It’s easy in any sport — but baseball especially — to get lost in the numbers to the point that every action comes with a mathematical explanation. We know, for example, that the two-run homer Altuve, the Houston Astros’ second baseman, hit on that pitch from Glasnow, a Tampa Bay Rays starter, traveled 358 feet with an exit velocity of 98.7 mph and a launch angle of 29 degrees.
But occasionally it is worth our while to step back from our sabermetric bubble and remind ourselves: Some of these feats and some of these athletes are absolutely incredible.
Friday afternoon, in the Astros’ 6-2 win over the Rays at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, was a good time to do that. Altuve is a modern marvel of physiology, a 5-foot-6 bundle of fast-twitch muscle and sinew, with what — logic tells you even if there isn’t yet a stat for it — must be some of the fastest hands known to mankind.
To catch up to those pitches and to drive them over the wall out of that undersized body — as Altuve, the 2017 AL MVP, did 31 times this regular season and as he has done 137 times, regular and postseason combined, in his career — could not otherwise be physically possible. That 97.5-mph fastball wasn’t even the hardest gas Altuve has gone deep against this year; last month, he turned around a 99-mph heater.
Jose Altuve, we remind ourselves again, you are remarkable.
For that matter, so are you, Justin Verlander.
On Friday, the Astros’ 36-year-old ace — the oldest player on either team — carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning and settled for seven scoreless innings, a representative performance at the end of a Cy Young-caliber regular season. Verlander struck out eight, never allowed a runner past first base and departed with a six-run lead.
Only after Verlander left did things get interesting, with the Rays scoring twice off Astros reliever Ryan Pressly in the eighth and bringing the tying run to the on-deck circle before setup man Will Harris entered and retired Ji-Man Choi on a grounder to third.
And so the AL West champion Astros, who led the majors with 107 wins, made an emphatic opening statement to their 2019 postseason, which they entered as the consensus pick to win it all. Days such as Friday remind us of why that is so.
Locked in a scoreless tie for 4 1/2
innings against an excellent team — the Rays won 96 games in the cutthroat AL East and beat Oakland in the wild-card game Wednesday night — and facing one of the hardest-throwing starters in the game in Glasnow, the Astros simply outlasted their opponent, waiting for them to make a couple of mistakes, then pouncing when they did.
A critical mistake came in the fifth, four batters after Altuve’s homer, when Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel hit a popup into the area near the foul line in shallow right. Three Rays defenders converged, but the ball glanced off the glove of second baseman Brandon Lowe — a play ruled an error, with two runs crossing the plate.
Just as we need to step back sometimes and admire the abilities of players such as Altuve and Verlander, we should also take a moment to gaze in wonder at the Astros. Even in the turbocharged atmosphere of 2019 baseball, with its stratified standings and an outrageous home run pace, they stood out.
If the Astros were to win 10 more games this month and thus claim their second World Series title in three years, they may be remembered as one of the greatest teams in a generation. Their run differential of plus-280, for example, is the most by any team since the 116-win Seattle Mariners of 2001. Their 288 homers would have been a major league record — except the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees also broke the old mark and hit 307 and 306, respectively.
At a time when the strikeout reigns supreme across the industry as the ultimate difference-maker, the Astros became the first team in history to lead the majors from both sides: Their pitchers struck out the most hitters, while their hitters struck out the fewest times.
There have been all-star lineups that weren’t as potent as the Astros’, which on Friday featured seven hitters with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage above .875 and an OPS+ (adjusted for park and league effects) of 125 — meaning their production was at least 25 percent above league average.
And we mean that literally about the all-star lineups. The nine starters for the NL in the 2014 All-Star Game, which included a designated hitter, had an average OPS that season of .879. The nine Astros starters Friday had an average OPS of .907 — led by the 1.067 of phenom DH Yordan Alvarez, the runaway front-runner for AL rookie of the year, and 1.015 of third baseman Alex Bregman, a leading candidate for MVP.
It doesn’t mean the Astros can’t lose the next three games and get sent home shockingly early — they somehow lost seven straight at one point in June. But the way their rotation sets up, it is almost impossible to envision.
After the Rays faced Verlander in Game 1, their task gets no easier. In Saturday’s Game 2, the Astros will send to the mound the second of their twin aces — right-hander Gerrit Cole, who is also the only pitcher in the same discussion with Verlander for the AL Cy Young Award, which, when it is announced next month, will either be Verlander’s second or Cole’s first. Oh, and Game 3 will be started by Zack Greinke, who also owns a Cy Young and who went 8-1 with a 3.02 ERA after being acquired from Arizona at the trade deadline.
As an organization, the Astros are known throughout the sport as the most ruthlessly devoted to analytics and technology — a trait that can make them appear from the outside as cold and robotic.
But sometimes it is best to forget all that and simply admire the collection of players the Astros have assembled — who come in all shapes and sizes but almost uniformly share one trait: They are very good at baseball.