“Mr. Equilibrium”

David Ortiz’s numbers in the regular season were nearly the same as they were in the postseason. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

There’s a question I often see thrown around Facebook baseball chats or internet groups, “If you needed a hit, just one hit, who would you want up at the plate?” It’s a question I’ve heard during workplace watercooler sessions, sitting around watching a game with friends, and on call-in radio shows, and my answer has always been the same: George Brett. That’s probably informed by his many timely postseason home runs.

As a New Yorker in the 1970s and early ‘80s, you couldn’t watch playoff baseball without remembering Brett smacking upper-deck dingers against the New York Yankees in games where his Kansas City Royals both won and lost. Looking at the numbers now, it turns out to have been a pretty decent selection. Brett had a career postseason line of .337/.397/.627, good for a 175 wRC+ and a 1.4 WPA. And the Royals Hall of Fame player actually hit better in the playoffs than the regular season, with a career line of .305/.369/.487, and a career wRC+ of 132.

But how much better? I devised a simple formula subtracting the difference between a player’s postseason averages for batting, on-base and slugging, then adding those differences to find batters with stronger statistics in the playoffs against their regular season action.

Now Brett had 184 postseason plate appearances, which should be enough to fight off the small sample size monster. There were some incredible numbers among other batters with fewer PAs. Hank Aaron appeared in just three postseason series – the 1957 World Series (during which he was named MVP), the 1958 World Series, and the 1969 NLCS, the first year of the League Championship Series. Hammerin’ Hank batted .362 with a .405 OBP in just 74 PAs, resulting in an incredible 204 wRC+.

I bring this up for a number of reasons. First, I love the history of the LCS. I sometimes think the World Series overshadows the great history of this contest. The broadcast networks did a remarkably short sighted job of preserving early sporting events. It’s a process called “wiping,” which you might find interesting. The networks used to repeatedly use the same videotapes when televising programs. As such, it’s hard to find a readily available copy of the first Super Bowl broadcast or the early LCS games. This wild tangent is just an excuse for me to show you this:

The legendary Aaron provided enhanced value in the postseason – when he got there. But 74 PAs really is a small sample. Let’s set the bar higher. I brainstormed with a couple of statistical gurus. Mark Simon, former ESPN writer now with Baseball Info Solutions, chimed in. “Maybe 100 PAs,” he said, as a place to begin the process. Who do we find at that benchmark?

The infamous “Nails,” Lenny Dykstra, enjoyed a 321/.433/.661 slash line with 10 homers in 136 postseason PAs for the New York Mets and the Phillies, which resulted in a 75 wRC+ premium to his regular season stats. Speaking of Philadelphia, Bob Boone, Aaron’s dad and a well-respected catcher not known for his bat, hit .311 in 121 postseason PAs as opposed to a .254 career clip, alongside double-digit increases for both OBP and slugging. Of course, all fans who came of age in the 1980s remember the late Dave Henderson, who as a Boston Red Sox outfielder, smacked a crucial home run off of Boone’s battery mate, Donnie Moore, in the 1986 ALCS. Great call by Al Michaels here, too:

Henderson played in the postseason for the Red Sox as well as the Oakland A’s, hitting .298, nearly 40 points above his career average in 141 PAs, with an OBP 56 points over career marks, and a wRC+ 50 points higher than his regular season number. In a statistic that should enhance the recent debate of Hall of Fame-worthy catchers, Thurman Munson batted .357 in 135 playoff PAs versus a career average of .292 and a slugging percentage 20 percent higher than his regular season stats. The Dodgers’ Justin Turner has been to the plate 137 times thus far in extra October baseball, hitting at a .321 clip alongside an impressive .445 OBP, well above career averages, to go along with a .571 SLG. Hall of Famer Paul Molitor also outperformed his regular season work over 132 playoff PAs, hitting .368, and slugging .615.

An interesting tidbit: the one player with at least 100 postseason PAs who has most overachieved his regular season work? Billy Martin, with a .333 batting average and an OBP 71 points above his career numbers. The fiery field skipper also slugged at a .566 (!!!) clip in the Fall Classic, versus .369 over his regular season career.

