In the playoffs, all players on the rosters are important. The series are so short that each mistake and each success is magnified. You never know when someone will make an outsized contribution to the team's success, or a massive blunder that torpedoes the team's chances. Some players, by virtue of their performance, position, or what-have-you, will have both a greater variability and a large impact either way. These are the players who the series will pivot on.
Boston Red Sox
Pivotal Player: Koji Uehara
Runner Up: Junichi Tazawa
Things Koji Uehara has done in 74 1/3 innings this season:
- Struck out 101 hitters while walking only seven unintentionally (two were intentional)
- Give up just nine earned runs
- Broil a perfect soufflé after every game
- Retire 37 consecutive hitters (essentially one-and-a-third perfect games)
- Spend his off-days high-fiving the entire city of Boston
Okay, one of those isn't real, but that's just because soufflés are baked, not broiled. The end result of Uehara's season wasn't just scrumptious creamy perfection, it was quite possibly the greatest season by a relief pitcher in baseball history. That is great and amazing and incredible (and delicious!), but it's also a level that Uehara, as good as he's been in his career, had never reached before. There are more than a few metrics that point to him coming back to earth at least a little bit, and doing that in the playoffs (who wants to be on earth in the playoffs?) is especially bad timing. Considering the rest of their bullpen, the Red Sox will need Uehara to be as close to perfect as possible to move on.
If there is a weakness in the Red Sox roster, it is European History (good luck getting an answer to any trivia about Pope Titus the Somethingth). Also, middle relief. Junichi Tazawa was supposed to be the bridge to the closer, but he faltered down the stretch. Maybe it was that he threw 24 more innings this season than he'd ever thrown in the big leagues before. That potentially leaves the Red Sox vulnerable in the later non-ninth inning innings. At some point in the ALDS against Tampa Bay, the Red Sox will need Tazawa to pitch in a close game, and how he performs will have a big say in whether or not the Red Sox advance to the ALCS.
Pivotal Player: Miguel Cabrera
Runner Up: Jhonny Peralta
Were it up to me, I'd vote for Mike Trout as the American League MVP, but even I have to admit that there was no player in baseball whose hitting contributed more directly to his team's success than Miguel Cabrera. According to FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball Reference, and proprietary metrics at Cat Fancy, Cabrera was worth twice as much to the Tigers as their next best hitter. That's a lot of pressure to put on one guy. Making matters worse, in the last two months Cabrera missed time for a strained abdomen, a sore groin, and a hip strain. The injuries might have started to show a bit, as Cabrera, who had an OPS over 1.000 in every month this season*, put up a .729 OPS in September.
*Okay, in April he missed an OPS of 1.000 by 0.005.
But if that isn't enough proof for you, maybe you'll believe the lovable chain-smoking grandpa figure you never had. Manager Jim Leyland confirmed Cabrera's injuries are affecting his game, saying, "He's not 100 percent. He's been playing in a lot of pain. He's a real tough guy. I think if anybody knew the pain he's playing in, they probably wouldn't believe it." The Tigers badly need 1.000+ OPS Cabrera mashing baseballs into paste and then gluing things on the backsides of unsuspecting pitchers in the middle of the lineup. If instead they're stuck with what is effectively a less-mobile backup catcher batting third, well, that could impact the series pretty severely.
The Tigers (distant) second-best hitter has been Jhonny Peralta, who is returning from a PED suspension in time for the playoffs. Well, he actually played three games prior to the playoffs, but is that enough to get his bat going, or will he not be ready for the ferocity of major league pitching? Tune in to America's favorite TV show, "Whoops! Shouldn't Have Done That!" to find out!
Pivotal Player: Bartolo Colon
Runner Up: Josh Donaldson
The A's have been very good this season, but they've done it with players nobody particularly thought would be very good this season. Oakland's best starter has been Bartolo Colon, who strangely just keeps getting older at roughly the rate of one year each season. It's like clockwork! But that doesn't seem to make him any worse. Maybe it's his incredible ability to spot his fastball, or maybe it's the pint of zebra blood he snorts following every game. (I've checked and there's nothing about zebra blood in the Collective Bargaining Agreement*.) Either way, Colon is the A's ace, and they need him to keep defying the odds for another month if they want to keep participating in organized baseball any more in 2013.
*No I haven't.
**I really haven't.
To paraphrase a comedian who hasn't had a TV show on TV in a decade, what's the deal with Josh Donaldson? Good question. He's an MVP candidate this season, so that's something, but he's also a 27-year-old with a sub-.700 OPS on last year's resume who spent some significant portion of last season in Triple-A. Those kind of guys aren't usually MVP candidates, but there isn't really aren't too many kinds of guys who are typically MVP candidates so maybe we can forgive him for that. If Donaldson continues to be Donaldson, good things will happen to the A's. Like finding two fortunes in a cookie and neither will say "you will get hit by a truck" good. But there is a non-zero chance Donaldson remembers his roots and, in a perfect homage to his time in the minor leagues, plays like he belongs in the minor leagues.
Tampa Bay Rays
Pivotal Player: Matt Moore
Runner Up: Wil Myers
David Price is David Price. That means that by drafting David Price the Rays have David Price in their rotation. For you non-baseball people, this is good. Because David Price is good. Often very, very good. He's so good you can almost count on him being good. Or very, very good. Either way, he's good. After him, though, things get less certain. Matt Moore (middle name Mphillip, probably, because his parents loved alliteration) is the Rays' number two starter and he's pitched like it.
