Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 10/14/13
Sunday night, David Ortiz faced Joaquin Benoit with the bases loaded. There were two outs, and the Tigers were winning the game by four, but it was nevertheless a tense situation, with Tigers fans feeling deeply anxious and Red Sox fans feeling something similar to that, only a little warmer. Everybody recognized that it was the plate appearance of the ballgame — a hell of a lot was going to swing based on the outcome. That feeling is the feeling of leverage. Leverage mirrors intensity, and so by using the leverage statistic, we can more or less capture group emotional states. A low-leverage situation is one during which you might excuse yourself for the restroom. A high-leverage situation is one during which you might use the restroom where you sit. High-leverage situations are where heroes are made. An ordinary situation has a leverage of 1. When Benoit faced off against Ortiz, the game leverage was just a hair over 2.2. Helping keep matters somewhat modest is that Ortiz could do no more than tie things up, but Ortiz did tie things up, delivering the best or worst possible outcome, and for Ortiz this is now part of a track record. Ortiz is considered the American League’s best clutch playoff performer. Much in the way that Carlos Beltran is considered the National League’s best clutch playoff performer. Over 315 career playoff plate appearances, Ortiz has batted .284 while slugging .542. Meanwhile, over 181 career playoff plate appearances, Beltran has batted .340 while slugging .740. Ortiz was the Boston hero Sunday night; Beltran was the St. Louis hero Friday night. Keep in mind these aren’t just regular statistical performances: these are statistical performances in colder-weather situations against many of the best pitchers in the league. Hitters are supposed to do worse in the playoffs, because they’re facing almost nothing but quality arms, yet Ortiz has hit like David Ortiz while Beltran has hit like Barry Bonds after sleeping on a comfortable mattress. It doesn’t take much for people to recognize standout October performance, and these two have gone above and beyond. What’s more is that there’s more. Going back to the concept of leverage, Baseball-Reference defines a high-leverage situation as being any with a leverage index of at least 1.5. Ortiz has had 68 such plate appearances in his playoff career, and he’s slugged .818 with a 1.303 OPS. Beltran has had 31 such plate appearances in his own playoff career, and he’s slugged .913 with a 1.461 OPS. Not only have they delivered: they’ve delivered even more when it’s meant even more. These are players who have unquestionably earned their reputations, and for these reasons Ortiz and Beltran don’t feel like just any other batters. Given what Ortiz just did Sunday, and given what Beltran just did Friday, I thought it would be fun to review their ten combined highest-leverage playoff plate appearances to date. This is going off the numbers at Baseball-Reference, instead of the numbers here, but there should be very little difference. And Ortiz’s plate appearance from Sunday doesn’t even make it. Below, some pressure-packed situations, and some memories. And a couple intentional walks. oooohh 10 Batter: David Ortiz Pitcher: Mariano Rivera Date: 10/17/2004 Game: ALCS Game 4 Leverage: 3.77 This was a game in which David Ortiz would eventually be a hero. This, however, was not that plate appearance. It was 4-3 Yankees going into the bottom of the eighth, and Joe Torre went right to Rivera, who allowed a leadoff single to Manny Ramirez. Up next was Ortiz, but Ortiz didn’t yet feel like Ortiz feels now in the playoffs, with a long future still ahead of him. After taking a first-pitch called strike, Ortiz offered at the next pitch and fouled it off. A pitch later, the count was 1-and-2. A pitch after that, the count was 0-and-0 on Jason Varitek, as Ortiz had struck out. You’re not going to find many better playoff performers than David Ortiz. Mariano Rivera would be one of them. 9 Batter: David Ortiz Pitcher: Francisco Rodriguez Date: 10/5/2007 Game: ALDS Game 2 Leverage: 3.91 This all played out pretty ordinarily. The Angels and Red Sox were tied 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth, and Julio Lugo singled off Justin Speier. Dustin Pedroia then moved Lugo to second with a grounder, and that prompted Mike Scioscia to insert Rodriguez, who immediately struck out Kevin Youkilis. The next batter was the left-handed Ortiz, but after Ortiz was the right-handed Ramirez, so Scioscia opted to put Ortiz on since that run didn’t matter. He liked the righty-on-righty matchup, and on the second pitch, Ramirez slugged a game-winning three-run dinger. 