Postseason baseball has returned, and the 2021 tournament represents a return to some normalcy. Unlike last year, the bracket is just 10 teams deep; the game won't be played at neutral sites; and there will be fans in attendance every step of the way, as opposed to the surreal sights and sounds of fall 2020.
These playoffs will differ from the 2020 edition in another, smaller sense: they're unlikely to feature a player going on a star-hanging tear as lengthy and brilliant as Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena's last fall. For those who have forgotten -- hey, much has happened in the 12 months since -- Arozarena hit .377/.442/.831 with 10 home runs and 14 runs batted in across 20 games, and he did it after appearing in only 23 regular-season games (or less than half the Rays schedule). He started his 2021 playoff campaign on a similar foot on Thursday night, too.
While expecting anyone to replicate Arozarena's rise is foolish, we do think his ascent is a good reminder about the potential for unheralded players to put their stamps on a postseason. Such a good reminder, even, that we decided to highlight some players who we think could raise their Q ratings these playoffs (albeit not as much as he did).
Here are the guiding principles we employed for this piece:
1) No top prospects. Nobody is going to be surprised if Wander Franco or someone else who was considered a top-25 prospect has a big month.
2) No postseason experience. We're aware that Arozarena technically appeared in the playoffs with the Cardinals in 2019, but we want to limit this to fresh faces. (Sorry, Luis Garcia and Shane McClanahan.)
3) No arbitration eligibility. Just in case the first two points let someone slip through, here's a failsafe mechanism to ensure we're focused on non-established players.
Now, onto our five chosen players. They are presented in alphabetical order.
1. Aaron Ashby, LHP, Brewers
Ashby didn't become a fixture on Milwaukee's staff until the stretch run. He spent September in a multi-inning relief role, amassing 15 innings and a .480 OPS across six appearances while recording 20 strikeouts versus just three walks.
Ashby's breadwinner is a devastating slider that boasts two-plane movement. Opponents whiffed 41 percent of the time they swung at it, and hit only .057 with no extra-base hits when they did make contact. He had two other pitches with usage rates over 20 percent: a 96 mph sinker (that has additional movement thanks to his short stride and release point) and a changeup. He'll flip a curveball, too.
Ashby's ability to serve as a lineup-turning buzzsaw should make him a favorite for manager Craig Counsell, who has shown before he's willing to get creative with his postseason pitching plans.
2/3. Chas McCormick/Jake Meyers, OF, Astros
We couldn't help but package these anonymous Astros outfielders with unusual developmental arcs.
McCormick is older and has more service time than Meyers, so he goes first. He held his own this season in more than 300 plate appearances, hitting .258/.313/.444 (105 OPS+) with 13 home runs while seeing time at each outfield position. McCormick's walk and strikeout rates are the oddest parts of his profile. This is someone who recorded more walks than strikeouts during his last full minor-league season in 2019, yet he went out there this year and put up five times as many strikeouts as walks.
Meyers, who had a similarly poor walk-to-strikeout ratio, is a defensive demon with more raw juice than you'd forecast from him based on his track record. To wit, he homered 21 times this season between the majors and minors, marking the first time as a professional he had surpassed double digits. Meyers had two hits and drove in the first run of the game on Thursday, helping the Astros take a 1-0 series lead over the White Sox.
And, given Michael Brantley's injury situation, both McCormick and Meyers could play important roles if the Astros make a serious run in October.
4. Drew Rasmussen, RHP, Rays
When the Rays acquired Rasmussen from the Brewers as part of the Willy Adames trade, the expectation was that he would join their bullpen. He did for a time, but the Rays have used him exclusively as a starter since mid-August -- and it's paid off.
Rasmussen posted a 1.69 ERA and permitted just one home run in his final seven starts of the regular season. He hasn't excelled because of a broad arsenal or unpredictable patterns. More than 90 percent of his offerings in September were fastballs or sliders, and he almost always worked to the glove side against righties.
What's more is that Rasmussen's slider hasn't missed a high rate of bats, nor has it served him well as a strike-stealer. It's a testament to the quality of his fastball that he's been this good. And what of that fastball? It sits in the upper-90s with good extension and above-average carry, and he absolutely pounds the zone with it.
Whether or not Rasmussen can stick in a rotation long-term is to be seen -- remember, the Rays once passed on signing him because of what a post-draft physical showed -- but he has a chance to make an impression this month with his heater.
5. LaMonte Wade Jr., OF, Giants
Few cared when the Giants acquired Wade in a small spring trade with the Twins. He's since made that trade look retroactively brilliant by hitting .259/.334/.498 (122 OPS+) while ping-ponging between the non-third-base corner positions. (It holds no predictive value, but Wade has an OPS over 1.000 in high-leverage spots this year.)
Lamonte Wade said he was "used to just being back and stuck on my backside" and revamped his swing with "a new move of going forward."— parker hageman (@HagemanParker) July 28, 2021
New swing resulted in some changes:
exit velocity (85.0 in 2020➡️90.4 in 2021)
launch angle (15 in 2020➡️18 in 2021)
pull rate (37%➡️50%) pic.twitter.com/aS4D4PlgQA
Wade's ascent can be credited in part to mechanical changes he made that have enabled him to make higher-quality contact while pulling the ball more frequently. He's been more aggressive at the plate as well without sacrificing his feel for the zone.
With Brandon Belt suffering a fractured thumb, it's at least possible that Wade is going to play a larger role come the postseason. He seems ready for it.