In the movie “Moneyball,” Oakland general manager Billy Beane (portrayed by Brad Pitt) utters the question, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?”
As the American League and National League Division Series get underway as part of the expanded 2020 MLB postseason, fans are looking for ways to feel the romance of important games played in front of empty seats. One of the best ways to capture that feeling is in the underdog story — not necessarily an underdog team, because anything can happen in a short baseball series, but the underdog player.
The 2020 MLB season has uncovered a number of under-the-rader players still competing who could decide who advances to their respective league’s championship series.
There are rookies to watch out for, like Jake Cronenworth and Ian Anderson. There’s a journeyman in Jon Berti on a Marlins team full of them. The Dodgers even have a converted outfielder who could play a big role on the mound, Tony Gonsolin. Each of the eight teams left standing has a player or two who could push their team over the top and into the next round, and we’ve broken them down here.
MLB PLAYOFF BRACKET 2020:
Updated TV schedule, scores, results for the Division Series
Dodgers vs. Padres
Tony Gonsolin, Dodgers
Gonsolin was a ninth-round draft pick out of Saint Mary’s College in 2016. He caught eyes in college mostly for his work as an outfielder with power. But Gonsolin won’t be playing the outfield in this series — he’ll be pitching.
The right-hander was converted to pitching upon his entry into pro ball and recorded a 2.60 ERA in the rookie-level Pioneer League at his first stop. Gonsolin struck out batters as he climbed the minor league ladder at a rate of 10.5 batters per nine innings, thanks in part to a mix featuring a curveball, slider and split changeup. Gonsolin’s time in the weight room pushed his fastball to near-100 miles per hour, too.
Gonsolin has pitched 86.2 innings across the past two seasons for the Dodgers with an ERA under 3.00. He and Dustin May will both serve in flexible roles during the NLDS behind Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler, able to start or relieve where needed. With no off days, Gonsolin could pick up a start against the Padres with the series hanging in the balance. It’s a long way from being an undrafted outfielder after his junior year of college.
Jake Cronenworth, Padres
Cronenworth became a leading candidate for National League Rookie of the Year pretty much out of nowhere. He was the unsung piece heading from the Tampa Bay Rays to the Padres in the Tommy Pham trade during the offseason. A two-way player at Michigan, Cronenworth has embraced defensive versatility as a professional while finding his launch angle to become a key cog in the Padres’ order.
When Eric Hosmer missed time with a stomach issue early in the season, Cronenworth got time at first base, and he hit too well to come off the field. He ended the regular season batting .285 and slugging .477 to go with 15 doubles, three triples and four home runs in 54 games. He even stayed in the lineup against same-sided left-handed pitchers. He did record a hit off Kershaw earlier in the season, along with two off of May – it’s safe to expect Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado to hit, but the Padres need guys lower in the order like Cronenworth to deliver, too, to upset the Dodgers.
Braves vs. Marlins
Ian Anderson, Braves
Braves fans know all about Anderson. He’s a former top-10 pick out of an upstate New York high school, and he’s been highly effective since his call-up earlier this year. Against the Reds in the Wild Card round, Anderson struck out nine batters in 6.0 innings while allowing two hits.
But the rest of the baseball world likely hasn’t come around on the rookie right-hander, yet. Atlanta has a good shot to get out to a 1-0 series lead with ace Max Fried on the mound, but Anderson could be opposed by fellow rookie phenom Sixto Sanchez in Game 2. The winner of that game will have a leg up on the series, and although Anderson’s 94-mph average fastball doesn’t quite touch Sanchez’s stuff, it could be good enough to set down the Marlins.
Jon Berti, Marlins
Berti is a journeyman – he didn’t make his MLB debut until 2018 when he was 28, and the last two seasons with the Marlins have been his first as even a part-time starter at the major-league level. But Miami trusts him – they often hit him near the top of the order and play him all over the diamond (second base, third base, shortstop, center field and right field).
Even without double-switches for managers to worry about, the in-game decisions increase in volume and magnitude during the postseason. Berti’s ability to hit the ball the other way, get a bunt down, run the bases and play essentially anywhere in the field gives Don Mattingly flexibility in how he manages the game. Berti also reached base at a .388 clip during the 2020 season, an important rate when pitching’s dominance shines in the playoffs. Don’t be shocked if Berti battles, works his way on, steals a base and scores a key run late in one of this series’ games.
Athletics vs. Astros
Khris Davis, Athletics
Davis is one of Oakland’s most well-known players, but it’s been a few years since he was at the peak of his powers. But A’s manager Bob Melvin said Monday that Davis is “very inspired” by this time of year. And Davis is in Oakland’s Game 1 lineup against Houston.
A .200 batting average this season from Davis lost him a full-time gig, but this is a guy who hit 40-plus homers in three consecutive seasons from 2016 to 2018. And he homered in Game 2 of the Wild Card round against the Chicago White Sox. When games get tight, one home run can make the difference, and an inspired Davis could be the guy to provide that.
Framber Valdez, Astros
Valdez made himself known with five shutout innings in relief of Zack Greinke to get the win for the Astros in Game 1 of their Wild Card series against the Minnesota Twins. While the left-hander was used out of the pen against Minnesota, he could slide back into the rotation in the ALDS with no days off.
After a down 2019, the 26-year old Valdez broke out in 2020 with a 3.57 ERA and 9.7 strikeouts per nine innings. He relies heavily on a 93.1mph sinker that he throws more than half the time, according to Statcast, which could help neutralize Oakland’s power bats. Either Valdez will start a game late in this series that could decide who advances, or he’ll again play a pivotal role in relief to save a ballgame or two for Houston. Either way, he’ll matter.
Rays vs. Yankees
Randy Arozarena, Rays
Arozarena was a trade acquisition midseason by Tampa Bay that had yet to play in the majors this year after a short stint with the Cardinals in 2019. But he’s become a top-third hitter in the Tampa Bay order with an impressive power-speed combo.
The Cuban outfielder hit seven home runs in 64 regular-season at bats while stealing four bases, too. The Rays have frequently batted him behind left-handed Brandon Lowe of late to provide protection for their best hitter from getting too many southpaw matchups out of the bullpen. That won’t stop the Yankees from trying to take advantage of Lowe’s platoon splits, but even if he doesn’t deliver, Arozarena might behind him – he’s batted .391 in his career against left-handers. A late-game matchup between fellow Cuban Aroldis Chapman and Arozarena should make for unexpectedly great theater.
Gary Sanchez, Yankees
Sanchez has become the somewhat forgotten piece of this season’s Yankees ball club, often relegated to the eighth or ninth spot in the order as he’s struggled through major hitting woes. He finished the year batting .147, and he won’t catch Gerrit Cole in this series – that role has gone to Kyle Higashioka.
But Sanchez still has game-changing power, as evidenced by his 10 home runs this season. He was more all-or-nothing than he’s ever been in his career in 2020, but the ‘all’ is still incredibly valuable. Against a Tampa Bay team with great pitching, Sanchez could play a pivotal role in the middle of the series with one or two big swings. Yankees fans probably are ready to be done with Sanchez’s streaky hitting and inconsistent glove, but all it’ll take is one game-deciding home run to bring them back around.