8 Batter: Carlos Beltran Pitcher: Jason Isringhausen Date: 10/20/2004 Game: NLCS Game 6 Leverage: 3.94 This proved to be a little less ordinary. Beltran was on the Astros in 2004, and the Astros were trailing the Cardinals 4-3 in the top of the ninth. Isringhausen was pitching his second consecutive inning, and he started this one with a hit-by-pitch. A bunt and a fly ball later, the Astros had the tying run in scoring position, but the Cardinals were an out away from victory. Beltran stood in, but with Jeff Bagwell on deck, and with Bagwell no longer being Jeff Bagwell, Beltran was intentionally walked. As such, the Cardinals put the go-ahead run on base. Bagwell singled and the game went 12 innings. 7 Batter: David Ortiz Pitcher: Orlando Hernandez Date: 10/17/2004 Game: ALCS Game 4 Leverage: 4.06 Several innings before David Ortiz was a hero, David Ortiz was a hero. In that legendary Game 4, the Yankees didn’t just blow a 4-3 lead in the ninth; they also blew an earlier 2-0 lead, in the fifth. In that fifth, it was 2-1 Yankees when Manny Ramirez walked to load the bases with two out. Ortiz stood in and aggressively fouled off Hernandez’s first pitch, falling behind in the count. He didn’t miss the second pitch, though, and in a matter of seconds, the Red Sox went from behind to in front. This is one of the forgotten hits, but it helped to build the legend, and the legend might not exist were it not for this hit in the first place. 6 Batter: Carlos Beltran Pitcher: Kenley Jansen Date: 10/11/2013 Game: NLCS Game 1 Leverage: 4.33 Capping off maybe the ultimate Carlos Beltran playoff game. In the bottom of the third, Beltran drove in two runs with a drive off the fence in center field. In the top of the tenth, Beltran preserved a tie by throwing out Mark Ellis on a play at the plate. And in the bottom of the 13th, Beltran won it for the Cardinals with a line drive against one of baseball’s very best, very most unhittable relievers. With two on and one out, the Dodgers weren’t in position to put Beltran on. When the count ran 3-and-1, the Dodgers weren’t in position to throw another ball. Jansen, to his credit, throws a lot of unhittable strikes, but the one he threw wasn’t one of them, and now as a consequence, this paragraph exists. 5 Batter: David Ortiz Pitcher: Jim Mecir Date: 10/4/2003 Game: ALDS Game 3 Leverage: 4.46 For the Red Sox, this was an elimination game, as the A’s were ahead in the series two games to none. And nine innings could get anything settled, so the game proceeded to the tenth with the score even 1-1. In the bottom half, Johnny Damon started with a strikeout, but a few batters later there were two on and two out for Ortiz. Ortiz took three consecutive balls to get way out in front, but then a called strike made it 3-and-1. A foul ran the count full, and meant the runners would be moving, allowing the winner to certainly score on a single. Ortiz drilled the sixth pitch from Mecir. He drilled it right at Miguel Tejada, and the game went to the 11th. 4 Batter: David Ortiz Pitcher: Esteban Loaiza Date: 10/18/2004 Game: ALCS Game 5 Leverage: 4.48 The second of consecutive marathons, this made for yet another unforgettable Ortiz playoff moment. The Red Sox had their backs against the wall again and erased a late Yankees lead again. That business was done in the eighth, and the game lasted all the way into the 14th, by which point Tim Wakefield and Esteban Loaiza were throwing long relief. In the bottom of the 14th, the score 4-4, Loaiza walked two and struck out two, bringing Ortiz to the box. To that point, Loaiza had thrown 49 pitches. This was his 59th: Loaiza got ahead 1-and-2, but Ortiz fouled off six pitches in a ten-pitch showdown, and he dropped the last just between second base and center field for another early-morning walk-off. The quality of contact might not have been the most impressive thing, but then there aren’t a lot of hitters who would’ve delivered that result on that pitch at the fists. 