Six players to watch in American League Division Series

When the American League Division Series begins Thursday, these six players will be among the potential difference-makers worth watching …

Jose Altuve, 2B, Houston Astros

Ooh. Daring pick, right? Most valuable player candidate, leads the major leagues in batting average by 15 points over his closest competitor, gets over 200 hits for the fourth consecutive season and becomes the first player in history to lead the majors outright in that category in his four consecutive seasons … and he’s one to watch? Eight-for-21 lifetime against Game 1 Boston Red Sox starter Chris Sale, 7-for-19 against David Price … and he’s one to watch?

All true, as is the .154 average in six games in his only other post-season appearance, 2015. Time to burnish the credentials …

Aaron Judge, RF, New York Yankees

Nice regular season, kid, leading or second in the world in WAR (depending who’s measuring) and becoming only the fourth rookie to break 1.000 in OPS, joining some guys named Ted Williams, Joe Jackson and Albert Pujols.

But this is the Bronx, and October is when it matters. Just ask Derek Jeter, who hit .314 in winning the 1996 American League Rookie of the Year Award then hit .361 in the post-season on the way to a World Series ring, showing he knew how to find centre stage when he hit the Jeffrey Maier home run in the American League Championship Series.

Judge’s performance in the AL wild card win over the Minnesota Twins hints of much bigger things to come.

Corey Kluber, SP, Cleveland Indians

The discussion about the best pitcher in the American League has been between Kluber and the Boston Red Sox’s Chris Sale. And while the Red Sox’s rotation is much thinner than that of the Indians, Kluber’s preference for sticking on a strict five-day routine forced manager Terry Francona into saving him for Game 2 to keep him in line for a potential Game 5 start on regular rest. Trevor Bauer goes in Game 1.

Francona’s the best manager in the game, so he knows what he’s doing, and Kluber was a horse in the post-season last year — making six starts, including two on short rest — but he’s just brought a little extra spotlight on himself.

Addison Reed/David Price, RP, Boston Red Sox

No cop out: Red Sox’s manager John Farrell seems to have settled on Reed and Price as his righty-lefty bullpen tandem to set up closer Craig Kimbrel, and Reed has had success against the Astros, albeit in a small sample size.

The Red Sox had their problems this season but they know how to fight back (winning 14 games in which they trailed by three or more runs) and they led the majors with 11 wins when trailing after seven innings, while going 15-3 in extra innings. Since Aug. 1 they’ve been 19-9 in games decided by three or less. That’s testimony to good relief work, vital against an offensive dynamo like the Astros.

Gary Sanchez, C, New York Yankees

Never mind the offence, the franchise record for homers by a primary catcher (33), the major-league leading 79 runs, 90 RBIs and .531 slugging percentage at the position. It’s Sanchez’s defence that will be tested in the playoff cauldron, and while he was a better defensive catcher in the final seven weeks of the regular season, throwing out 40 per cent of opposing baserunners and allowing four passed balls after permitting 12 passed balls and throwing out 27.8 per cent in his first 64 games, his game-calling and sloppy setup has created issues — Masahiro Tanaka has had trouble picking up his signs — to the point where there was an active debate in New York as to whether the team wouldn’t be better served having Sanchez at designated hitter.

Not what a team wants to hear in October, especially when it’s preparing to face one of the smartest teams in baseball managed by a guy who knows when to press the issue.

Justin Verlander, SP, Houston Astros

The Astros didn’t get Verlander to win a division. That was done when he joined the team. Verlander was acquired to win a World Series, and in five starts since his acquisition from the Detroit Tigers he’s gone 5-0 (1.06), continuing a three-month streak in which he’s gone 10-3 (1.92) and is second in innings-pitched and first in opponents batting average. Verlander has historically been tough on the Red Sox, holding this collection of Red Sox players to a .211 career average. None of the Red Sox’s 11 hits off him have been homers; six of the 11 have come off the bat of Mitch Moreland.

BLAIR’S PICKS

• Astros over Red Sox in 4
• Indians over Yankees in 3