- It may be the most loaded playoff slate in recent memory, but plenty of this year's teams are debuting some important players in postseason play. Here's a look at the best players making their postseason debuts.
The striking thing about the Yankees' come-from-behind victory over the Twins in the AL Wild Card game, besides Luis Severino's failure to escape the first inning, was the way that so many first-time postseason participants rose to the occasion. Reliever Chad Green put out the initial fire, striking out back-to-back batters when a hit could have expanded the lead to 5–0. Presumptive AL Rookie of the Year Aaron Judge won a seven-pitch battle against Ervin Santana in the bottom of the first with a bloop single, then applied the coup de grâce with a two-run homer in the fourth. Catcher Gary Sanchez doubled and scored the go-ahead run in the third inning—driven in by Greg Bird—and survived a potentially mortal blow to the groin. Reliever Tommy Kahnle retired all seven batters he faced.
While efforts to quantify playoff experience have gone for naught, not everybody handles the mix of adrenaline and pressure applied by 50,000 screaming fans equally well when the season hangs by a thread. Then again, no championship is won without a few postseason newcomers—perhaps rookies, but not necessarily—rising to the occasion. The Yankees wouldn't be moving on without Green summoning a reserve of calm in the heat of the moment: “I don’t think I had the chance to be nervous,” he said afterwards. “I was just trying to slow the game down, take it one pitch at a time."
With the Division Series set to begin on Thursday and Friday, what follows here is a look at the key first-time participants for each team. Some of them are role players, others are centerpieces on whom World Series dreams hinge.
Arguably, no first-time participant is more central to his team's postseason chances as Sale, who never sniffed October during his seven-year run with the White Sox (2010–16) before being dealt to the Red Sox last October. The wiry southpaw was supposed to join 2016 AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello and 2012 winner David Price at the front of the rotation, but a funny thing happened on the way to October. Price battled elbow woes and local media, made just 11 starts and will pitch out of the bullpen for the duration of Boston’s run. Porcello was lit for a 4.65 ERA and an MLB-high 38 homers. Sale looked Cy Young-bound for much of the season, and was in position to win the Pitching Triple Crown—leads in wins, ERA and strikeouts—into August. Though he became the first AL pitcher to top 300 strikeouts since 1999, he scuffled during August and September, managing just a 4.09 ERA and five quality starts out of 11; thirteen of his 24 homers allowed came over his final 66 innings. For a Sox team that doesn't mash like those of yesteryear, it's vital that he's at the top of his game.
Sale isn't alone among the Red Sox’s first-timers. Twenty-year-old rookie Rafael Devers didn't debut until July 25, but he shored up the team's Sandoval-sized third base woes on both sides of the ball, turning in a team-high 112 OPS+ (on a .284/.338/.482 line with 10 homers in 240 PA) in the process.
The Indians' run to Game 7 of the 2016 World Series happened without Carrasco, whose season ended on his second pitch of a September 17 start, when a sharp comebacker off the bat of the Tigers' Ian Kinsler fractured his fifth metacarpal. His absence and that of Danny Salazar forced manager Terry Francona to get particularly creative with both his rotation and his bullpen, which worked brilliantly. This time around, the 30-year-old righty is ready to go, coming off a season in which he threw a career-high 200 innings and ranked sixth in the league ERA (3.29), fifth in WAR (5.6), strikeout and home run rates (10.2 and 0.9 per nine, respectively), fourth in FIP (3.10) and third in strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.4).
Like many Indians, he closed the season on a roll, posting a 1.82 ERA and 8.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his final 10 starts. Carrasco will start Game 3 of the Division Series against the Yankees in the Bronx with his favorable road splits likely a factor; his 2.52 ERA away from home over the past three seasons trails only Clayton Kershaw (2.34) and Max Scherzer (2.48)
Though they won the AL Wild Card Game just two years ago, the Astros have received a significant makeover since then, albeit not quite as radical as that of the team they beat, the Yankees. From an offense that set a post-1900 record with a 128 OPS+—one point better than the "Murderer's Row" 1927 Yankees—look no further than third baseman Alex Bregman and first baseman Yuli Gurriel, both of whim debuted in 2016 and took on key roles this year.
The 23-year-old Bregman, the second overall pick of the 2015 draft, hit .284/.352/.475 with 18 homers, 17 steals and a 127 OPS+ this year, playing a solid third base and helping to cover shortstop when a thumb injury sidelined Carlos Correa. Gurriel, a 33-year-old Cuban defector, took up residence at a new position, first base, and hit .299/.332/.486 with 18 homers and a 120 OPS+.
But wait, there's more! As Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. spent June, July and August being banged around when they weren't too banged up to pitch, Brad Peacock moved from the bullpen to the rotation and became their most reliable starter for a time; overall, he finished with a 3.00 ERA and 11.0 strikeouts per nine. With Charlie Morton and Collin McHugh as options as well, it's not a guarantee that Peacock will start in the Division Series, but he could be a factor in a multi-inning relief role, along with fellow righty Chris Devenski (2.68 ERA, 11.2 K/9) and closer Ken Giles (2.30 ERA, 11.9 K/9).