3 Batter: David Ortiz Pitcher: Keith Foulke Date: 10/5/2003 Game: ALDS Game 4 Leverage: 5.08 It can be heartbreaking, sometimes, to review Oakland’s recent history of playoff performance. In this Game 4, the A’s were again in position to advance past the Red Sox, and Oakland even got the ball into the hands of their closer, armed with a lead. Keith Foulke inherited a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the eighth, and he retired two of the first three batters. A Manny Ramirez single, however, put runners on the corners for Ortiz, and Ortiz got himself ahead in the count 3-and-1. The fifth pitch, he swung right through. The sixth pitch, he didn’t. Ortiz once again put the Red Sox out in front, and Scott Williamson faced three batters in a perfect ninth. Ortiz solidified himself as a legend in 2004, but the previous October he set the foundation. 2 Batter: David Ortiz Pitcher: Mariano Rivera Date: 10/17/2004 Game: ALCS Game 4 Leverage: 6.39 When people remember this as one of the best playoff games in recent history, there’s a variety of reasons for that. Even setting aside the game potentially being a real turning point for the Red Sox in a series that looked otherwise hopeless, this was a close game of constant high-leverage battles between a lot of elite-level players. This was Ortiz’s second critical plate appearance against Rivera in two innings. This time, the game was tied, following Bill Mueller singling home Dave Roberts. That happened with nobody out. Then there was a bunt, an error, a strikeout, and a walk. Ortiz batted against Rivera with two out and the bases loaded, and Ortiz had a chance right there to send everybody home and extend the series. On the fourth pitch, Rivera threw the cutter he wanted to throw to Mueller. This time it worked out a lot better. In the highest-leverage plate appearance of David Ortiz’s playoff career, he popped out. He did so, granted, against the best relief pitcher ever. 1 Batter: Carlos Beltran Pitcher: Adam Wainwright Date: 10/19/2006 Game: NLCS Game 7 Leverage: 6.98 This is a set of sentences that needn’t exist. The Cardinals and the Mets were tied. In the top of the ninth, Yadier Molina made them un-tied. In the bottom of the ninth, the Mets had one last chance against a rookie fill-in closer. Consecutive singles preceded a strikeout and a lineout, but then a five-pitch walk loaded the bases for the Mets’ three-spot hitter. The tying run was on second, the winning run was on first, a wholly unnecessary run was standing in the box, and Wainwright needed just three pitches to leave Beltran looking helpless. I wonder how often they talk about this. They must have talked about this. Maybe they agreed not to talk about this. Beltran took the first and third pitches, the third being the pitch he most wishes he would’ve swung at. In the highest-leverage plate appearance of Carlos Beltran’s playoff career, he struck out looking to end his team’s season. So there are some helpful reminders here — as impossible as it might feel to try to pitch to David Ortiz and Carlos Beltran in the playoffs, they can be retired, and as a matter of fact they have been retired quite often. This is one of those things that’s so easily forgotten: the advantage always lies with the pitcher, in that the pitcher always has a better chance of getting the hitter out than the hitter has a chance of getting on base. At least, this is true in all but the rarest of circumstances. Neither Ortiz nor Beltran is impossible to pitch to, so they shouldn’t be treated accordingly, in the strategy. They shouldn’t be intentionally walked all the time. They should be treated like they’re just really good hitters. But it says something they even feel the way they feel. Regardless of what it means, there’s no denying the Ortiz and Beltran postseason presences. It seems like it’s impossible to get them out, and no matter how you feel about performing sustainably in the clutch, what they’ve done is what they’ve done, they’ve built up incredible track records, and the numbers are amazing. It’s not always about projections. It’s not always about trying to see an unseeable future. Sometimes it’s just about looking back and recognizing, and what Ortiz and Beltran have done deserves almost perpetual recognition.
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