The Boston Red Sox found life in the American League Championship Series thanks to the bat of David Ortiz.
If you haven't heard by now, well, frankly, you probably don't watch baseball. Ortiz's game-tying grand slam in the bottom of the eighth against Detroit provided a much-needed spark for the Red Sox because they were once again dominated by a Tigers starting pitcher.
Ortiz certainly has a flare for the dramatic in October, first making his name in the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees in that comeback from a 3-0 deficit.
There is a strong pocket of people who would claim that Big Papi is the one they want up in a big spot late in a playoff game, and his heroics on Sunday night only strengthened their case. But did this help solidify Ortiz's spot as the best American League postseason player in recent memory?
I will admit right up front that I am a man of numbers and tangible evidence. I don't buy into one-game narratives because they don't tell us anything substantial. Is what David Ortiz did on Sunday night great? Absolutely.
But if Anibal Sanchez had played as many games in the postseason as Ortiz and thrown six no-hit innings in the playoffs with 12 strikeouts against the Red Sox, as he did in Game 1 of the ALCS, would we be talking about him as the greatest postseason pitcher of this generation?
It's all about opportunity, which Ortiz has had plenty of throughout his career with the Red Sox. To his credit, he has taken full advantage of it.
As Ty Duffy of the Big Lead tweeted at ESPN's Keith Law, who drew the ire of fans because he wasn't proclaiming Ortiz the greatest thing in the history of Earth, why not just enjoy what Ortiz does when he does it and let everything else fall where it may?
Since most fans aren't that rational, I will attempt to quantify what Ortiz has done in the postseason and what it says.
In his playoff career, Ortiz's numbers aren't any better than they are in the regular season. Actually, the stats are quite similar.
What those numbers tell us is that, no matter how great the player, if you have enough at-bats or innings pitched to form a strong sample size, things are more than likely to even out.
Ortiz doesn't suddenly turn into a combination of Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle in October. That's not to say he is a bum, because only elite players are putting up an OPS of .930, but some of his mystique is built largely on narratives rather than facts.
Since the crux of the whole matter for stat guys vs. narrative-driven people is clutch hits, it is only appropriate that we look at Ortiz's performance in those situations.
There are certainly clutch hits in a game—which Ortiz has certainly been involved in and which we will look at right now—which I measured by looking at his win probability added. This is a sabermetric stat that looks at how much a player positively or negatively affects his team's chances of winning on a play-by-play basis.
|Win Probability Added||2.577|
Here is where things start moving into Ortiz's favor when describing him as a great postseason/clutch hitter.
According to Fangraphs, over the course of a 162-game season, the very best players will have a WPA of greater than 6.0. Ortiz's 2.577 score in 72 playoff games translates to around 5.8 over 162 games, putting him just below that elite-level threshold.
He hasn't always been good. In fact, in the 2002 and 2003 playoffs he was bad, going 17-for-76 with seven extra-base hits and 25 strikeouts in 21 games.
All of these numbers are great, but in order to say whether someone is the best at something, you need to compare him to someone else.
Two names that immediately came to mind as challengers for the best postseason players during this generation of American League baseball were, not surprisingly, both New York Yankees: Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera.
I know, believe me, talking about the Red Sox and Yankees isn't always my favorite thing to do. But we are talking about opportunity in October, and these two teams have represented the AL more than anyone else over the last 15 years.
So let's see what, exactly, Rivera and Jeter have done in comparison to Ortiz when it comes to win probability added.
This paints a very interesting picture. Jeter is basically a little better than average when it comes to win probability added in the postseason, far lower than what I am sure most Yankees fans would tell you.
But let's remember that win probability added measures everything a player does on a per-play basis. This isn't to say Jeter has been a bum in the postseason—far from it. He has been fantastic, with a .308/.374/.465 slash line in 158 games.
Some of the most memorable moments in recent memory came courtesy of the Yankee captain, including the Flip embedded above and the first postseason home run in November in 2001.
Rivera is a freak, obviously. We are talking other-worldly kind of stuff, with a win probability added of over 10, but context becomes everything. He was, more often than not, on the mound in games when the Yankees were leading.
Which postseason hero would you most want on your team?
If you are pitching late in a game when a team is leading, it is going to be easier to accrue win-probability points. It is still incumbent on Rivera to do his job, which he did as well as anyone ever has, with a 0.70 ERA, 86 hits allowed (two home runs) and a 110-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 141 innings.
Just going off these numbers, Rivera would seem like an easy choice as the greatest postseason player, regardless of league, from this generation or most generations.
However, since this is baseball, these things are never that black and white. Rivera's win probability added was based more on the team around him than Ortiz's or Jeter's because he wasn''t coming into a game unless the Yankees were leading or tied in the eighth or ninth inning.
This is where it becomes hard to measure the value of a closer in this specialized age of relief pitching. If a team I was rooting for had a lead late in a game, there's no one I would take before Rivera.
But if I don't have a player like Ortiz or Jeter in the lineup, will I even be able to use Rivera late in a game? It's like trying to figure out whether the chicken or the egg comes first.
If you were to force me to feed into the narrative of who would you want up with men on base in a key spot during a playoff game, Ortiz would absolutely be at or near the top of the list. But I don't say that strictly because of the narrative from Sunday night or the few times in past October games he has played the hero.
I say that because Ortiz is and has been one of the best hitters in baseball for a decade. His postseason numbers speak volumes, as do his sterling regular-season stats. If that's enough to declare him the AL's greatest postseason player of this era, I can certainly buy into that.
Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.
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