X-factor for each MLB contender

By Matt Johnson
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

On the road to a World Series title, one player always emerges as the X-factor to push a team over the edge in the postseason. From an All-Star hitter to an underappreciated pitcher, the story of a team’s magical run can’t be told without this player.

Charlie Morton came through for the Houston Astros when they needed someone to step up in October. Ben Zobrist came through with clutch hits during critical moments in the midst of the Chicago Cubs run to a World Series title.

The X-factor can sometimes be a star player, but we also see lesser-known players rise up and deliver in the clutch. In the biggest at-bats and most crucial innings, they step up in the postseason and make all the difference for a champion.

Here is the X-factor for each MLB contender.

David Price, starting pitcher, Boston Red Sox

If Chris Sale is healthy, fans in Boston will feel confident about the team’s chances of winning a World Series. Yet with all of the attention paid to Sale, Price flies under the radar as a major X-factor to determine Boston’s chances.

The 33-year-old southpaw has been phenomenal since the All-Star Break with a 1.56 ERA and .188 BAA. When Sale went down, Price came through as an ace to stabilize Boston’s rotation. Whether the Red Sox needed him to shutdown the Cleveland Indians or Houston Astros, he came through.

Questions will still remain about the veteran pitcher in October. Concern over Price in the postseason centers on his career 5.03 ERA in the playoffs. What version of him they receive could determine if the Red Sox deliver on expectations or disappoint everyone in the city. If Price can pitch much closer to his second-half form in the postseason, Sale and Price could bring a World Series to Boston.

Ozzie Albies, second baseman, Atlanta Braves

Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuña Jr. have provided Atlanta with MVP-caliber stretches that should leave everyone confident for October. Albies is the player who can turn Atlanta from a potential contender to the favorite in the National League.

Albies posted a 1.053 OPS in April, but has cooled down at the plate ever since. After the All-Star Break, the 21-year-old posted a .653 OPS, .293 OBP and two home runs in 178 at-bats.

Atlanta’s young second baseman has demonstrated he can be a special player. His team needs that version of him in the postseason. If the All-Star version of Albies shows up in October, the Braves’ lineup can push them to the World Series.

Dallas Keuchel, starting pitcher, Houston Astros

MLB Houston Astros Dallas Keuchel

While the focus will be on Houston’s dynamic pitching duo of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, Keuchel’s role and production could be far more interesting in this year’s postseason.

Keuchel’s role in the rotation isn’t entirely certain. If he slides in ahead of Charlie Morton, then he could pitch in momentum-swinging games that could decide if the Astros hold a three-game or one-game lead in the series.

If the Astros make him the fourth starter and a part-time reliever, he will also serve in a critical role in a potential Game 4 and Game 7. If the 30-year-old maintains his 3.27 ERA since the ASB, he can help Houston cruise to the World Series in potentially his final year with the club.

Kyle Schwarber, left fielder, Chicago Cubs

If Chicago wants to make it far in the postseason, it needs someone beyond Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo to step up. Schwarber is one player the Cubs would certainly love to see some clutch moments from.

In his first two years of postseason experience, he collected 16 hits with 10 RBI and a 1.000-plus OPS in 44 at-bats. However, Schwarber struggled last postseason with a .176 batting average.

The Cubs have witnessed Schwarber’s ability to flip the switch and crush baseballs in October. If he can hit like he did in his first two years in the playoffs, Chicago’s lineup could be nearly unstoppable.

Josh Donaldson, third baseman, Cleveland Indians

Cleveland acquired Donaldson specifically for what he could do in October.  Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez are critical to Cleveland’s postseason success, but it’s Donaldson who could push this team over the top.

While he has missed much of the season, the 32-year-old provides an MVP-caliber bat when he is healthy. We’ve seen it from him before, especially in the playoffs. Donaldson was outstanding in the 2016 postseason when he posted a .417/462/.667 slash line with 15 hits in 36 at-bats, but the Toronto Blue Jays didn’t put enough around him to advance.

