- It's playoff time, which means some players could make the big difference between an early exit and a World Series title. May we present our 2017 playoff x-factors.
With the Division Series set to begin on Thursday afternoon in Houston, SI writers Ben Reiter and Gabriel Baumgaertner took time to develop the primary x-factors of this year's playoffs. Could it be a big star? Sure, take Chris Sale's recent slump in Boston. If he's not pitching like his usual self, then there's little chance the Red Sox are going to win the AL pennant. Or is it a little known figure like Tony Watson in Los Angeles? A lefty who may not face many hitters, but is a crucial piece for the Dodgers to get to esteemed closer Kenley Jansen. Each of these players will be essential to their teams' hopes as the long haul of the playoffs kicks off.
The "Baby Bombers" of Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez have rightfully received plenty of attention heading into the Yankees ALDS showdown with the Cleveland Indians, but Gregorius might be the player that best stabilizes one of baseball's most fearsome offenses. Gregorius quietly compiled a career season in his fifth full year in the big leagues, setting career highs in batting average (.287), home runs (25), and OPS+ (106) over 136 games. Add in his strong defense at shortstop and there's an argument that outside of Judge, Gregorius is the most indispensable player to the Yankees current lineup. Gregorius launched a crucial three-run homer off of Twins starter Ervin Santana in the AL Wild Card Game to erase an early 3–0 deficit to make his early mark. If he continues his career season into the playoffs, he'll be an essential piece to the Yankees making a deep run.
Is Sale a lazy answer to this question? Maybe. Is David Price the more intriguing storyline? Probably. The reality is that Sale, who appeared to be a lock for the AL Cy Young Award midway through the season, is battling uncharacteristic struggles as he enters his first career playoff start. Since August 19, he's compiled a pedestrian 4.30 ERA and .264 opponents' batting average over his final eight starts of the season. He surrendered four or more runs in four of those eight starts after allowing four or more runs just four times over his previous 24 outings. He's had a bit of bad luck in the process (his batting average in balls in play is an unusually high .356), but it's clear that he's battling ineffectiveness in a way he hasn't over the course of his career.
If the Red Sox want to make a run to the World Series, they can ill-afford having to go to a questionable bullpen early in one of Sale's starts. They need him to go at least six innings and to not fall behind early. That will be a difficult task against a monstrous Houston offense.
The Indians seemed to get a career season from everyone. Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor will receive down-ballot MVP votes. Corey Kluber is going to win the AL Cy Young. Heck, even Mike Clevinger is having the best season of his life and is going to work out of the bullpen in the ALDS. The Indians are loaded everywhere, but if they can find a hot streak from Edwin Encarnacion, they might be unstoppable.
Encarnacion signed a three-year, $60 million contract in the offseason and provided a stable, but not typical season for the Indians. His average (.258) dipped to its lowest since 2010; his OPS+ (128) was its lowest since 2011; and his home run total (38) took a slight dip from last season (42). His most impressive addition to his arsenal, however, was his on-base percentage (.377), which was his highest since 2012, due in large part to his career-high 104 walks. Encarnacion has come up with big hits in big situations before—see his walk-off home run in the 2016 AL Wild Card Game against the Orioles—and if he can heat up during these playoffs, it's hard to see any way to limit the Indians offense.
As Jay Jaffe noted earlier this week, the Astros are the most dominant offensive team in baseball this season, and one of the best offenses in modern baseball history. Even if a player like Jose Altuve or Carlos Correa struggles in the ALDS, the lineup features a host of reinforcements—George Springer, Josh Reddick, Yuli Gurriel and Alex Bregman just to name a few—to sustain any prolonged slumps within the lineup. With the addition of Justin Verlander at the August 31st trading deadline, the front end of the starting pitching staff is less of a concern than it was before the season's final month.
But how about the back end of that rotation? Lance McCullers has been completely ineffective since July 6 (he hasn't thrown more than 5 1/3 innings in any start and has an ERA of 8.53 over seven starts) and while Collin McHugh has been strong since starting his season in late July (a 3.55 ERA over 12 starts), he may lack the power needed to sustain a playoff start against a balanced Boston offense.
That's why manager A.J. Hinch may look to Brad Peacock to start Game 3 of the ALDS. Peacock enters the playoffs with a 2.29 ERA over his last seven starts and an opponent batting average of .184. He also boasts an astonishing 11.0 K/9 ratio and has been the breakout star of the Houston rotation in the second half of the season. He lacks any significant playoff pedigree, but he's the hottest starter they have not named Verlander. Hinch may use Peacock as a wipeout middle-innings reliever in the mold of Andrew Miller or now David Price, but he may be the best option to quiet the Red Sox offense.
Here’s what you need to understand about a year in which Schwarber’s batting average hovered around .200 throughout, and dipped below it as recently as Sept. 7: despite his World Series heroics last October, the ACL he tore in April `16 was still not 100% by spring training, and early on he was still essentially rehabbing it. But while his average remained low after he returned from a June demotion to Triple-A, from that point on he had a top-30 OPS (.907) and more homers (19) than just 10 other players, reaching 30 for the season on Saturday. At 24, his postseason bona fides are already unquestioned, with five homers and a 1.178 OPS in 14 career games. In other words, this is his time.
This was going to be Bryce Harper, who returned from a month and a half on the disabled list with a hyperextended knee on Sept. 26 and produced just one hit in his first four games back. Then, in the fourth inning on Saturday, Scherzer—who will presumably win his second straight NL Cy Young award—gingerly walked off the mound in what was supposed to be a final postseason tune-up. If any club can weather the loss of its ace on the eve of October, it’s the Nationals, as Stephen Strasburg (2.52) and Gio Gonzalez (2.75) joined Scherzer (2.51) among the NL’s top four ERA leaders—and anyway, the Nats claimed Scherzer suffered no more than a hamstring cramp. Still, suddenly the player who was supposed to be their most reliable, isn’t.
Kenley Jansen is ridiculous, with his 1.34 ERA, 14.4 strikeouts per nine and 40 saves in 41 chances. Last October, he proved himself willing and able to work more than one inning when it matters most, doing so in four of his seven postseason appearances. While skipper Dave Roberts’ ideal scenario would be to use only two pitchers on a given night—the starter and Jansen—it won’t go that way most of the time, and it could come down to the Tonys—midseason acquisitions Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani, both southpaws—to bridge the gap.
Neither made a particularly good impression after being brought over at the deadline from the Pirates and Reds, respectively—both had August ERAs near 5.00—but they were quietly lights out in September, allowing a combined two earned runs in 18.1 innings. Of course, with the Dodgers’ NL West title assured since they arrived, none of those outings were particularly pressurized. Now they will be.
The odds were good that Rodney, a 40-year-old with his sixth team in the last five years, would prove this season’s first deposed closer, particularly with newly minted relief weapon Archie Bradley breathing down his neck. But Rodney held on to the job all year, converting 39 of 45 save chances. His half-dozen blown opportunities, though, tended to come in spectacular meltdown fashion—he was blasted for 16 earned runs over just four total innings in those, permitting just 10 earned in his other 54 appearances. With Bradley locked in a high leverage middle innings role, the end of games will belong to Rodney. Arizonan fingernails will be chewed.