The Houston Astros and Los Angeles Angels will take center stage on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. ESPN senior writer, Sunday Night Baseball reporter Buster Olney talked with TCB ahead of the game about the Astros, Justin Verlander, Jose Altuve, and the City of Houston.
TCB: There had been so much talk surrounding the Astros and Tigers about Justin Verlander in June, July and August. What were you hearing and yourself thinking when the deal finally got done?
Buster: It was something the organization really needed. It was said out loud by Dallas Keuchel and Josh Reddick, that the players weren’t happy about (the trade deadline moves). They weren’t happy they came through July 31 and hadn’t made a big deal for a big pitcher.
When it went down, I knew within that clubhouse there was going to be great relief and excitement.
(The Astros) have accomplished so much and they are such a dangerous team. But it definitely felt like all summer that they needed somebody like Justin.
And to get him like he’s throwing right now is the perfect shot in the arm. Not only specify for their needs in the rotation but also I think it adds to the team knowing that the front office paid the extra price to go get him.
TCB: Had your perception of the Astros as contenders changed without making a deal?
Buster: First off, purely as a team, I thought they would need something. Especially as the Indians over the last six weeks have played better if they are going to survive Cleveland they would need something beyond what they had.
I felt like it was an emotional boost. I really thought after they got through July 31, I think I had sent this out as a tweet: that this would be a cancer on the team.
I've been around a lot of teams in the past where there is an expectation of a deal. The team has got some momentum and there is no deal done. The players chafe at that and they begin to focus on it. Some players begin to use it as an excuse (for losing).
It felt like they needed to do something to reaffirm to the players they were all in. The thing that I was concerned that this would be something that would hang over the team the rest of the year, I think they needed something to get past that.
TCB: I know you saw first hand Dallas Keuchel be successful in 2015 in the Wild Card Game. But who would you go with if you have to pick one starter to start a playoff series in game one between Keuchel and Verlander?
Buster: As of now, I would go with Verlander. Because of how well he’s throwing. It’s like Justin is on a mission, right? We saw this last year too, he got better as the year went on.
Now, if Keuchel was throwing as well as he had been in the first four-five weeks of the season before he got hurt. I would probably go with him. Not only in terms of his stature in the clubhouse and the fact that he’s been there. If you are A.J. Hinch, you have to pay attention to that.
But in the first game of a playoff series, I love a guy that has great offspeed stuff because they players are so hyped up. Hitters are dying to swing the bat. If you have a guy that command off-speed stuff like Dallas can, that to me would a nature guy to go game one.
Dallas hasn’t been throwing as well as Justin lately, so I would go with Justin.
TCB: You talked about Astros manager A.J. Hinch about the AL MVP and Jose Altuve on your podcast. MVP voting has evolved and changed over the past few seasons, how would you handicap the race for the 2017 AL MVP?
Buster: Just be clear, I haven’t voted for an award since 1996. I haven’t had an official award vote in a long time.
I do think it’s being assessed more and more with the baseline being wins above replacement. My sense with the writers is the old standby stats like RBIs aren’t nearly valued as much. And he’s the great thing for Altuve is if you think old-fashion numbers or advanced metrics he is the American League MVP. Because he’s been so spectacular all the way around.
I did a podcast this morning that with Karl Ravech and he mentioned that coming into the month that Mike Trout had a chance to sneak in and take the MVP again. But he hasn’t played that well. Among the four major candidates, he’s probably played the fourth best with Aaron Judge, Altuve, and Jose Ramirez.
Jose has been a metronome, he’s been very consistent this season. So think he’s going to win it and I think it’s going to be close to unanimous.
TCB: I’m always thankful for time with ESPN personalities and I always ask at least one question about their careers. You’ve been at the New York Times and ESPN, when do you feel like you had made it as a reporter?
Buster: I can tell you the exact moment of when I feel like I had turned the corner in terms of process information and turning into writing and understanding the rhythm of storytelling. It was during the 1994 All-Star Game, I was covering the Padres at the time. Tony Gwynn scored the game-winning run for the National League on a hit into the gap by Moises Alou.
I was so fortunate that the first major star I gotta covered in Major League Baseball was Tony Gwynn. He wrote stories for you. He spoke so anecdotally. He was so good at telling stories.
I remember writing that game story and feeling “OK, I feel like I have command of this.” At that point, I had been covering baseball for six -- being able to understand what the best way, the best rhythm for telling a story. I specifically remember that being a cool night.
TCB: Do you feel like you’re at your peak as a reporter? Is there still anything else you want to do at this point?
Buster: I would like.. I miss (pause). When my daughter was born in 1999, I knew I wasn’t going to be a beat writer for much longer. At the Times, there were 150 nights on the road away from home. That was too much when you’re a dad. I switch over to the New York Giants in 2002 and went to ESPN in 2003.
I love going in depth on stories. That was one thing you’re allowed to do when you’re embedded with teams. Now that my kids are older, my daughter is 17 and son is 13, my daughter is sick of me as kids will get. I’m sure my son will be sick of me in a few years (he said with a laugh).
I definitely would love to getting back to the idea of digging deeper into stories and working on a few more books.
TCB: What storylines are you working on for Sunday Night Baseball?
Buster: We’ll see by Sunday on how relevant the Angels are in the Wild Card race. They are hanging on the edge right. A lot of what we’re going to talk about on Sunday is Verlander and his impact on the team. The trade and how the team is rounding into good form heading into the playoffs.
But I know we’ll be having conversations on how Houston responded Hurricane Harvey. When you talk with the guys at the Astros, players, agents, and people who live in the area, that's the first thing on everyone’s mind.
You heard it on the podcast, A.J. Hinch’s description about players helping neighbors and that sort of thing. I’m going to curious to hear the players stories when I’m preparing for Sunday.