It can be a different story with the Indians. The top of Cleveland’s batting order is already capable of making it to the World Series. When Donaldson is added into the mix, the Indians can absolutely win the World Series.

Jhoulys Chacin, starting pitcher, Milwaukee Brewers

No matter what Milwaukee’s rotation does over the final weeks, people outside the city will have questions about its rotation in a playoff series.

While other contenders turn to Clayton Kershaw, Jon Lester or Mike Foltynewicz, the Brewers rely on Chacin as their ace. There is reason for optimism with the veteran though. He posted a 3.26 ERA over his past 10 starts, showing the ability to lead a contender’s rotation.

Chacin will decide Milwaukee’s chances in a potential postseason appearance. If he struggles out of the gate and Milwaukee finds behind in a series, the rest of its questionable rotation may follow suit and the Brewers will exit October early.

Mike Fiers, starting pitcher, Oakland Athletics

Oakland’s rotation has been decimated by injuries, forcing Fiers into a role no one expected. Yet when the postseason begins, the Athletics will call upon their trade acquisition in August to be their ace.

In Fiers’ defense, he is the team’s best option. The 33-year-old has been outstanding in his new city with a 2.72 ERA in seven starts. It’s even more impressive to see the team’s undefeated record when he takes the mound.

If Oakland faces the New York Yankees in the Wild-Card Game, Fiers could determine who faces the Red Sox. While Oakland’s bullpen can help make up for a thin rotation, it needs Fiers to build on his stretch of excellence to stay alive in the playoffs.

German Marquez, starting pitcher, Colorado Rockies

Colorado should feel confident in Kyle Freeland as the headliner for its postseason rotation, but it desperately needs another starting pitcher to step up in October.

While some eyes will glance towards Jon Gray, the real X-factor could be Marquez. After a miserable first half (4.81 ERA), the 23-year-old has posted a 2.63 ERA and a .209 BAA in 10 starts since the All-Star Break.

Marquez could be developing into a strong No. 2 started for Colorado. If the Rockies make it to the NLDS and Marquez keeps his hot stretch going, this could be one of the surprise teams to watch this postseason.

Aaron Judge, right fielder, New York Yankees

While Judge is back from the disabled list, the slugger admitted there is still soreness in his wrist and he still isn’t swinging a bat in game action. Even when he returns to the lineup, the 26-year-old’s wrist could determine New York’s life in October.

If Judge’s wrist is closer to 100 percent and he is able to swing the bat with his massive power, then he can go on a run and carry the Yankees to a World Series title.

The problem is his wrist may not fully heal until the offseason. If he can’t swing the bat without pain or with the same power, then the Yankees lose an MVP bat from their lineup. Given all of the other questions facing this team, a lesser version of Judge would be fatal to any shot of even making it to the ALCS.

Marcell Ozuna, left fielder, St. Louis Cardinals

St. Louis made the big move to land Ozuna this offseason with the vision of him repeating his success from 2017. It hasn’t quite worked out that way for much of the year.

Fans in St. Louis have witnessed the ups and downs of Ozuna. His 2018 season started with a .694 OPS in the first half, but he has since turned it around with a .880 OPS since the ASB.

The Cardinals are still fighting to make the postseason, so Ozuna stepping up would go a long way. Matt Carpenter can’t do it alone. If its top sluggers can start producing consistently, the rest of the team can pick it up and help push St. Louis through October.

Clayton Kershaw, starting pitcher, Los Angeles Dodgers

The monkey will remain on Kershaw’s back until he delivers a dominant stretch in the playoffs. No pitcher is better than him in the regular season, but plenty have out dueled him in October.

Los Angeles needs him to come through like never before this postseason. 2018 has largely been a disaster for the Dodgers, yet they still find themselves on the brink of another playoff appearance.

Kershaw posted a 4.44 ERA in the 2016 postseason, then showed some improvement last year with a 3.82 ERA. Given concerns over their bullpen and inconsistent production from the lineup, Los Angeles needs Kershaw to pitch much better this time around. Ultimately, the Dodgers’ season may live or die depending on Kershaw’s postseason performance.