With less than 50 games to play per team, one can argue that there are still 14 teams plausibly in the running if you're feeling generous, 12 if you're less than wild about the Dodgers and Rockies and their dwindling odds. That many teams in play make for a lot of potential heroes, guys like Jason Kubel in the last week of last year, or Matt Holliday's torrid September in 2007, but as those names alone suggest, not every potential stretch hero is equally obvious.
Because the Yankees and Rangers in the American League and the Braves and Padres in the National League are the most likely teams to land in October action, singling out particular individuals for who might better guarantee their presence on the post-season slate is probably a bit of a stretch. Many of the candidates are obvious, as well as somewhat certain. It isn't like Alex Rodriguez is going to spontaneously combust as a result of the overlapping waves of cosmic disgust that seem to be heaped on his head, for example.
So how about we consider five regular players on teams that really will need that difference-maker to help get them all the way to the dance? Not simply the obvious key players, but the ones who have a chance to follow up on relatively underrated seasons, or who have to keep on keeping on as their clubs make their final push.
For all of the big-name additions to the rotation before and during the season, the guy who has been here all along is the one who seems to have been lost in the shuffle. Hamels has been doing his thing this year, ranking 30th in the majors in SNLVAR, and clocking in with a respectable .544 SNWP. However, he's gotten a career-worst 3.4 runs per game during his time on the mound, contributing to a losing record overall, 7-8, almost purely a function of bad luck.
Not even the Phillies' mounting injury woes are all that responsible for Hamels' sorry lot: Up through the game of June 23, the last time the Phils had their full starting infield and outfield in the lineup at the same time, they had a .264 True Average. They've been at .267 since, and for all of their problems, they rank fifth in the NL in team TAv. That's going to get better now that Shane Victorino has returned to action and Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are to follow within the next three weeks.
There's nothing that says Hamels is due with less than two months of action to go. Nobody's guaranteed that things even out in the end, because the end is nigh. But Hamels has produced quality starts through six innings in 12 of his last 18 turns, and he's getting stronger as the season progresses, allowing barely a baserunner per inning since the All-Star break while posting a 7-1 K/UBB ratio. When all's said and done, win or lose, Doc Halladay may get the Cy Young votes, and Roy Oswalt may get the kudos as a way of complimenting Ruben Amaro Jr.'s in-season adaptability. But if Hamels keeps cruising at that clip and producing winnable ballgames, he'll be the critical third horseman who helps propel the Phillies into the postseason no matter what the state of the lineup is.
Perhaps it's the pleasure of operating from a happy remove from Beantown drama, but for all the Red Sox in the news, it seems as if Beltre is still not getting his full due. Instead, there's plenty of focus on other people: Kevin Youkilis is done for the year, but at least there's hope to be taken in the fact that Dustin Pedroia will be back until sometime next week. Predictably, Victor Martinez isn't hitting for power since returning from the DL (.123 ISO), while figuring out whether or not Jacoby Ellsbury is ever going to be A-listed in Boston again seems to have absorbed far too much of people's time. Against all of that, the lineup has continued to rate among the game's best because of Theo Epstein's accumulation and Terry Francona's active employment of a broad collection of interchangeable parts.
In all of the topsy-turvy turnover, there has been one constant hammer: Beltre. The endless relay of big names in Boston's lineup breaking down or underwhelming expectations shouldn't detract from the fact that the free-agent third baseman is delivering his best season since his MVP-caliber 2004 campaign, posting a .318 TAv now to his .329 mark then. The fact that Boston has managed to play better than .500 baseball since losing Pedroia owes plenty to what Youkilis had contributed, but now that he's gone, the only player producing at anything like the same clip on offense is Beltre:
Which suggests a natural question: Can Beltre keep it up? His power numbers seem sustainable given that he's delivering a HR/FB rate not too far out of character: 10.8 percent, against a career mark of 9.7, and he's been at or above 10 percent in five of the last eight years. His ISO's lower than that career year, but not too far above his best Seattle season in 2007. On the other hand, his .355 BABIP is a career high, but at least it isn't a product of Fenway Park's tight spaces alone—he is at .356 in Boston, and .354 everywhere else. As much as you might want to discount his Safeco Park experiences or any Bavasi-related malaise, his career numbers outside of Seattle are just .281/.334/.476—good, but hardly his current .335/.374/.574 season. His seasonal line outstrips even Beltre's 90th percentile projection via PECOTA—checking with Colin Wyers, the likelihood of his campaign clocked in around 2.5 percent. The likelihood that he keeps delivering with two-thirds of a season in the books? About 14 percent, or one in seven.
