A season can change with a single swing. But we generally tend to think of that in positive terms, as in a guy like … oh, I don't know … Slade Heathcott hitting a game-winning three-run blast for a contending club in need of a jolt.
It can work the other way, as well. A team seemingly on the verge of something special can suddenly have its fate irrevocably altered by the wrong pitch to the wrong guy at the wrong time.
That's what leads to this discussion about baseball's scariest hitters in the home stretch. There are some plainly obvious names who actually won't make this list of 10 -- American League MVP candidate Josh Donaldson or all-time Trade Deadline import Yoenis Cespedes among them -- because the focus here is on guys from out-of-contention clubs who can still impact the races. Even Bryce Harper, who darn well better win the National League MVP Award*, will not be included here. As monstrous as Harper's season might be, the Nats' only remaining games of any real magnitude are their last three against the Mets -- and those games won't have a bearing on anything other than whether the Mets open their Division Series against the Dodgers at home or on the road, if that.
*Spare me the speech about Cespedes' second-half spark meriting "mention" in the conversation, because there really doesn't need to be a conversation when one dude has a commanding league lead in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, among other key categories.
With the obvious caveat that a soul-crushing swat of the bat can come from just about anyone at any time (as Robert Andino can attest), these are the 10 guys who rate as most capable of ruining somebody's season.
Joey Votto, Reds
Just an insane second half from Votto. He entered Wednesday with a .371/.557/.663 slash line in 57 games since the break. Basically, your best hope of sending Votto back to the dugout right now is to hope Bill Welke ejects him.
Only three other players in history have had a batting average of .350 or higher, an on-base percentage of .550 or higher and a slugging percentage of .650 or higher in at least 50 games in a season's second half, and they are names you will no doubt recognize:
• Babe Ruth (1920, 1923, 1932)
• Ted Williams (1941, 1957)
• Barry Bonds (2002-04)
Alas, none of those guys had that sensational second half on a team below .500, let alone a team more than 20 games below .500, like Votto's Reds. So Votto's post-break brilliance will basically be lost to history. But that doesn't mean he can't have some say in how the NL Central and the NL Wild Card pecking order shakes out. The Reds still have series remaining against the Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates, with that Pittsburgh set coming the last weekend of the season.
Chris Davis, Orioles
More than 40 percent of his fly balls in the second half have gone over the wall -- a profound pace that is sure to amp up Davis' resale value on the open market this winter.
Davis is a fascinating and sometimes frustrating talent, because when his stats go south for a stretch, they go way south. He's truly been boom or bust in Baltimore. But Davis also has the most home runs in baseball over the last four seasons, and, even though the O's awful stretch in August sullied their once-pesky standing, Davis has all the individual incentive he needs to finish with a flourish. If he does, the timing could impact the East, for the O's face the Blue Jays and Yankees in the season's final week.
David Ortiz, Red Sox
Boston is another also-ran with seven games remaining against the East's top tenants, beginning this weekend in Toronto. All seven of those games are on the road, and Rogers Centre and Yankee Stadium are two of the three ballparks where Ortiz has logged at least 20 games played and slugged at a .600 clip or higher. (Detroit's Comerica Park is the other, for all you completists out there.)
Ortiz was like the Red Sox at large, in that his first half was a disappointment, with an un-Papi-like .762 OPS that perhaps was understandable for a nearly 40-year-old slugger. But Ortiz has still got a lot of life in that bat, as evidenced by an average exit velocity (93.4 mph) that ranks among the Major League leaders, just ahead of Mike Trout.
Big Papi picked up the pace considerably in the march to career home run No. 500 after the break (.335/.411/.730), and his 49.7 hard-hit percentage in the second half is the highest in the big leagues. Especially given the improved protection around him in the Red Sox lineup with Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. and Travis Shaw all playing well, this is just not a guy you want to face right now.
Michael Brantley, Indians
While the Indians are still mathematically a contender, the fact they could win, say, 14 of their last 18 and still realistically be shut out of the second AL Wild Card is not especially encouraging. This is the only club in baseball that probably wishes the season could be extended beyond 162.
But Brantley and Co. can at least make things miserable for a Minnesota club very much in that AL Wild Card mix. The Indians still face the Twins seven more times (and have four remaining against a Royals club fighting for the AL's top seed).
Brantley is an especially difficult out at the moment, with a .359/.425/.615 second-half slash. Actually, all year Brantley has been a tough guy to pitch to, as his 84.8 contact percentage outside the strike zone is the second-best in baseball, and his 8.3 percent strikeout rate is the third-best. But what makes him especially dangerous right now is that he's batting behind Francisco Lindor, who has emerged as an OBP machine in the second half. Brantley went into Wednesday with 14 doubles and seven homers in his last 127 at-bats.
