This season’s road to the MLB playoffs didn’t offer quite the same sizzle as in years past. Most division races were already decided by the time the calendar flipped to September, and only one team (the since-vanquished Colorado Rockies) even entered the final week of the regular season with their playoff spot in doubt.
However, that doesn’t mean the playoffs will be dull. If this year’s Wild Card Games are any indication, we might be in for one of the best postseasons in memory. Several “super teams” will enter the mix as the Division Series kick off on Thursday, and there is no clear-cut favorite to win the World Series.
With eight teams entering the fray, there are countless storylines to watch for. Here are five (okay, seven) players we think will have the biggest impact on this round.
Astros RHP Justin Verlander
What to watch for: Is playoff Verlander back?
Early on, Justin Verlander was knocked for his supposed “poor” performance in the playoffs. Tigers fans knew better, of course, especially after he dominated the Oakland Athletics in the 2012 and 2013 ALDS. Even though he
should have almost won the 2016 AL Cy Young, Verlander still hasn’t quite gained the national recognition he deserves for (mostly) returning to dominant form.
That might be changing in Houston. Verlander has been lights out since he was traded to the Astros, posting a 1.06 ERA and 0.65 WHIP in five starts. The real hot streak goes back further than that, though. Since June 1, Verlander has a 2.80 ERA with 156 strikeouts in 138 innings. He has pitched deep into games, and looked every bit the ace the Astros were hoping for when they finally pulled the trigger on a last-minute blockbuster trade.
Plus, he’s still a Tiger to us, so you better be watching.
Nationals OF Bryce Harper and RHP Max Scherzer
What to watch for: How will they play?
For once, the Washington Nationals seem like they have the roster to compete in October. They aggressively upgraded their bullpen in July, dealing for Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, and Brandon Kintzler before the trade deadline. Between the ‘pen upgrades and a strong rotation, the Nats looked to have finally built a pitching staff that could compete in October.
But if Max Scherzer and Bryce Harper aren’t right, that might not matter. Both players are expected to play in the series — Harper had a handful of tune-up plate appearances in the final week of the season — but their relative health is an open question. Scherzer is an especially big question mark given how recently he tweaked his hamstring; if he can’t go, the Nats might have to turn to Edwin Jackson in his place.
For Harper, the question isn’t whether he will play, but how well he’ll adjust after missing six weeks of action down the stretch. He wasn’t sharp during his few at-bats last week, but did collect two hits in the team’s regular season finale on October 1. The Nats have other hitters to pick up the slack — they had six players with a 120 wRC+ or better during the regular season — but no one quite affects an opposing pitching staff like Harper.
Yankees OF Aaron Judge
What to watch for: Can he get on base?
Considering the strength and depth of both bullpens in this series, you could pick any hitter and ask “Are they going to do anything?” Judge is an easy target because of his monster season, as well as the swoon he went through during the early part of the second half. Our colleague*, Grant Brisbee, wondered how Judge would transition to the postseason environment in his excellent playoff preview.
Against power pitchers, the best of the best, he hit just .186/.337/.386, which is pretty close to the league average (.222/.301/.369) against those pitchers. It’s not that he’ll struggle against the best pitchers compared to other hitters, but that he’ll be an ordinary guy. And guess what kind of pitchers he’ll face in the postseason.
Judge is more than just a power threat, though. He posted an excellent .422 on-base percentage this year and drew walks an incredible 18.7 percent of the time. His league-leading 128 runs scored might be a more important number for the Yankees offense than all his dingers and RBI. Even if he’s not hitting homers, he could still have a big impact on this series.
*We’re colleagues with Grant in the same way a Tigers minor league is colleagues with Miguel Cabrera, but I’m still counting it.
Diamondbacks RHP Archie Bradley
What to watch for: How will he be used?
For as exciting as his RBI triple was on Wednesday, Bradley’s real appeal comes on the mound. He posted excellent numbers as Arizona’s setup man this year, and nearly doubled up closer Fernando Rodney in fWAR. The D’Backs bullpen showed some cracks in their Wild Card win (Bradley included), and they will undoubtedly need more out of their starters to have a chance against the loaded Los Angeles Dodgers.
In the later innings, it’s Bradley’s show. He was remarkably homer-averse during the regular season, but didn’t post the type of dominant strikeout numbers you would expect from a true relief ace. Still, he’s the best Arizona has, and will be counted on in tight situations to get the ball to Rodney. Does he have the longevity of an Andrew Miller to work multiple innings? One would think a former starting pitcher (and highly regarded one at that) could do so.
Red Sox RHP Craig Kimbrel and Dodgers RHP Kenley Jansen
What to watch for: How many innings can they throw?
Statistically speaking, Boston and Los Angeles had two of the best bullpens in baseball this season. They ranked second and fourth in ERA, respectively, and were near the top in several other statistical categories.
But ask yourself: do you really feel comfortable with anyone but Kimbrel or Jansen on the mound with the game on the line?
The Dodgers didn’t last year, and asked Jansen to throw 11 2⁄3 innings in two series as a result. By comparison, Kenta Maeda made three starts and only totaled 10 2⁄3 innings. Both teams have tried their best to shore up the later innings, but there are still question marks everywhere. Joe Kelly and Matt Barnes have struggled with their command at times in Boston’s bullpen, and Carson Smith only threw 6 2⁄3 regular season innings in his return from injury. The Red Sox will use David Price out of the ‘pen this year, in part to help shore up that perceived weakness.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers are already out one option in Luis Avilan, who will miss the NLDS with a shoulder injury. Tony Cingrani stepped up late as a solid option from the left side, but he and Brandon Morrow don’t instill the same confidence that Jansen does in high leverage situations. Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts used Jansen very aggressively last year, and we should expect the same in 2017.