AJ Hinch sat in the visiting dugout at Angel Stadium a week ago and was asked what it was like to manage a Houston Astros rotation led by a likely Hall of Fame candidate and a 29-year-old right-hander burnishing his own Cooperstown credentials.
“It’s great,” said Hinch, now in his fifth year at the helm of the three-time AL West champions.
Then he elaborated.
“I would like to squash the notion that it’s just plug and play,” he said. “When we roll out a starting pitcher every night that we feel can beat the opponent, that’s a great luxury in this job. I guess I haven’t thought about what it’s like. It’s great. It’s great to win. It’s great to have a competitive advantage from the very beginning. But it doesn’t mean we don’t do anything.”
The Astros are known for their advanced thinking and ability to turn around a pitcher’s career. Cy Young award candidate Justin Verlander, for instance, gained extra spin on his pitches and completely did away with his sinking fastball when he came over from the Detroit Tigers. Fellow Cy Young candidate Gerrit Cole dramatically improved his breaking pitches after being traded from Pittsburgh. After a horrendous start to his 2019 campaign, Aaron Sanchez was acquired from Toronto at the trade deadline and threw six scoreless innings in a combined no-hitter in his first outing with the Astros. Sanchez has since been shut down because of shoulder surgery.
The Astros, who led baseball with 107 regular-season victories, are so deep — they have an MLB-leading on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.848) keyed by Alex Bregman’s career year and rookie Yordan Alvarez’s torrid start as well as the second-lowest staff ERA (3.66) — that getting past them to book a ticket for the World Series will be a tremendous undertaking.
There are, of course, three teams that will try. The shrewd Tampa Bay Rays won the AL wild card Wednesday to earn a first-round draw against the American League’s most intimidating rotation and offense. They do not possess the offensive firepower to rival the Astros, but they rank high in ERA (3.67) and allowed the fewest home runs (181) in baseball.
Still, the most formidable team in the way of the Astros’ second AL pennant in three years resides in the Bronx. The New York Yankees built themselves up to be a formidable threat in spite of the bevy of injuries that forced them to rely on journeymen surprises Gio Urshela and Mike Tauchman. The pair boosted an offense that produced the most runs (943), the fourth-highest batting average (.267), and third-highest OPS (.829) in baseball.
Young ace Luis Severino missed most of the season recovering from injuries, yet the Yankees took the hit to their rotation by relying on a stalwart bullpen. New York’s relief corps features four pitchers with absurd strikeout rates. Tommy Kahnle, Adam Ottavino and closer Aroldis Chapman each fanned at least 85 batters. Zack Britton had a 1.91 ERA and held opponents to a minuscule .182 average over 66 games.
“Even when I got to spring training, just looking at the team, at that time it felt like an overwhelming amount of talent, to be totally honest,” said Ottavino, the former Colorado Rockies closer. “Especially offensively. Pitching [was there]. But offensively it was just crazy for me to see it. And then along the way we picked up [Edwin] Encarnacion, and Tauchman came up and did great. Urshela did great, and it just seemed to kind of compound itself.
“So, I did know from the beginning, but I guess I still underestimated the depth.”
The Yankees, however, might be more vulnerable in the playoffs than they were in the regular season, when they won 103 games. They will be without Domingo German, who led the rotation with 16 wins, because he was ruled out of the postseason while the league investigates domestic violence allegations made against him.
The AL Central champion Minnesota Twins could take advantage in the ALDS. They posted 101 wins behind a strong starting staff and had five players slug at least 30 home runs on their way to an MLB record 307-homer season.
That said, they only narrowly edged the 306-home-run Yankees.
“Adversity is good for you,” Britton said. “If it comes too easy, sometimes you can get lackadaisical. I always find that, if you have to fight for something, it makes it more worth it again. And I think, obviously, we have a high payroll and all that other stuff. But we’ve gone through some adversity.
“We haven’t been healthy all year as a team. So I think it makes guys kind of put their heads in a little bit more and push harder. I think maybe if we had a healthy roster, we would have felt like we could out-talent teams. You normally see the best out of players when their backs are against the wall.”