Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker crashed against the wall to make the catch on Aaron Judge. These Astros can make elite defense seem routine. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Kyle Tucker does a lot of everything for the Houston Astros. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Alex Bregman's defense is an almost underrated part of his and the Astros' game. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Kyle Tucker is one of the Astros young superstars. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Houston Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker couldn't come up with this Yankees long ball. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez are usually at the heart of everything the Astros offense does. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
New York Yankees star Aaron Judge thought he might have hit a home run. But Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker had it sized up the entire time. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Jose Altuve, Jim Crane, Lance McCullers Jr., Kyle Tucker at the Houston Astros' Team Up event at Tootsies (Photo by Jacob Power)
Astros manager Dusty Baker is always ready to give someone like Kyle Tucker knuckles. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Kyle Tucker is the next Astro who could be looking at a mega contract. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Alex Bregman knows the Astros can win with defense. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Jeremy Pena's defense has been eye opening for the Astros. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Houston Astros catcher Martin Maldonado makes a statement with his defense — and his blue hair. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Kyle Tucker always knows how far he is from the right field wall. It’s part of his preparation. Part of what makes the Houston Astros’ defense a weapon of its own that few opposing teams are prepared to match. Even in October. Maybe especially in October.
Tucker measures how many steps he is from the wall before every batter. This way he knows exactly how many steps he can backpedal chasing a ball before meeting the wall.
Tucker’s preparation is typical of this Astros’ defense. It pays off in a very noticeable way in Game 2 of that American League Championship Series sweep of the New York Yankees when Tucker makes a hard, leaping catch of an Aaron Judge drive to the wall look almost routine. There is no doubt the Astros also dominated the Yankees with defense, making the difference between the two teams on that side of the ball look as vast as the Grand Canyon. Or the gap between Herschel Walker and the art of critical thinking.
This is the Astros way too. The way of defense.
“It’s huge,” Tucker tells PaperCity when I ask about the team’s defensive emphasis. “We work on it every day. Just trying to get better fielding the ball, whatever it is. We take a lot of pride in trying to be the best defensive team in the league.
“That will help our pitching staff. So they don’t have to throw as many pitches. We take a lot of pride in our defense.”
Many still try to paint the Houston Astros as what’s wrong with baseball — or what was wrong back in those electronic sign stealing times. But it turns out these 2022 Astros are the best kind of example for Little Leaguers and youth baseball players everywhere. For this October, they are delivering near nightly lessons on why working on your defense is a difference maker.
Jose Altuve makes two sparkling defense plays in Game 3 of the Yankees sweep. Rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña seems to make at least one fielding play that turns into a defensive highlight a game. Veteran catchers Martin Maldonado and Christian Vazquez throw out baserunners who almost no one else throws out (see Harrison Bader).
Even Yordan Alvarez has gone from a player who the Astros were reluctant to play in the outfield to a more than capable fielder who throws out runners. And then there’s Tucker at the wall.
Defense is a vital — yet often overlooked — part of the Astros’ winning ways.
“If you don’t play defense on this team, you don’t play,” Astros centerfielder Chas McCormick says. “There is a real emphasis on it. From spring training on. A lot of teams talk about defense in spring training.
“We keep talking — and working on it — all season.”
Sometimes that talk and emphasis even comes from the very top. It’s telling that Astros owner Jim Crane brings up third baseman Alex Bregman — another plus-plus defensive player in the lineup — taking extra grounders before the third game of the playoffs in Seattle.
“He’s a grinder,” Crane says admiringly. “He took extra grounders today. He’s working.”
The Astros’ extra defensive work made a huge difference in the Yankees series with The Bronx Bombers looking like The Bronx Bumblers in several critical instances.
Astros Confound The Yankees With Defense
When Yankees center fielder Harrison Bader drops the easiest of fly balls off Christian Vazquez’s bat with two outs in the second inning of Game 3, disaster comes knocking for the home team in the Bronx. Instead of being out of the inning, the Yankees’ $324 million ace Gerrit Cole serves up a two run homer to Houston’s No. 9 hitter Chas McCormick.
Already down 2-0 in the ALCS, the pinstriped empire found itself in an early two run hole in Game 3 that almost everyone in the ballpark felt shouldn’t have happened.
Then in Game 4 with the Yankees actually leading in a game, New York second baseman Gleyber Torres turns a seemingly sure double play into more self-inflicted Yankees doom. By air mailing an easy throw wide of shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who also seemed out of position to catch it, the Yankees get no outs on the play. And the Astros promptly pounce, scoring two runs to turn a 5-4 Yankees lead into a 6-5 Astros sweep sealing win.
And you didn’t think defense mattered in this home run or strikeout era of Major League Baseball?
“We work on it every day. Just trying to get better fielding the ball, whatever it is. We take a lot of pride in trying to be the best defensive team in the league.” — Astros outfielder Kyle Tucker
These now 113 win Astros (106 regular season Ws plus that 7-0 playoff record) prove every night how much of a difference maker excellent defensive play can be.
Now the Astros face an even worse defensive team (by the metrics) than the Yankees in the World Series. Yes, the Phillies rank 25th out of MLB’s 30 teams in defensive runs saved. Phillies general manager Dave Dombrowski is basically betting that defense doesn’t matter as long as guys like Bryce Harper, Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos are mashing the baseball.
Which team is supposed to be bad for baseball again?
Villains? Please. That’s so 2017. These 2022 Astros are the most fundamentally sound team left in the playoffs, the team that actually pays obsessive attention to defense. The very best example for all those Little Leaguers out there.
On these Astros, plays like Kyle Tucker’s catch against the wall almost become routine.
“I was just doing my job,” Tucker says. “I don’t think it would have gone out. Probably hit the top of the wall. Just ran back, caught a ball. Just trying to do my job.”
Other teams know better. If Tucker had made that kind of catch in a Yankees uniform, it would have been celebrated for days. The Astros have higher defensive expectations though. They expect to make those game changing plays.
More importantly, they prepare to make them every day.
“I always take a look back to see the distance I have between me and the wall,” Tucker says. “I do that every other pitch or so. Just to keep myself in it.”
The Astros are always in it, always poised to pull out a game, in part because of their defense. Baseball would be lucky to have these defensive taskmasters as champions.
If you don’t want your kids to play like the Astros, you aren’t paying attention to what’s exactly going on. Bregman, Peña, Tucker, Maldonado and Co. are building this potential modern dynasty with sparkling fielding fundamentals too.