Last year, David Freese of the champion St. Louis Cardinals was the most important player clubbing clutch hits after clutch hits on his way to MVP.
In all elimination tournaments, it is nearly impossible to predict a winner because of the volatility of a small sample of games.
In baseball, it only takes a hot pitcher, or a hot hitter, to propel a team into the next round, thus making it hard to gauge a player's importance to their team.
Importance can be judged by how a player can control a game, so there will be a bunch of pitchers on this list. Throw in the fact that there is a one-game playoff for four teams, any single game's importance can come down to the 100 or so pitches a starter will throw.
In 2010, the Giants had a collection of players step up to capture their first title in 50 years, but it came down to Tim Lincecum getting hot in September and October to get them there. Last year, the Cardinals got hot as a team, but they were able to ride Chris Carpenter's spectacular postseason and David Freese's clutch hitting to their title.
Ten such teams will be looking for their own hot hitter or pitcher to carry them through. Here are my highlights for the player that is most important to each playoff team.
Tim Lincecum will be looking for the same type of magic he found in 2010, pitching the Giants to the World Series.
Matt Cain will get the start Saturday night against the Cincinnati Reds and Madison Bumgarner will assuredly get the second nod on Sunday. What remains to be seen is the rotation behind them.
With Ryan Vogelsong still sorting through his second half woes and Barry Zito turning in a surprisingly adequate year, Lincecum doesn't know if he will pitch in Game 3 or Game 4.
If the Giants want to go deep into the postseason like two years ago, they will need some semblance of the former ace and two-time Cy Young winner. The Giants, unlike before, own a pitching staff that has an ERA at 3.67, ranking fifth in the National League behind three playoff teams.
To gain some perspective, the pitching staff was ranked second and first, in 2011 and 2010, respectively. What is also disconcerting has been the weak bullpen. Without the presence of Brian Wilson, the back end of the bullpen has been decent while the middle relief has been simply terrible.
What is key will be how long Lincecum will be able to last in the games. If he can only go five innings, there will be more wear and tear on the bullpen. With Lincecum having a down year, this is certainly possible. Fastball command will be key, and the ability to get quick, efficient outs.
While his numbers have improved over the course of the season, his peripherals have remained the same, suggesting his control is still iffy.
The Giants hope he can conquer those issues just in time for the NLDS.
One of the best two-way players in the league, the Nationals will lean on his bat throughout the postseason.
With Stephen Strasburg out, some of the hype going into the Nationals' first playoff appearance since 1981 has alleviated, to an extent. This doesn't dispute the fact that they are still one of the best teams in all of baseball, boasting a very good pitching staff—even without Strasburg—and a balanced offense, led by Gold Glover Ryan Zimmerman.
Zimmerman is not only one of the best defenders at third, despite ranking eighth in UZR which is a bit misleading because of injuries, but also a very potent bat in the middle of the order.
Despite very little playoff experience amongst the Nationals players, Zimmerman is the unspoken leader and will look to drive in runs, surrounded by high-OBP players like Bryce Harper (.340), Adam LaRoche (.343), and Jayson Werth (.385).
With Cy Young contender Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and the underrated Jordan Zimmermann, the Nationals won't have to worry about the pitching and just let their best hitter do the work.
Despite hitting well since surgery, Votto has yet to find his power.
The last time Joey Votto homered was on June 24, 2012. The Reds play the Giants this Saturday on October 6, 2012.
Granted, he was recovering from a knee injury for about two months, but he was hitting .342 with 14 homers, a .465 on-base percentage and a .604 slugging percentage before then. Since then he has kept his average the same at .340 and even raised his on-base percentage to .477, but his lack of power is rather disconcerting.
For a team that at times lacks punch, they will need the franchise first baseman to knock in runs aplenty in the playoffs. A lineup that only provides two hitters that own an OBP over .330 puts even more significance on the bat of Votto.
If he is unable to drive runs home, the Reds will find it hard to manufacture runs against a stingy Giants pitching staff, albeit one not as good as it was before.
After singing an enormous contract this offseason, he will look to build towards a championship for his Reds.
Arguably, the National League second half Cy Young, he will pitch the wild card game against the Cardinals.
One game playoff.
You can throw your fancy regular season records and stats out the window because anything can happen in one game. For Kris Medlen, it's a chance to keep his remarkable run going.
He currently owns an ERA at 1.57, after posting an ERA of 0.94 and holding opponents to a .189 average after the All-Star break.
Not only has he pitched extremely well, but he has become the unquestioned ace of the Atlanta Braves, leading Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson and Paul Maholm to being one of the best pitching staffs in the National League.
The key for Medlen will be to limit the Cardinal thumpers, whose offense started quickly but has slowed down the past couple months. With Beltran slumping and Berkman retiring, Medlen has a chance to not only win the one-game playoff but pitch a huge Game 3 against the Washington Nationals.
No Wainwright, no Carpenter, no problem for Kyle Lohse.
With Adam Wainwright coming off Tommy John and Chris Carpenter also coming off significant shoulder surgery, someone needed to step up for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Kyle Lohse has done just that and more.
A true sinkerball pitcher, he has had previous success pitching, but rather inconsistently, posting ERAs in the fours before finally breaking out last year.
This year, he has taken it to a new level, pitching well from start to finish and ending the season with a 2.86 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. Not only has he excelled at getting ground balls, but he has limited both right and left-handed hitters to .623 and .664 OPS, respectively.
