Each Team's Biggest X-Factor in the 2012 MLB Postseason
In Major League Baseball, like all sports, you need superstars to win championships. It is almost impossible to look at a World Series-winning team throughout history that didn't have at least two true superstar players.
As we all know, however, in a short series, which is what you get in October, anything can happen. A surprising or underrated force can come out of nowhere to take over the postseason and help carry the team to a title.
One of the best examples in recent years was Jeff Suppan with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006. Suppan was never anything special as a starting pitcher in his career. His best ERA in a single season was 3.57 with the Cardinals in 2005. He had a career ERA of 4.70 and averaged 4.92 BB/9 IP with 3.08 BB/9 IP.
That is the very definition of mediocrity right there. Yet for one month in 2006, Suppan pitched the best month of his life. He threw 25.1 innings over four starts, allowing seven earned runs on 19 hits, one home run and won MVP of the National League Championship Series.
While no one would have predicted Suppan to be as good as he was, it is exactly the kind of October story that people will talk about forever—at least, Suppan certainly will, as he was able to parlay that performance into a $42 million contract with Milwaukee that offseason.
So with eight teams battling it out for the one chance at history, who will be the Jeff Suppan for them? Who are the X-factors who will play a pivotal role in the outcome of the World Series?
Russell Martin, C, New York Yankees
I will fully admit that some revisionist history is playing a role in Martin's inclusion on this list for me. If you had asked me to name a Yankees player as an X-factor yesterday, I probably would have said someone like Eric Chavez or Raul Ibanez.
However, when I really started to think about it, there is no bigger X-factor for the Yankees than Martin. However, that is not to say that he is about to approach the All-Star levels he played at with the Los Angeles Dodgers all those years ago.
No, what I am talking about is really something I have seen all season. There is a formula that I use to watch baseball games, since it would be impossible to pay attention to every moment of every game played.
I will watch one game for an inning, flip to another and so on. I can't tell you how many at-bats I saw from Martin this season—maybe 30, tops. But more often than not when I saw him, he was hitting a home run.
Anyone who follows the Yankees will tell you, "Of course that is what you saw," because Martin is either going to hit the ball far or else he won't get a hit.
Martin's 21 home runs in the regular season were sixth among catchers in baseball who had at least 400 at-bats. He is good enough behind the plate, which is really all he has to be at this point, but he provides a lot of thump at the bottom of a lineup that can look old at times.
The heroics he provided in Game 1 of the American League Division Series against Baltimore helped open the floodgates for the Yankees. That was a critical moment for a team that had been stagnant, and rather dumb, offensively all night.
Brian Matusz, P, Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles have a very distinct and specific formula for winning this season that has worked out well for them, obviously. They want the starters to pitch well enough for five, maybe six innings so they can get to the bullpen.
One of the smartest moves the Orioles made was moving Brian Matusz from the rotation—where he posted an ERA of 5.42 with OPS of .875 in 84.2 innings—to the bullpen, where he has an ERA of 1.35 with a 19-3 K-BB ration in 13.1 innings.
Admittedly, 13.1 innings is a small sample size that it isn't fair to judge as a whole, but based on the results so far, it is hard to argue with what we have seen from Matusz.
In a series like the one the Orioles are playing now—against a Yankees team that is going to be patient, take walks, work counts and hit a lot of home runs—the bullpen is going to play a pivotal role in what happens.
We saw last night how much the Orioles need their bullpen to keep up its dominance from the regular season. They don't have starters with the stuff to overpower anyone, so when Buck Showalter sees an opportunity to make a move, he is going to do it.
Matusz is more of a lefty specialist than a potentially dominant reliever. He has averaged over 11 strikeouts to just two walks per nine innings against lefties this season, compared to 5.62 strikeouts to 4.52 walks against righties.
But the Yankees have two left-handed hitters—Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson—who can destroy you if you don't have someone who can shut them down. Plus, switch-hitting Nick Swisher (.270/.380/.389) has not fared well against southpaws this season.
Matusz is going to be the man Showalter has to trust in that situation. He has handled himself well in that role so far, and the Orioles will need it to continue if they want to keep this series close.
