You may have checked out of baseball once your team’s season turned into a trash heap, but that’s okay! You’ve come back just in time for the best month of the year, as all the highest-stakes games with top-quality talent begin. Here’s a guide to the AL players you need to pay attention to as the postseason begins.
Francisco Lindor is cute, fun, and always looks happy. He’s baseball’s teddy bear, if teddy bears were somehow extremely good and delighted at playing shortstop. Lindor’s nickname during Players’ Weekend was “Mr. Smile,” which he eloquently explained by saying, “As soon as you say ‘smile,’ you smile.” In just a few seasons, Lindor has made a name for himself as one of the most lovable players in baseball. Look at this guy!
Lindor is versatile: He’s a brilliant shortstop that apparently now also hits home runs, and a 23-year-old with the confidence of a much older player. He’s cute and engaging off the diamond and vital when he’s on it. He’d be a star even if he wasn’t also really charismatic, but he’s also really charismatic.
Lindor saw a dip in batting average and OBP in his third season as a big leaguer, but still an overall increase in offensive production, thanks to his 33 dingers, which were more than double his previous high. He ended the year with a slugging percentage of .505, better even than Indians big boomer Edwin Encarnacion.
More to the point, Frankie Lindor is the guy I eventually want to take home to my parents. From new puppies to tricky ground balls, nothing ever seems to catch him off guard or bring him down. For most players, that sort of focus manifests itself as a kind of deadpan dullness; in Lindor, it somehow becomes constant joy. Cheer against Cleveland if you choose, but it’s impossible to root against Francisco Lindor.
Rafael Devers owns the nicknames “Large Child” and “Baby Face,” and should be way out of his depth as a big leaguer at this point in his career. He’s still just 20 years old, which lends his at-bats the vibe of a scrawny, ninth-hitting Little-Leaguer about to face down a towering pitcher who’s already past puberty. He’s talented, but he still seems so awkward, so stiff when he runs and uncomfortable with the exposure. And he’s on a postseason team’s roster because he’s capable of hitting huge dongs off Aroldis Chapman fastballs and completely incapacitating New York crowds.
That crushing blow announced his arrival, but Devers hasn’t slowed down since. He’s slugged an impressive .482 with a .338 OBP since his call-up in July, and his 10 dingers in 58 games were enough to redeem what had previously been a disastrous, Pablo Sandoval-sized black hole in the lineup. Even his team’s old dogs are infatuated.
Boston has the lightest offense of any AL playoff team, but Devers isn’t just a rookie along for the ride—his bat needs to be a focal point if the Red Sox are going to play to their full potential. Even if his face is more suited to The Sandlot than Fenway Park, when he has a bat in his hands this is a full-grown man.
As much as I’d like to sound smart by informing you that there’s a hidden gem more exciting than Jose Altuve somewhere in Houston’s order, the MVP candidate is the guy to know. Yes, you already know him, and yes you probably already know that he is both short and good, but while the Astros’ lineup is incredibly deep, their little second baseman is the one that still blows all his teammates away. To sum up: Jose Altuve is pretty great.
He would be easy to pigeonhole as an Eckstein-type scrapper if you just went by his lack of height and his batting average, but hidden somewhere in his ultra-compact frame is also the power of a baseball god—he can hit the damn train in Houston, as well as the aquatic monstrosity in Miami. Though he’s only 5-foot-6, Altuve’s slugging percentage of .547 was sixth in the AL, and his 24 homers are tied for second on his team. Couple that with his 32 stolen bases, most of anyone in the playoffs, and you have an all-around player of remarkable consistency, and one who has been the third-best major leaguer by fWAR since he broke out in 2014.
The Astros’ offense is absolutely stacked, with six regular hitters boasting a wRC+ over 120 (meaning they’re 20 percent better hitters than league average). On a lesser team, George Springer, Carlos Correa, Marwin Gonzalez, Josh Reddick, and even Alex Bregman could be a leader and a star. But Altuve, a man who is two inches shorter than Jennifer Garner, holds it all together. Everyone else in these playoffs and on this list has some sort of flaw, some way they can get better. Altuve has already reached enlightenment, and he’s still improving.
Okay, if you know anyone in this MLB playoffs, it’s Aaron Judge, who’s too large to be missed. But the presence of a supreme tater-mashing giant on the Yankees tends to overshadow that of Gary Sanchez, a power-packed stud and natural heir to Mike Piazza. Even if he doesn’t inspire quite as much fear and awe as Judge or sport anything like Piazza’s legendary hairdo—or even seem quite as historic as he did during his dazzling rookie season—Sanchez is still pretty monstrous.
The bad news: Sanchez is kind of a punk, as became clear when Sanchez sucker-punched some Detroit Tigers during a brawl in late August. Those haymakers landed on defenseless players didn’t look good at the time, and still don’t.
Sanchez hasn’t fought since his suspension, but he has continued to pile up multi-hit games. At his position, despite some of the negative attention given to his defense, he’s extremely valuable; he has his issues, but every other catcher in these playoffs is, at best, fine, and at worst, basically a black hole at the plate. Sanchez, meanwhile, has an fWAR of 4.4 in just 120 games, a slugging-percentage of .531, and a position-leading 33 homers.
Judge will get the overwhelming majority of the attention as the Yankees rise or fall, but Sanchez deserves some shine, too. He looks like a little brother compared to Judge, but he’s only a fraction less scary on his own.
If Eddie Rosario played in a larger city, you would already know who he is. The Twins paid him a little over $500,000, and the 25-year-old Rosario repaid them by being one of the team’s best players and helping to cover the absence of Miguel Sano, who is still questionable for the postseason. This clutch walk-off dong alone basically justifies his season’s salary:
Rosario’s playing time spiked in 2017 due to circumstances and production, and his average has gone up over 20 points; he finished the season hitting .290, with 27 homers. While he still walks only a minuscule 5.9 percent of the time, that rate has actually risen, while his strikeout rate has dropped. There are and have always been players like this, but there few have ever seemed more keyed up to just hit the damn ball. Look at Rosario’s face as he stares a pitcher down right before hitting a grand slam:
It’s like every second that Jeff Samardzija holds the ball is another second of deep pain for Rosario and every member of his family. He just doesn’t have the time for deep counts, ranking 122nd out of 144 qualified hitters in pitches per plate appearance. He is late for hitting a double, always.
True, his current numbers might hold some red flags as he faces superior pitching in October, but like pretty much all of the Twins this year, Rosario has been a happy surprise. Division rivals Cleveland have four players with a higher WAR than Brian Dozier, the Twins’ leader, and their pitching staff lacks anyone with a top-40 WAR. Calling the Twins underdogs would undersell their talent, but calling them the worst team in the playoffs would not really be inaccurate. But they are the team with Eddie Rosario, and Eddie Rosario is someone who has already scored a game’s winning run by drawing a balk. Revise your expectations accordingly.