On the eve of October, it seems like a logical time to talk about the playoffs. But I don’t want to talk about the matchups, whether or not we’ll see another wild card win the World Series, or whether the Cubs will win for the first time since 1908. Rather, I want to talk about October magic, or what we perceive to be some special ability to shift into another gear.
Baseball players don’t have another gear.
In case that sentence was unclear to anyone, let me say it in a slightly different way. Baseball players don’t have another freakin’ gear. They simply don’t.
If you’re in the Major Leagues, you’re an elite athlete. Even if you’re Bartolo Colon. What’s more, you have an elite ability to perform under pressure. Because MLB players have historically looked a lot more like me and you than NFL or NBA players do, we tend to think that they’re kind of normal. They’re not. They’re the elite of the elite who perform on such a level that it makes just about no sense to those of us mere mortals.
It’s in October that heroes are made. They’re not born; they’re made. They’re made by media folks, professionals in telling stories and in using those stories to connect with fans. And they’re made by me and you. They’re made by us because we like heroes. They’re made by us because it’s just no fun to say “small sample size” every twelve minutes for a month. And they’re made by us because we’re all kids. And we really, really want there to be magic.
I get frustrated when we say some athletes just can’t do it under pressure. I first remember noticing this phenomenon in the mid-1980’s when Ed Whitson was stinking up the joint in New York. In 1984 Whitson won 14 games for the San Diego Padres with a 3.24 ERA. Then he signed a free agent contract to pitch for the Yankees. In 1985 his ERA was 4.88. The next year he put of a disgusting 7.54 before being shipped back to the Padres. Was Whitson’s Yankee journey more likely a case of a pitcher who couldn’t handle the bright lights of the Bronx, or was it a pitcher who wasn’t that great in general? You know my answer. And here’s some evidence in the form of ERA+, a stat that basically adjusts ERA based on park and league context, with 100 being average and higher being better. Take a look at Whitson’s seasons with 100+ innings pitched.
1979 90 1980 114 1981 85 1982 127 1983 82 1984 111 1985 83 1986 61 1987 84 1988 91 1989 132 1990 148
Whitson didn’t stink in the Bronx. He was a mediocre pitcher who was sometimes very good and sometimes pretty bad. For Whitson, the interesting seasons weren’t 1985 and 1986, they were 1989 and 1990. How did a journeyman type of pitcher post such great numbers when he was 34 and 35? Those numbers are way more out of whack than what he did in New York.
You might remember Kenny Rogers received the same criticism as Whitson when he signed in New York as a free agent after the 1995 season. I know I’ve written about “The Gambler” in the past. Just indulge me, please. Rogers was a better pitcher than Whitson, a lot better. But when he signed in New York, it’s possible expectations were too high. He was 31 and coming off the best season he put up to date. He was mediocre his first season with the Bombers and pretty bad in his second. Word was that he just couldn’t handle the pressure. And when he became a Met a couple of years later, his negative legend grew when Rogers stunk up the joint in October. But if Rogers truly couldn’t handle the pressure, shouldn’t he always struggle under pressure? In 2006, he was 41 and pitching in the playoffs for the Tigers. In the ALDS he held the Yankees scoreless for 7.2 innings in his only outing. In the ALCS he held the A’s scoreless for 7.1 innings in his only outing. And in the World Series he held the Cardinals scoreless for 8.0 innings in his only outing. Is it more likely that he couldn’t handle the pressure of New York or that he was human and as such not perfectly consistent?
You might have heard of another unclutch guy named Barry Bonds. The first five times he got to the playoffs, he went 19-97 for a .196 batting average and just one homer. His team lost every series. Loser, right? Then came 2002 and 2003. During those two seasons he posted a sick line of .333/.576/.870 with eight homers. Overall, his playoff line was a very impressive .245/.433/.503. It wasn’t as strong as his regular season line, but it’s absolutely a reasonable performance for a superstar in just 208 trips to the plate.
Today we have another such loser in our midst, Clayton Kershaw. The Dodger lefty is on a run reminiscent of another Dodger lefty, except that Kershaw has been mortal in the playoffs. Actually, he’s been bad. For two years running, he’s been pummeled by the Cardinals. So I ask you, what’s more likely, that the Kershaw we’ve seen over the last 240+ starts in the regular season is the real Kershaw, or that it’s the Kershaw of the last four playoff starts? If you want to make some money this October, find some sucker who thinks there’s something about Kershaw that just turns off when the calendar turns. Nothing turns off. Lots of atypical things happen in only four starts.
These days when people think of the best pitcher in baseball, they think of Kershaw and they also think of Madison Bumgarner. I want to be very clear here. Bumgarner is an excellent pitcher who’s had an excellent start to his career. But he’s not even close to Kershaw’s level. WAR agrees.
Kershaw Bumgarner ============================== 2008 1.4 2009 4.7 0.3 2010 5.5 2.7 2011 6.5 2.4 2012 6.2 2.1 2013 7.8 3.8 2014 7.5 4.0 2015 6.6ish 4.5ish
Derek Jeter was known as Captain Clutch in some parts. Would someone with that nickname hit .200 or below in seven different post-season series. Apparently yes. Would someone with that nickname lose ten of his final eighteen post-season series? Apparently yes. How clutch are you if you hit .310/.377/.440/ during the regular season and then .308/.374/.465 in the playoffs? You’re not. You’re a great player who occasionally does great things, as great players are wont to do.
David Ortiz isn’t as great as Jeter overall, but he has an even greater post-season reputation. In the regular season he has a batting line of .284/.378/.546. In eight ALDS series he’s posted .283/.402/.538. And six times in the ALCS he’s put up .255/.357/.490. He’s been the same in the ALDS and worse in the ALCS. How is that clutch? Well, Papi certainly has had some timely hits. In the 2013 ALCS he put up his third sub-.200 batting average in four series. On the other hand, he hit an eighth inning grand slam that tied the game and helped the Sox avoid going into an 0-2 hole. We perceive the grand slam in the second game as clutch and ignore the 1-21 in his other at-bats that series.
You might think I’m conveniently avoiding the fact that Ortiz has posted a .455/.576/.795 line in three World Series. I’m not. I’m a fan too. A Red Sox fan. And while I know magic doesn’t exist, small sample sizes do. And when they go your way, they can be a lot of fun.