MLB Metrics 101: Ranking the Greatest Postseason Performances of All Time
Before the confetti has settled on the 2017 MLB postseason and the last champagne is popped, there will be heroes. Players will rise to the challenge, put up big numbers and etch their names forever in the annals of October.
Some will be superstars; others may be little-regarded role players. That's the beauty of the playoffs. Anything can happen.
With that in mind, let's check in with another segment in B/R's MLB Metrics 101 series and take a look back at the 10 greatest postseason performances of all time.
A few notes:
- We're looking at numbers amassed in a single postseason, not individual games or career achievements. Of course, if a guy had a spectacular overall postseason that also featured some iconic single-game moments, all the better. But, for example, despite his perfect game in the 1956 World Series, Don Larsen didn't make the cut because he threw just 10.2 innings overall with seven strikeouts, four walks and four unearned runs allowed.
- Stats are our starting point, but a high degree of subjectivity seeps in given the small sample sizes and difficulty in comparing between positions (pitchers versus hitters) and especially eras. What would Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig circa 1928 have done in the expanded postseason format? We can only speculate.
- That said, we're using Baseball-Reference's baseline as our minimum standard for consideration: at least 20 plate appearances or nine walks and hits for position players and at least 15 innings pitched or three decisions for pitchers. And, fair or not, guys who played more games and thus compiled more counting stats have an edge.
Because baseball history extends so far back, and because this exercise required so much subjectivity, any list of "honorable mentions" could be spun into a book of its own.
Instead, here's a sampling of five players who it was especially hard to leave off for their performances and/or historical significance.
Babe Ruth, RF, 1928 New York Yankees (4 G, 17 PA, .545 AVG., 2.433 OPS, 4 HR, 9 RBI)
Lou Gehrig, 1B, 1928 New York Yankees (4 G, 17 PA, .625 AVG., 2.433 OPS, 3 HR, 4 RBI)
There's a reason the New York Yankees of the late-1920s are used as a cliched template for every good-hitting team. It began and ended with Ruth and Gehrig, who combined to annihilate the 1928 World Series. Their potent hitting also worked against them in a way.
By sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in four games, the Yanks kept Ruth and Gehrig's sample sizes small even by postseason standards.
Sandy Koufax, LHP, 1965 Los Angeles Dodgers (24.0 IP, 0.38 ERA, 29 SO, 13 H, 5 BB)
Sandy Koufax won a pair of World Series MVP awards, in 1963 and 1965. His '65 performance was arguably the more dominant of the two as he made three starts and tossed two complete games.
Honestly, Koufax could have easily made the list. His innings pitched is really the only "blemish" in that incredible line.
Reggie Jackson, RF, 1977 New York Yankees (11 G, 42 PA, .306 AVG., 1.155 OPS, 5 HR, 9 RBI)
How can Mr. October himself not crack a ranking of the best postseason performances?
He's close, but Reggie Jackson's best postseason was probably in 1977, when he clubbed five home runs, including three in a single World Series game. Legendary, no question, but the .306 average makes it hard to justify booting anyone from our top 10.
Andrew Miller, LHP, 2016 Cleveland Indians (19.1 IP, 30 SO, 5 BB, 3 H)
We mention Andrew Miller for two reasons. One, he's the all-time single postseason leader in strikeouts per nine innings with 13.97. Second, in the 2016 postseason he helped solidify the new prototype of the October super reliever, a bullpen ace who a manager can ride for multiple innings at any time.
Miller lost a bit of steam in the World Series and the Cleveland Indians lost in seven games to the Chicago Cubs, but his legacy will stand.
No. 10: Waite Hoyt, RHP, 1921 New York Yankees
The Stats: 27.0 IP, 3 CG, 0.00 ERA, 18 SO, 18 H, 11 BB
As mentioned, comparing across eras is difficult and requires a high degree of subjectivity. The game was just plain different in the 1920s for all kinds of reasons, not least of which that the postseason was the winners of the NL and AL meeting in the World Series.
It's impossible to ignore what Waite Hoyt accomplished in 1921, though. Throwing three complete games in a single Fall Classic without allowing an earned run? It's safe to say we'll never see that again (except for one more time on this list).
Yes, Hoyt walked 11 batters, coughed up 18 hits next to a modest six strikeouts per nine innings and surrendered a pair of unearned runs. That sterling 0.00 ERA leaps off the stat sheet, however, in any era.
No. 9: Carlos Beltran, CF, 2004 Houston Astros
The Stats: 12 G, 56 PA, .435 AVG., 1.758 OPS, 8 HR, 14 RBI
At age 40, Carlos Beltran will likely be an ancillary piece during the Houston Astros' current run. In 2004, he was Houston's October star.
After coming over in a trade-deadline deal from the Kansas City Royals, Beltran caught fire in the playoffs, homering in five consecutive games and tying the all-time record for home runs in a single postseason with eight.
The Astros ultimately lost in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, but you certainly can't blame Beltran.
"There's some guys who wear a Superman shirt, but he was Superman," former Astros second baseman and Hall of Famer Craig Biggio said, per MLB.com's Brian McTaggert. "Anybody that was part of it, that saw it, watched it—every ball he hit was hard. Every out he made was hard. It was one of the most incredible hitting experiences I've seen in my life for that time of year and the numbers he threw up."