The problem is Moore is young and prone to wildness, and the Red Sox are one of the most patient teams in baseball, having walked the third-most of any team and seen the second-most pitches per plate appearance on average. The Red Sox are super patient. They'll wait for anything, anywhere, any time. Ever get to the drive-through and there's someone in front of you taking their sweet time? That's the Red Sox. Ever go to the bank and someone is meticulously counting out nickels on the counter? The Red Sox. Ever go to the movies and you miss half the show because some couple couldn't figure out where to sit so they just stood and pointed at different seats for two hours? Red Sox.
Aside from his left-handedness, Moore's style of pitching doesn't seem to be one that fits well against the Red Sox, and yet if the series goes five games Moore is likely the one who well get the ball a second time. Good starts from Moore will go a long way towards securing the Rays a berth in the ALCS.
Has Wil Myers ever played in the crucible of October? No! Has he ever played in a postseason before? Not if you don't count the times that he has elsewhere, no! Myers might just be the Rays second most-potent hitter, but considering his youth and inexperience, he's a more unproven commodity. A big series from Myers makes the Rays lineup far more fearsome. Pretend that instead of dressing up as a lion for Halloween, you hired an actual lion to go door-to-door for you. I think your neighbors will agree, that's a big difference.
Pivotal Player: Andrelton Simmons
Runner Up: Freddy Garcia
Defense-first shortstops aren't often included when it comes to naming players who can make or break a series. They're consistent. Great in the field, awful at the plate. Except Simmons isn't that. Sure, he's the former, but not quite the latter. Simmons had a .692 OPS this year, but in September he started to drive the ball a bit more, hitting .253/.303/.549 with 14 extra base hits, more than in any other month. It's probably unfair and unrealistic to expect Simmons do that kind of thing over October (though he came close to replicating that slash line in July as well) but some variation on that theme of not being awful for the 10 minutes following the picking up of a large piece of wood would make the Braves lineup far more effective. It's the difference between having two starting pitches in the lineup or one and a power-hitter.
Normally mentioning a guy like Garcia in a piece like this would be a joke. But here it's not (though it's still kinda funny). Playoff series are won and lost all the time by guys who have little business even making a playoff roster. Garcia is slated to start the fourth game, which considering the way the first game went, could be an elimination game -- if the Braves even make it that far.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Pivotal Player: Zack Greinke
Runner Up: Yasiel Puig
As he showed yesterday, Clayton Kershaw is an unstoppable force. But after he pitches, he -- very lamely -- needs to rest. Oh cry me a river, Kershaw! While Kershaw is sleeping for three days, the Dodgers need more people to stand in and pretend to be Clayton Kershaw. The one who does the closest approximation is Zack Greinke. Greinke's first year in Dodger blue has gone well on the whole, but unlike Kershaw, Greinke is human and prone to occasional mistakes. If he can avoid those mistakes, I'd be comfortable picking the Dodgers to win four of the five games, even though they only need three.
Betting against Yasiel Puig seems like a bad idea, if for no other reason the guy is liable to tie you to a spit and roast you while filming a video for YouTube about it (it's a Cuban thing). And still I feel compelled to mention that Puig had an at-least-by-his-standards tough September. The Dodgers lineup isn't exactly frightening without Puig's particular brand of awesomeness, so should the young guy go into a slump, the Dodgers would go from unbeatable to beatable, a thing which I think you'll agree, is a different thing than the other thing.
Pivotal Player: Pedro Alvarez
Runner Up: A.J. Burnett
I was going to put A.J. Burnett in the top spot but I didn't get this piece to editing in time for his Game 1 start. That was fortuitous, as Pedro Alvarez is a better choice anyway. Alvarez is one of those all-or-nothing players, the kind of guy who either gives you a giant chocolate bar at Halloween or gives you nothing because he gave away all the giant chocolate bars already. If Alvarez gets hot and hits three homers in four or five games, the Pirates offense goes from mediocre to good. If not, the Pirates offense goes from mediocre to mediocre plus nothing from Pedro Alvarez.
Despite the fact he'll likely have to face Adam Wainwright in both starts (and that he already lost the first time), A.J. Burnett's impact on the series for the Pirates will be profound simply for the reason that he'll get two starts to every other starter's one. The first one didn't go so well so Burnett will have to hope he gets another shot to prove himself.
St. Louis Cardinals
Pivotal Player: Lance Lynn
Runner Up: Matt Holliday
The Cardinals' second starter in the series, Lynn is the guy that could turn St. Louis's rotation from a can't-wait-until-the-pen-shows-up kind of rotation to an actual playoff caliber rotation. If Lynn falters, however, the bullpen takes the brunt of that and the starters that follow Lynn in the rotation, starters whose success will depend on the Cardinals bullpen, will face a depleted 'pen.
Nobody hit better for the Cardinals in September than Matt Holliday. That by itself doesn't make him a pivotal player, but his success turns the lineup from two guys and a bunch of role players into three superstars (and a bunch of role players). Okay, that's not entirely fair to the Cardinals, but there's a big difference, especially on a National League team, between a team with two or three superstar hitters. In September Holliday was that third superstar. It remains to be seen if he will be in October as well.