Six players to watch in American League Championship Series

Houston Astros' Jose Altuve. (David J. Phillip/AP)

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

Jose Altuve, 2B, Houston Astros

He was one to watch going into the ALDS and after after going 8-for-15 with a .632 on-base percentage and just two strikeouts in four ALDS games against the Boston Red Sox he’ll be one to watch going into the World Series if the Astros win this series.

He and Aaron Judge have been at the forefront of the AL Most Valuable Player debate all season long and now that debate will be carried out against the backdrop of the post-season, which is kind of how it should be, no?

A word of warning: Yankee Stadium has not been kind to Altuve. His career average there is third-worst among all AL ballparks. However, he tattoos Game 1 starter Masahiro Tanaka and Sonny Gray.

Aroldis Chapman, RP, New York Yankees

He can throw 102 m.p.h. to close out games but he’s going to have to be at his very best against an Astros team that feasts on fastballs. As friend David Schoenfeld of ESPN notes, the Astros slashed a Major-League best .301/.373/.525 against fastballs and also had the lowest strikeout rate on the pitch.

Fifty-six per cent of fastballs over 97 m.p.h. this post-season have been thrown by Yankees, and in an all-hands-on-deck series, Chapman better be prepared for more two-inning saves as was the case in Game 5 of the ALDS. If there’s an obvious Yankees edge heading into this series it’s relief pitching, and it’s up to Chapman to help keep it that way by extending his 18.2 innings scoreless streak since Aug. 25. all the way through October.

Chris Devenski, RP, Astros

With an ability to tame left-handed hitters (his .111 average against was second-lowest in Major League history) and a change-up that generated the fourth-highest whiff rate during the regular season, Devenski figures to be a key mid-game weapon for the Astros even if manager A.J. Hinch makes aggressive use of Justin Verlander in one of his non-starts.

Houston doesn’t want a repeat of Game 3 against the Red Sox, when Devenski was, in the words of his manager, “gassed” after giving up three earned runs despite the fact that he was babied in the final two months of the season due to the fact the club had settled its post-season fate. Watching Devenski in Game 3 and the reason the Astros had a 4.49 bullpen ERA in the second half became a little more explicable.

Todd Frazier, 3B, Yankees

You like to base these things on some sort of deep analytical stuff, but … I don’t know. Hearing Yankees manager Joe Girardi talk about how Frazier was the guy who stood up in the locker room with the Yankees down 2-0 to the Cleveland Indians has to tell you a little something, no?

The Yankees are in the ALCS despite the fact that Judge and Gary Sanchez combined for five hits, five walks and 26 strikeouts in their ALDS win over the Indians, while Game 5 hero Didi Gregorius hit .235.

That was a series built on production from the fringes of the Yankees lineup and, considering the length of the Astros’ order, a repeat could be necessary and Frazier could be that sparkplug as he has a pair of home runs off Verlander and Charlie Morton in his career. Also, keep that in mind in a series between teams that made multiple moves at the deadline involving significant players, Frazier is also included in that group.

Dallas Keuchel, SP, Astros

He has a bit of a history against the Yankees.

Well, actually, a great deal of it.

Keuchel shut out New York over six innings in the 2015 AL Wild-Card game and his 1.41 regular-season earned run average against the Yankees is the best of any starter in the last 60 seasons with a minimum of six starts. He’s setup to make two starts and, like Verlander, will bail out Hinch in relief.

The Yankees have hit .181 off him with over a third of their 17 hits coming from Chase Headley, who also has one of the two home runs off Keuchel.

Houston’s ace is coming into the series 22 strikeouts in his last 17.2 innings spread over his last two regular-season starts and Game 2 of the ALDS against Boston.

Luis Severino, SP, Yankees

He gets the matchup against Verlander in Game 2, and after he “tested negative for David Price Syndrome,” in the words of the New York Post’s Kevin Davidoff, in his seven-inning, 113-pitch performance in Game 4 of the ALDS at Yankee Stadium – thereby consigning to the dustbin his meltdown in the AL Wild-Card game – it stands to reason that Severino will be the only current Yankees starting pitcher who will be counted upon when the young position core of this team reaches its prime.

Perhaps no single Yankees player has as much at stake this early in his career, and bearing in mind how the Astros ripped into Game 1 starter Tanaka when they faced him in the regular season – eight runs and four home runs in 1.2 innings on May 25 – Severino’s start could be huge.

Blair’s Pick

• Astros over Yankees in 5.

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