No. 8: Barry Bonds, LF, 2002 San Francisco Giants
The Stats: 17 G, 74 PA, .356 AVG., 8 HR, 16 RBI, 1.559 OPS
Was Barry Bonds most likely aided by an array of performance-enhancing chemicals when he led the San Francisco Giants to Game 7 of the 2002 World Series? Yes.
Does that change the fact he had an eye-melting stat line and permanently buried his reputation as a postseason choker? Absolutely not.
Bonds was strong throughout the Giants' '02 run, clubbing four homers and tallying 10 RBI between the division series and NLCS.
He turned it up a notch in the Fall Classic, though, where he hit .471 and launched four more homers to set the all-time single postseason mark (since tied by Beltran in '04 and Nelson Cruz in 2011).
Of course, to the haters' delight, San Francisco fell in heartbreaking fashion to the then-Anaheim Angels and Bonds never got a ring.
No. 7: Albert Pujols, 1B, 2011 St. Louis Cardinals
The Stats: 18 G, 82 PA, .353 AVG., 1.154 OPS, 5 HR, 15 RBI
In his final season season with the St. Louis Cardinals, Albert Pujols created some pretty amazing memories.
After a typically excellent regular season that earned him a top-five MVP finish, Pujols tore through the playoffs, hitting .350 in the division series, .478 in the NLCS and, finally, bashing three home runs in a single World Series game.
With that, he joined Babe Ruth and Jackson as the only players to have accomplished the feat at the time (the Giants' Pablo Sandoval joined the club in 2012).
Interestingly, he didn't win World Series MVP honors that year. Instead, the prize went to...
No. 6: David Freese, 3B, 2011 St. Louis Cardinals
The Stats: 18 G, 71 PA, .397 AVG., 1.259 OPS, 5 HR, 21 RBI
Pujols will be in the Hall of Fame someday and David Freese won't. For one postseason, however, Freese was even better than his all-world teammate. That's the wonder of October.
After hitting .545 with three home runs in the NLCS and winning MVP honors there, Freese hit .348 and tallied seven more RBI in the World Series, including a walk-off homer in a wild Game 6, to claim a second MVP prize.
Freese is tied for second on the all-time list for hits in a postseason (25), is tied for the lead for most doubles (8) and holds the all-time mark for RBI (21).
No. 5: Orel Hershiser, RHP, 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers
The Stats: 42.2 IP, 3 GC, 1.05 ERA, 32 SO, 25 H, 13 BB
Orel Hershiser was a brain surgeon in baseball uniform, using precision and calm to exert his will on opposing hitters.
The 1988 postseason was perhaps his best operation, as he twirled 42.2 innings (tied for fourth-most all time) while throwing three complete games and two shutouts, including one in the World Series against the powerful Oakland A's.
The Dodgers' '88 Series victory is best remembered for Kirk Gibson's one-legged game-winning home run, but Hershiser was the clinical heart and soul of that team, and he won NLCS and World Series MVP honors for his troubles.
No. 4: David Ortiz, DH, 2004 Boston Red Sox
The Stats: 14 G, 68 PA, .400 AVG., 1.279 OPS, 5 HR, 19 RBI
In what will always be remembered as the greatest postseason in Boston Red Sox history, franchise icon David Ortiz was at his best.
Big Papi hit .400 overall and clubbed three home runs with 11 RBI in the historic, come-from-behind American League Championship Series win over the Yankees, which was the undisputed climax of that run.
Ortiz's numbers are great, but are we bumping him up a few spots for helping bury the curse of the Bambino in impossibly cinematic fashion?
No. 3: Christy Mathewson, RHP, 1905 New York Giants
The Stats: 27.0 IP, 3 CG, 0.00 ERA, 18 SO, 13 H, 1 BB
Like Hoyt, Christy Mathewson threw 27 scoreless innings and three complete games in the World Series.
Unlike Hoyt, the Christian Gentleman also did not allow an unearned run as the New York Giants won all three of his starts and the 1905 Series.
Mathewson also issued just one walk, meaning he finished with an 18 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Say what you will about small samples and a different offensive era—that's astounding.
No. 2: Curt Schilling, RHP, 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks
The Stats: 48.1 IP, 1.12 ERA, 3 CG, 56 SO, 25 H, 6 BB
Joining forces with co-ace Randy Johnson (who could have easily made our honorable mention section at least), Schilling set a then-record with 48.1 innings, struck out 56 next to just six walks and posted a 1.12 ERA.
The Snakes rode Schilling and Johnson all the way to an upset seven-game victory over the Yankees in the World Series, during which Schilling made three starts, struck out 26 in 21.1 innings and won MVP honors.
It seemed like an October output that might never be topped, until...
No. 1: Madison Bumgarner, LHP, 2014 San Francisco Giants
The Stats: 52.2 IP, 1.03 ERA, 2 CG, 45 SO, 28 H, 6 BB
Where Schilling had Johnson as his wingman, the Giants' Madison Bumgarner had essentially he, himself and him in the 2014 postseason.
Playing for a San Francisco team that squeaked into the playoffs as the second wild card, Bumgarner took the orange and black on his shoulders and carried them with an all-time record 52.2 innings pitched.
The big lefty threw a pair of complete-game shutouts, including one in the do-or-die NL Wild Card Game, and put a punctuation mark on his performance by throwing five gritty, scoreless innings on one day's rest in Game 7 of the World Series.
It sealed the Giants' third title in five seasons, and Bumgarner's place in playoff lore.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.