Top 6 'Unsung Heroes' Who Will Be Crucial to MLB Postseason Series
Typical previews of the 2012 MLB playoffs irresponsibly focus on a few big-name players, which I see as a reflection of laziness and naivety.
Meanwhile, unsung heroes on division winners will be deciding factors in the postseason series.
The following six players play second fiddle to prominent teammates, but are bound to influence the outcomes of the fast-approaching ALDS and NLDS matchups.
Brett Gardner (New York Yankees)
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After suffering several setbacks in his recovery from an elbow injury, Brett Gardner was not expected to face live pitching until the offseason.
But last week, the left fielder was cleared to swing in an MLB game for the first time since April. He even got a single in the New York Yankees regular-season finale on Oct. 3.
Gardner is capable of affecting games in a variety of ways, primarily as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement. His range and good instincts will be valuable against either the Baltimore Orioles or Texas Rangers and their right-handed, line-drive hitters (Adrian Beltre, Adam Jones, Michael Young, etc.).
Al Alburquerque (Detroit Tigers)
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Al Alburquerque wasn't sharp last October as a Detroit Tigers middle reliever (13.50 ERA, 2.50 WHIP in 2.0 IP). General fatigue and difficult opponents had a lot to do with that.
The 26-year-old is much more trustworthy this time around as his team opens up against the strikeout-prone Oakland Athletics (MLB-high 1387 SO). The A's lineup has struggled against power pitchers all summer (h/t Baseball-Reference.com).
A non-displaced stress fracture that kept Alburquerque on the disabled list was really a blessing in disguise. Missing most of the season has spared him from an excessive workload (27.1 IP combined between High-A/Triple-A/MLB).
Considering the shakiness of Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde down the stretch, this flame-thrower should get the nod in high-leverage situations.
Sean Doolittle (Oakland Athletics)
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Oakland Athletics manager Bob Melvin relied heavily on his relievers to clinch the American League West, and Sean Doolittle was not exempt. He made 16 appearances after Sept. 1 and threw 73 percent of his pitches for strikes during that span.
Clearly, the southpaw has superb control.
The key is for Doolittle to spot his fastball in hard-to-reach places after getting ahead in the count. Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and the impatient Detroit Tigers frequently chase balls out of the zone (AL-low 3.75 pitches seen per plate appearance).
Michael Morse (Washington Nationals)
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Though this has been a relatively disappointing year for Michael Morse, he's heating up at the perfect time (4 HR, 10 RBI in last 6 G).
With power once again coursing through his veins, the Washington Nationals lineup will be a matchup nightmare for opposing bullpens. The first five batters have alternating handedness—righty, lefty, righty, lefty, righty—and each is formidable.
Morse could be especially dangerous if Washington draws the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS. His OPS at Turner Field has annually improved from .321 in 2009 to 1.288 this past summer.
Ryan Hanigan (Cincinnati Reds)
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Ryan Hanigan adjusted his game-calling as the season progressed so that his pitchers would allow fewer fly balls. That's because most ballparks Cincinnati played in over the final six weeks were hitter-friendly.
However, it's imperative for him to reconsider that strategy this postseason. When not hosting, the Reds will journey to spacious AT&T Park. Other venues with similar reputations await if they advance.
Hanigan's stellar caught-stealing percentage shouldn't be overlooked, nor should his ability to make contact (only 37 SO in 371 PA).
Madison Bumgarner (San Francisco Giants)
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Despite great performance (16-11, 3.37 ERA, 1.11 WHIP in 208.1 IP), Madison Bumgarner has flown under the radar in 2012. Realize that the 23-year-old throws as many strikes and causes swings-and-misses just as often as Matt Cain.
He struggled late in the season, but has established himself as a starter who never completely implodes. His streak of going four-plus innings in 50 consecutive outings testifies to that.
It's not being said and written enough—the San Francisco Giants have an impressive No. 2 man in their rotation.