This isn't exactly why they play the games, but if Beltre remains the fulcrum that keeps the Red Sox in the running, their odds of not being the third-place wallflower in the division get that much better.
At the outset of the season, Francisco Liriano was the obvious Twins starter who might significantly outperform expectations, and he's handily lived up to that despite some of the worst defensive support in baseball—the .654 DE behind him ranks among the 10 worst marks in the majors among pitchers with 90+ IP. And Carl Pavano's far surpassed what anyone might have anticipated from him, in part because he's among the best-supported pitchers when it comes to defense, rating 11th overall with a .735 DE in support. So there's a good dose of defensive funkiness where the Twins are concerned, but they're generally feeling good, right? That's still tough sledding to keep up with the White Sox rotation, which rates better even absent Jake Peavy.
Like Liriano, Baker also ranks towards the unhappier end of such things (.672 DE), and his year has been a bit of a disappointment overall. But per SIERA he also ranks among the most ill-favored rotation regulars in baseball, with a SIERA more than a full run lower than his ERA, 3.63 to 4.76. For the sake of comparison, Dan Haren's SIERA on the season is also a run lower than his season ERA, and Haren was understandably seen as a major pickup in-season. If Baker delivers on his SIERA down the stretch, it would be something like adding Justin Verlander or Ryan Dempster to the Twins' rotation. While the reasonable stathead's expectation is that Pavano is due for pumpkinizing—regression, if you really want to be dully technical—Baker's potential to deliver that kind of work in his last nine or 10 starts could be the thing that prevents yet another Central-deciding one-game playoff.
4. Andres Torres, Giants
It's already surprising to some in-house that the Padres rank second to none when it comes to BP's Secret Sauce, but that's a factor to consider come post-season play. Their direct rivals in the NL West fare no worse, however, making the stakes for the Giants that much more stark as they try to play catchup—you can't slather up if you don't first earn the invite, after all. Which puts Bruce Bochy directly in the line of fire, because the best way to get his club there is going to be getting his lineup cards right. Trading for Mike Fontenot, having Edgar Renteria healthy, falling in and out of love with Freddy Sanchez all over again, and invariably relying on Juan Uribe, that's relatively ticky-tack stuff. Similarly, they're going to have to trust that Pat Burrell, used within certain limits, will remain healthy enough to help all the way down the line. The Travis Ishikawa/Aaron Rowand platoon (with Aubrey Huff ping-ponging between the outfield and first base) illustrates the extent to which Bochy isn't skipping the small stuff.
But these tenuous combinations deliver their modest benefits best as long as Torres remains the indispensable everyday offensive force he's been this season. His .310 TAv in a full season might seem like a natural outgrowth from his nice spin as a part-time player in 2009 (.297), but within the context of his career, that breakthrough in '09 was an unusual peak. It would have been ordinary for Torres to wilt a bit and become overexposed, but instead he's having a season even more extraordinary than Beltre's, a 0.2 percent outcome via his pre-season spread of projection possibilities. And to repeat the exercise as far as the likelihood that he'll deliver this well going forward, that's estimated at four percent. If he beats those odds, the Giants can congratulate themselves on their good fortune.
5. The Reds' Bullpen
I know, I'm fudging here, but a bullpen is an everyday regular of a sort, and if the Reds are going to parlay a deep rotation and equally deep lineup into a division title, it's the bullpen that has sort of snuck into the picture as a key element. I touched on this yesterday in Transaction Action, but the Reds' bullpen might qualify as the team's secret weapon. Although it ranks a decidedly mediocre 16th in the majors in WXRL, and 12th in ARP, but since July 1 it is tops in ARP and seventh in WXRL. Far from merely relying on even greater feats from the flammable Francisco Cordero or tireless Arthur Rhodes, they're getting good work from Nick Masset since an initially ugly month, and the mid-season additions of Logan Ondrusek, Bill Bray, and Jordan Smith have finally supplied Dusty Baker with a multiplicity of options to protect leads with. If the Reds keep up with the Cardinals all the way down to the wire, Walt Jocketty's in-season assembly of a better bullpen will rank as one of the most underreported front office feats of the season.
Admittedly, my list of five is a bit arbitrary. It also isn't like I've singled out someone like Jerry Dybzinski, briefly the improbable hero of 1983's Winning Ugly White Sox. Any thoughts on who you think is a key stretch performer whose potential contribution might be a bit under the radar will be welcome in the comments section—argument can be a natural and zesty enterprise.