HOUSTON — Baseball stars and competing most valuable player candidates occasionally come in vastly dissimilar shape and sizes.
There rarely has been a truer or more glaring example than pending AL Championship Series foes Aaron Judge and Jose Altuve.
One of the gone-viral sports photos of the summer pitted the 6-foot-7 Judge standing next to and dwarfing the 5-foot-6 Altuve at second base earlier this season at Minute Maid Park, where the 2017 AL MVP debate figures to be rekindled in full force when the Yankees face the Astros on Friday in the ALCS opener following an unlikely Game 5 vanquishing of the Indians the previous night in Cleveland.
That the Bombers accomplished that surprising feat — becoming just the 10th team in MLB history to overcome an 0-2 deficit to win a five-game postseason series — with barely any offensive contribution from their breakout star feels all the more remarkable when you consider how Judge carried their offense for the first half and the final month of the regular season sandwiched around a six-week slump following the All-Star Game.
“I haven’t been doing my job there at the top of the order, and my teammates came up big for me this series,” Judge said following Wednesday’s 5-2 victory in Cleveland. “Now it’s time to regroup and get ready for the AL Championship (Series).”
Of course, Judge’s inconsistency — as compared to Altuve’s far more level production all season — shows that the disparity in physical appearance between the hulking Yankees right fielder and the diminutive Astros second baseman doesn’t represent the only significant difference when assessing the merits of the two candidates for the league’s most prestigious award.
It also is the primary argument in favor of Altuve, the three-time AL batting champion, for MVP despite Judge’s glaring overall power numbers (an AL-best 52 home runs).
“With the hard-hit rate, with the miles-per-hour off the bat now, it’s such a crazy stat and he’s up there with some of the big dogs, including Judge,” said Houston’s Game 1 starter Dallas Keuchel. “And Judge, he’s an MVP candidate for a reason. He’s got such a bright future ahead of him that it’s kind of crazy to think about how young he is. His stature is obviously one of the biggest in the game, and it fits kind of the New York mold.
“So it will be a good matchup for not only myself but for our pitching staff as well, and just it will be a fun series.”
Albeit not a factor in MVP determinations, since voting took place before the playoffs began, Judge endured a dreadful division series against Cleveland. He registered just one hit in 20 at-bats with 16 strikeouts, a postseason record for one series, including four in three of the five games.
His lone hit at least was an important one — a two-run double in a 7-3 win in Game 4 – and he robbed a potential home run to aid Masahiro Tanaka’s 1-0 gem the previous night.
But Judge otherwise was a non-factor against the Indians, and that will have to change – the rookie should at least have to come close to matching Altuve’s production — for the Yanks to move on to the World Series and a shot at the 28th championship in franchise history.
“He’s such a unique player,” Keuchel said of Judge. “For people to say he was exposed or whatnot, I don’t believe in that.
“I think he’s a tremendous talent and one swing can change the course of the game.”
Altuve actually accomplished that with a stellar performance in Houston’s division series victory, a four-game elimination of the Red Sox, batting .533 (8-for-15) with five runs scored and three home runs (all in Game 1).
“Probably most importantly, I’ve just seen him be the most consistent player in baseball at his craft, being a good hitter, good defender, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, All-Star, hits leader, batting titles, you name it, he’s done it,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said of Altuve, who didn’t speak to the media on Thursday. “I know what’s high on his list is getting to and winning the World Series.
“So for me to be able the last three years to watch him grow, develop a relationship with him, see how he’s impacted his teammates, hopefully he can add an MVP to that trophy case here this season.”
The Yankees need significantly more impactful production from Judge beginning Friday.
His resurgent September – 15 homers, 32 RBI and a 1.352 OPS — swayed me to believe that Judge had greatly narrowed the gap and might have even surpassed Altuve for MVP consideration. (No, I didn’t have a vote this year).
Now he needs to show his value to the Yankees more than ever.