Now, if the Yankees are going to win their 28th World Series, they will have to do it without either of the sure Hall of Famers who led the way to their last five titles. Mariano Rivera, the best relief pitcher in baseball history, went down for the season earlier this year. Andy Pettitte is the last man standing from the Joe Torre dynasty, but he appears likely to fall short of Cooperstown immortality (especially if the Yankees keep wasting his outstanding post-season starts this year).
With Jeter unable to add further to his many post-season records this year, let’s take a look at his October mastery, which has really added a full season to his 18-year career. (All the stats I cite here come from Baseball-Reference.com.
Bill James and other sabermetricians used to pretend there is no such thing as clutch performance. The heroics of Raul Ibañez, Bucky Dent and other post-season heroes were just random occurrences in their minds. They argued that the data sets are too small to prove that anyone was actually clutch.
Finally, in 2007, James did some more number-crunching (ignoring the post-season) and came to the conclusion that maybe clutch-hitting really does exist. Of course, his analysis of clutch hitters exposed his Red Sox bias by starting with the presumption that David Ortiz was “baseball’s most famous clutch hitter” and by never mentioning Jeter. He examined clutch stats for seven hitters but no Yankees.
Well, bullshit. Jeter gives us plenty of data to examine whether he’s a clutch performer. His post-season literally gives us a full season, spread through his full career, to examine clutch performance. And, of course, the fact that we have so much data is built on the fact that he (and his teammates) deliver so well in the clutch during the regular season. This is really a great time to examine Jeter’s post-season performance — in part because this post-season has ended so abruptly and in part because his post-season really matches up with the rest of his career as another full season.
Jeter has played in 158 post-season games. Four times he played that many games or more in a season. Nine other seasons he played 150 or more games. His 733 post-season at-bats rank behind five of his single-season totals. So the post-season matches up as one of his longer seasons, but certainly illustrative.
Before we examine his post-season performance, let’s state what should be obvious: You face better pitching in the post-season. Every team that makes it into the post-season has strong pitching. Not only that, but the post-season schedule, with travel games every two or three days (except this season, when Major League baseball inexplicably scheduled the American League team with the best record to play five straight days), lets teams set up their aces to pitch as many games as possible and to skip their No. 5 starters and sometimes their No. 4 starters. For instance, if you sweep or get swept in the first round, you never face the 4th or 5th starters. In a seven-game series, you might face the 4th starter only once and the ace three times.
Furthermore, the travel days give managers the opportunity to pitch their closers every day if the game is close (with rare exceptions for long stints in extra innings). And sometimes a closer who usually works only the ninth will pitch for four, five or even six outs.
I’ll elaborate on this point in a while, but the hitting results for a lot of great hitters bear it out. A hitter should have lower stats for the post-season than for the regular season. For instance, Ortiz, James’ “Mr. Clutch,” has slightly lower batting (.283 and .285) and slugging averages (.520 and .547) in the post-season than in the regular season. His on-base percentage is a shade higher (.388 and .380), but a few more walks to a most-dangerous hitter also makes sense. Big Papi’s homer total, 12 in post-season 66 games, is about one-third his average for 162 games (35).
In James’ analysis of regular-season clutch hitting, Chipper Jones is “a close match for Ortiz.” In 93 post-season games, his batting average was 16 points below his career average and his slugging average was 73 points lower. He hit 13 post-season homers, less than half his 162-game average of 30 in more than half a season’s games.
This is not to say that Ortiz or Jones didn’t hit well in the post-season, just to note that even good hitters don’t fare as well with no appearances against No. 5 starters, fewer appearances against No. 4’s and more at-bats against aces and closers.
I checked some other players with extensive post-season experience, and David Justice (112 games), Manny Ramirez (111), Alex Rodriguez (of course, 73 games), Jim Thome (71 games) and Paul O’Neill (85 games), Jorge Posada (125 games), Kenny Lofton (95 games) and Tino Martinez (99 games) all had lower batting and slugging averages in the post-season than in the regular season. That certainly underscores the difficulty of hitting against tougher post-season pitching.
Albert Pujols has hit .330 in 74 post-season games, just above his .325 regular-season average, and slugged just one point worse, .607 to .608. Bernie Williams had a lower batting average, .275 to .297, in 121 post-season games, but slugged better, .480 to .477.
