The Most Important Players to Sparking Each MLB Team's Deep Playoff Runs
The final full week of baseball is upon us. Only the Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals, Oakland A's and Atlanta Braves have clinched playoff spots, but fans are already primed for an exciting postseason.
Even though the success of a team in the playoffs depends on a variety of moving pieces, teams still look to individual players to carry the burden of winning. Whether it’s Clayton Kershaw pitching 11 innings to avoid using the bullpen or Yadier Molina connecting with that key game-changing hit, the personal performances of elite players is a fundamental aspect to October glory.
Read on to see the most important players to sparking each MLB team’s deep playoff runs.
Clayton Kershaw is arguably the best pitcher in baseball. The Los Angeles Dodgers ace is currently sporting a 1.88 ERA (versus a 2.44 FIP), 0.92 WHIP and 4.31 K/BB. Kershaw is also leading the league in ERA (1.88), shutouts (2), innings pitched (230), strikeouts (224), WHIP (0.92) and park-adjusted ERA+ (189).
Even with starting pitchers like Zack Greinke, Ricky Nolasco and Hyun-jin Ryu in tow, the Dodgers will still need to heavily rely on Kershaw for at least two high-caliber starts per seven-game series.
If the 25-year-old can provide the Dodgers with consistently dominant playoff outings, the team’s offense will do the rest.
Between Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer, the Detroit Tigers possess the likely MVP Award and Cy Young Award favorites, respectively. But while Miggy is enjoying yet another iconic season, Prince Fielder is not.
Despite owning a park-adjusted 151 OPS+ and 230 home runs (about 38 per season) from 2007 to 2012, the first baseman has witnessed those averages drop to a 123 OPS+ and 24 home runs in 2013.
As the Tigers’ cleanup hitter—and Cabrera’s lineup protection—Fielder needs to channel his past self a bit more in the playoffs. If not, then opposing pitchers might not ever throw Miggy a pitch anywhere near the strike zone.
Few young players have matured as much as Freddie Freeman has in 2013. Despite just posting a .259 batting average and park-adjusted 116 wRC+ in 2012, the Atlanta Braves first baseman has hit to the tune of a .311 batting average and 145 wRC+ this season.
Considering the Braves, as a team, own a combined .248 batting average and 101 wRC+ this season, Freeman has been carrying the offense the entire year. And the Braves will need the 24-year-old to continue doing so in the playoffs.
In the Braves’ first Chipper Jones-less season since 1995 (unless you count his four plate appearances in 1993), Freddie Freeman has successfully stepped up to the challenge of filling the void.
With players like Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout in the AL, the MVP Award discussion tends to center around just two candidates. But in terms of actual value to a specific team, one could argue Josh Donaldson defines what a “most valuable player” is.
Donaldson, in his first full season as a starter, has posted a .306 batting average, park-adjusted 153 OPS+ and 24 home runs for the Oakland Athletics. Considering the team’s next best hitter, Brandon Moss, has posted a batting average and OPS+ that is 48 and 15 points lower, respectively, than Donaldon’s, it speaks lengths about the third baseman’s unparalleled team value.
The 27-year-old’s hitting and defensive (13.8 UZR/150) regular-season abilities will only be that much more important during the postseason. The Athletics, who haven’t advanced to the World Series since 1990, need a sterling performance from Donaldson to challenge the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers for the pennant.
Yadier Molina has long been known as a “glove first” catcher. But since 2011, Molina has owned a .312 batting average, park-adjusted 130 OPS+ and 48 home runs. The St. Louis Cardinals backstop’s 5.2 fWAR in 2013 is also the highest among any catcher in baseball.
In addition to Molina’s good play during the regular season, the 30-year-old also excels in the playoffs. Over 244 career postseason plate appearances, Molina has hit to the tune of a .299 batting average, .741 OPS and two home runs.
One of those home runs [in]famously came against the New York Mets in the ninth inning of the 2006 National League Championship Series.
Most critics have been surprised by the Cleveland Indians’ success in 2013. After trading star outfielder Shin-Soo Choo in the offseason, the Indians seemed primed for a more rebuilding season than win-heavy one.
