The Houston Astros are the team with the second best record in the American League, second only to the Yankees. But since June 12 — almost two months — the Astros have been the best team in the league. Earlier this week, the Astros made three trades, acquiring 1B/DH Trey Mancini, catcher Christian Vazquez and left-handed reliever Will Smith.
It certainly looks like the Astros are on track to play in the American League Championship Series for a sixth year in a row. They won in 2017, 2019 and 2021, while losing in the even years of 2018 and 2020. What an achievement it is to reach the Final Four year after year.
On Sunday at 12pm ET, in a game streamed on Peacock, the Astros will take on the Guardians. Cleveland won the ALCS in 2016 and haven’t been back since.
Most of the Astros from 2017 are no longer with the team. But the second baseman — Jose Altuve — and the starting pitcher — Justin Verlander — are still around. And that’s why no one should assume the Yankees are going to be in the Fall Classic come October.
Jose Altuve and Houston’s Hall of Fame second basemen
The Houston Astros have been around since 1962, or 61 seasons. They had Joe Morgan for 10 seasons (120 OPS+ with Houston). They had Craig Biggio for 20 seasons (112 OPS+). And they’ve had Jose Altuve for the last 12 years (126 OPS+).
That’s nearly as impressive of a line as the Boston Red Sox left fielders (Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice).
Altuve was named to his 8th career All-Star Game this year, which is a franchise record, besting Biggio, who was selected 7 times in his Hall of Fame career. Morgan — the best player of the three — made only two of his 10 All-Star game appearances representing the Astros.
Altuve was signed by Houston as a 16-year-old non-drafted free agent out of Maracay, Venezuela. He was there with Houston before they were good. In his first couple of seasons, the Astros were terrible. In Altuve’s rookie season, the Astros lost 106 games. In his second season, they lost 107. In his third season, they lost 111 games.
Would anyone have figured that the 5-foot-6 second baseman on the worst team in baseball would go on and hit more postseason home runs than anyone in history outside of Manny Ramirez?
Altuve has 23 postseason homers, trailing only Manny’s 29.
But he’s been far from a World Series hero. In 20 World Series games, Altuve has an OPS of only .695. His OBP in the World Series is a pathetic .255. He has struck out 19 times and walked just twice in 20 World Series games.
In 2019, with the Astros up 3-2 against Washington, Altuve went a quiet 1-8 AB in Games 6 and 7.
Altuve’s OPS in his Division Series play is 1.077. His OPS in the ALCS is .971. And then it drops to .695 in the World Series.
cWPA (Championship Win Probability Added for Offensive Player) shows that in the five ALCS series, Altuve’s cWPA was 33.9%. In the World Series, Altuve’s cWPA is -8.4%. In the 2019 World Series, Altuve was -24%. In the 2021 World Series, it was -4.6%.
In this regard, Altuve again mirrors Biggio, who, in his 40 postseason games, had an OPS of only .618 and his cWPA was -16.6%.
And while I’m picking on the World Series performances of Altuve, it must be noted how he’s performed in earlier rounds of the playoffs.
Like the 2017 ALCS vs. the Yankees, when he went 8-15 AB, with 2 HR in the four games in Houston (all wins) and 0-10 AB in the three games in New York (all losses).
Or the 2019 ALCS vs. the Yankees, when he was the MVP of the series, hitting a dramatic walk-off home run in Game 6 to win the Series. You remember, when he was shy about taking his shirt off rounding home.
And if you think Altuve’s postseason history is checkered, just check out Verlander.
Justin Verlander’s amazing career.
Verlander was the 2006 Rookie of the Year in the American League. The 2006 NL Rookie of the Year, Hanley Ramirez, was a fine player. But Hanley last played in early 2019, and his last good year was 2017.
Verlander was the 2011 MVP in the American League. The three players that finished behind Justin were all good players — Jacoby Ellsbury, Jose Bautista, and Curtis Granderson — and all have been out of baseball for years. The N.L. MVP in 2011 was Ryan Braun, who beat out Matt Kemp, and Prince Fielder.
Verlander has great career numbers, despite making just one start in the 2020 and 2021 seasons combined (Opening Day of 2020). He leads all active pitchers with 240 wins. Aside from former teammate Zack Greinke (222 wins), no other active pitcher has even 200 victories.
Here are my favorite Verlander numbers. He has thrown 50,635 regular season pitches in his regular season career. Add another 3,109 postseason pitches. That’s 53,744 pitches, many of them stress pitches with seasons on the line.
The only thing I can compare that to is Tom Brady, the NFL’s all-time leader in regular season pass attempts (11,317) and postseason pass attempts (1,855).
The other statistic I wish to point out with Verlander is where he veered completely away from any Brady comparison.
Justin Verlander has started seven World Series games. He is 0-6, with a 5.68 ERA in the Fall Classic.
He was often pitching in his home park. He was usually pitching for the better team. He had the lead in five World Series games and couldn’t hold one.