Max Scherzer, P, Detroit Tigers
One of the reasons that a lot of people like the Detroit Tigers to come out of the American League despite their rather pedestrian 88-74 regular-season record is because of the way their starting pitching lines up in the postseason.
Max Scherzer may not be needed in the American League Division Series, since the Tigers already hold a 2-0 advantage over Oakland and are guaranteed to get at least one more start from Justin Verlander, but what about beyond that?
There are concerns with Scherzer, at least as far as his health is concerned. He was able to pitch four innings against Kansas City in the final game of the season, but before that, there were concerns about his shoulder.
We always talk about pitching, particularly starters, being so vital to success in October. If the Tigers are able to run out a starting four of Verlander, Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez and Scherzer, there is not one team in the postseason that can match what they are capable of.
Scherzer is the key to the rotation. In a five-game series, the Tigers can get away without using Scherzer, who is scheduled to pitch Game 4, if necessary.
In a seven-game series, Scherzer could potentially get two starts. He was the most prolific strikeout pitcher, at least as a starter, in Major League Baseball this season. He had 11.08 K/9 IP in 187.2 innings, two more than Verlander did (9.03).
The one big knock against Scherzer has always been his ability to throw strikes consistently. He did struggle with that against Kansas City last week, with two walks in four innings, but from July 30 to September 23, he only walked 15 in 67.1 innings.
If Scherzer can manage to harness his command long enough to be a difference-maker, the Tigers are going to be very, very difficult to score on—regardless of how bad their defense is—because teams won't be able to put the ball in play.
Brandon Moss, 1B, Oakland Athletics
The Oakland A's have put a lot on Brandon Moss in these playoffs. He was outstanding in 84 games with the team during the regular season, posting a .291/.358/.596 line with 21 home runs in 265 at-bats.
Unfortunately, that pace was not likely to continue for long, because he also struck out 90 times. There is way too much swing-and-miss in his game to keep up the pace he was on for very long.
Yet the A's got enough out of Moss to put him in the No. 4 spot in the lineup, between Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick.
Cespedes has been a one-man wrecking crew for the A's through two games against Detroit thus far. Everyone else has been virtually missing in action.
Reddick, in particular, has fallen apart. He did have the big home run to give the A's a brief lead in Game 2, but before that, he was 0-for-6 with six strikeouts and one walk. We all know that the A's are an all-or-nothing offense, but that was a lot more "nothing" than they could have bargained for.
Moss hasn't been much better than Reddick in the first two games of the ALDS. He has gone 1-for-7 with four strikeouts.
When your No. 4 and 5 hitters have two hits and 10 strikeouts in two games, it is going to be hard to win a lot of games.
If the A's are going to get back in this series against Detroit and hope to advance beyond, they need Moss to hit at the level he did in the regular season.
What they have seen out of him thus far, isn't going to work.
Homer Bailey, P, Cincinnati Reds
As the Reds continue to pile up the wins against San Francisco, it is time to acknowledge that this team is better than one that was able to compile a lot of regular-season victories against a bad National League Central.
Even with Johnny Cueto leaving Game 1 of the National League Division Series after eight pitches, the Reds are heading home with the chance to close things out with Homer Bailey on the mound.
One big knock that the Reds have had, at least prior to this year, was in their rotation. This year, with Cueto, Bailey and Mat Latos, they suddenly look a lot more formidable.
Bailey, in particular, has turned into the pitcher we all thought he would be when he was a hot-shot prospect, if not something close to it. He does have some problems keeping the ball in the park (1.13 HR allowed/9 IP), but other than that, his numbers look similar to Cueto's.
Bailey threw 208 innings this season, while Cueto had 217 innings. Bailey had a K-BB ratio of 3.23, and Cueto's was 3.47. Bailey's xFIP (per Fangraphs) was 3.94, while Cueto's was 3.65.
In the playoffs, you need at least two dominant starters if you want to win a World Series. The Reds rotation right now is all out of whack due to Cueto's injury and Latos being used in relief for four innings during Game 1.
Bronson Arroyo gave the bullpen the break it needed in Game 2, with seven shutout innings. Bailey can give the Reds all the rest they need if he is able to close out the Giants in Cincinnati on Tuesday.
Plus, if Cueto is able to return and the Reds can run him out along with Latos and Bailey knowing that they are going to get dominant results, they could be raising a championship banner.
