With just more than a week left in the MLB regular season, the time for large-sample baseball analysis is over. Across a full season, there’s a limit to how much one individual player can influence his team’s chances, as established in the landmark Supreme Court case Trout v. His Los Angeles Angels Teammates. But when one or two games—perhaps even one or two plays—can be the difference between making the playoffs and going home to feed your sourdough starter, it’s a good time to zero in on a handful of key players who could exert outsize impacts over the season’s final stretch.
It’s a bit of a sucker’s game to try to predict baseball in this way; after all, one of the sport’s great charms is its habit of chucking unlikely heroes into the spotlight in key moments. For instance, when the Rays made their stunning comeback to take the AL wild card from the Red Sox in 2011, the man who put them over the top was not Evan Longoria or Ben Zobrist, but Dan Johnson, a pinch hitter who hit .119 that season.
But there’s no harm in taking a peek at the standings, and the rosters of the various bubble teams, and trying to guess.
Kyle Lewis, OF, Seattle Mariners
When the Baltimore Orioles started 11-7 this year, it was a big deal. The O’s were expected to be chasing presumptive 2021 top pick Kumar Rocker more than the AL East title, so their emergence as a surprise contender came as a huge shock. Since then, Baltimore’s regressed to the mean, and the team’s playoff odds have returned to within a rounding error of zero.
When the reverse happens—a team starts out awful but then catches fire—it rarely gains national attention. But, umm … the Mariners have won 15 of their past 25 games and are the only team outside the current AL playoff lineup that wouldn’t need an act of God to get in. That this hot streak came after a 7-18 start and included a seller’s deadline in which the Mariners sent catcher Austin Nola and a handful of pitchers to contenders has only camouflaged Seattle’s rise.
Much of the Mariners’ success can be attributed to starting pitching. Marco Gonzales has been exceptional over the past month, and Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield—acquired in the Edwin Díaz and James Paxton trades, respectively—have emerged as solid complementary starters. In the past 30 days, those three have made 14 starts and gone 8-1.
But Seattle’s true breakout star this year is center fielder Kyle Lewis, the no. 11 pick in the 2016 draft, who’s just now getting settled in the majors after injuries threatened to prevent him from making it there at all.
Lewis is famous for a series of home run robberies, the most recent being the theft of a would-be grand slam off the bat of Oakland’s Ramón Laureano. At 6-foot-4, Lewis has the length to go up and get the ball and the knack for timing and positioning that would have, in another life, made him an ideal target for the red zone fade. But from J.P. Crawford to Evan White, the Mariners have plenty of great defenders; what makes Lewis special is the fact that he can hit as well. That was his stock in trade as a prospect, and through his first 30 games in the majors this year, Lewis was hitting .368/.456/.585. Since August 25, though, Lewis has hit .185/.280/.338.
The Mariners currently occupy the first spot outside the AL playoff picture, within a game of Detroit and Baltimore, but because of MLB’s byzantine playoff structure, they sit only three games behind the Astros for the second AL West spot. The last 10 games on Seattle’s schedule include a three-game series against Houston that would allow the Mariners to control their own destiny. The other seven, however, are against the A’s and Padres, two absolute killer clubs against which pitching to contact and flashy defense simply won’t cut it. Seattle’s going to need to score runs in bunches, a task that becomes much easier the more Lewis contributes.
Sixto Sánchez, RHP, Miami Marlins
MLB Network’s Jon Heyman quoted a scout this week who said Sánchez, a rookie right-hander with five MLB starts under his belt, “may be the best pitcher in the game right now.” League and government officials are working together to rescue Jacob deGrom from whichever alternate dimension he fell into when the scout said that, but Sánchez has the kind of stuff that lends itself to hyperbole. Just ask Pedro Martínez, who recently compared Sánchez to himself.
The Marlins aren’t so much a baseball team as the venue for billionaire private equity raider Bruce Sherman’s latest bout of financial strip mining, but they play in a division with one good team (Atlanta) and three teams with plenty of resources and talent, but a profound affinity for self-sabotage. So here we are, in crunch time, with the Marlins snugly ensconced in second place in the NL East and two games ahead of the postseason cut line with 12 games to play. They’re no longer a curiosity; they’re in the thick of things.
The Marlins have two doubleheaders in the final 10 days of the season, which on the surface blunts the impact of a starting pitcher. But it also offers a starter the opportunity to save his bullpen by throwing a seven-inning complete game in one end of the doubleheader. Sánchez did precisely that last week to set up a series sweep against the Phillies, Miami’s closest competitor and also the team that signed and developed Sánchez before trading him for J.T. Realmuto in the winter of 2019.
Miami has a very good bullpen, but no bullpen is built to play 12 must-win games in 10 days. The more Sánchez pitches and the better he performs, the easier that job becomes. As much as modern player development and managerial tactics are working against the concept of a traditional high-volume ace, one or two superb and well-timed starts can change a team’s entire season. Sánchez might not be the actual best pitcher in baseball, at least not yet, but given the Marlins’ position in the standings, he’s the pitcher best positioned to make or break his team’s season.
