Six players to watch in the ALCS between the Red Sox and Astros

Follow The Money's Mitch Moss and Pauly Howard run through some of the most intriguing props for Game 1 of the ALCS, and give you a little betting advice along the way.

For baseball fans in just about any other market, the American League Championship is the series from baseball hell; the cheating Houston Astros against the Boston Red Sox and their cheating manager. Best-of-seven? More like best of 6-6-6.

It’s the Voyage of The Diamond Damned. A classic Butch Hobson’s choice. I’ll admit: I thought the garbage can lid banging thing with the Astros would have petered out a bit by now, what with Jeff Luhnow out of the game, A.J. Hinch in witness protection managing the Detroit Tigers and George Springer with the Toronto Blue Jays. Nope.

I’ve always felt the Red Sox scandal, limited as it was, seemed as nefarious because it, too, relied on electronics -- the Astros used audio cues based on a centre-field video camera -- and also occurred during a season in which the club won a World Series. The Red Sox’s scandal resulted in the scapegoating and firing of a video coach; manager Alex Cora was sidelined in 2020 not for his role in the Red Sox’s cheating plan -- which happened on his watch -- but because he was an integral part of the Astros scheme when he was that team's bench coach.

Cora was re-hired by the Red Sox -- seriously, it’s like he had a non-compete clause with a nod and a wink -- yet few people bring it up.

At any rate, the Astros seem to embrace the hate.

That edginess can be found mostly in the infield, where third baseman Alex Bregman, shortstop Carlos Correa and second baseman Jose Altuve in particular seem to rankle under questioning, That’s understandable, because for baseball fans, they are the heart of the Astros' darkness. Toss in first baseman Yulieski Gurriel and you have an infield that has been together for all five consecutive trips to the ALCS. The infield has played in 61 post-season games, the most in baseball history (as an aside: some of those great infields of yesteryear didn’t have as many post-season games per year).

It was clear from Ryan Tepera’s comments during the AL Division Series that the Astros' history of, in his words, “some sketchy stuff,” is still fair game for opponents. And once again it was Correa who took it upon himself to return fire -- albeit in a measured manner. Yet the sense here is that it will be the defensive edge the Astros infield brings to the game -- more than their edginess or cockiness -- that will tell the tale. Run prevention and limiting second chances will be even more important for a team whose best starting pitcher has a forearm issue, all the more considering there will be games in Fenway Park. Weird stuff happens there … but the Red Sox were last in the majors in outs above average. This may be a series where the Green Monster bites them.

“It really helps to have some guy beside you where you know his range, you know what he is capable of doing – his range on pop-ups, ground balls,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker. “Being familiar with the guy next to you is very, very important. Similar to football. If you have the same front four and same linebackers, then you probably got a hell of a defence.”

Here, then, are six players to watch in this Satan’s Choice of an ALCS. Cheering for Dusty is the only way to salvation in this one, folks …

Houston Astros' Jose Altuve celebrates his three-run home run during the third inning of the team's baseball game against the Oakland Athletics, Wednesday, July 7, 2021, in Houston. (Eric Christian Smith/AP)


 

Jose Altuve, Astros, 2B

I mean, yeah, you could pretty much nail it picking this guy or Correa as ones to watch in any series because the Astros enjoy a sizable defensive edge, both analytically and through the eye test -- at each spot around the infield. Remember that little item above on the 61 games that infield has played together? Correa and Altuve have actually been together as a keystone combination for 64 post-season games – that, too, is a record. With Correa about to break the bank as a free-agent, there is a sense that this is the closing of a book more than merely the turning of a page and Altuve is doing what the best post-season hitter among second basemen all time is supposed to do: going 5-for-16 with a home run, two doubles and nine runs scored in the ALDS, adding to a .960 career OPS in the post-season. Correa told MLB Network recently that the two statistical measures he pays attention to are OPS+ and wRC+ (weighted runs created plus.) OK, we’ll play that game and turn the light on Altuve, whose wRC+ this season was 130, compared to 75 last season. He’s the primary reason that the Astros as a team went from 17th in that category to first in 2021. He’s had success in the past against Nathan Eovaldi and Chris Sale, which is a pretty good place to start in this series.

Kike-Hernandez

Boston Red Sox Kike Hernandez (5) hits a fly ball during the third inning of a baseball game against the Minnesota Twins, Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in Minneapolis. Boston won 4-2. (Stacy Bengs / AP)


 

Kiké Hernandez, Red Sox, CF

The flip side of Cora’s genius move to put lefty-hitting Kyle Schwarber into the leadoff spot saw right-hand hitting Hernandez dropped to No. 2 in the order, where he’s hit in four of the five post-season games the team has played so far. He's 10-for-19, including seven hits in a row and a record eight over two games -- compared to an O-fer in the other game, in which he led off. Hernandez has been quite a bargain: a 4.9 WAR player making $7 million in the first year of a two-year contract, who split time between centre field and second base. Hernandez’s big games come and go: he had three homers for the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 5 of the 2017 NLCS. “He likes playing in October,” said Cora. “We’ve seen it from afar, right? He had three homers against the Cubs. The home run last year to tie Game 7 against the Braves. He even hit a home run against us in ’18. Probably against us in ’17, too. He’s been going back and forth against these guys for a few years, so it should be fun for him.”

Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale follows through on a pitch during the first inning of a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, in Baltimore. (Nick Wass/AP)


 

Chris Sale, Red Sox, SP

Cora is managing like a guy with house money, so perhaps it wasn’t as much of a shock to see Sale picked for Game 1 instead of the safer choice -- Eovaldi. Sale almost cost the Red Sox a post-season spot with a gruesome 2 1/3-inning outing in the final game of the regular season and was worse in his first post-season start. “The two worst consecutive games of my career,” he said. But the Red Sox believe a mechanical adjustment suggested in part by Eovaldi -- who noticed Sale wasn’t as balanced over the rubber as usual -- might at least make Sale useful. So might as well find out now: Cora’s bullpen is rested, and if Sale is shaky he can pivot quickly and use somebody like Canadian Nick Pivetta as a bulk pitcher, knowing he has Eovaldi for Game 2. If Sale is better, than the game becomes a little more straight-forward, and the door is opened perhaps to use Sale out of the bullpen. Cora’s pushed most of the right buttons this post-season. Why not take a shot, here?

Houston Astros' Kyle Tucker, right, celebrates his two-run homer against the Chicago White Sox with teammate Carlos Correa (1) during the seventh inning in Game 2 of a baseball American League Division Series Friday, Oct. 8, 2021, in Houston (David J. Philip/AP).


 

Kyle Tucker, Astros, RF

Scouts have said that this is a different Astros team this post-season, one that tends to focus on contact and bunching hits together as opposed to raw power. They made more contact with their swings than any other team in the Majors; they miss on pitches in the zone the fewest amount. Mostly, they are balanced: with Tucker and Yordan Alvarez lefty hitters who posted OPS’s of .910 and .881, respectively, against lefties. Tucker was a breakout star this year who helped make up for the loss of Springer, with a bWAR that was second-highest on the team (behind Correa, a shortstop) and from May 9 on, only Juan Soto and Bryce Harper had a better OPS. His underlying statistics were elite, too. Batting sixth or seventh in Baker’s order, he had two homers and seven RBIs in the ALDS. Baker sticks with a set lineup, but it would not be a shock to see him move up Tucker if he needs to gin up the offence.

Houston Astros starting pitcher Framber Valdez (59) throws against the Oakland Athletics during the first inning of a baseball game Friday, Oct. 1, 2021, in Houston. (Michael Wyke/AP)


 

Framber Valdez, Astros, SP

The Astros are in a bit of an, um, situation due to Lance McCullers, Jr.’s, forearm issue. They have some options if he needs to be dropped from the roster -- Jake Odorizzi could be added, Cristian Javier can give them multiple innings or start and Zack Greinke might be able to fool some batters for an inning or two -- but given the way we’ve seen pitchers used in the post-season, even a fully healthy staff can be utilized in a few ways. This much we know: Valdez, who led the majors in ground-ball percentage and is the perfect match for the best defensive infield in the game, is going to start two games in what could be a lengthy series and, well, who knows where it goes after that? He’s pitched on short rest in the past and has a 2.86 ERA in five post-season outings. These teams haven’t met since June 9 -- the Astros won the season series 5-2 -- and Valdez faced them twice in a span of six days, racking up 18 strikeouts and two walks and posting a 1.12 ERA in winning both games.

Boston Red Sox's Garrett Whitlock pitches in the fifth inning of game two of a double header American League baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays in Toronto on Saturday Aug. 7, 2021. (Jon Blacker/THE CANADIAN PRESS)


 

Garrett Whitlock, Red Sox, RP

Quite a story: a Rule 5 pick from the Yankees who went 20 months without throwing a pitch due to Tommy John surgery and the COVID-19 pandemic, Whitlock has established himself as a stabilizer in Cora’s crazy-quilt approach to game management. Whitlock hadn’t pitched above double-A until this season, but with a change-up learned from Matt Andriese in spring training and slider that he brought back in-season, Whitlock sustained a pectoral strain late in September but came back just as Cora started to lose confidence in the likes of Matt Barnes and Adam Ottavino. By season's end, Whitlock’s 1.96 ERA was fourth best among all qualifiers. The Red Sox won’t hesitate to use starters in relief in this series but however they get there, in the ninth inning Whitlock should be the guy.

Blair’s pick: Astros in 6.

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