Hanley Ramirez, Los Angeles Dodgers.
After a wildly entertaining opening round of the 2013 MLB playoffs, the best-of-seven League Championship Series is upon us.
Due to the longer format and higher stakes, the American and National Leagues annually recognize the most effective individuals with MVP honors. We already have a good idea of who will contend for the distinction in each matchup.
It's not simply about selecting the most talented stars. Injuries, roles and scheduling can limit players' opportunities.
Taking those factors into consideration, these are the players most likely to excel in the ALCS and NLCS.
*Stats provided by Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.
Two near-untouchable relievers, Kenley Jansen and Koji Uehara, have advanced to Major League Baseball's final four. They'll presumably pitch and succeed in any competitive game for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox, respectively.
Even so, history tells us that bullpen guys seldom get legitimate consideration for League Championship Series MVP honors. The only individuals in the past quarter-century to take home the hardware without starting a single game have been Dennis Eckersley (ALCS, 1988), Rob Dibble and Randy Myers (NLCS, 1990) and Mariano Rivera (ALCS, 2003).
Right-hander Adam Wainwright is already a postseason legend. As a rookie, he was an integral member of the 2006 world champion St. Louis Cardinals, and without his dominance during this past NLDS (2 ER in 16.0 IP), St. Louis wouldn't have advanced.
However, Wainwright won't appear in this NLCS until Game 3. To emerge as a candidate for series MVP, he'll either need to dominate on that night in an eventual Cardinals sweep or hope that the matchup goes a full seven games, thus enabling him to make a second appearance.
Odds are that neither of those extremes will transpire.
Despite mashing a clutch home run in Game 5 of the ALDS, Miguel Cabrera has been clearly handicapped by injuries in recent weeks. Forgot about his reputation and Triple Crown pursuit.
At the present moment, Cabrera isn't capable of carrying the Detroit Tigers.
ALDS Stats: .429/.556/.429, 3 RBI, 1 SB in 19 PA
2013 Stats vs. Detroit Tigers: .320/.433/.480, 1 HR, 6 RBI, 2 SB in 30 PA
Longtime switch-hitter Shane Victorino has been swinging exclusively from the right side since injuring his hamstring earlier this summer. Amazingly, deviating from what he's done throughout his major league career is translating into better results.
With that said, a closer look at his righty vs. righty stats suggests that the Tigers will be a difficult matchup.
Victorino's .386 on-base percentage when facing a platoon disadvantage has been skewed by 11 hit-by-pitches in only 115 plate appearances. Aside from Doug Fister, none of Detroit's significant right-handed pitchers prey on opponent flesh. The Flyin' Hawaiian is also strikeout-prone under these circumstances, and that's a flaw that Max Scherzer and company can obviously exploit.
Solid defense and execution with runners in scoring position will be crucial if Victorino expects to build a legitimate ALCS MVP case.
ALDS Stats: 0.00 ERA, 0.53 WHIP, 21/2 K/BB in 15.0 IP
2013 Stats vs. Boston Red Sox: 7.20 ERA, 2.00 WHIP, 4/3 K/BB in 5.0 IP
It's easiest to trust somebody in the playoffs if he's coming off a career year.
In reality, however, there's a much stronger correlation between a pitcher's final few starts of the season and his October performance.
The Detroit Tigers had a couple classic examples of that in 2012 with Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer. Both peaked in August and September to wrap up the club's division title, and without their strong efforts against the Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees during the postseason, a World Series berth wouldn't have been possible.
This time around, Justin Verlander is in that position, pitching his best when it matters most to salvage a less-than-stellar campaign. Since Sept. 23: 27 innings, 43 strikeouts, zero earned runs.
Unfortunately, the scheduling of the ALCS doesn't cooperate with his MVP aspirations. Working the close-out game of the previous round means he'll likely be limited to a single appearance versus the Boston Red Sox.
ALDS Stats: 3.00 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 13/4 K/BB in 9.0 IP
2013 Stats vs. Boston Red Sox: 2.57 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 14/3 K/BB in 14.0 IP
Like Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer was used twice during the ALDS, but the latter appearance was only 47 pitches of relief work. He also pitched fewer innings during the regular season, so fatigue shouldn't be as much of a concern for him as we get deeper into the playoffs.
Scherzer struggled with pitch efficiency later in the regular season. On the flip side, even on his worst days, the 29-year-old keeps the score close.
If the Detroit Tigers win the series and no individual posts flashy stats, expect Scherzer to get the ALCS MVP nod.
ALDS Stats: .385/.556/.926, 2 HR, 3 RBI in 18 PA
2013 Stats vs. Detroit Tigers: .357/.419/.821, 4 HR, 7 RBI in 31 PA
David Ortiz has spent more than a decade terrorizing right-handed pitching in the heart of the Red Sox lineup. Despite their immense talent level, he'll be eager to oppose Detroit's starting pitchers.