Paul Goldschmidt, D-backs
Of course you don't need me to tell you Goldy is awesome. The surface-level stats (.316/.433/.553, 28 homers, 33 doubles, 21 stolen bases) are elite, as are the more nuanced numbers (93.5 mph average exit velocity and a minus-6.2-degree average spray angle, which shows his ability to consistently go the other way).
Even on a sub-.500 squad, he'd be a viable MVP candidate if Harper weren't going all Barry Bonds on us.
The improvement of Goldschmidt's supporting cast this season (he's surrounded by two breakout outfielders in A.J. Pollock and David Peralta) has led to the second 100-RBI season of his career and makes him all the more dangerous in the home stretch. The D-backs still have four more games against a Dodgers team looking to claim home-field advantage in the NLDS, but the series to really keep an eye on is the season-finale set against the Astros, who might very well need to keep Goldschmidt in check that weekend to win the AL West.
Nelson Cruz, Mariners
He had 14 homers before May 5, then slowed to a more human pace for a couple of months. But over the last eight weeks, Cruz is slugging at a .709 clip. He's hit 21 homers since the break, and now that Robinson Cano has rediscovered how to produce more like Robinson Cano, there are -- in theory, at least -- fewer opportunities to pitch around Cruz.
I'm one of the many dopes to pick the M's to win the AL West this year. At least with three games in Texas this weekend and three against the Astros in the last week of the season, the road to the division title still kinda/sorta runs through the Mariners. They've also got three left against the barely breathing Angels and three others against the Royals.
Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies
Rockies teammate Nolan Arenado would be just as appropriate here, and he hit a big 16th-inning blast against the Dodgers on Tuesday. Maybe he's even more appropriate, as CarGo went 0-for-7 in that game and had to leave after smoking a foul ball off his foot.
But assuming CarGo is a go (never an easy assumption, given his injury history) next week against the Pirates, the Buccos, who obviously have a lot on the line right now, better beware. More than Arenado, who has actually hit the majority of his home runs this season on the road, CarGo benefits from Coors Field, where he's got a slugging percentage about 180 points higher than he does on the road.
In the second half, Gonzalez has seen nearly 40 percent of his fly balls go for long balls, and his 1.241 OPS at home since the break is the highest in the Majors in that span for any player with at least 100 plate appearances at home. His home run/fly-ball rate is the fifth-highest in baseball.
The Dodgers, vying for the NL's second seed, also have a series remaining at Coors.
Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
Caught up in that Motown malaise, at the tail end of a season in which he took his first trip to the DL and watched the once-mighty Tigers totally unravel, Miggy has had a rough-and-tumble September (.192/.288/.231 slash, as of this writing).
Don't care. You still can't find a single pitcher who is entirely comfortable with the idea of facing the best hitter in baseball with the game on the line. Miggy's average exit velocity (93.9 mph) trails only that of young whippersnappers Giancarlo Stanton, Miguel Sano and Kyle Schwarber. He's still a freak, and his Tigers still have three games left against both the Twins and the Rangers.
J.D. Martinez, Tigers
A Tiger two-fer.
Martinez might not have quite the pedigree of Cabrera, but, man, he's proved himself as a legitimate middle-of-the-order masher and certainly not a one-hit wonder after his out-of-nowhere 2014. His HR/FB rate (21.8) ranks 11th in the game, right in between that of Votto and Ryan Braun. His slugging percentage (.550) is ninth in the Majors. His hard-hit percentage (43.4) is the best in the game, a full point higher than that of Harper.
All of the schedule notes with Cabrera obviously apply to Martinez. What doesn't apply is the trend line, as Martinez had a .567 slugging percentage over his last 20 games, entering Wednesday.
Ryan Braun, Brewers
Man, what's gotten into Ryan Braun? Well, maybe I don't want to know the answer to that question. But Braun put together a nice little bounceback season after the PED and thumb problems of recent years, earning his first All-Star berth since 2012 and compiling an average exit velocity (93.09) just behind that of Trout and just ahead of Lucas Duda.
Even more impressive is what Braun has done after the break and, specifically, since Aug. 1 -- a .355/.425/.567 slash line. For a guy whose numbers cratered in August and September last year, it's a good sign that he's found a manageable approach to the thumb issue. Those numbers are of the MVP ilk he displayed in 2011.
Braun was scratched with back tightness before Wednesday's game against St. Louis, but he can still have a say in next week's four-game set against the Cardinals. The Brewers also have six left against a Cubs team trying to swipe the home-field edge in the NL Wild Card Game.
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Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor and an MLB.com columnist. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.