Twins-Astros position-by-position breakdown

October 5th, 2023

Some of the best postseason narratives are the ones rooted in reunions -- players trying to take down teams for which they had once suited up on this stage. These personal pasts, these intertwined experiences add zest to the fall festivities.

That’s why we’re all so excited to see Twins catcher Christian Vázquez pitted against his former Astros teammates in the American League Division Series that begins Saturday at Minute Maid Park.

Oh, and apparently Carlos Correa used to play for Houston, too!

Anyway, all narratives aside, this series is ultimately about what happens on the field. So how do the AL West and AL Central champs match up, position by position? Let’s take a look.

The Twins have paired the veteran Vázquez, whose bat has waned but who is still very much a plus defender, with the blossoming Ryan Jeffers, whose 134 OPS+ (34 percent better than league average) was tops among those with at least 80 games caught and who ranked eighth among catchers in Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Replacement metric. Minnesota ranked sixth in MLB in caught stealing percentage (24.2 percent), while Houston ranked 16th at 19.6 percent.

The Astros have had unmatched postseason success in recent years despite a .174 average and a .517 OPS from Martín Maldonado in 168 plate appearances as their primary postseason catcher since 2018. They value his leadership and game-calling -- traits that have served them well. Despite the emergence of rookie Yainer Diaz, who slashed .282/.308/.538 with 23 homers and 22 doubles in 104 games, Dusty Baker continued to lean on Maldonado in the most crucial games down the stretch. Given that dynamic, a Twins team getting more consistent run production from this position, to go with the good defense, has the edge.

Advantage: Twins

First base
Veteran José Abreu has been one of the most accomplished run producers in MLB since arriving from Cuba in 2014. But his first season in Houston has, at best, been forgettable -- his 87 OPS+, or 13 percent worse than league average, is by far a career worst. Abreu did finish the regular season strong, with 14 extra-base hits and 28 RBIs in September and October. So perhaps he’ll rise to the postseason occasion.

But because of Abreu’s pronounced struggles most of the year, we’ll go with the Twins here. They began the year with Joey Gallo at first base, but they generally tend to gravitate toward a platoon of Alex Kirilloff against righties and Donovan Solano against lefties. It has been a fairly effective pairing, as Minnesota posted a .790 OPS from the position that ranked 12th in MLB.

Advantage: Twins

Second base
Royce Lewis’ limitation to DH duties in his return from a left hamstring strain had veteran Jorge Polanco at third base for the Wild Card Series and Edouard Julien starting here. The rookie Julien has certainly earned the postseason opportunity with an elite chase rate that contributed to a strong .840 OPS and 130 OPS+ in 408 plate appearances this year.

But at 33, Jose Altuve remains a marvel. He missed the start of the season after suffering a fractured right thumb in the World Baseball Classic, only to return in mid-May and rake, as usual. Altuve slashed .311/.393/.522 -- good for a 151 OPS+ that was tops among those with at least 80 games played at this position.

Advantage: Astros

Oh yeah, here’s your juicy narrative folks -- Correa vs. the kid who replaced him! They don’t actually duke it out on the field, so let’s play it out on paper like the drama fiends that we are.

Correa certainly did not have a superstar season (in fact, he was below average offensively and defensively). But he is a superstar. He showed it when he returned from plantar fasciitis and made two of the best defensive plays of the postseason so far. Correa has a long history of meeting the moment in the postseason, so we’re inclined to side with him here, even in a down year.

That said, no matter how pedestrian Jeremy Peña’s two-year track record at the plate in the regular season may be (.259/.307/.403 slash, 98 OPS+), there’s no way to complete this important exercise without noting that the 26-year-old is already a postseason legend. He was the MVP of both the AL Championship Series and World Series last year. A tough act to follow, but he could, of course, wow us yet again.

Advantage: Twins

Third base
The Twins have been all over the place at this position. Just when it appeared Lewis had the hot corner nailed down, he got hurt. Then he came back … and got hurt again. Now, he’s back again, but he was limited to DH in the Wild Card Series. If that remains the case (and we are presuming as much in this exercise), Rocco Baldelli’s options include Polanco, Solano, Willi Castro and Kyle Farmer.

It's much more clear-cut with the ‘Stros. Alex Bregman had a subpar start to 2023, only to finish with a darn near duplicate of his terrific 2022 in terms of the slash stats (.259/.366/.454 last year, .262/.363/.441 this year). He had a hit in all but two of the Astros’ 13 games last postseason, with multiple hits in three. His 1.109 OPS in his career in the Division Series is second best among all players with at least 100 plate appearances on this particular stage.

Advantage: Astros

Left field
These position-by-position analyses can get goofy when teams rotate players at positions. (Stop doing that, teams, it’s hurting the cause.) Such is the case for the Astros in left field. Even though Game 1 is likely to feature Chas McCormick in left (on the heels of a breakout season) and Mauricio Dubón in center -- and even though Yordan Alvarez is also an option in left -- we’re going to highlight Michael Brantley here, because the veteran recently returned from right shoulder surgery and started three of the last four games in left (all must-wins). He remains inordinately difficult to strike out, and his high-contact skill set can really play up in the postseason.

That’s a contrast from Twins rookie Matt Wallner, whose 31.5 percent K rate was a concern in an otherwise splendid season. Though we’re deferring to the Brantley-led Astros options here, you can make a good argument for Wallner after he slashed .249/.370/.507 in 76 games and showed off a terrific arm.