He will go up against Kris Medlen and carries the burden of facing the hottest pitcher in all of baseball. Not only that, but he will be pitching on the road where his ERA jumps up over a run from 2.33 to 3.41.
If he can get through the wild-card game, the Cardinals will again have Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter back, but Lohse will have to win and probably pitch into the eighth for the Cardinals to have a chance.
Significance? Forget it, he has the most pressure amongst all pitchers in Major League Baseball.
Everyone knows Justin Verlander. They are about to find out who the number two ace is.
Everyone in America knows reigning Cy Young winner Justin Verlander. Not many people outside Detroit know who Max Scherzer is.
He will be the most integral piece of the pitching staff for Detroit.
Similarly to last season, Scherzer struggled in the beginning of the year and rebounded to pitch much better down the stretch.
He pitched to the tune of a 2.25 ERA in August with 44 strikeouts and only 9 walks. He then pitched even better in September, holding a 2.17 ERA with 33 strikeouts and 4 walks and holding opponents to a .196 batting average.
However, he has been dealing with shoulder fatigue the past couple starts and it will be pertinent for the Tigers to have him start.
Justin Verlander is great but other teams in the American League will have aces like C.C. Sabathia and Yu Darvish to combat that, if Detroit advances that far.
For now, they will have to deal with a surging Oakland Athletics team. If Verlander loses, all the pressure will be put on Max Scherzer to win the game and perhaps save their season.
For all intents and purposes, Scherzer should be considered the Tigers number one starter as well.
Brett Anderson hasn't pitched much this year but when he is on the mound he is the Athletics' best starter.
Onto the best story of the year.
Sorry Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Buster Posey and the pre-collapse Pirates, but the Athletics have been red-hot and have won the AL West after sweeping the Texas Rangers in a three-game series, becoming the best story in the MLB.
One of the main reasons has been the pitching staff of Jarrod Parker, Brandon McCarthy (injured but may pitch as well, Bartolo Colon (pitched well when he was on the team), Tommy Millone, Drew Straily and Travis Blackley.
If the A's can get Anderson back, and all signs point to a yes, they will add a pitcher that pitched extremely well when he was healthy.
Disregarding the game he got injured he only allowed seven runs in 32.9 innings while giving up only 26 hits and four walks. Granted, it was a small sample size but he is still better than incumbent starters Millone and Blackley.
If McCarthy can come back as well—like Anderson, he has pitched very well when healthy—they will form a very promising pitching staff that, along with its homer-happy offense, might take Oakland all the way to the pennant.
The presumable number three starter, he will have to continue his success this year into the playoffs.
With CC Sabathia and Andy Pettite in the playoff rotation, the New York Yankees appear to have enough starting pitching at the top. But without a certain number four starter—Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova do not cut it—Hiroki Kuroda is key to arguably a series' deciding game: game three.
The key to his importance is whether he will pitch home or away. He has much better splits pitching at home possessing a 2.73 ERA and striking out 97 to 26 walks. On the road, it has been a different story, where he has a 4.23 ERA, given up 23 walks and allowed an opponent .292 average.
Kuroda has also faltered down the stretch, allowing 46 base-runners in 29.1 innings in September.
While the Yankee offense is good, we have seen it shut down the past couple years against the likes of Cliff Lee.
Sabathia and Pettite also have serious question marks as Sabathia has not pitched as well as he usually does all season and Pettite is just coming out of retirement.
Despite the Yankees' great offense, it will come down to pitching and Hiroki Kuroda will have a say in it come Game 3.
Weiters will have his hands full catching his staff and having to hit in the middle of the order.
Unless Jim Palmer is walking through that door, Matt Wieters probably won't be catching the best starter in the playoffs.
Knowing that, he will be the most important player on the team because, like Buster Posey, he is a superb defensive catcher and excellent signal-caller.
His ability to throw out runners (calculated by rSB, stolen base runs saved), and passed pitch runs (calculated by RPP) is excellent. He owns a 6.0 rSB, and a 3.3 RPP, according to FanGraphs (zero is considered league average), making him an above average defender behind the plate.
His bat won't be heavily relied on with hitters like Mark Reynolds, Chris Davis and Adam Jones around, but he still has shown the ability to swing the bat and possess a good eye, hitting 23 homers and walking 10.2 percent of his at-bats.
The man who was once the number one prospect in all of baseball has a chance to keep the feel-good story of the Orioles going with all eyes watching.
Going into free agency and maybe leaving Texas, Hamilton hopes to lead the Rangers back to the World Series for the third straight time.
His team, coming off a massive collapse, are still in the playoffs, but barely. Arguably the most talented team in all of baseball, the Rangers have played .500 ball since July.
The reason a pitcher isn't on this list is because the one-game playoff might turn out to be a complete shootout.
Whoever the starters may be on either side, they will not approach the starting pitching caliber of the National League side.
This is why Josh Hamilton, the former MVP and having another fantastic offensive season (despite prolonged slumps here and there), will be the most important cog in a line-up full of offensive stars.
Also this may be Hamilton's last year in Texas, he will look to give the Rangers the championship they were an out away from last season.
The Rangers are slumping, the offense is hit-or-miss, the pitching staff is in shambles and now they must play a one-game playoff to get into the divisonal series.
So Josh Hamilton, he of the great comeback story, gaudy statistics and gorgeous swing, will have to carry his team if they have any chance of advancing.