 Game 7 lead McCullers made safe.
The World Series will have to go some to be as good.
(Three series have gone to deciding games: the ALCS, the Yankees-Indians ALDS and the Nats-Cubs NLDS. The latter would have been more thrilling had it not seemed inevitable that the Dodgers were going to the World Series. If not for the Yankees, this would be a dull October.)
The ALCS was wonderful in its contrasts. The Astros won all four games in Houston, the Yankees all three in New York; Astros’ starters pitched 32 of 36 innings in Houston, the Yankees’ bullpen had an MLB-best .621 OPS against this season; the Astros’ best player, Jose Altuve, is 5-foot-6, small enough to always be reaching up to high five; the Yankees’ best player, Aaron Judge, is 6-foot-7, tall enough to reach up and snare fly balls that would otherwise be home runs.
Judge hit three homers in the final five games of the series and four in the postseason. That makes 56 this season, hard to have projected last spring for a player whose minor-league high was 20 in 2015 (Judge hit 56 home runs in 1,297 at-bats over three minor-league seasons; he’s hit 56 home runs in 626 at-bats over one major league season and an abbreviated second).
It’s reasonable to argue that Judge is the AL MVP, but if he’s not, it’s Altuve. A friend emailed this weekend to suggest Altuve = Joe Morgan, and it’s an apt comparison. They’re nearly the same height and about the same quality of player, though Morgan walked more and Altuve hit more. But as Morgan used to, Altuve is most likely, in perhaps more ways than any other player, to effect a win for his team.
If postseason baseball was playground basketball, Altuve would likely be the first player chosen, and the ALCS was evidence why. All four wins Altuve was, in some way, responsible for. He singled, stole a base and scored the first run of Game 1, which the Astros won, 2-1; he singled off Aroldis Chapman’s 100 mph fastball and dashed home with the winning run in the ninth inning of Game 2 (the only run Chapman allowed after Aug. 25 because it’s not just curveballs in the dirt Gary Sanchez can’t catch); he singled to drive in the first run of Game 6 and homered to score the fourth; he homered to score the second run of Game 7.
Of the seven Astros postseason wins, a major Altuve contribution was absent in only one, the series-clincher vs. the Red Sox.
Altuve has homered five times this postseason, one more than Judge, the home run hitter, in two fewer games. He has eight RBIs in 40 at-bats, eight walks, a steal and a .400 average.
For the season, he hit .346, with 24 homers, 32 steals, 58 walks, 204 hits (his fourth straight 200-plus hit season), a .547 slugging percentage, a .957 OPS and an 8.3 WAR, which might explain the smile he so often flashes. There’s no reason to pout when you’re that good.
Morgan did commentary on ESPN’s Sunday night game for several years, and it’s fair — and perhaps understated — to say he wasn’t as good an analyst as he was a sceond baseman. He was famous for damning other second basemen with faint praise, and dissing the sabermetric revolution, which embraced Morgan’s skills and smarts.
But when you’re as good as Joe Morgan, the standards are high, and it’s hard to find anyone who reaches them. Enter Altuve.
Last July, Morgan called Altuve “the best all-around player in the game,” according to a Mike Lupica column for sportsonearth.com.
“You know what they used to say about me?,” Morgan said to Lupica. “‘He’s a good little player.’ But then they look at Trout and say, ‘That’s what a great player is supposed to look like.’ And trust me, this is nothing against Mike Trout. I love watching him play baseball, too. But right now, I honestly believe (Altuve) is the best all-around player. I don’t know what box you don’t check with him.”
Trout vs. Altuve is the argument for another day, though it would surprise no one who listened to Joe that he never tired of being called Little Joe.
Altuve has the approval of Joe Morgan, his kindred spirit as a player. That might be the highest praise of all.