Derek Jeter’s legacy: Post-season excellence against the best pitchers

25 09 2014

As Derek Jeter prepares to play his last home game for the Yankees tonight, let’s appreciate one more time just how great he has been.

It’s a shame that his career will end in the regular season, because his legacy in the game will be as the greatest post-season player ever.

I can argue that he’s the best shortstop ever, though most would give that nod to Honus Wagner.

But Jeter’s post-season achievements are unmatched. He holds — in most cases by large margins — the all-time records for post-season, games, at-bats, hits, runs, total bases, doubles and triples. He’s third in homers and fourth in runs batted in. And it’s not just because he played in an era when you got extra rounds of playoffs. The extra rounds helped, of course, but they also gave him enough post-season play to blow away the arguments of statisticians who like to claim there’s not such thing as clutch hitting.

You can’t say, as the numbers crunchers like to, that we don’t have enough data to evaluate clutch hitting, that a hot post-season series could just be random. As I’ve noted before, Jeter has a full season of post-season action, 158 games spread over 16 of his 19 seasons. He topped 158 games in a season only three times. This is definitely a full season and it was one of his best, an MVP-type season.

And when you take a closer look at his post-season play, you see that Jeter racked up his impressive numbers hitting against baseball’s best pitching staffs again and again.

One of the most unanimous pieces of baseball wisdom is that, especially in the post-season, great pitching beats great hitting. But not Jeter.

In the “season” of his 158 post-season games, Jeter faced seven pitchers who won their league’s Cy Young that season: John Smoltz, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Johan Santana, Bartolo Colón, C.C. Sabathia and Justin Verlander. And, of course, those are pitchers you’re likely to face twice (or more) in a series. One-tenth of Jeter’s post-season at-bats (64 of 650) came in his 23 appearances against those seven pitchers (not all in their Cy Young seasons, but always as stars of their staffs).

Most of those pitchers also led their leagues in their Cy Young seasons in some combination of wins, ERA and strikeouts. Jeter also faced three other pitchers who led their leagues in wins that season (Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Rick Helling) and one who led in ERA (Freddy Garcia). Add those pitchers’ appearances against Jeter to the Cy Young winners’ and we’re up to 91 at-bats in 32 starts, more than a month’s worth of games against pitchers who were somehow the best in their leagues when they faced Jeter. Nobody has a month like that in the regular season.

And we haven’t counted Curt Schilling yet, who won 22 and 21 wins the years that he faced Jeter in the post-season but didn’t lead the league in anything or win the Cy Young either year. Add him and one more 20-game winner in the year he faced Jeter in October, Jamie Moyer, and we’re up to 107 at-bats and 38 starts.

Of course, no one could match Jeter’s experience of facing seven guys who would win Cy Young Awards that season, since there are only two in any season, barring a tie (which hasn’t happened since 1969). But he also faced 12 pitchers who won 20 games that year (counting Schilling twice). The major leagues never got close to a dozen 20-game winners any season during Jeter’s career.

A lot of pitchers have great seasons and fall short of 20 wins. Let’s add the 19-game winners (Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina, Aaron Sele and Roberto Hernandez) and 18-game winners (Kevin Brown, Kevin Millwood and Jarrod Washburn) in the seasons that Jeter faced in October. That brings us to 147 at-bats and 53 starts.

And we haven’t mentioned Tom Glavine yet. Jeter faced Glavine in the World Series in 1996 and ’99, missing his Cy Young seasons of 1991 and ’98. Glavine was solid the years he faced Jeter, though, winning 15 (with an ERA under 3.00) and 14. Other Cy Young winners who faced Jeter after years other than their award-winning seasons were Bret Saberhagen, Dwight Gooden, Orel Hershiser, Cliff Lee, Barry Zito and Max Scherzer. Altogether, Jeter faced 15 pitchers in October who won a total of 26 Cy Young Awards. Six of the 17 multiple Cy Young winners in baseball history faced Jeter in the post-season.

Adding all the Cy Young pitchers pushes Jeter’s total against high-quality pitchers to 183 at-bats and 67 starts.