Chris Carpenter, P, St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals rode Chris Carpenter as hard as they could last October en route to winning a World Series. Age and miles on the right arm have taken their toll on the former Cy Young winner, as he was limited to just 17 innings in three starts this season.
Yet here we are, with the Cardinals in the postseason again, and you can't help but wonder if Carpenter could actually benefit from not being able to pitch that much in the regular season.
One of the great advantages that pitchers have over hitters is the element of surprise. Sure, the best hitters can adjust on the fly, but before the ball is thrown, the pitcher always has some small edge over a hitter.
Carpenter understands how to attack hitters as well as anyone in the game. Even at 37 years old, he is still showing that he can succeed even without his best stuff.
In the handful of innings he has thrown this season, Carpenter's fastball is only averaging 90.5 mph (per Fangraphs), his lowest velocity on the pitch since 2007. His performance up to this point has to be taken with a grain of salt, both because of the small sample size and because two starts came against the Cubs and Astros.
But the Cardinals badly need Carpenter to perform at least close to the level he was at last season. This offense has really struggled in the second half, finishing 15th in runs scored (339) during that time.
The rotation is the one potential saving grace, as Adam Wainwright and Carpenter give them two potentially dominant starters. Jaime Garcia, who will start Game 2 against Washington, has been terrific at home and an enigma on the road.
Kyle Lohse had a terrific season, but is hardly the kind of pitcher you can see mowing down good lineups in October.
Carpenter is the one wild card that the Cardinals have left to play in October. He has a great history, but the past doesn't mean much right now.
Brandon Belt, 1B, San Francisco Giants
The Giants offense in the postseason so far has been Buster Posey. They have scored one run in 18 innings thanks to a home run from the presumptive National League MVP in Game 1.
This team made the call to keep Melky Cabrera off the playoff roster—he wouldn't have been eligible to return until the team's sixth playoff game—so someone was going to have to step up in this spot.
There was some thought that their pitching and run prevention would keep them in games, but, using revisionist history, that thinking has proven to be wrong. The Reds got to Matt Cain in Game 1, and Madison Bumgarner just looks worn out right now.
If your top two pitchers are scuffling, the offense has to pick up a lot of slack. Belt is probably the second-best pure hitter in the lineup. Pablo Sandoval has a good argument, but his approach has always bugged me.
Belt did not develop power the way everyone thought he would, presumably because either his swing is different or he wants to take more pitches, but he still managed to get on base at a .360 clip in the regular season.
I don't know if we should suddenly expect Belt to start launching balls over the fence, but as someone with good control of the strike zone, he can at least be a valuable asset in the middle of that lineup.
Hunter Pence has been a disaster since the Giants acquired him. He hit .219/.287/.384 in 248 plate appearances since the trade from Philadelphia. Sandoval had a .720 OPS after the All-Star break. Belt had a .785 OPS after the break with a .362 OBP.
Someone has to step up to take some pressure off Posey's bat. Of the three big bats already mentioned, Belt is the one I trust the most at this point to produce something.
Craig Stammen, P, Washington Nationals
The one concern to have about Gio Gonzalez when he takes the mound is how erratic he can be. He walked 76 in 199.1 innings pitched in the regular season and had seven in five innings of work in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Cardinals.
Yet there is a silver lining if Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman or Edwin Jackson is unable to find the strike zone, or if they get hit hard: Craig Stammen.
One criticism that I, and many others, have about the way bullpens are used in baseball today is that they are never allowed to go more than one inning at a time, or have become so specialized that the games take much longer than they should.
Stammen is a throwback, at least as much as one relief pitcher can be in today's game. He appeared in 59 games but managed to throw 88.1 innings. He is used to going out there and eating up more than one inning at a time.
In Game 1 of the NLDS, Stammen was only asked to throw one inning and didn't give up a run.
Stammen had 27 outings this year of at least two innings. That kind of arm out of the bullpen, especially with a potentially volatile starting corps that you really don't know what you are getting out of on a game-to-game basis, is incredibly valuable.
Davey Johnson clearly understands that Stammen can be more useful to him and the team by maximizing his arm. He has performed really well up to this point, with 87 strikeouts and just 70 hits allowed during the regular season.