I checked the top 10 all-time leaders in post-season at-bats (plus Ortiz, A-Rod, Thome and Pujols) and only one, Mr. October, had higher batting and slugging percentages in the post-season. Reggie Jackson hit .278 and slugged .527 in the post-season, compared to .262 and .490 in the regular season.
So let’s examine how Jeter’s post-season performance in 158 games stacks up against his career averages for 162:
- Batting average, Jeter is good, .308, but five points below his career .313. He has topped .300 in 19 of 33 post-season series and .400 10 times.
- Slugging average, Jeter is 17 points better in the post-season, .465 to .448.
- Homers, Jeter averages 16 per year in the regular season and has hit 20 in the post-season. He’s only topped 20 twice in the regular season.
- RBI, Jeter lags behind his regular-season numbers, 79 to 61 (this could be explained in part by the better pitching, which would leave fewer men on base in front of him, especially in the World Series, where as a lead-off or No. 2 hitter, he would frequently follow a pitcher).
- Hits, the post-season is Jeter’s ninth season of 200 or more hits (he got his 200th last night before breaking his ankle). His average for 162 games is 207.
- Runs scored, again lagging slightly behind his 162-game average, 117 to 111. Again, this might be explained by the impact that better pitching in the post-season has had on the hitters behind him, especially A-Rod.
- Stolen bases, also a little bit behind the regular season, 18 to 22.
- Doubles and triples, he’s almost identical, one double behind his regular-season clip, 33 to 32, and one triple ahead, 5 to 4.
- He’s better at avoiding double plays, grounding into 17 every 162 games but only 14 in the post-season.
- He strikes out more, 135 to 109.
- He walks about the same, 66 in the post-season, 65 per 162 regular-season games.
Twenty homers, 200 hits, batting over .300: That’s an outstanding season, but not close to one of the best seasons ever. But let’s take a closer look at that point about quality pitching:
Jeter played 22 post-season games (14 percent of his post-season career) that were started by certain future Hall of Famers: Gary Maddux (three games), Tom Glavine (two), John Smoltz (three), Pedro Martinez (seven), Randy Johnson (two starts plus a relief appearance) and Curt Schilling (five).
Jeter played 42 post-season games started by pitchers who had won or would win Cy Young Awards: all of the certain Hall of Famers except Schilling, plus Orel Hershiser (twice), Bartolo Colón (three times), Dwight Gooden, Bret Saberhagen, Barry Zito (twice), Johan Santana (four times), Justin Verlander (three times), C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee (three times). More than one-fourth of Jeter’s post-season games came against pitchers who combined to win 25 Cy Youngs, nine of them in the year he played the pitcher in October.
Then there are the other 200-game winners Jeter faced in the post-season: David Wells, Mike Mussina, Kevin Brown (twice), Jamie Moyer, Tim Wakefield (twice) and Kenny Rogers.
That’s 55 games (more than one-third of Jeter’s post-season career) started by pitchers who would top 200 career wins or win Cy Young Awards or both.
Admittedly, that count includes a few pitchers (Gooden, Saberhagen and Hershiser) who were past their prime when Jeter faced them in October: Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Rick Helling. Colón, Schilling (two different seasons), Santana, Johnson, Moyer, Glavine and Smoltz also won 20 the years they faced Jeter in the post-season.
And the parade of quality pitchers continues: Freddie Garcia (three times), Derek Lowe (four times), Josh Beckett (twice), John Lackey (five times), Al Leiter (twice) and Kevin Appier (three games). And on and on.
I think it’s safe to say that no one ever played a major-league season facing the level of pitching that Jeter has faced in the extra season that his post-season career has become.
And the relief pitchers Jeter faced in the post-season are another who’s who of the bullpen: Randy Myers, Armando Benitez, Jose Mesa, Trevor Hoffman, Lowe (a relief ace before he became a starter), Kazuhiro Sasaki, Byung-Hyun Kim (the National League was scoreless on him in the 2001 post-season before the Yankees crushed him, forcing that Johnson relief appearance), Francisco Rodriguez, Troy Percival, Joe Nathan, Keith Foulke, Brad Lidge, Jose Valverde and Jim Johnson.
Jeter’s 20 post-season homers, 200 hits, .308 average and .465 slugging percentage came against many of the best pitchers of his generation, some of the best of all-time. By any measure, his post-season career is one of the best seasons any major leaguer has ever had.