Nobody would dispute David Ortiz has a flair for the dramatic. In fact, if you search "David Ortiz" and "flair for the dramatic," you get an absurd 141,000 results. Clearly people are familiar with Ortiz's dramatic flair. Most recently, his grand slam in Game Two of the ALCS tied a game that had seemed out of reach for Boston only moments before (and, much less unimportantly, added to the number of results in that search).
Ortiz is no stranger to big postseason moments, famously beating the Yankees in two games of the 2004 ALCS with timely hits. But great as he is, Ortiz isn't the greatest postseason hitter of all time. He's very good, to be sure, but his OPS actually falls in the postseason from his career mark of .930 to .899. By OPS, Ortiz is actually just the fiftieth greatest postseason hitter*, one slot above Kirby Puckett, tied with Mike Stanley, and behind Scott Spiezio, David Freese, and Carlos Pena.
*Of all hitters with at least 50 postseason plate appearances
So if Ortiz isn't the greatest postseason hitter ever, who is? There are as many ways to answer that question as there are baseball statistics to measure greatness. If you go by home runs, the greatest is Manny Ramirez, who has homered 29 times in the postseason. If you go by RBIs, it's Bernie Williams, who knocked in 80 postseason runs in his career. And of course you have to make allowances for the difference in eras, as the quality of competition has increased as time has passed.
Today's increased playoffs also represent an increase in opportunity, of course. The postseason expanded into two rounds in 1969, so before that, players' only chance to play postseason games came if they made the World Series. In 1969 a second round of playoffs was created, and 1994 saw the creation of a third round. That Derek Jeter played his whole career for a great team in a time with exponentially more playoff games explains why he is so far ahead of anyone else in postseason plate-appearances (734; Bernie Williams is second with 545; no other player has topped 500).
But then another factor to consider is significance, because in the playoffs individual moments have great value. According to Baseball Reference, the biggest walk-off hit ever in postseason play (in terms of most significantly swinging the game, based on WPA) was Kirk Gibson's home run off Dennis Eckersley in 1988. You will find Gibson below, but you won't find the second player on that list, Jimmy Rollins. Rollins' double ended Game Four of the 2009 National League Championship Series in the Phillies' favor, but it wasn't in the World Series -- and, more importantly, Rollins is a career .250/.314/.372 hitter in the postseason. The same goes for Joe Carter, who, despite his World Series winning walk-off homer, was a profoundly mediocre hitter in the postseason overall (.252/.282/.445).
So how do you measure postseason greatness? Ultimately it's somewhat subjective. It's a combination of, among other things, talent, opportunity, and luck. As such, your list of the 10 greatest hitters in the playoffs is probably different than mine. Of course, that is mostly because yours is wrong… but also because you may value different things in hitters than I do. That's okay! As long as you're willing to accept your wrongness.
So here's my list of the 10 greatest postseason hitters baseball has ever seen. We'll go in reverse order for increased fun.
10. Derek Jeter
In addition to leading in postseason hits and plate appearances, Jeter ranks first in playoff games played, runs scored, total bases, singles, doubles, is tied for first in triples, third in home runs, fourth in RBIs, fifth in walks, and sixth in stolen bases. This says two things about Jeter. First that he's had the opportunity and the luck to see this many postseason games -- but also that he's risen to the challenge. Jeter's .838 playoff OPS is 10 points higher than his regular season OPS. His ranking here is not unlike his career in that he isn't the absolute best, but he's consistently great, and that counts for a lot.
9. George Brett
Brett played his entire career in Kansas City, so you might be surprised to see him on this list. Indeed, he only played in two World Series, losing in 1980 and winning in 1985. He hit very well in those series -- the Royals didn't lose in 1980 because of him; he contributed a .375/.423/.667 line -- but it was the Championship Series where Brett really shined. He played in six of those, and only once had a poor one. Mostly, he was ridiculous, posting OPS's in the 1.000s in four of the six, including slugging a staggering .826 in the 1985 ALCS. He went 4-for-4 with two homers in Game Three of the '85 ALCS to help keep the Royals from going down three games to none to Toronto, then, with the Royals facing elimination in Game Five, he knocked in the winning run. He walked twice and homered again in Game Six… and, well, sort of took Game Seven off, but hey, that's why he's ninth.
8. Lenny Dykstra
Dykstra's career is overshadowed by the sad happenings since he retired from baseball, but if we can look past that stuff, we can see what a great postseason player Dykstra was. He only played in five postseason series, but never had an OPS worse than the .863 he put up while helping the Mets beat Boston in the 1986 World Series. His pièce de résistance was his work in the 1993 World Series with Philadelphia. Dykstra came to the plate 30 times in that series and got on base 15 times. That included four homers and a double, and he stole four bases without being caught. In all, Dykstra slugged .913 and scored nine of the 36 runs the Phillies scored in the entire World Series.