But while losing Choo was a big blow to the Tribe's offense, second baseman Jason Kipnis has instantly fulfilled the role of the team’s most dynamic player. Kipnis has posted a .274 batting average, park-adjusted 127 OPS+, 17 home runs and 28 stolen bases in 2013. Unlike Choo (minus-1.8 dWAR), Kipnis can actually field his position too, posting a passable 0.7 dWAR.
Unfortunately, the 26-year-old has been slumping during the second half, hitting to the tune of a .235 batting average and 85 wRC+. But needless to say, a lot of the Indians’ success in the playoffs will be on the shoulders of Jason Kipnis.
The last time the Pittsburgh Pirates were in the playoffs, their best hitter was a guy named Barry Bonds. Twenty-plus years later, the Pirates boast a similarly dynamic outfielder: Andrew McCutchen.
McCutchen has posted a .321 batting average, park-adjusted 160 OPS+, 20 home runs and 27 stolen bases in 2013. Even though the stars have aligned in many ways for the Pirates this season, McCutchen’s increasing emergence as an elite offensive and defensive asset is arguably the main reason for the team’s success.
Despite also possessing the likes of Starling Marte, Pedro Alvarez and Marlon Byrd, one could make the case that McCutchen is the only Pirates hitter opposing pitchers actually fear.
In the first half of the season, David Price looked human for the first time in his pitching career. The left-handed pitcher posted a 3.94 ERA (versus a 3.43 FIP), 1.22 WHIP and 4.79 K/BB.
But luckily for the Tampa Bay Rays, Price figured out his kinks. After the All-Star break, the 28-year-old has pitched to the tune of a 2.98 ERA (versus a 2.75 FIP), 1.02 WHIP and 6.00 K/BB.
The intense competition the small market Rays experience throughout the regular season will only be magnified in the playoffs. The team lacks the type of talent both the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers boast. But with ace-worthy outings from David Price, the Rays do stand a slight chance of outing the big guns.
Ask the Detroit Tigers if they think having a good closer in the playoffs is important. Luckily for the Cincinnati Reds, they have one in Aroldis Chapman.
Chapman has posted a 2.63 ERA (versus a park-adjusted 148 ERA+), 1.05 WHIP, 38 saves and a 15.6 strikeout per nine innings ratio in 2013. His lethal repertoire, featuring an average 98.3 miles per hour fastball and 87.1 miles per hour slider, arguably makes him the most overpowering closer amongst playoff contenders.
Entering a game and netting a strike out is Chapman’s forte. Considering the Cuban reliever averages almost two strikeouts per inning (1.73), the Reds will undoubtedly look to their closer in every late-inning opportunity available in the postseason.
The Boston Red Sox have witnessed great renaissance seasons from both Clay Buchholz and John Lackey in 2013. But as well as the pair have pitched this season, Jon Lester has still been the rotation ace.
Lester has tossed a dependable 3.67 ERA (versus a 3.54 FIP), 1.27 WHIP and 2.66 K/BB over 208.1 innings this season. Luckily for the Red Sox, the left-hander’s good seasonal statistics have been fueled by a terrific second half.
After posting a 4.58 ERA (versus a 4.15 FIP) in the first half, Lester has been magnificent post-All-Star break, hurling a 2.29 ERA (versus a 2.62 FIP).
Given both Buchholz and Lackey’s recent injury histories, the Red Sox will need Lester to be their anchor in the postseason.
The Texas Rangers have been struggling mightily lately. Following a respectable 54-41 first half, the Rangers are at an even 30-30 post-All-Star break. After enjoying their best month in August (20-7), the team has been dreadful so far in September (5-15).
But Elvis Andrus has ignored the team's overall slump. Despite just posting a .242 batting average and park-adjusted 55 wRC+ in the first half, the speedy shortstop has been a different player in the second half. Andrus has hit to the tune of a .317 batting average and 117 wRC+ with four home runs and 21 stolen bases.
In years past, Andrus' ability to energize the Rangers offense atop the lineup has been key to the team's success, both in the regular season and the postseason. It's difficult for one player to put an entire team on his shoulders, but time is running out for the Rangers to claim a wild-card spot.