MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

10 surprising performances that shaped playoff races

10 surprising performances that shaped playoff races

You did not see Aaron Judge coming. That's OK, because the Yankees didn't see it coming either. Who could have?

On Opening Day, Judge had 95 plate appearances and a .179 career batting average. He was one of many reasons the Yanks were so excited about the future, but they thought he still had some learning to do.

To think Judge would emerge as one of the great impact players in the game -- that's the definition of 43 home runs and a 1.002 OPS -- nope.

This season has been filled with players like that. Even some with equally dramatic turnarounds. For instance, Robbie Ray and Chris Taylor and Byron Buxton.

These are players who've helped shape the postseason races in ways many of us never saw coming.

We may see only five repeat teams from the 2016 playoffs, which means five teams have come from back in the pack to play October ball. The Astros aren't a surprise. The Yankees aren't really a surprise. But the D-backs, Twins and Rockies are, at least to some of us.

Anyway, here's a working list of 10 surprising performances that have helped define it all:

1. Aaron Judge, RF, Yankees: 43 home runs, 1.002 OPS
Judge is a reminder that young players don't come with timetables and that they do sometimes need time to adjust to baseball at its highest level. In his case, he dramatically cut down on chasing pitches outside the strike zone. Judge's power, his strength, is a thing to behold. His name is dotted across the Statcast™ leaderboard, including this one: 94.7 mph average exit velocity, tops in the game. Or to put it another way, we're seeing something special with this 25-year-old.

2. Robbie Ray, LHP, D-backs: 13-5, 2.81 ERA, 1.146 WHIP
Ray redefined himself by adding a curveball that's among the best in the game and has made all his other stuff -- including a 94-mph fastball -- better. Arizona's astonishing 285-run-differential improvement is a product of many things, but having a top-of-the-rotation guy to line up between Zack Greinke and Patrick Corbin has helped the D-backs have one of baseball's best pitching staff and be a legitimate threat to play deep into October.

3. Byron Buxton, CF, Twins: 15 HR, 25 SB, .736 OPS
Once one of baseball's most heralded prospects, Buxton was not an overnight star. He began this season with a .220 career batting average and was hitting just .216 at the All-Star break. And then came the breakout, with the speed and the instincts all coming into focus. Buxton's walk-off home run Thursday was a fitting punctuation mark for a second half in which he has 10 home runs, nine stolen bases and a .973 OPS. He's not the only reason the Twins have been one of baseball's surprise teams, but he's certainly the most entertaining.

Buxton's walk-off home run

4. Chris Taylor, OF/2B/SS/3B, Dodgers: 33 doubles, 19 HR, 16 SB, .867 OPS
Taylor went to Arizona last offseason and remade his swing. He began the season in the Minors with a .234 career batting average. Taylor has struggled down the stretch, but his season is one of many reasons the Dodgers have baseball's best record.

5. Chase Anderson, RHP, Brewers: 10-3, 2.88 ERA, 1.123 WHIP
Anderson has jump-started his career at 29 by adding a cutter and refining his mechanics to jump his fastball from 91 mph to 93 mph. This week's 93-pitch, 5 1/3-inning victory over the Pirates on three days' rest solidified his standing as one of the leaders of one of baseball's most surprising teams.

6. Brad Peacock, RHP, Astros: 11-2, 2.98 ERA, 1.231 WHIP
Peacock helped keep the Astros afloat when injuries decimated their rotation and has more than earned a spot in the postseason rotation. Houston has won 13 of his 19 starts, and he's 8-2 with a 3.22 ERA in those starts. Peacock has been at his best down the stretch, allowing two runs once and one run four times.

7. Cody Bellinger, 1B/OF, Dodgers: 37 HR, 22 doubles, .959 OPS
Bellinger made his Major League debut on April 25, and that's when the Dodgers took off, winning 78 of their next 101 games with him in the lineup. The Dodgers had him as one of their untouchable prospects for a couple of years, and he has proved them correct.

Statcast: Bellinger's 441-ft. HR

8. Archie Bradley, RHP, D-backs: 58 appearances, 1.22 ERA, 0.945 WHIP
Bradley may still be the top-of-the-rotation starter the D-backs have long envisioned him being. But his stuff and his durability play well in the bullpen, too. Bradley is another big reason Arizona's pitching staff has been one of baseball's five best every single day this season.

9. Mike Clevinger, RHP, Indians: 10-5, 3.21 ERA, 1.268 WHIP
So many good things have happened to the Indians that it's hard to know where to start. But Clevinger is part of that, having refined his curveball and become more consistent with his other stuff. He has made just 30 Major League starts, so we may be just at the beginning of a career that could be something special.

10. Jose Ramirez, 3B/2B, Indians: 50 doubles, 26 HR, .941 OPS
OK, Ramirez shouldn't really be on this list after a 2016 season in which, as his manager, Terry Francona, said, "He saved our butts." It's just that his continued growth has been a thing to behold and that he and shortstop Francisco Lindor seem to supply much of the energy for this amazing baseball team. Ramirez has hustled his way into the hearts of Indians fans and onto every American League MVP Award ballot.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.