The best — and not so best — playoff baseball players

Who is MLB’s ‘Mr. October?’ Try Randy Arozarena, not Mike Trout

This was updated on Oct. 28, 2020.

While the regular season positions the better teams, the playoffs are the stars’ time to shine, to show what they are really made of, to separate the pretenders from the real deals. And often times, the most unlikely candidates outshine the stars on the big stage.

So which of Major League Baseball’s current stars shines brightest when the lights are on full blast? Not Mike Trout. Try Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena, who has made the most of his 25 playoff games. Among pitchers, consider the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg.

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Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena shined in the 2020 MLB playoffs. [Creative Commons photo]

In judging hitters’ performance, on-base, plus slugging percentage [OPS] is a stat that many baseball nerds like better than batting average [BA] or runs batted in [RBI] since it measures both the ability to get on base and hit for power. Some hardball analysts like the Wins Above Replacement [WAR] stat, which is generally considered a more subjective metric. And I can’t locate a list of players ranked by postseason WAR on Fangraphs or Baseball Reference. So I’m stuck with using OPS for hitters.

Arozarena shined like no other in the 2020 playoffs, putting him at the top of a list of current players in career postseason OPS at an impressive 1.219 in 25 playoff games. An OPS above .900 is considered great, with above .767 better than average. Anything lower than a .700 is considered below average with below .633 poor.

Twins DH Nelson Cruz, Angels DH Albert Pujols, Yankees outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, Astros infielder Jose Altuve, Rockies infielder Daniel Murphy, Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, and Nats outfielder Juan Soto are among others who have shined when the pressure gets greatest.

Here are figures on some current standout position players. Some stats geeks like the OPS+ stat better than regular OPS since the former adjusts for ballparks and eras. But since Baseball Reference doesn’t include OPS+ for postseason games, I’m stuck with using just plain OPS there.

PA refers to plate appearances, giving an indication of how playoff tested that athlete is.

Player ……… Reg career OPS/ OPS+ ………… Playoffs OPS/ PA
Randy Arozarena
…… .991/ 168 ……………………… 1.219/ 91*
Giancarlo Stanton ..
… .905 / 144 ………………..……. 1.035/ 71
Albert Pujols ………… .924/ 146 …………….………. 1.030/ 334*
Nelson Cruz ……..….. .876/ 132 ……………………... 1.019/ 189*
Daniel Murphy
………. .796/ 113 ……………………… .986/ 113*
Paul Goldschmidt …… .914 / 141 ………………..……. .971/ 89
Jose Altuve ……….…. .819/ 124 ………………………. .942/ 286*
Juan Soto ……………. .972/ 151 ……………………….. .927/ 75
J.D. Martinez ……..…. .883/ 135 ………….……….….. .925/ 90
Justin Turner ………… .838/ 128 ……………………… .899/ 314*
George Springer ….… .852/ 131 ………………………. .895/ 292*
Miguel Cabrera …..… .931/ 147 ………………..…….. .885/ 235
Ronald Acuna ………. .909/ 133 ………………………… .872/ 94
Aaron Judge
…..…..… .948/ 150 …………………..….. .853 / 156
Anthony Rendon .….. .862/ 127 ……………………….. .848/ 138
Freddie Freeman …… .892/ 139 ………………….…… .842/ 114
Corey Seager ………… .863/ 129 ………………………. .813/ 211*
Steve Pearce
…………. .772/ 108 ……………………… .812/ 77*
Bryce Harper ……….. .900/ 138 …………….…………. .801/ 89
Ryan Zimmerman ….. .818/ 116 ……………………… .790/ 128
Yasiel Puig ……………. .823/ 122 …………………..…. .780/ 202
Alex Bregman …….… .902/ 142 ………………………. .777/ 250
Josh Donaldson ……. .877/ 136 ………………..…….. .769/ 167
Chris Taylor ……..….. .779/ 109 ………………………. .761/ 193*
Mookie Betts ………… .895/ 135 ………….…….……. .751/ 181
Christian Yelich ……… .870/ 135 ………………..……. .735/ 56
Lorenzo Cain ……..… .761/ 104 ………………………. .715/194*
Jackie Bradley …….…. .732/ 94 ………………………...703/ 76*
Yoenis Cespedes
……… .824/ 125 …………………….. .699/ 103
Robinson Cano ……… .844/ 126 ………………..……. .686/ 217
Salvador Perez ………. .749/ 101 ……………………….. .679/ 124*
Buster Posey ………… .826/ 128 ……..………………. .649/ 232
Howie Kendrick …….. .767/ 109 ……………….…….. .636/ 178*
Javier Baez
…………... .777/ 102 ……………….…….. .635/ 128*
Manny Machado
…… .825/ 121 ……………….……… .633/ 126
Cody Bellinger …..….. .911/ 141 ……………………… .631/ 221*
Mike Trout …………… 1.000/ 176 …………….……… .600/ 15
Joey Votto ………..….. .937/ 149 ……………….…….. .563/ 47
Nolan Arenado ……… .890/ 120 ………………..……. .507/ 23
Jason Heyward …….. .758/ 104 …………………..….. .467/ 138
* At least one World Series or League Championship Series MVP