Advantage: Astros

Center field
Again, moving parts for the Astros. McCormick is our focal point here, because he started more games in center than in left, but he’ll continue to split his time between the spots. McCormick had some big moments last postseason, including an incredible catch to preserve the Game 5 win in the World Series. Then he caught fire offensively this season, with a 130 OPS+, 22 homers and 19 stolen bases in 115 games. When he doesn’t start in center, it’s the versatile Dubón.

With Byron Buxton limited to DH this year when he was available (and he hasn’t been since Aug. 1), the Twins turned to Michael A. Taylor to assume the bulk of starts in center. He’s a gifted defender, one of the best in the sport. And Taylor can provide some power (21 homers), though the 33.5 percent K rate holds him back at the plate. Other options include Castro and Andrew Stevenson.

Advantage: Astros

Right field
Cheers to Max Kepler after his best offensive season since 2019. He slashed .260/.332/.484 with 24 homers and 22 doubles to go with his usual strong showing in the field.

But Kyle Tucker has the obvious edge here. Though he fell short of the MVP season some forecast for him, the 26-year-old Tucker continued his star ascension with a .284/.369/.517 slash line, 29 homers, 37 doubles, 30 steals and an AL-leading 112 RBIs. He’s still not the most famous name in this Astros lineup, but he’s always a major threat to change a game. 

Advantage: Astros

Designated hitter
Alvarez has played left field only sparingly this season and spent the vast majority of his time at DH, as he has dealt with an assortment of injuries. But in 496 plate appearances, he remained one of the most feared sluggers in the sport, amassing a .293/.407/.583 slash line, 31 homers, 24 doubles and 97 RBIs. Then, of course, there’s his postseason pedigree, which includes an ALCS MVP turn in 2021 and a massive Statcast-projected 450-foot go-ahead homer in last year’s World Series clincher.

Alvarez is our guy here, and hopefully that’s understandable. But if we’ve learned anything in this Twins season, it’s that any given game can become the Royce Lewis Show. Plagued by injuries in his pro career, the first overall Draft pick from 2017 broke through this season (even amid more injuries) with a .920 OPS that included four grand slams among his 15 homers in only 239 plate appearances. Then he homered in his first two trips to the plate in the postseason. As noted above, he could wind up back in the infield, especially if Buxton returns to the roster. There are many moving parts in the postseason.

Advantage: Astros

Starting pitching
Look, we’re going with the Twins here. They’ve earned that. Their 16.5 starters’ WAR (per FanGraphs) was second only to the Phillies, their 3.82 ERA was second only to the Padres, their 1.16 WHIP was second only to the Mariners and their 4.35 strikeout-to-walk ratio was No. 1. Even though they had to expend themselves for an extra round while the Astros sat, the schedule allows them to start Pablo López and Sonny Gray in Games 2 and 3 on regular rest after they sported two of the top 20 expected ERAs in MLB (López was No. 1) and then shoved against the Blue Jays. Game 1 starter Joe Ryan’s season was uneven, though at times dominant. And with two legit aces on hand and Bailey Ober (125 ERA+) available after an outstanding 2023, Minnesota is very well-situated here.

All that said, do we feel good about taking the Twins over the Astros? No, of course not. Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez took statistical steps back this season, but they were still more than 20 percent better than league average in ERA+. Cristian Javier had a disappointing year, but he finished strong and was obviously brilliant in last year's postseason. Rookies J.P. France and Hunter Brown are raw options but good ones. Houston's rotation doesn’t come into this series with the same shine it once had, especially after posting a 4.72 ERA in the second half. But that could be rendered moot at any moment.

Advantage (for now): Twins

Relief pitching
In an effort to illustrate that these are both strong staffs overall, let’s provide some balance and take the Astros here. They’ve been here and done that. We’ve seen essentially this exact cast shine on this stage, and their 3.55 relief ERA was sixth best in MLB (the Twins ranked 15th at 3.95). Though Rafael Montero took a huge step back this season and closer Ryan Pressly was not as invincible as he once was, Bryan Abreu (zero runs allowed since July 15) and Hector Neris (1.71 ERA, 1.05 WHIP) are two of the best in baseball at shortening games. Houston can meet the high-leverage moments.

Again, though, we don’t feel good about this selection. Judge the Twins’ bullpen not on the full-season stats but on what it can roll out right now. Having recently added a healthy Chris Paddack and Brock Stewart to the mix anchored by flame-throwing closer Jhoan Duran and tossed-in starter Kenta Maeda, Minnesota's group is the most stacked it has been all year. It had a 30 percent strikeout rate in September and was untouchable in 7 1/3 innings in the Wild Card Series.

Advantage (for now): Astros

The Astros almost never lose in the postseason (six straight ALCS appearances, with four AL pennants and two World Series titles since 2017). The Twins, until very recently, literally could not win even a single postseason game for darn near two decades.

None of that matters now. All that matters is Houston shaking off its bizarre 2023 home struggles and fending off a Minnesota team that comes in with Correa and with confidence. The pitching edge, as mentioned, can easily go in either direction. The safe bet is the Astros, whose experience on this stage is not to be underestimated. But we’re not here to play it safe. We’re here to be aggressive and say the Twins have the power and the one-two rotation punch to snap the Astros’ ALCS streak. It has to happen eventually, right? Right?!

Twins in five. Take a bow, Christian Vázquez!