Big Papi understands what it takes to succeed on this international stage. He was named ALCS MVP in 2004 after batting .387/.457/.742 and driving in 11 runs against the New York Yankees. Doing the same in 2013 will also require a combination of powerful and clutch contributions.
At age 37, Ortiz would be one of the oldest players to ever win MVP honors in a League Championship Series.
ALDS Stats: .500/.526/.611, 2 RBI, 4 SB in 19 PA
2013 Stats vs. Detroit Tigers: .320/.379/.560, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 1 SB in 29 PA
There are plenty of skeptics walking around with cleats in their mouths after they insisted that Jacoby Ellsbury would be physically limited upon returning from a compression fracture in his foot.
His ALDS performance was convincing evidence to the contrary.
The 30-year-old free-agent-to-be can influence a game in so many ways. In this case, his understanding of Fenway Park's structural oddities could be what elevates him above other potential series MVP candidates. The Boston Red Sox host Games 1 and 2 of the ALCS, and Ellsbury's experience at the historic venue will help him make rally-killing plays in center field that Tigers counterpart Austin Jackson won't.
Aside from Justin Verlander, Detroit's starting pitchers haven't given Ellsbury much trouble in the past.
NLDS Stats: 0.69 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, 18/4 K/BB in 13.0 IP
2013 Stats vs. St. Louis Cardinals: 4.15 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 10/5 K/BB in 13.0 IP
The Red Birds create matchup problems for Clayton Kershaw, as they do for virtually any pitcher in the majors. Otherwise, the Los Angeles Dodgers rotation leader would occupy a higher spot on this list.
After closing out the NLDS with a start on three days' rest, Kershaw is scheduled to take the mound for Games 2 and 6 of this series. Those contests will take place at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, so he'll receive plenty of recognition if the Dodgers win both of them.
Dating back to the regular season, 17 of the lefty's past 19 outings have been quality starts.
NLDS Stats: .222/.333/.611, 2 HR, 6 RBI in 21 PA
2013 Stats vs. Los Angeles Dodgers: .238/.304/.429, 1 HR, 3 RBI in 24 PA
High Heat Stats projected Carlos Beltran's playoff career over the course of a full 162-game season, and the findings are mind-blowing. The bright lights of October turn him into one of the best sluggers in the history of the sport.
The switch-hitting right fielder was uncharacteristically unproductive against left-handed pitching this summer (.252 BA, .729 OPS in 171 PA). Therefore, he'll need to dominate Zack Greinke, Ricky Nolasco and the Dodgers' bullpen to compensate for likely struggles against Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-jin Ryu.
NLDS Stats: .471/.500/.529, 0 HR, 2 RBI in 18 PA
2013 Stats vs. St. Louis Cardinals: .400/.526/.600, 0 HR, 0 RBI in 19 PA
Yasiel Puig's play-like-your-hair-is-on-fire mindset makes him equally likely to thrive and flop in the NLCS.
Maybe he'll be the one player in the Los Angeles Dodgers' lineup who's bold enough to steal against Yadier Molina. We can also imagine him reaching base constantly by smashing line drives beyond the diving reaches of the relatively nonathletic Cardinals defense.
On the other hand, the frustrating thing about Puig is that his desire to make an impact occasionally leads him to take unnecessary risks. He'll give away plate appearances by chasing pitches over his head, and opponents will take extra bases when he unleashes throws from the warning track to home plate.
Either way, the Cuban phenom will make his presence felt.
NLDS Stats: .294/.400/.529, 1 HR, 1 RBI in 20 PA
2013 Stats vs. Los Angeles Dodgers: .444/.500/.667, 0 HR, 2 RBI in 12 PA
Yadier Molina doesn't have particularly good career numbers against anybody on the Dodgers' pitching staff, but his excellent contact ability allows him to ignite the St. Louis Cardinals offense on any given night.
During the past two regular seasons, there were only two instances in which Molina went more than three consecutive starts without contributing a hit.
In other words, he has evolved from a defensive-minded catcher into a consistently great all-around player. That's why he might finally win some individual hardware in his sixth NLCS appearance.
NLDS Stats: .471/.500/.529, 1 HR, 2 RBI in 18 PA
2013 Stats vs. St. Louis Cardinals: N/A
Hanley Ramirez missed almost half of the 2013 season due to injuries. Even when active, the Los Angeles Dodgers training staff has needed to work on him daily to get him in the proper condition to play, writes Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times.
Of course, based on his .345/.402/.638 batting line and 20 home runs in 336 plate appearances, you wouldn't suspect a thing.
After producing at an MVP-caliber level during both the summer and NLDS, why doubt that Ramirez can continue to do so in this series?
There's arguably nobody in the majors who is better at taking advantage of pitches down the middle. The rookie-laden Cardinals staff is likely to make a few mistakes to him throughout this much-anticipated series.