So if playoffs are when stars most need to perform, it looks like numerous big names — including Trout, Votto, and Machado— haven’t been able to step it up in the brighter spotlight, for whatever reasons.

Pitchers are a different breed than baseball position players since they don’t perform every game. But a dominant pitcher can have a great impact in the playoffs, as Strasburg did in 2019 and Madison Bumgarner did in 2014.

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Stephen Strasburg of the Nationals emerged as a dominant pitcher in the 2017 and 2019 playoffs. [Photo by John Max Mena, Creative Commons]

Strasburg emerged in the 2017 and 2019 playoffs as a dominant force. After besting the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw in a big NLDS matchup, Strasburg allowed no earned runs in seven innings in the NLCS against the Cardinals. He then won the World Series MVP with two more stellar performances. His career postseason earned run average [ERA] — at 1.46 — ranks Strasburg among the top ten starting pitchers all-time in that category, and first among current starting pitchers.

MadBum, who was named MVP of both the 2014 World Series and NL Championship Series, also significantly improved ERA and walks and hits allowed per inning [WHIP] numbers in his playoff runs from regular season. Some statisticians say that WHIP is a purer performance indicator than ERA since it doesn’t depend as much on fielders, or on how relief pitchers handle inherited base runners.

Walker Buehler of the Dodgers, Blake Snell of the Rays, Gerrit Cole of the Yankees, Jon Lester of the Cubs, and Andrew Miller of the Cardinals are among others who have lowered their ERA in the postseason.

On the other side of the spectrum, those who have inexplicable trouble in the playoffs include the Astros’ Zack Greinke and David Price of the Red Sox. Kershaw had a better 2020 postseason, and his playoff WHIP is as good as many with a better ERA.

Here are the numbers for some current star relief and starting pitchers [minimum of 30 postseason innings pitched]:

Pitcher ……….… Reg career ERA/ WHIP … Playoffs ERA/ WHIP/ Innings
Andrew Miller
[R] …….. 3.99/ 1.334 ………….….…. 0.93/ 0.853/ 38.2*
Stephen Strasburg [S]… 3.19/ 1.088 ……..…………. 1.46 / 1.047/ 55.1*
Madison Bumgarner [S]… 3.20/ 1.118 ………….. 2.11/ 0.899/ 102.1*
Walker Buehler [S] …. 3.15/ 1.028 ……………….. 2.35/ 0.995/ 61.1
Aroldis Chapman
[R]….. 2.25/ 1.019 ……….………2.40/ 1.065/ 41.1
Jon Lester [S]………….…. 3.60/ 1.265 ……………… 2.51/ 1.019/ 154.0*
Gerrit Cole [S]………….… 3.19/ 1.119 ……………… 2.68/ 0.881/ 84.0
Blake Snell [S] …………….. 3.24/ 1.237 ……………… 2.83/ 1.086/ 35.0
Adam Wainwright
[S]…... 3.38/ 1.225 ………….….. 2.89/ 1.110/ 109.0
Anibal Sanchez
[S]…….… 4.05/ 1.313 ……………… 2.93/ 1.141/ 61.1
Masahiro Tanaka [S]….. 3.74/ 1.130 ……….………. 3.33/ 0.981/ 54.0
Max Scherzer [S]………… 3.21/ 1.100 ………..……. 3.38/ 1.134/ 112.0
Justin Verlander [S]…….. 3.33/ 1.134 …….……… 3.40/ 1.066/ 187.2*
Clayton Kershaw [S]…….. 2.43/ 1.003 …………..… 4.19/ 1.074/ 189.0
Zack Greinke [S]…………. 3.37/ 1.158 …………..… 4.22/ 1.181/ 106.2
David Price [S]……….….. 3.31/ 1.153 ………………. 4.62/ 1.198/ 99.1
* At least one World Series or League Championship Series MVP

Looking through the long history of Major League Baseball, Yankees teammates Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth are typically among those mentioned when talking about players who rise to big-game moments.