In 2006, Verlander’s Tigers were 95-67 and playing the St. Louis Cardinals, who finished the regular season just 83-78. Verlander lost Game 1 by a score of 7-2, outpitched by Anthony Reyes, who was 13-26, 5.12 ERA in his entire major league career. Verlander lost Game 5 of that series to Jeff Weaver (8-14, 5.76 ERA that 2006 season; 104-119, 4.71 ERA for career).
He got another opportunity to start World Series games in 2012. In Game 1, he was outpitched by Barry Zito. Verlander gave up a home run to Pablo Sandoval in the first inning, and another home run to Sandoval in the third inning. After 4 innings, Verlander’s night was done, having given up six hits and five runs. The Tigers lost the game 8-3 and were swept in the series.
That brings us to Verlander’s pair of starts in the 2017 World Series. After Clayton Kershaw had won Game 1 at Dodger Stadium, Justin Verlander tried to even the series up before sending the series back to Houston. Verlander again gave up a couple of home runs (Joc Pederson and Corey Seager) and trailed 3-1 after the sixth inning. This was the one World Series game Verlander’s team would win, coming back against Kenley Jansen in the ninth, and beating the Dodgers 7-6 in 11 innings.
In Game 6, with a chance to nail down the series, Verlander took the ball at Dodger Stadium and lost the game, 3-1. Justin pitched well until the sixth inning, when he gave up the go-ahead runs.
In 2019, Verlander lost Game 2 by a 12-3 score. Kurt Suzuki hit a home run in the seventh inning off Justin, as the Nationals broke the game open. Justin gave up another four runs in his six-plus innings.
And then, Game 6 of the 2019 Series, pitching for a chance to give his team the World Series title, Verlander lost again. He gave up two more home runs (Adam Eaton, Juan Soto).
It seems unreal that Verlander would pitch so poorly in the World Series. If I was an apologist, I might point out that Verlander didn’t exactly have great run support.
Verlander’s run support in the World Series (when he was in the game)
2006 Game 1 1 run
2006 Game 5 2 runs
2012 Game 1 0 runs
2017 Game 2 1 run
2017 Game 6 1 run
2019 Game 2 2 runs
2019 Game 6 2 runs
Verlander had the lead in five of his seven World Series starts:
2006 Game 1: The Tigers took a 1-0 lead in first. Verlander lost the lead in the Top of the second.
2006 Game 5: The Tigers took a 2-1 lead in the fourth. Verlander gave the lead up in Bottom of the 4th.
2017 Game 2: The Astros took a 1-0 lead in the third. Verlander lost the lead in the Bottom of the 5th.
2017 Game 6: The Astros took a 1-0 lead in the third. Verlander lost the lead in the Bottom of the 6th.
2019 Game 6: The Astros took a 2-1 lead in the first. Verlander lost the lead in the Top of the 5th.
Will Justin get another chance to win a World Series game? Will Altuve get enough postseason games to challenge Manny Ramirez for the all-time record? Are we headed for another Astros-Yankees American League Championship Series?
As this column was being written, the Dodgers announced the death of Vin Scully. This announcement hit me hard.
The Remarkably Strong Vin Scully
I worked with Vin Scully in the 1980s during his run as play-by-play announcer for NBC’s Game of the Week. He was a wonderful person, as gracious a man you could ever hope to meet. And so much has been written about him being a remarkable wordsmith.
But what is not being remembered is his strength. “It takes strength to do what we do,” he would tell me. And now that I am the age Scully was when I worked with him, I understand what he meant.
Scully called Dodgers baseball games for 67 years. For many of those years, he also did network broadcasts of golf and NFL football games. When I worked with him, he would leave the Dodgers after Thursday’s game and travel to the site of the NBC Game of the Week. After the Saturday afternoon game, he would travel to wherever the Dodgers were playing for Sunday’s game.
Trust me, it takes a strong man or woman to do this week after week, year after year.
In late September of 1989, the Pirates/Cubs game from Chicago was the Game of the Week. It started at 2:25pm local time and went more than 3 hours. I was lucky enough to jump in the limo that was taking Scully to O’Hare Airport. Getting into the car close to 6pm, none of us had a lot of time to spare for our Saturday night flights. Only Scully was travelling to work the next day, a 1:05pm start in Los Angeles.
The limo broke down on the highway.
Do you know what Vin Scully did? He got out of the car, with his luggage, and stuck out his thumb to hitchhike. Remember, none of us had cellphones. Rather than staying in the car and waiting for help, this strong man needed to make his flight. Soon, it would be “time for Dod-ger baseball.”
Now, I didn’t have a cellphone, but I had a camera. And I jumped out of the car and snapped some pictures of this crazy sight. By the way, the New York Post reported the story on Monday about Scully attempting to hitch a ride.
It takes incredible strength. He announced games through family heartache. He announced games knowing his partner Don Drysdale had died, but was unable to break the news to his audience until Drysdale’s family was notified. He announced games when he didn’t feel well. He announced games when the car broke down.
No one announced more games. And no one was stronger than Vin.