Astros second baseman Jose Altuve has Most Valuable Player credentials. (Shanna Lockwood/USA Today)
HOUSTON — If the game of baseball has entered some new evolutionary realm this season, populated by flame-throwing pitchers and all-or-nothing sluggers who together pushed home run and strikeout totals to record highs, the Houston Astros and New York Yankees represent its pinnacle — the most highly evolved species of this new era of baseball. And when they meet in the American League Championship Series, beginning Friday night at Minute Maid Park, it may be the most extreme collision of power versus power the sport has ever seen.
The best-of-seven series will feature the two highest-scoring offenses in baseball this season — with the Astros’ 896 runs representing the most by any team in nearly a decade — as well as the two bullpens with the highest strikeout rates. It will feature the major league record-holder for most home runs by a rookie, New York’s Aaron Judge (52), and six of the top 15 sluggers, by slugging percentage, in the A.L. It will feature the hardest-throwing pitcher in history, Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, and the two top candidates for league most valuable player, Judge and Houston’s Jose Altuve.
“It’s two really good teams going head-to-head,” said Astros catcher Brian McCann, who was a Yankee just 11 months ago. “There’s really not a weakness on either side.”
The Yankees, in defeating the favored Cleveland Indians in a five-game Division Series, have single-handedly redefined what is possible from a championship team in these high-octane times. In Game 4, their pitchers’ fastballs averaged a staggering 98 mph, never once dipping below 96 — and that was with Chapman, who sometimes touches 102 and 103 mph, not even participating.
In Game 5, the Yankees again did something that might have seemed impossible at an earlier point in the game’s evolution: Their hitters struck out 16 times in a 5-2 win — making them the first team in history to win a nine-inning postseason game in which they whiffed that many times. Four of those strikeouts Wednesday night belonged to Judge, who hit just .050 with 16 strikeouts in 20 at-bats in the series.
Aaron Judge flips his bat after one of his four strikeouts in Game 5 in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Dermer)
“A couple of big home runs and a lockdown bullpen got them a few wins,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said of the Yankees. “And a couple high-end starting pitching outings won them the series. And that should be no surprise to anyone.”
The Astros, meantime, feature an offense that posted a major-league-leading .823 OPS this season — the highest in the majors this decade, and the equivalent of a lineup in which every hitter is Dave Winfield (career OPS of .827) or Roger Maris (.821). Their usual No. 9 hitter is McCann, a seven-time all-star who has averaged 22 homers the past 12 seasons. Often, their first pinch-hitter off the bench is Carlos Beltran, a future Hall-of-Famer with 435 career homers. In beating the Boston Red Sox in four games to advance to the ALCS, they averaged six runs per game and posted an OPS of .974.
“It’s a complete lineup throughout,” Yankees Manager Joe Girardi said of the Astros. “They’re aggressive on the base paths, so you have to control that. They’re going to hit their home runs, but they’re going to do a lot of other things offensively, so you need to make pitches.”
While the Astros have a pitching staff full of flamethrowers — bolstered by the addition of former Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander in August — they have chosen lefty Dallas Keuchel, the softest-tossing pitcher on their staff (88.7 mph average fastball), to start Game 1 for them Friday night, opposite Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka. In an era in which the strikeout is king, Keuchel is a throwback — a sinkerball specialist whose groundball rate of 66.8 percent was by far the highest in the game this season among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched.
The choice of Keuchel to start Game 1 was an easy one, especially after the Astros needed Verlander for 40 pitches in relief in their decisive Game 4 win at Boston on Monday. Not only is Keuchel 3-1 with a 2.28 ERA over his past four starts, including a win over Boston in Game 2, but he is also arguably the most prolific Yankee-slayer among starting pitchers in modern times. In seven career starts against the Yankees, regular and postseason combined, he is 5-2 with a 1.24 ERA and 52 strikeouts against only seven walks in 50 2/3 innings, a stretch that includes six shutout innings against them in the 2015 A.L. wild card game, which the Astros won.
“It’s just been a culmination of command, location, maybe a little more confidence,” Keuchel said of his success. “And just because it’s the Yankees, you get a little bit more amped and jittery.”
After a fast start that signaled a young team arriving ahead of schedule, the Yankees rebuilt their bullpen at the trade deadline with the additions of strikeout kings David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle — adding them to a stable that included Chapman, Dellin Betances and Chad Green to form arguably the deepest late-inning corps in the game. Every member of that quintet ranked among the top 12 relievers in baseball this season in strikeout rate, with Betances — who isn’t being used in high-leverage spots these days due to command issues — leading the way, at 15.08 whiffs per nine innings.
The Yankees’ bullpen depth has rescued them this postseason, beginning in the wild card game against Minnesota, when starter Luis Severino was yanked after recording just one out, leaving 26 outs for the bullpen to cover — which it did, with 10 from Robertson, seven from Kahnle, six from Green and the last three from Chapman. For the postseason, Yankees relievers have posted a 2.20 ERA while striking out 42 batters in 28 2/3 innings and limiting opposing hitters to a .153 batting average and a .474 OPS.
“They’ve got high-end velocity,” Hinch said. “They probably don’t throw a ball under 95 [mph]. There’s a lot of weapons down there for Joe [Girardi] to use, and our players know that.”
But if the Astros have never faced a bullpen such as the Yankees’ — simply because one this deep and talented has never existed before this season, and these teams last met in early July — it is also true the Yankees’ relievers have never faced a lineup quite like the Astros’. It’s not a stretch to imagine this series being decided by what happens when the Yankees’ powerful bullpen goes to work against the most relentless offense in the game.
Bucking the current trend in baseball, where strikeouts are tossed off as an acceptable by-product of a swing-for-the-fences approach at the plate, the Astros somehow manage to slug — their .478 slugging percentage ranked first in baseball and their 238 homers trailed only the Yankees — while striking out at a rate of just 17.3 percent of plate appearances, the lowest rate in the majors.
What happens when two large, immovable objects are slammed against each other at terminal velocity? We’re about to find out.
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