I also consulted sabermetrician Diane Firstman, the longtime baseball blogger and expert Scrabble player, who believed that I could dig deeper into the data, using 150 PAs as a springboard. Thanks to her, I found some compelling figures who aren’t always explored. Lou Gehrig had exactly 150 PAs and batted .361 with a .483 OBP and a ridiculous .731 slugging average versus a .330/.447/.632 slash line during the regular season. Veteran power hitter Nelson Cruz has used his 168 postseason appearances to lap his career averages with a .292/.347/.669 postseason slash line, his slugging over 22 percent higher than his regular season mark and a 39 point wRC+ premium.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

The greatest player in this bracket would, of course, be Pablo Sandoval:

No one-trick panda, the Giants’ third baseman averaged .344 over 167 PAs, alongside a .389 OBP, much stronger than his .288 and .333 figures.

After an even more specific glimpse into the numbers, I decided to start the statistical bidding at 200 PAs. There were still plenty of names – players who are well-known, with a few surprises in the mix as well. Through 334 PAs, future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols hit .323 with a .431 on-base percentage versus his rapidly-receding .302/.359/.554 regular-season numbers. Pete Rose batted .321 with a .388 OBP, generously above career norms, in 301 PAs in the playoffs. He also generated a 2.6 WPA in those series.

There’s a player who gets derided somewhat when it’s time to discuss the Hall of Fame. He didn’t walk much and faced criticism about his lack of fielding range, marginalizing the numerous Gold Gloves he was awarded. That said, there’s no doubting the post season dominance of Steve Garvey:

In 232 PAs, the Dodgers and Padres great first baseman batted .338 in the postseason, 44 points better than his career norms. His postseason wRC+ premium of 39 points places him among the top 20 in the category. His OBP was .361, 32 points higher as well. The only other batter with just as many PAs who has shown up in the playoffs is the recently retired Carlos Beltran, who batted .307 against .279 during the regular season and a .412 OBP versus .350, in 256 PAs. His .609 postseason slugging places him in the top 15 all-time.

In examining the 300 batters with the most postseason PAs, watching these epic video clips, I started thinking again about whether or not “clutch hitting” exists. Many writers (myself included) cite high-leverage statistics to prove its existence. Davey Johnson once told me that clutch hitters are “just good hitters.” The nicknames “Mr. October” for Reggie Jackson and “Mr. November” for Derek Jeter for his early morning, extra-inning heroics imply the spirit of clutch performance. Through the years, numerous respected baseball thinkers from Bill James to early Nate Silver have questioned whether or not David Ortiz was a “clutch hitter” or simply a great one. Others add “Papi” to this postseason inner circle for his numerous playoff achievements:

But when you examine the postseason numbers for the last Yankees captain, another nickname begins to make better sense. Derek Jeter had more postseason PAs than any batter in history with 734. His career batting average sits at .310; his on-base percentage was .377 and his slugging .440. His playoff numbers? .308/.374/.465. a wRC+ premium of exactly two. So essentially, Jeter was almost the exact same player in October as he was through all the other months. New York Yankees manager Joe Torre was able to rely on Jeter to produce similar numbers regardless of situation, which could be considered the epitome of a great player, possessed of not so much clutch, but rather extreme reliability. Whether it’s a blowout in May or an elimination game, you could always count on similar production.

Then I looked at Reggie, known for the longest time as the consummate pressure player and dominant force in October baseball. Jackson finished his career with a .262 average and .356 on-base. Playing for the dynasty Oakland A’s from 1971 to 1975, the great Yankee World Series champs in 1977 and 1978 as well as 1980 and ’81, and finally for the California Angels, who made it to the ALCS in 1982 and 1986, Jackson accumulated 318 postseason PAs. He did bat slightly better during playoff baseball at a .278 clip, though his OBP was just two points below his career average. The real difference came in his slugging, which was 37 points higher in the postseason and helps account for the gap between his 139 regular season wRC+ and his 152 postseason mark.

And Ortiz? He batted .286 with a .380 OBP during his career. In the playoffs, where much of the legend of Papi was built, the Red Sox great got on base at a .404 clip. His batting average was .289, just three points above his career mark, though he was good for a 3.2 WPA, the highest postseason number in the history of the game. Here’s the fascinating part – his postseason slugging was .543, nine points below his .552 career mark, achieving a wRC+ premium of just four points, the same number as Jeter.

