As of this writing, the field for the 2022 MLB postseason is set. And honestly, I feel really good about it. There are the usual suspects that we’ll collectively root against, sure. But a new format has given way to the ending of a couple of playoff droughts. That’s exciting. Some young talent finally broke through. Also exciting. A couple of impending retirees are trying to ride off into the sunset. Sure, if you like that sort of cliché, I guess it could be exciting as well.
But as laborious as the entire Major League Baseball season can be, especially depending on your preferred flavor of squad, the MLB postseason has a chance to reenergize a little bit of that fervor that was felt all the way back in March. The new format will be the early star. We’ll get two matchups in each league, with all four teams on both sides of the coin battling for an opportunity to meet one of the top two seeds in Round 2, all of which received a first-round bye.
The sides sitting for a bit are Atlanta, Los Angeles, Houston, and the New York Yankees. In the meantime, on the National League side, the Philadelphia Phillies return to the postseason after a decade-plus against the St. Louis Cardinals, who feel like they never left. The San Diego Padres will head to New York for their three-game set. The AL picture has Seattle against Toronto in a matchup of intensely likable wild cards, while familiar postseason visitors Cleveland and Tampa Bay will hang out in the former for a three-game set.
It’ll be different, but it will also be the same. The most important note about the increased field, though, isn’t necessarily that it gives a couple of different teams opportunities. It’s that this new format is giving us some of the most exciting individual talent the game has to offer. While it’s sad to not see folks like Shohei Ohtani or, well, mostly Shohei Ohtani on this stage, we’ll still see no shortage of storylines. Here are a few of those individual standouts worth monitoring as the schedule flips to that of the playoff variety:
The Mariners’ return to the postseason has legitimately been one of the most enjoyable things about the 2022 campaign. But it’s the immediate rise of Rodríguez to an All-Star level and massive contract that will garner the most attention. He went 20/20 in his first year, wRC+’d 145, and posted an fWAR over five. Even missing a stretch due to injury in the last month of the year, he comes in HOT. He hit .391 over the season’s final month, with a cool .319 ISO. Our new face of baseball in Seattle is mashing at the most important time of the year. As likable as Toronto certainly is with their own young superstars, it wouldn’t be a terrible thing for Seattle to play deep into October. It would give the East Coast fans a chance to see what they’re missing when they’ve already gone to bed.
San Diego Starters
The San Diego Padres have been baseball’s most exciting team when it comes to the big moves. It hasn’t translated to success on the field quite yet, though. Injuries, one massive suspension, and a wildly inconsistent offense haven’t put them quite on that Dodger level on which they were hoping to position themselves. Nonetheless, they’re here and now have to face off against an angry Mets squad that is angry they squandered the division lead.
If the Padres are going to do anything in October, it’s going to have to rest on the arms of their starting pitching. Yu Darvish was the NL’s pitcher of the month in September. Joe Musgrove has emerged as a legitimate ace. Blake Snell looked like his former Tampa Bay self, with a 2.19 ERA in the second half. That’s three legitimate arms that can take you deep. But even one bad start could end things given the state of the bats, meaning all the focus will be on those guys right out of the gate.
Atlanta’s pursuit of a second consecutive title will have to come with a very different cast of characters. Among them are star rookie outfielder Michael Harris II & starter Spencer Strider. It’s the latter that’ll be the one to watch between the two, though. For one, his health is a matter of concern as an oblique injury knocked him out for the last few weeks of the year. For another, his stretch during the summer months imbued dominance. After settling into the rotation in June, Strider posted five starts with double-digit strikeouts. That included a September 1st start where he punched out 16 Rockies over eight innings. If he’s healthy, he adds an incredible dynamic to the front of an already very good Atlanta staff. And he only has two pitches!
The Old Guard in St. Louis
Yes, I am a cliché. Despite two MVP candidates in Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, virtually any discussion involving St. Louis’ ballclub in October is going to center around the imminent departure of Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina. Adam Wainwright will likely end up mixed in, despite no official confirmation as to his future. Pujols is coming off a very good second half in which he hit .321 and posted a wrC+ over 200. Albert Pujols making an impact in a 2022 playoff series? What a world. Molina didn’t have really any degree of offensive success this year, but the Cardinals will need him to help manage a pitching staff that isn’t nearly as deep as some of its NL counterparts. Or as healthy. But with one last ride of #CardinalsDevilMagic, Yadi’s going to find his way in there somewhere too.
I’ve seen it noted in a few places where the Cleveland Guardians were just “José Ramírez and a bunch of kids.” I suppose there’s some truth there. The new-look Guardians aren’t built quite on name recognition like their last iteration of a deep playoff run in 2016. But I do think that also sells Triston McKenzie extremely short as one of baseball’s rising starting pitchers. A three-pitch mix of fastball-slider-curve, McKenzie had a year in which he struck out just over nine hitters per nine and walked 2.01. His 3.6 fWAR landed him in the top 10 among American League starters. After a steady rise as one of the more fun-to-watch starting pitchers, said star has arrived for McKenzie. With his Rolex from Marcus Stroman now in tow, he turns his head to Tampa, against whom he’s thrown 12 innings and allowed three runs in just two career starts. His energy and confidence on the mound are built for October.
Non-Aaron Judge Yankees
We’ve spent weeks at this point with our eyeballs peeled open upon Aaron Judge. He’s going to be good. He’s always good. But what about the supporting cast? Judge posted a 6.6 fWAR in the second half alone. The next closest? Oswaldo Cabrera at 1.3. Their only above-average bats in the second half have been Cabrera and Anthony Rizzo. Everybody else falls under the threshold in terms of wRC+. On the bump, outside Nestor Cortes and a couple of bullpen arms, the results have been mixed, too. The telescope will be on Judge, but you can bet the microscope will be on literally every other Yankees player. We may be about to see just how far one man can carry an offense in baseball.
At the end of the day, there are so many freaking storylines in this postseason. You’ve got the Judge stuff. Atlanta vying to repeat. Pujols & Molina
finally retiring. But it goes even far beyond everything here. The Blue Jays are still fun as h*ck. The Mets are still a very good baseball team, even if a better one passed them to win the division. Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman. The Phillies are back in here! There are so many talented starters, intense relievers, and exciting individual bats that this postseason has a chance to revive even the most cynical of fans’ mindsets toward the current state of the sport.
Photos by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire, David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire, Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire, Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire, Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire, Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire, and Florian Wehde/Unsplash | Featured Image by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter and @EthanMKaplanImages on Instagram)