I am normally not someone who stresses out about the lineup...too much, anyway. There are instances when feeling perturbed is accurate. I mean, Kyle Tucker shouldn’t have batted sixth in 36 games last season. Did it matter all that much? No, but it is the principle of the matter as batting orders should optimize a team’s offensive capabilities. In other words, a manager should maximize the number of times their best hitters come to the plate.
We’ve all known for a while that Dusty Baker has prioritized inserting a right-handed hitter in between Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, two left-handed hitters. For most of the season, before Alvarez’s oblique injury, Baker had José Abreu hitting fourth between the pair. The Astros’ skipper has long been reluctant in giving the opposition a possible edge, especially when a left-hander is on the mound. For the most part, I won't argue much about it as historically left-handed hitters are less effective against lefty pitchers than right-handed hitters. This season alone left-handed hitters have a 91 wRC+ against southpaws compared to 106 for right-handed hitters. But there are times when the macro could distort what is right in front of us on an individual level. First, despite Abreu’s summer resurgence, he still doesn’t provide the best chances of success in that spot against lefties this season. How about past seasons? Abreu has a more than solid track record against the opposite hand, but does he offer a better chance of success than, say, Tucker hitting fourth behind Alvarez for this season? Doubtful. Second, and most important, Alvarez and Tucker both can rake against left-handed pitchers, reflected in their career numbers and standalone this season.
Alvarez, against LHP
.306/.380/.588, 164 wRC+ in 644 PA (Career)
.325/.379/.623, 172 wRC+ in 87 PA (2023)
Tucker, against LHP
.275/.329/.525, 134 wRC+ in 690 PA (Career)
.351/.416/.611, 183 wRC+ in 149 PA (2023)
Alas, Baker, as previously mentioned, has been reluctant to have Alvarez and Tucker hit back-to-back, even when the numbers indicate otherwise. But, to plenty of surprise, Baker decided to have the duo hit back-to-back for a change on Friday. In addition, the future Hall of Fame manager also batted Yainer Díaz fifth, ahead of Abreu. In terms of optimal lineup configurations this season, this game against the Yankees possibly ranks as Baker’s best.
And the lineup didn’t disappoint, with the Astros scoring seven runs total. Alvarez and Tucker were a combined 3-for-7 at the plate, with three RBI and three walks to their credit. Díaz also had an impressive game, with a three-run home run in the first inning setting the tone early.
The trio of Alvarez, Tucker, and Díaz drove in six of Houston’s seven runs, providing the pitching staff the support it needed on the road at Yankee Stadium. Of course, it doesn’t mean it was entirely stress-free as Hunter Brown, despite his final pitching line, wasn’t quite his best self. At one point, I thought we were in for a possible slugfest if it wasn’t for Jake Meyers making an incredible catch in the bottom half of the first inning.
The Yankees kept the game relatively close through the first five innings, trailing 5-2. A three-run lead is better than not leading at all, but considering how Brown was relying upon contact to generate outs (only four total whiffs, zero from his fastball), I wasn’t entirely convinced the lead would hold if that contact became a bit more hazardous. I was proven wrong, of course, as Brown held the Yankees’ lineup at bay for another inning and the bullpen closed the deal. The only blip on the radar was Rafael Montero giving up a solo home run to Giancarlo Stanton in the eighth inning. The saving grace for the pitching staff itself? All three of New York’s runs occurred via home runs, all of the solo variety.
While the Astros won, the Rangers also won, with the former still trailing in the AL West by 1 1⁄2 games. There are still two more games in this vital road series against the Yankees, with Justin Verlander scheduled to make his first start as an Astro this season Saturday. My hope is that Baker continues to optimize his lineup as he did Friday; however, I’ll have to see it to believe it.