You could field a championship team of players who achieved (or came close to) “Mr. Equilibrium” status and who approached or well-exceeded 200 postseason PAs.

That team would include Roberto Alomar. The Hall of Fame second baseman was a career .300 hitter with a .371 OBP and .443 SLG versus a postseason .313/.381/.448 slash line, resulting in a wRC+ postseason premium of just three.

In a smaller sample, Ron Cey, the Dodgers keystone mainstay might also make the lineup. He was a career .261 hitter with a .354 OBP, and hit the same .261 with a .362 on-base in 189 postseason PAs. His slugging percentage split was just four points, also resulting in a wRC+ of just three.

In addition to Jeter’s consistent postseason efforts, the Yankees excitable right-fielder during the Torre years, Paul O’Neill, also showed remarkable statistical stability, batting .288/.363 over his career in the regular season and .284/.363 during the postseason through 340 PAs. Even his slugging percentage showed impressive constancy (.470 in the regular season vs .465) for a wRC+ postseason premium of -3.

In a much smaller sample, Pirates legendary right fielder Roberto Clemente, in 113 PAs, batted .318 with a .354 OBP, which nearly equates to his regular season career marks of .317/.359, achieving a wRC+ postseason premium of -2.

Another mid-century star, Brooklyn Dodgers center fielder Duke Snider, was the ultimate mixed bag. His postseason batting average was only nine points lower than his overall career mark, and his OBP was 29 points lower, while his slugging sat 54 points above his regular season number, resulting in a wRC+ postseason premium of one.

Although his slugging percentage during the playoffs was higher than his career marks by 21 points, left fielder Rickey Henderson batted .284/.389 in the playoffs versus .279/.401 in his career, showing that Rickey brought Rickey regardless of the amount of pressure in the air. The first-ballot Hall of Famer finished with a wRC+ postseason premium of just three.

Of the catchers in the group, 1990’s Braves star backstop Javy Lopez most resembles Mr. Equilibrium, with a regular season slash line of .287/.337/.491 versus .278/.324/.493, resulting in a wRC+ postseason premium of -2.

Ultimately, legendary October performers like Jackson, Ortiz and Jeter merely produced as they would during any other time of the season. Although playoff and Fall Classic outliers like Steve Garvey, Dave Henderson and Pablo Sandoval certainly exist, there are some players who just gave you almost exactly what they would at any time over 162 games.

Has this exercise changed my view of George Brett as the fantasy go-to for a critical last chance at-bat? His 1.4 WPA tells me it’s a relatively safe choice. Is it the best choice? Prime Albert Pujols and Carlos Beltran might have something to say about that. At the very least with Papi, as well as hitters like Jeter and Reggie, their managers generally knew what they were getting, regardless of whether Game Six or the sixth game in April was on the line.

References and Resources

Dave Jordan is the co-author of Fastball John, the memoir written with former National League Rookie Pitcher of the Year John D’Acquisto. Dave is also the founder of Instream Sports, the first athlete-author website. Follow him on Twitter @instreamsports.
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5 years ago

I think the Pujols example shows that it would be better to only compare a player’s postseason numbers to their regular season numbers in the years that they made the playoffs. Pujols looks like a lifetime clutch player right now by the stats you listed, but most of that is just that he’s been bad for the last 5 years as he has aged, and (not unrelated) his team has not made the playoffs in the past 5 years.

5 years ago

Yes on David Ortiz, but he is famous for his post season heroics because of the ridiculous dominance he posted in a few of the series. So maybe its not “total body of postseason work”, maybe its “how large did they periodically loom in the post season?”
While is 2004, 2007, and 2013 were all amazing, that WS in 2013 is ludicrous. His WPA (baseball reference) was almost a full game in multiple short series. Wowza.
Maybe there is a difference between “who would you want for one at bat” and “who would you want for one series”?

5 years ago

Adding a table or chart of these players would have likely been enlightening. But the general higher quality of pitching on playoff teams ensures that there is some clutch value in a player that can equal the results gained against average pitching.

5 years ago

Jeter needs to be taken out of these convos. Although excellent for sure, all the others were power hitters and much more feared and so are better go-to guys. I’d choose Brett, Papi, Reggie or Pujols…or dare I say it, the 2009 ARod was as good as I’ve ever seen in the playoffs.