Had the Diamondbacks won the NL Wild Card Game in a more orderly fashion, this space would be occupied by presumptive Division Series Game 1 starter Robbie Ray, but when Zack Greinke frittered away a six-run lead in the fourth inning, manager Torey Lovullo called upon the 25-year-old lefty, whose 2 1/3-inning stint rules him out for Friday's series opener. That leaves Lovullo with a choice of 27-year-old lefty Patrick Corbin or one of two righties, 27-year-old Zack Godley or 24-year-old Taijuan Walker—none of whom has postseason experience.
All had very good seasons; Godley has the lowest ERA and FIP of the trio (3.37 and 3.41, respectively) as well as the highest strikeout rate (9.6 per nine). Within the small sample sizes, it was Walker (3.49 ERA, 4.04 FIP) who pitched best against the Dodgers (3.24 ERA in 16 2/3 innings), but overall, he was far less likely to deliver a quality start (43%, compared to Godley's 56% and Corbin's 59%), which could be a factor given the need for further bullpen support. With the Dodgers having reversed their previous woes against lefties this year—they hit for a .789 OPS against them, compared to .764 against righties—and with Corbin having posted a 4.70 ERA in September, the assignment will probably fall to a righty, but all three pitchers could be important if the Diamondbacks are to play deep into October.
The turning point of the defending world champions' season came with the July 13 crosstown trade that delivered Jose Quintana. The Cubs, after a sluggish 45–45 first half, won their first six games of the second half and 14 of their first 17 to turn the NL Central race around. The 28-year-old Quintana pitched to a 3.74 ERA and 3.25 FIP in 14 starts as a Cub, but even with the rotation's second-half resurgence, all of the team's likely postseason starters—Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks being the others—declined from last year's sterling performances in terms of ERA and FIP.
The 23-year-old Happ, a 2015 first-round pick who came up in mid-May, hit .253/.328/.514 with 24 homers and a 114 OPS+ while splitting time between centerfield, second base and both outfield corners. Expect manager Joe Maddon to utilize him as one of the Chicago lineup's many moving parts, along with Ben Zobrist and Jon Jay.
Back in early February, Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection system pegged the Dodgers to win an MLB-high 98 games thanks to their combination of star power and depth, but almost nobody predicted the stellar contributions from either Bellinger or Taylor, whose opportunities were created by injuries to Logan Forsythe, Joc Pederson and Adrian Gonzalez. Taylor, acquired from the Mariners in June 2016 for former first-round pick Zach Lee, hit just .234/.289/.309 in 120 career games from 2014–16, and began the year in Triple A. When Logan Forsythe broke his toe in mid-April, the 27-year-old carved himself a spot in the lineup at second base, shifted to centerfield when Pederson went down with a concussion, filled in at shortstop when Corey Seager had elbow issues, and kept giving manager Dave Roberts a reason to keep writing his name in the lineup by hitting .288/.354/.496 with 21 homers, 17 steals and a 120 OPS+. His 4.8 WAR ranked third among Dodgers position players behind only Justin Turner and Seager.
Bellinger, the 22-year-old son of the former Yankees utilityman Clay Bellinger, ranked number 7 on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list this spring. After spending most of 2016 in Double A, he appeared ticketed for Triple A with perhaps a late-season callup, but in the wake of injuries to Andre Ethier and Andrew Toles in April, the kid (then still 21) was called up to play leftfield. He debuted on April 25, homered twice in his fifth game, twice again in his 10th game, and just kept bopping to the point that he earned a place in the Home Run Derby and set an NL record with 39 dingers while batting .267/.352/.581 for a 142 OPS+.
With their fourth trip to the postseason in six years, the Nationals' roster is steeped in postseason experience, particularly after general manager Mike Rizzo bolstered a weak bullpen via a July 16 trade with the A's for battle-tested closer Sean Doolittle and setup man Ryan Madson. Rizzo continued upgrading the bullpen by dealing for Kintzler, who at 32 years old, eight seasons into his major league career, had suddenly emerged as an All-Star closer for the Twins. Though he saved just one game for the Nationals, he posted a solid 3.46 ERA in 26 innings, albeit while whiffing an astonishingly low 4.2 per nine. He's a groundballer whose ability to generate double plays could make him a useful mid-inning piece in October.
Playing for his fourth team in as many seasons, the 33-year-old Lind hit 303/.362/.513 with 14 homers and a 123 OPS+ in just 301 PA. In addition to spending time as a first baseman and leftfielder, he hit .356/.396/.644 in 48 pinch-hitting appearances; his four pinch-homers tied with the Rockies' Pat Valaika for the major league lead, and he has nine such hits in his 12-year career.