7. Paul Molitor
The player on the other side of that World Series who did the most to beat Dykstra's Phillies was Paul Molitor. Molitor hit a silly .500/.571/1.000 with three home runs, crossing the plate himself 10 times, and was named Series MVP. Despite playing for 21 seasons, Molitor only saw the playoffs five times. He made the most of it, though, helping Milwaukee to the 1982 World Series by hitting .316 /.381/.684. Mostly though, it was his performance in the 1993 playoffs that puts him here. Joe Carter gets the ink, but it was Molitor who hit .447, got on base more than half the time (.527), and slugged .851 in 12 games against the White Sox and Phillies.
6. Kirk Gibson
Gibson may have some of the worst postseason hitting stats of anyone on this list. That's not to say he was a bad hitter in the playoffs, though: In his career, Gibson hit a robust .282/.380/.577 in 21 postseason games with the Tigers and Dodgers. But it was his home run off Eckersley that catapults him onto this list. The Dodgers were about to lose the first game of the Series to the heavily favored A's. Down 4-3 in the ninth inning, the A's brought in the Hall of Famer to close the game. Eckersley was in the midst of one of the greatest extended runs a closer has ever had. Between 1988 and 1992, he struck out 378 hitters in 359 2/3 innings, while posting an ERA of 1.98, almost 100 percent better than average for the period. He was a sure thing. And Gibson (this is about Gibson, remember?) beat him. Gibson's homer is still the biggest single hit in the postseason (both in my estimation and as measured by Win Probability Added), and that, combined with his general postseason excellence, makes him a deserving sixth on this list.
5. Lou Brock
When you think of Lou Brock, you think of speed -- and with good reason, as the Hall of Famer stole 938 bases. But he was also a great postseason hitter, helping the Cardinals to three World Series, and winning two. Brock hit .391/.424/.655 in those three Series, with seven doubles, two triples, and four homers. Oh, and 14 stolen bases. Maybe most impressive was that all three Series went seven games, and in the three Game Sevens, Brock went 5-for-11 with two walks, a double, and a homer.
4. Albert Pujols
This may change, as Pujols isn't the same player he was a few years ago, but since this list only looks backwards, he very much makes it. In 15 playoff series, Pujols hit a Pujolsian .330/.439/.607. So it can be said that against the best competition, Pujols was still the greatest hitter on the planet (non-Barry Bonds division). In the 2011 World Series the Rangers pitched around him whenever possible, and he still put up a .424 on-base percentage and slugged .640. But he may have been at his very best in the 2004 NLCS. There he had 14 hits in 32 plate appearances, including four homers and two doubles.
3. Lou Gehrig
I agonized over the order of the top three players, but I think this is correct. Truth be told, they're all incredible. The worst of the very best is probably Gehrig, which is a particularly awful way of phrasing it. It should be noted that Gehrig has the highest postseason OPS of any hitter ever. He's either tied with Babe Ruth or just ahead, depending on where you get the data from; Ruth's is slightly more slugging-dependant. Gehrig didn't have the chance to pile up huge numbers because there was only one round of playoffs in his day, and on top of that his career ended prematurely. Still, he managed a 1.208 OPS in seven different World Series, six of them wins, and four of those sweeps. What stands out, though, when looking over Gehrig's postseason work, is this line: .545/.706/1.727. That's from the 1928 World Series, a sweep of the Cardinals during which Gehrig had 11 at-bats and four homers. He also walked six times, which you could argue was not nearly enough. A 2.433 OPS is pretty good… and in a World Series, well, it boggles the mind.
2. Babe Ruth
Any list of the greatest baseball anything wouldn't be worth a damn if it didn't have Babe Ruth on it. I'll leave you to judge how worthwhile this list is, but at least it meets the Babe Ruth criteria. Initially I had Ruth third on this list. By my judgment he's about the third best postseason hitter of all time. And yes, this is a list of postseason hitters, so what he heck am I talking about? Well, Ruth was also a pitcher -- and a really good one. He went 3-0 in three postseason starts, with an 0.87 ERA in 31 innings. Amazing as that is, it's not why he's here. Ruth played in 10 World Series and put up an incredible .744 slugging percentage. His World Series OPS is 1.211, just behind Gehrig, but in a larger number of games. He was the preeminent player on a team that went to the World Series seven times in nine seasons and eight times in 13 seasons. He was the proverbial straw that stirred the drink, and that drink was stirred a whole lot.
1. Carlos Beltran
Gehrig's and Ruth's stats might be a bit better than Beltran's, but then Beltran has done it in a larger number of games and against much greater competition. He's had three postseason series with an OPS over 1.400, four over 1.000, and seven over .900 (if you generously round up his .899 OPS against the Dodgers this season). His overall postseason OPS of 1.173 is just silly. He also has 16 homers, more than Ruth and Gehrig, and has somehow never played in a World Series game. That will change on Wednesday. In addition to facing an excellent team and a great pitching staff, Boston will face the greatest postseason hitter of all time.
So, yeah. Good luck with that.
I'm in debt to my friend and colleague at Baseball Prospectus, Jay Jaffe, for his assistance with this piece.