Stars may define sports, but they do not always define the story of the MLB postseason. Although players like Madison Bumgarner and George Springer have made the MLB playoffs their own personal showcases in this decade, the World Series MVP–more often than not–is usually won by a role player.
Think about it: from Steve Pearce and Ben Zobrist to David Freese and Edgar Renteria, plenty of “non-stars” earn their stripes and make major contributions in October. This is a pretty big departure from sports like the NFL and the NBA, where the standout performer in any championship game or series almost always tends to be a star player.
Anyone can be a hero in a five- or seven-game series, and anyone can get hot in the final few weeks; it is the element that makes the MLB playoffs so exciting.
So who are the players that might end up being the X-factor in helping their team hoist a championship banner? From the top World Series contenders to teams on the fringe of a Wild Card berth, let’s take a look at some players to watch heading into the final month of the season?
Shall we start with the Astros?
Houston possesses as much star power as any other team in the league, adding even more when they traded for Zack Greinke at the deadline. Rookie slugger Yordan Alvarez has become a household name, and Yuli Gurriel has earned some more attention after clubbing 12 homers and hitting .408 in July.
Plenty of scrutiny has also followed shortstop Carlos Correa, who has missed nearly half of the season and just went back on the Injured List due to a back issue.
Is it really possible that Brantley–the MLB leader in batting average–is still flying under the radar? Plenty has been made about Yankees second baseman D.J. LeMahieu being one of the best free agent signings of this past winter, but Brantley is also providing exceptional value after being signed for two years and $32 million.
The 11-year veteran is slashing .334/.393/.540 with 18 homers, 38 doubles and a 145 OPS+. Despite posting a negative defensive value, Brantley ranks 18th in fWAR (4.4) and eighth in wRC+ (149).
Brantley has been one of the most professional hitters in the game, and he can hit righties and lefties. More importantly, he has been as durable as they come this season, which is a pretty significant departure from his career history.
The Astros have been banged up all season long, but they are still one of the very best teams in baseball. Brantley’s immediate impact in the lineup has had a winning effect on this team, and he is most certainly a guy to watch as opponents continue to focus on Alvarez, Springer, Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve.
The Yankees are a hard team to assess in this regard, in part because their spectacular 2019 season has been totally defined by role players like Luke Voit, Gio Urshela and Mike Tauchman, as well as an MVP-caliber season from the aforementioned LeMahieu.
In other words, you could probably argue that the players to watch would–and in fact should–be injured stars like Giancarlo Stanton, Luis Severino and Dellin Betances or Aaron Judge. Keeping with the theme, however, Green is the guy under consideration.
This has been a pretty wild season for Green thus far. The 28-year-old flamethrower established himself as one of the best relievers in baseball over the course of the past two years, posting a 1.83 ERA in 2017 and a 2.50 ERA last year. However, Green was demoted to the minor leagues after giving up 14 runs and four homers in just 7 2/3 innings of work in April.
When he returned, Yankees manager Aaron Boone began to use Green as an “opener” as a substitute for New York’s banged up starting rotation. The strategy seemed to work brilliantly, as Green posted an 0.69 ERA and a sterling 13.8 K/9 in June and a respectable 3.14 ERA (10.0 K/9) in July.
However, Green has really struggled this month. He has served up a trio of homers and his walk rate has increased significantly over his first 8 2/3 innings, despite also running an 11.4 K/9.
If all of their bullpen arms are performing well, the Yankees might be able to negate their lack of an effective rotation. However, Green might be the piece that holds everything together.
Just over a month ago, I wrote about how the Dodgers needed to promote Will Smith to be their everyday starting catcher. Smith had played well in limited action, and he was destroying Triple-A pitching while Austin Barnes and Russell Martin struggled at the big-league level.
Smith was indeed promoted at the end of July. He hit a pair of homers and drove in nine runs in four games at the end of the month, and has continued that momentum into August, where he has already hit seven homers and is slugging .816… sheesh.
For the season, Smith is slashing .318/.392/.818 with 12 homers in just 88 at-bats, a staggering line for any rookie, let alone a catcher. And while he is getting high marks for his power and productivity at the plate, Smith has been surprisingly good behind the dish as well.
Smith has caught 215 innings for the Dodgers this season, posting three Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). He is not at the same level as Barnes in terms of pitch framing, but he still ranks a respectable 29th out of 104 catchers in pitch framing, according to Baseball Prospectus.
In a flash, the Dodgers have gone from one of the more inept teams in the league at the catching position to one of the most productive, and they have not lost much–if any–on the defensive end in the process.
He is only 24 years old, but Smith could be one of the most consequential Dodger players come October.
The Twins hardly needed more offensive firepower. Minnesota ranks second in runs and first in homers and OPS, and they had gotten decent production from signings like Jonathan Schoop and C.J. Cron.
Because that was not enough, however, second baseman Luis Arraez has been an upgrade over Schoop. Through his first 211 at-bats, Arraez was slashing .341/.408/.445 with a 128 OPS+. Although he has been a below-average defender at second base, the Twins may be able to use him in left field down and incorporate different positional lineups so as to include his bat.
Of course, Minnesota’s success is likely dependent on their pitching staff, but that storyline has been prevalent all season long. Instead, keep an eye on Arraez, especially once Byron Buxton returns to the lineup for the Twins.
The Nationals have had one of the worst bullpens in baseball all year long, but Strickland looked very good in his first few outings before he suffered an injury lifting weights.
Washington acquired Strickland at the deadline after the 30-year-old had just recently returned to action for the Seattle Mariners. Through his first seven innings of work, Strickland had given up just four hits and one run. He is not quite the same strikeout guy that he was earlier in his career, but he is getting more ground balls and has found a way to get himself out of jams.
With closer Sean Doolittle suffering from a poor second half and making his way to the Injured List, the Nationals need a more reliable arm at the back end of the bullpen. Fernando Rodney has been solid in the middle innings, but he has also blown multiple saves. The same can be said for Tanner Rainey and Wander Suero.
Strickland could be the guy that is eventually installed as a permanent setup man. After all, he has plenty of experience in the role given his last stint with the San Francisco Giants.
This might be pushing things slightly, because Castellanos has already become a massive star in Chicago.
Since coming to the Cubs at the deadline, Castellanos is slashing .392/.429/.785 with eight homers and a 200 OPS+. During that period, he leads the Cubs in hits (31) and homers (8), and he has provided the offense with a much-needed spark at the top of the lineup. Not to mention, he has actually played above-average defense with the Cubs, which is a huge win for the organization given his atrocious defensive metrics with the Tigers.
Chicago has plenty of firepower when everyone is hitting. Kris Bryant is having arguably the finest season of his career, and the same case can be made for Anthony Rizzo. However, there is a sense that the offense has been very “boom-bust” in their production, and guys like Javier Baez have really struggled on the road.
If the Cubs can take control of the National League Central, Castellanos’ consistent ability to drive the ball and find gaps is likely to be a massive factor in their potential success come October.