Alec Bohm, 3B, Philadelphia Phillies
One reason to be bullish on Miami is the fact that their primary playoff rival, the Phillies, have suffered an extremely ill-timed run of injuries. Jay Bruce and Spencer Howard are on the IL, while J.T. Realmuto, Rhys Hoskins, and Jake Arrieta are all up in the air after getting hurt in the past week. Zack Wheeler missed his start on Saturday after nearly tearing off his fingernail while putting on pants (“scratched” is the wrong word to use here because you can’t do that without fingernails), but he returned to the rotation on Wednesday.
Bryce Harper has cooled off from the MVP-level production he showed in the season’s first half, and the Phillies’ bullpen is currently a titanic failure, both in the sense that it’s big and that it’s sinking the team. So they need all the help they can get. Bohm, a natural third baseman, has taken over at first base for Hoskins for the time being and will be counted on to fill the Hoskins-shaped hole in the offense, as well.
Bohm, the team’s first-round pick from 2018, has quickly become an integral part of the Phillies’ offensive production line, hitting .311/.359/.462 in his first 33 big league games, and he’s simultaneously turned into one of my favorite hitters to watch. Bohm is a gigantic person, 6-foot-5 and 218 pounds, with long arms and legs; if a corner infielder that size is a fun hitter, it’s usually because he’s pulverizing fan cutouts in the second deck. But Bohm is different. What stands out about Bohm is that he doesn’t seem to swing that hard. He’s certainly capable of coiling up and scalding the ball when he wants to—according to Baseball Savant, he’s 24th in the league in hard-hit rate among the 258 batters with enough batted ball events to qualify. But he’s also comfortable slowing down and inside-outing a pitch to the opposite field. The goal isn’t to hit the ball as hard as possible, it’s to hit the ball as hard as is necessary.
That’s why Bohm doesn’t strike out a lot for a guy that big—just 21.4 percent of the time. That ranks 149th out of the 261 batters with at least 100 plate appearances this year and is about the same strikeout rate as Carlos Correa, another big guy who can hit the ball hard but doesn’t come out of his shoes every time he swings. Sometimes the game-winning hit is a tape-measure home run, but sometimes it’s an RBI single at the right moment. Bohm can provide either.
Bo Bichette, SS, Toronto Blue Jays
Not that there’s anything wrong with just picking up the bat and swinging like hell.
On August 15, Bichette left the Blue Jays’ game against Tampa Bay with a knee injury and missed the ensuing four weeks. At that point, the Jays were 7-10 and sat 5.5 games out of first place. Since then, though, the Blue Jays have gone 19-13 and briefly overtook the Yankees for second place in the division before falling back into the no. 7 seed.
Bichette returned last weekend to a slightly different Toronto club than the one he left a month ago. The Jays have beefed up their pitching staff by acquiring Ross Stripling, Taijuan Walker, and Robbie Ray, strengthened their catching by calling up the beefy Alejandro Kirk, and found cover for the middle infield by bringing in Jonathan Villar.
While Bichette was out, the Blue Jays were playing like the one of the best teams in the American League, but the second-year shortstop is Toronto’s best position player—perhaps its best player overall. If he can reintegrate himself into Toronto’s lineup, this team has a good chance of overtaking the Yankees once again. Beating the Yankees down the stretch could be the difference between facing the Rays or A’s in the first round, or facing the Twins’ more beatable pitching staff. Bichette has looked like a franchise player in his brief big league career—this is his chance to prove it.
Kevin Gausman, RHP, San Francisco Giants
It’s become a bit of a running gag on The Ringer MLB Show that this year’s San Francisco Giants are agents of chaos, capable of winning or losing any game, in any situation, against any opponent. But with 10 days left in the season and the resurgent Reds complicating the NL playoff picture, San Francisco needs a steady hand on the tiller.
Part of what makes the Giants so chaotic is their lack of reliable pitching; their leader in saves, Trevor Gott, is currently on the IL and considering that his ERA is north of 10.00, it’s unclear how much he’s actually missed. The Giants’ bullpen as a whole is 24th in WPA, and the rotation seems to have been constructed to make viewers shout, “Oh yeah, I remember that guy!”
The most effective of San Francisco’s That Guys this year has been Kevin Gausman, who’s striking out 12 batters per nine innings so far. Gausman missed a start this week after experiencing elbow tightness, but a clean MRI has him set to return to the rotation as soon as this weekend. If he does so, he’ll not only be able to make a key start against Oakland, he’ll be able to pitch once more after that before the season ends.
The Giants are at a disadvantage compared to the other fringe NL playoff hopefuls in that they don’t have a no. 1 starter, or even someone they can dress up and pretend is a no. 1 starter. Former Cy Young runner-up Johnny Cueto relies on deception so much that Brooks Baseball classifies his three most-used pitches as the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. Most of San Francisco’s other starters—including Gausman, to some extent—have spent the past few years bouncing around as team after team hopes they’ll get hot for 10 or so starts. Gausman is the hot hand right now, and the Giants will need him to stay that way if they’re going to hang on to the no. 8 seed.
All stats current through Wednesday’s games.