Six ALCS players to watch: Astros relying on Bregman’s bat and defence

Houston Astros' Alex Bregman watches his solo home run against the Tampa Bay Rays during the fourth inning of Game 2 of a baseball American League Division Series in Houston, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. (Michael Wyke/AP)

I became a big fan of the website FiveThirtyEight even before they hired Travis Sawchik because I enjoyed the practical, useful way they broke down electoral numbers. It was and is fun in a no-foul, no-autopsy kind of way.

They’ve been running this Elo rating system for awhile, keeping track of predicted outcomes and such things, and Neil Paine’s recent article shows mathematically what most of us have for some time imagined unscientifically: the Houston Astros vs. New York Yankees American League Championship Series was among the most predictable of all time.

There wasn’t a single week where it wasn’t the Yankees or Astros atop the rankings; that has only happened one other time since 1969. Now, we can argue about what that means for competitive balance, especially given the fact that neither of these teams are going to have to re-tool any time soon due to age or finances, although based on what Gerrit Cole’s done in 2019 you wonder how on earth the Astros will re-sign him.

The Yankees are scary: they’ve pulled this off despite a raft of injuries and with shaky starting pitching and they still have impressive minor-league depth. Indeed, you can make the case that while the Astros are at the very top of their game, the Yankees might not have yet reached the top. Scary for everybody else but, in the meantime, let’s enjoy!

Alex Bregman, 3B, Astros

George Springer lit the fire in the deciding game of the AL Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays, but it was Bregman who followed up an MVP-worthy regular season by going 6-for-17, getting at least one hit in each game, and smacking his seventh career post-season home run. He doesn’t pick his spots: the blast was off Blake Snell, meaning that all seven of those homers have come off all-star pitchers.

There was much chatter going into the post-season about how the Astros did have one susceptibility: a batting average of .238, against 95 m.p.h-plus fastballs, only 19th-best in the Majors. Bregman’s blast off Snell, however, was on a 96 m.p.h. four-seamer.

The Astros also ask a lot of Bregman in their defensive shifts, and he delivers time and again, one reason why the Astros have a defensive edge that could be telling on the balls these teams don’t hit into the seats. Nobody on the Astros sees more pitches per plate appearance.

Translation? Bregman in the Bronx is gonna be fun.

Gerrit Cole, right-handed starter, Astros

Well, duh. Quite a reach, here, right?

Coming off a tough LDS against the Rays where he set a record for strikeouts for any division series (25), Cole has been the single most dominant individual of the post-season – to the point where needing him to pitch the deciding game in the ALDS has probably been the only wrinkle in manager A.J. Hinch’s post-season plans. He’ll have to wait until Game 3 in the Bronx to use him and you wonder whether Hinch might need to use a little politicking to get Cole to come out of the ‘pen in relief if this series gets crazy.

It’s one thing to ask a guy who is under contract to step into uncharted waters; quite another to ask it of a guy who is a couple of weeks away from looking for a $200-million free-agent contract.

But, man, what a beast: Cole has gone 16-0 in his last 18 decisions, including his 2-0 (0.57 ERA) NLDS. The last pitcher to do that was Rube Marquard in 1912.

The man’s almost returned some meaning to ‘pitchers wins’ as a statistic. Almost.

Aaron Hicks, CF, Yankees

Nah, I’m not being cute. The Yankees’ best defensive outfield has Brett Gardner in left field, Hicks in centre and Aaron Judge in right, and a healthy Hicks presents manager Aaron Boone with an almost embarrassing assortment of riches: figuring out how to fit Giancarlo Stanton, Edwin Encarnacion, and Hicks into his lineup while mitigating against the possibility that the decidedly mixed results of Stanton’s ALDS continue and also providing some ball-hawking insurance against Stanton’s sometimes-shaky defence.

Hicks was supposed to miss the rest of the regular season after injuring an elbow flexor on Aug. 3 and, while it’s the elbow of his throwing arm, the utility Boone is provided with by his switch-hitting bat could be in the very least a late-inning strategic wrinkle in what could be a long, action-filled series.

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Roberto Osuna, right-handed reliever, Astros

This compilation of Yankees hitters has a combined .119 lifetime average against Osuna. In 32 career games, he has a 0.79 ERA against the Bombers and a 0.599 OPS against.

Osuna recorded his first career save at Yankee Stadium – remember how he asked for the ball after striking out Alex Rodriguez? – and has not allowed an earned run in 15.2 innings on the mound in the Bronx. Aaron Judge is 0-for-9 against him with six strikeouts.

Of course home runs will be flying but whether it’s 3-2 or 4-3 or 12-11 going into the ninth inning – or whether it’s simply a high-leverage matchup in the eighth – the Astros know that, come ‘Judgement’ Day, they have one of the game’s true Yankees-killers (see what I did?).

As friend Jay Jaffe of Fangraphs points out, many of the pitch-type matchups in this series favour the Astros, with Osuna’s slider and four-seamer figuring heavily.

Masahiro Tanaka, right-handed starter, Yankees

Manager Aaron Boone flipped Tanaka and James Paxton in order to give the ball to his most experienced post-season starter in Game 1 on the road.

Tanaka has been a good post-season pitcher, with a 1.54 ERA and 20 hits allowed over 35 innings. And he had two very good starts against the Astros in the 2017 ALCS, tossing 13 innings.

The Yankees’ rotation was a talking point heading into the post-season, but other than Paxton’s wobble in the ALDS against the Twins, Boone – who spent the last three weeks of the regular season telling reporters that “all options would be on the table” in the post-season – didn’t need to be much of a magician against the Twins. He made 15 changes in sweeping the Twins, as Boone leveraged his bullpen edge, but the Astros are a different beast, and the guess here is we’re going to see some goofy stuff.

But in a Game 1 matchup against the always-beatable, soft, Zack Greinke, Tanaka can give the Bombers a shot at no worse than being tied up at 1-1 going back to the Bronx. He can also strengthen Boone’s hand mightily for the nasty business that awaits against Justin Verlander and Cole. This sets Tanaka up to pitch Game 5, back in the Bronx, and he’s a much more effective pitcher at home.

Gleyber Torres, 3B, Yankees

Everybody hits a lot of home runs on the Yankees, but nobody hit more than Torres’ 38.

Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio are the only other Yankees hitters with multiple 20-HR seasons before turning 23 years of age and, of Torres’ regular-season home runs, 21 either tied the game or gave the Yankees the lead. This is an acid test, though: the Astros have pitched him tough and, well, it’s October, which as we all know has special meaning for the Yankees and their fans.

His performance in the ALDS was silly: a 1.378 OPS, a .550 wOBA and a 254wRC+, which means jack in a short series but is just fun to write. No wonder Judge awarded him the ‘championship belt’ that makes the rounds of the Yankees clubhouse.

Torres is a bit of an outlier on this team, in that he sees fewer than four pitches per plate appearance. You can see him ambushing some fastballs these next two weeks, can’t you?

WHY CHEER FOR THE YANKEES? Because in the World Series is a bigger deal when they’re in it.

WHY CHEER FOR THE ASTROS? To give us a few more games of Alex Bregman and Gerrit Cole.

JEFF BLAIR’S PICK: Astros in seven games.

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