The playoffs are a new season, and that means a fresh start. Yes, the pressure ramps up and the competition stiffens, but the slate is also wiped clean.
That reset is certainly more welcome for some than others. Those are the guys who didn’t have the sort of regular season they wanted or expected.
Soon enough, everyone’s stats will be back at zero. Here are nine players on remaining postseason hopefuls who could turn that opportunity into an October rebound.
Brewers: Christian Yelich, LF
It’s really been an unsatisfying two seasons for Yelich. After earning NL MVP honors in 2018 and nearly repeating in 2019 (combined OPS: 1.046), Yelich has slumped to .753 since. He remains a patient presence at the plate, leading to solid OBPs, but the power that surged in his first two seasons in Milwaukee has completely evaporated. Perhaps, given his back issues, that absence is permanent. But Yelich still ranks in the 89th percentile in hard-hit rate, so if he can manage to lift the ball in the air, the potential for doing damage is there. A pitching-oriented Milwaukee club certainly could use the offensive jolt as it enters the playoffs.
White Sox: Craig Kimbrel, RP
We’re only referring to Kimbrel’s White Sox tenure here, because he hardly could have been better before his trade from the Cubs -- a 0.49 ERA, .336 opponent OPS and 23 saves in 25 chances. Some amount of regression over the final two months was probably inevitable, but this is not what the Sox envisioned when they acquired him to form an unhittable two-headed bullpen monster with Liam Hendriks. In 23 games on the South Side, Kimbrel has a 5.32 ERA, .801 opponent OPS, three blown saves and two losses. Still, the Sox were basically division title locks before Kimbrel arrived. They got him mainly for October, and his postseason performance will be what dictates how the move is remembered.
Giants: Tommy La Stella, 2B
Back when it seemed as if the Giants were destined for a third-place finish in 2021, they inked La Stella to a three-year, $18.75 million free-agent contract. The veteran was coming off two strong seasons in a row (.289/.356/.471) and was slated to play a key role in the lineup, but a severe hamstring strain sustained in early May kept him out for three months. La Stella’s line also has declined (.250/.313/.417), making him one of the few underperformers on a team that has blown past expectations. Even so, he’s been raking since Sept. 7 (.918 OPS), and his sharp eye and stellar contact ability could make him a big factor in the postseason.
Dodgers: Gavin Lux, INF/OF
This could also be Cody Bellinger, although the 2019 NL MVP may have played himself out of the lineup even if he’s healthy enough to take part in the postseason. Lux’s season has not been nearly as disastrous as Bellinger’s, but the 23-year-old -- a top-five prospect before last season -- also has spent time on the injured list and back at Triple-A while struggling to grab a firm hold on an everyday Major League job. On the other hand, the rebound has already begun. Since returning from the Minors on Sept. 10, carrying a .643 OPS, Lux has posted an OPS of over 1.000 in 14 games, all while transitioning from the infield to the outfield.
Cardinals: Dakota Hudson, SP/RP
The righty was an effective reliever for St. Louis in 2018 and a successful starter in 2019-20 (3.24 ERA in 213 2/3 innings) before undergoing Tommy John surgery late last September. That forced Hudson out of the picture for the Cardinals this year, until now. Hudson fortunately made a quick recovery, returning on Sept. 24 to throw 3 2/3 innings out of the bullpen. It’s not clear what role Hudson might fill in October, but having him back -- along with Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas -- is a boon to the Redbirds’ hopes.
Braves: Travis d'Arnaud, C
It’s been a brutal season for Atlanta catchers at the plate, with the group ranking 29th in MLB in park-adjusted wRC+. That’s largely because d’Arnaud got off to a dreadful start and then missed more than three months with a thumb injury as the Braves struggled to replace him. Yet d’Arnaud has performed much better since returning on Aug. 11 (.752 OPS), bringing some stability behind the plate and lengthening the lineup as Atlanta tries to lock up a playoff berth.
Yankees: DJ LeMahieu, INF
LeMahieu certainly isn’t the only Yankee who’s had a disappointing 2021, but his dropoff has been the steepest, coming on the heels of back-to-back seasons with a Silver Slugger Award and top-four AL MVP finish. Instead, LeMahieu has looked more like the roughly average hitter he was over the previous four seasons. On the other hand, Yankee legends are forged in October. LeMahieu still makes consistent, hard contact, and a big month at the right time could etch his name in pinstripe lore -- if the Yanks can qualify.
Red Sox: Eduardo Rodriguez, SP
It’s been fantastic just to see Rodriguez back healthy and on the mound in 2021, considering he missed the shortened 2020 season due to a case of myocarditis (an inflammatory heart condition) following a COVID-19 infection. But the surface-level results haven’t been up to the lefty’s standards (4.93 ERA). With that said, E-Rod has a career-best 3.35 FIP and a 3.64 expected ERA (based on quality of contact, strikeouts and walks), suggesting that he’s pitched much better than it seems. Perhaps October is when things will even out, assuming Boston is a postseason participant.
Phillies: Aaron Nola, SP
Nola earned Cy Young Award votes in two of the previous three seasons and entered 2021 with a 3.23 ERA over 106 starts since 2017. That has ballooned to 4.64 this year, including 5.50 in 17 outings since June 19. That’s not the only reason the Phillies are currently on the outside looking in at a playoff berth, but it also hasn’t helped. With that said, Nola looks like more or less the same pitcher under the hood. (His 3.38 expected ERA, per Statcast, is virtually identical to his mark from 2020). If the Phillies manage to squeeze into October, Nola would be a strong rebound candidate in his postseason debut.