Of course, we’ve already mentioned all of the 300-game winners Jeter faced in the post-season (Maddux, Glavine and Johnson), and most of the 200-game winners, but let’s add David Wells, Kenny Rogers and Tim Wakefield, all 200-game winners, to the list of quality pitchers. Jeter faced 15 pitchers in the post-season who won 200 or more games. This takes us to 201 at-bats in 71 starts.

And we haven’t even reached Josh Beckett yet. So let’s add him and the other pitchers Jeter faced in the post-season with 100 or more career wins and at least one 20-win season. That would add Derek Lowe, John Burkett, Mike Hampton, Scott Erickson, Ramon Martinez, Jered Weaver, Brad Radke, Esteban Loaiza and Denny Neagle. That brings us to 85 starts, more than half the season, and 252 at-bats.

And we’re still not down to mediocre starters yet. The numbers above don’t include Cole Hamels, who has 108 career wins but no 20-win seasons. But the post-season before he faced Jeter, Hamels was the MVP of both the World Series and the National League Championship Series.

We could detail more quality starters Jeter faced, but let’s move on to the bullpen. Of course, he couldn’t face the best closer of all-time, since he spent nearly his whole career building leads for Mariano Rivera to save. But still, he faced six of the top 11 career saves leaders in the post-season: Trevor Hoffman, John Franco, Joe Nathan, Troy Percival, Randy Myers and Francisco Rodriguez. Hoffman, Rodriguez, Jose Valverde and Jim Johnson led their leagues in saves the years that they faced Jeter in the post-season. Other relievers he faced in October who led their leagues at some time in saves were Jeff Russell, Jose Mesa, Myers (three times), Tom Gordon, Lowe, Todd Jones, Eddie Guardado, Keith Foulke, Rodriguez (three times), Valverde (three times), Franco (twice), Smoltz, Hoffman (twice) and Armando Benitez.

Jeter faced 11 relievers in the post-season with 200 or more career saves and another 15 with more than 100 and 13 with more than 30 saves in at least one of the years that they faced him.

Jeter’s post-season excellence consistently came against All-Star quality pitchers: 89 of the 186 pitchers he faced were All-Stars at some point in their careers. They accounted for 125 of his 158 post-season starts and 401 of his 650 at-bats.

It’s not just the excellence required to make the post-season and advance to championship play that resulted in this amazing succession of pitchers Jeter faced, but the pauses in post-season play for travel days. You almost never face a No. 5 starter in the post-season and you’re unlikely to see a No. 4 starter more than once in a series (usually never in a three-game series). If a team has a really strong fourth or fifth starter, though, you might face him in middle relief or extra innings, rather than a team’s weakest relievers. Starters Jeter faced in relief in the post-season included Scott Kazmir, Dave Burba, Glendon Rusch and Doug Fister, all double-figure winners in the years they came out of the bullpen in October.

So how did Jeter do against these formidable pitchers? You could certainly understand a performance below his regular-season numbers, where it would be impossible to face this many great pitchers night after night. His 135 strikeouts, more than in any regular season, underscored the quality of the pitching he faced. His 66 walks were about average for a Jeter season. But when he put the ball in play, magical things happened. Jeter’s batting average was just one point lower than his career regular-season average, .308 vs. .309. His slugging average was 26 points higher against the awesome pitchers he faced in the post-season than it was against his regular-season diet with so many 4th and 5th starters on losing teams. He had a 200-hit season, scoring 111 runs. Jeter had only three 20-homer seasons against regular-season pitching, and he reached 20 in the post-season, too. His 61 RBI were low for a Jeter regular season, but that’s probably because he followed pitchers more often in the post-season and because those standout pitchers he faced kept more of his teammates off the bases.

Post-season after post-season, against the best pitchers of his generation and the best pitchers of each season, Jeter racked up numbers that matched up with the best seasons of a career that will take him straight to the Hall of Fame. No one ever faced better pitching in October.

Update: Even in just the second game of his career with his team out of playoff contention, Jeter proved his clutch-hitting prowess, with a walk-off win over the division-champion Orioles.

Facts in this post came from the career statistics and post-season game logs on The analysis is mine (as are any errors in the analysis).



9 responses

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