Ninth inning—your team is trying to protect a one-run lead. They have two outs and the bases juiced. Your closer is tiring. Which hitter in baseball would you LEAST like to face?
In other words, who are the most dangerous hitters in baseball with the game on the line?
10. Chipper Jones, 3B, Atlanta Braves
Now entering his 17th major league season, Chipper's power has greatly diminished, but he's been one of the hottest players in baseball over the last few years. His .342 batting average since '06 leads all major league hitters.
Chipper is a switch hitter, and a pretty good one at that, so there's no point in putting in a left-handed specialist for him. He is a smart veteran with enough playoff experience that he can make a ninth inning at-bat a nightmare for any pitcher desperately trying to protect a one-run lead.
9. Ichiro Suzuki, RF, Seattle Mariners
I love this guy. He's not a power threat—just 33 extra-base hits in 686 at-bats last season—but he's a magician with the bat.
In eight major league seasons, Ichiro has never failed to bat .300 or collect 200 hits. He has a .331 career batting average, but he's even better in the clutch situations: .341 with runners in scoring position, .355 with runners in scoring position and two outs, and .434 with the bases loaded. It says a lot that a guy with no power would register 12 intentional walks last season, good for sixth-best in the American League.
He won't win the game with a home run, but he's the type of hitter who would foul off eight pitches in a row to wear out the pitcher's arm. Then he'll pick out a spot in shallow right field and bloop a base hit over the first baseman's head. And once he gets on base, watch out.
8. Ryan Howard, 1B, Phillies
Say what you want about his strikeouts and struggles against lefties, but Howard is arguably the most dangerous power hitter the game has seen since Mark McGwire. He might get fooled by those low and away breaking balls, but if you try to sneak a fastball by him, he'll turn on it and send it 500 feet in the other direction.
Howard leads all major league players in home runs (153), runs batted in (431), and intentional walks (89) since 2006. In the five biggest games of the year for the Phillies in '08—the World Series—Howard hit three home runs and drove in six runs.
7. Chase Utley, 2B, Phillies
He's surrounded by MVPs in the lineup—Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins—but Utley is the best all-around player for the World Champions. He hits for average, power, and has an uncanny knowledge of the strike zone. Utley is a competitor who will do whatever it takes to win, whether it's getting hit by the pitch, taking a walk, or driving in a teammate with a sacrifice fly.
Throw him a fastball and Utley will pound it out of the park, but he also led the major leagues in OPS against curveballs (1.257) last year. Utley had the fifth-lowest first swing percentage in the N.L. (14.9) and knows how to work the count better than just about anyone in the game.
6. Dustin Pedroia, 2B, Red Sox
Few athletes have accomplished so much in so little time. Pedroia is one of just two players in baseball history to win the Rookie of the Year award, MVP award, and win a World Championship—all in his first two seasons (Cal Ripken, Jr. is the other).
Pedroia was a major factor in the Sox's wild card berth this past season, as he batted .326 while leading the AL in runs scored, hits, and doubles. In close and late situations, Pedroia was at his finest, as he finished fourth in the league in batting average (.368). With the bases loaded, Pedroia batted .500 (8-for-16) with 18 RBI.
Although the Sox lost the ALCS in seven games to the Tampa Bay Rays, Pedroia batted .346 with three home runs, including the only run for the Sox in their 3-1 Game Seven loss.
He is a force at the plate, whether he's knocking base hits to the outfield or spraying extra-base hits in the gap. And Pedroia is especially dangerous late in the game—he hit .379 in the eighth inning or later last season.
5. Alex Rodriguez, 3B, Yankees
Steroids or not, A-Rod is a three-time MVP and on pace to be the future career home run champion. He is the only player in history with 35 home runs, 100 RBI, and 100 runs scored for 10 consecutive seasons. He is a joy to watch at the plate and has been the best player in baseball (or at least the American League) for the majority of his career.
The only thing keeping A-Rod from being higher on this list are his much-publicized postseason struggles with the Yankees (just a .279 career hitter in October baseball). To put it bluntly, he is not clutch. At all.
For his career, he's at his worst in the ninth inning (.264 average, lower than any other inning). He's a .279 hitter in close and late situations and .274 with runners in scoring position and two outs. He hits lower with two outs (.293) than no outs (.319) or one out (.306).
Still, I would have to say the prospect of facing Alex Rodriguez, owner of 553 home runs and a .578 slugging percentage, is an intimidating idea for any pitcher.
4. Vladimir Guerrero, RF, L.A. Angels
He's very quietly posted 11 consecutive seasons with at least 25 home runs and a .300 batting average. Vlad may not be one of the most patient hitters in the league—he's never drawn more than 84 walks in a year—but he is definitely one of the most feared.
Vlad is easily the best bad-ball hitter in the game. You can't pitch around him. Throw him a fastball eight inches outside of the strike zone, and he'll line a double down the line. And he has led the league in intentional walks more times (four) than any other active player, including last season.
3. David Ortiz, DH, Red Sox
Big Papi missed almost a third of last season with a wrist injury, but in each of the five seasons before that, Ortiz finished in the top five in the American League in MVP voting. He proved to be one of the top power hitters in the game, averaging 42 home runs and 128 RBI per year.
Ortiz helped the Sox win two World Championships ('04 and '07), and his performance in the '04 postseason was simply amazing—.400 batting average (22-for-55) with five home runs, 19 RBI, 13 walks, three walkoff hits, and the ALCS MVP award.
He was officially named the greatest clutch hitter in Red Sox history after hitting a walkoff home run in a 2005 game, and he will be remembered forever as one of the greatest postseason performers in baseball history.
2. Manny Ramirez, LF, Dodgers
His performance down the stretch last season rivals that of any hitter in major league history. Even as a Phillies fan watching my team compete against Manny's Dodgers in the NLCS, he was fun to watch.
In Manny's short stint with the Dodgers last season, he hit .396 with 17 home runs and 53 RBI in just 53 games. When it came to the postseason, Manny tore it up like the baseball world hasn't seen since Barry Bonds in '04. Manny hit .500 (5-for-10) with two home runs in the NLDS and .533 (8-for-15) with two home runs and seven walks in the NLCS. All told, Manny batted .410 in his three months with the Dodgers.
If Manny continues his assault on the rest of the baseball world this season, he has a pretty legitimate chance to win the majors' first Triple Crown in over 40 years. He's also a former World Series MVP and baseball's career home run leader in the postseason (28). By the time he retires, Manny will go down not only as one of the most clutch hitters who ever lived, but one of the best pure hitters of all-time.
1. Albert Pujols, 1B, St. Louis Cardinals
The best pure hitter in the game. A two-time MVP, Pujols is a threat every time he steps to the plate. He was voted the most feared hitter in baseball among a 2008 poll of 30 ESPN writers, receiving almost three times as many votes as any other player.
Great hitters perform better in the clutch. For his career, Pujols hits 10 points higher with runners in scoring position. And remember his clutch home run in the '05 NLCS against Lights Out Lidge that set Brad Lidge's career back two years?
Pujols might be the single toughest out in the game. He can hit lefties (.411 in '08) AND righties (.333). He was seventh in the league in batting average with runners in scoring position (.339). He finished in the top four in the NL in intentional walks in each of the last four seasons.
His .624 slugging percentage is the best among active players by a full 31 points and ranks fourth all-time—better than Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx, and Barry Bonds. Pujols is an extremely dangerous hitter: consistent, clutch, smart, and talented in every facet of hitting.
There are zero pitchers that want to face Pujols at any time in the game...especially when it counts.