They are in the top six in career postseason OPS, but they rank behind the less-heralded Colby Rasmus [1.610 in 9 games], Jorge Soler [1.269 in 15 games], Arozarena [1.219 in 25 games], and Willie Aikens [1.215, 49 PA]. Smaller sample sizes for the latter trio, true.

It’s hard not to go with Ruth, who was involved with seven World Series titles, and Gehrig, who participated in six championships, for all-time Mr. October’s. Especially when their OPS in those big games is astronomical.

Ruth and Gehrig somehow both have the same playoff OPS of 1.214. Ruth played in 41 postseason games for the Yankees and Gehrig 34. Ruth’s OPS was only about 50 points higher in the playoffs than regular season, while Gehrig’s was some 130 points higher. That means Gehrig raised his game when it counted even more than Ruth, though the latter had more playoff plate appearances.

Another Yankee, Reggie Jackson, was often called “Mr. October,” mostly on the strength of three home runs in the clinching game of the 1977 World Series. Jackson’s overall postseason OPS is a mortal .885 in 77 games. That is very good, but not great, and only some 40 points better than his regular season average.

Check out the OPS stats for some of the all-time great position players:

Player ……… Reg career OPS/ OPS+ ………… Playoffs OPS/ PA
Babe Ruth
…………… 1.164/ 206 …………………. 1.214/ 167
Lou Gehrig ………….. 1.080/ 179 …………………. 1.214/ 150
Hank Aaron ………… .928/ 155 ……………….….. 1.116/ 74
Carl Yastrzemski …… .841/ 130 ……….………….. 1.047/ 76
Fred Lynn ……….…… .845/ 129 …….……………. 1.043/ 61*
Frank Howard ……….. .851/ 142 ………………… 1.000/ 10
Barry Bonds ……..…. 1.051/ 182 …………………. .936/ 208
Mickey Mantle
…….. .977/ 172 ……………………. .908/ 273
Reggie Jackson ……. .846/ 139 ……………….….. .885/ 318 *
Cal Ripken Jr………. .788/ 112 …………..……….. .866/ 124
Derek Jeter ……..… .817/ 115 ………………...….. .838/ 734 *
Pete Rose …………. .784/ 118 ……………………. .828/ 301 *
Alex Rodriguez …… .930/ 140 ………..….………. .822/ 330
Joe DiMaggio ……… .977/ 155 ……………………. .760/ 220
Stan Musial
……….. .976/ 159 ……..……………… .742/ 99
Ty Cobb …………….. ..944/ 168 …………………… .668/ 71
Willie Mays
………… .941/ 156 …………………… .660/ 99
Ted Williams ………. 1.116/ 190 ………………….. .533/ 30
* At least one World Series or League Championship Series MVP

I’m sure we all thought that Teddy Ballgame and the Say Hey Kid would have done better in their seven and 25 playoff games, respectively. Hammerin’ Hank only had 17 postseason games, but he made the most of them.

ARod and Barry Bonds couldn’t perform as well in the big games even on steroids. Others like the Yankee Clipper, Ty Cobb and Stan the Man dropped off even more in the postseason.

As far as all-time best postseason pitchers, Mariano Rivera of the Yankees and Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers would likely lead most lists. Koufax was one of only three players who have won two World Series MVPs — the others being Bob Gibson and Jackson.

Here are the stats:

Pitcher …….… Reg career ERA/ WHIP … Playoffs ERA/ WHIP/ Innings
Mariano Rivera
…….... 2.21/ 1.000 …………..…….. 0.70/ 0.759/ 141.0*
Sandy Koufax
………... 2.76/ 1.106 ………..……….. 0.95 / 0.825/ 57.0*
Christy Mathewson …. 2.13/ 1.058 ………………… 0.97 / 0.836/ 101.2
Bob Gibson ……………. 2.91/ 1.188 ……………..….. 1.89/ 0.889/ 81.0*
Cy Young ………………. 2.63/ 1.130 …………..…….. 2.36/ 1.049/ 61.0
Walter Johnson ……….. 2.17/ 1.061 …………………. 2.52/ 1.420/ 50.0
Warren Spahn ……….… 3.09/ 1.195 ………..……….. 3.05/ 1.071/ 56.0
Nolan Ryan ……….…… 3.19/ 1.247 ………………….. 3.07/ 0.903/ 58.2
* At least one World Series or League Championship Series MVP

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Written for 45+ newspapers/mags. Written some books — see https://www.amazon.com/Kevin-J.-Shay/e/B004BCQRTG. Visited 48 states, 30+ countries.

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