8 key under-the-radar players on contenders

August 26th, 2021

As contenders fight for postseason position, the stars will be the ones in the spotlight, making their cases for awards season. But it takes a full roster to get a club to October, right down to the players who hit ninth or throw one inning a game.

Here are eight players who might not be the center of attention, but could make all the difference down the stretch.

Astros: , OF
Key stat: +7 outs above average

After the Astros sent Myles Straw to Cleveland, McCormick took over as the everyday center fielder, and he’s done nothing but impress early in his career, hitting .333 with an .845 OPS in 19 games from the Trade Deadline until he went on the IL Tuesday with left hand soreness. The Astros also needed some speed in the lineup following Straw's departure, and McCormick has filled the void seamlessly. He’s been by far the Astros’ fastest runner with an average sprint speed of 28.9 feet per second. That’s just 1.1 ft/s below the elite threshold. He may not get the fanfare that a lot of his teammates receive, but McCormick has sneakily become a five-tool player on an already-dangerous contender.

Athletics: , LHP
Key stat: .260 xwOBA against

The A’s acquired Chafin prior to the Deadline from the Cubs, where he had a 2.06 ERA in 43 games, and he has been exactly as advertised. The 31-year-old reliever has given up just two runs 12 games into his tenure in Oakland, striking out about a batter per inning and walking two so far. He also brings some needed balance to the Oakland bullpen, as Jake Diekman was their lone left-handed reliever with more than 15 innings pitched. Chafin’s given up just three home runs all year, an area where Diekman has been bitten quite a bit. The move might have been overshadowed by Starling Marte’s torrid start, but the A’s got exactly what they needed out of both trades and that might tip the scales in their favor in the chase for the AL West crown.

White Sox: , OF
Key stat: +8.1% in hard-hit rate, 2020-21

Always known for his speed, Engel has started to come into his own at the plate over the past two years. The 29-year-old has an .829 OPS since the start of 2020, albeit in a little over 200 plate appearances. This season, Engel is crushing right-handed pitching. Despite being a righty himself, Engel has slugged .505 off same-handed pitchers with seven home runs and six doubles in over 100 at-bats. If the bat doesn’t play, the speed still will, as Engel has an average sprint speed of 29.7 feet per second, just below the elite threshold of 30.0 ft/s. With Luis Robert back in the Sox lineup, Engel slides over into a timeshare with Brian Goodwin in right field and could become a jack of all trades in the postseason.

Rays: , RHP
Key stat: .288 xSLG against sliders

Wisler came over from the Giants in early June, carrying an ugly 6.05 ERA. But since joining the Rays, he’s quietly been one of the best relievers in baseball, posting a 1.98 ERA in 27 1/3 innings. This season, he’s in the top 10% of all pitchers in hard-hit rate, expected ERA and strikeout rate. So how did a pitcher with a career ERA over 4.80 become this dominant? Wisler completely revamped his pitch arsenal after 2019 and now throws almost exclusively sliders, throwing it over 90% of the time this season, while ditching his sinker and curveball. Being a two-pitch pitcher -- or rather a one-pitch pitcher -- seems to work for him, as opponents are batting .206 against him since he arrived in Tampa Bay. Whenever Wisler ends up in a late-inning role for the Rays, expect him to make opposing batters look silly.

Giants: , RHP
Key stat: 62.8% groundball rate

In reality, almost every pitcher in the Giants' bullpen could make this list, but Rogers is perhaps the best out of the group. And if he’s not the best, he’s definitely the most unorthodox. Rogers is dead last in the Majors in average four-seam fastball velocity at 82.5 mph, but his funky submarine delivery makes him one of the most dominant late-inning relievers in the game. He has a 1.95 ERA and 11 saves in 60 games this year. He’s allowed just four barrels on more than 180 batted balls against him this season with a ground-ball rate north of 60%. He’s also in the top 5 percent of all pitchers in walk rate at just under 4%. Limiting free passes and preventing home runs are two of the biggest keys in the postseason push, and there aren’t many who do both better than Rogers.

Dodgers: , LHP
Key stat: 0 hits allowed against non-fastballs

After a cup of coffee last season in Miami, Vesia has been a solid performer in a Dodgers bullpen that needed a real boost thanks to a steady slew of injuries. Vesia has a WHIP under 0.85 and an ERA under 2.50 while being equally effective against hitters from both sides of the plate. He throws four-seamers nearly 75% of the time on the mound, and it seems to work for him, as opponents are hitting just .134 off his fastball. Even though he offers a steady diet of fastballs, he’s no slouch with his secondary pitches. He has not allowed a hit on his slider or changeup all year long, leading to a strikeout rate of 34%. He is quickly becoming a go-to guy late in must-win games.

Brewers: , OF
Key stat: .834 OPS against left-handers

After two years of jumping between the Minors and the Majors, Taylor has carved himself a role in Milwaukee this season. He’s been solid defensively, fairly light on his feet and holding his own in the batter’s box. He might be just what the Brewers need in the lineup in October, though. This season, Taylor is hitting .284 with an .834 OPS against left-handed pitching, an area where the Brewers have really struggled. As a team, they have a .237 average and a .727 OPS, both ranking in the bottom half of teams in the Majors. Taylor won’t fix all of their woes when facing southpaws, but in a pinch, he might just become their X-factor.

Phillies: , LHP
Key stat: 30.6% hard-hit rate against

The Phillies need innings eaters if they want to stay afloat in the NL East race, but they haven’t really found a formula that works yet. Once August rolled around, they stuck Suárez into the rotation in an opener role, but he’s increased his workload incrementally, tossing a season-high 99 pitches in his Aug. 24 outing. In five starts, he’s allowed five runs in 21 1/3 innings pitched, bringing his ERA down to a miniscule 1.46. Suárez has quietly been dominant out of the bullpen all year, ranking among the league leaders in limiting average exit velocity and hard-hit rate, but he’s become more valuable down the stretch and could make or break the Phillies' season depending on how deep he can go into ballgames.