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Kings Of Clutch: Playoff Stars Who May Have Altered MLB Award Races

Baseball writers have been voting to determine league MVP award winners, under various imprints, for more than 100 years.

But only in the past 25 years have players amassed the bodies of work in the postseason to jostle with regular season performance in the overall value conversation.

In between the Year of the Pitcher in 1968 and Miggy’s Triple Crown in 2012, the number of playoff teams increased from two teams to 10, while the maximum number of postseason games possible in a given year grew from seven to 43.

At the extremes, Omar Vizquel logged 86 postseason plate appearances in 1997, while Madison Bumgarner pitched 52.2 October innings in 2014. Those totals come on the heels of a six-month regular season and give modern players’ October résumés gravitas that only players for select clubs—the Yankees, Cardinals and Dodgers—could match in the days before divisional play.

With that being the case, it’s interesting to reflect on players’ entire bodies of work from a given year—regular season and postseason—to see which award choices might have been altered with extra information, such as timely postseason hits or World Series championships.

David Ortiz

It’s difficult for a DH to win an MVP award, but Ortiz might have been worthy of two if his postseason heroics with the Red Sox had been factored. Most notably, in 2004 he finished fourth in American League MVP balloting, then hit .400 with five homers and 19 RBIs in 14 postseason games. He delivered three walk-off hits that October as Boston secured its first World Series title in 86 years.

Ortiz later won World Series MVP honors in 2013 after the Red Sox defeated the Cardinals again. He delivered a 1.206 OPS in 16 postseason games that October but had finished just 10th in MVP voting during the season.

Clutch Hitters
Win probability added (WPA) leaders for a single postseason since 1995

1David FreeseSTL2011.397.465.7941.2585211.9
David OrtizBOS2004.400.515.7641.2785191.9
3Alex RodriguezNYY2009.365.500.8081.3086181.7
5Bernie WilliamsNYY1996.345.435.7071.1426151.5
Carlos BeltranSTL2013.268.388.464.8522151.5
6Lance BerkmanSTL2011.313.413.438.8512111.4
Eric HosmerKC2014.351.439.526.9662121.4
8David OrtizBOS2013.353.500.7061.2065131.3
Albert PujolsSTL2004.414.493.7931.2866141.3
Alex RodriguezNYY2004.320.414.6001.014381.3

Derek Jeter

Jeter received all but one of the writers’ votes when inducted into the Hall of Fame, but for all his accolades—including 3,465 hits and five World Series rings—he never won an MVP award. Had his postseason performance been factored in 2000, he might have placed higher than 10th in American League balloting. He hit .317/.427/.571 in 16 games that October, supplying two key World Series home runs as the Yankees won their third straight championship.

Madison Bumgarner

Even with Clayton Kershaw in the teeth of his historic peak, Bumgarner might have given him a run for the 2014 National League Cy Young Award if his postseason had been considered. He went 18-10, 2.98 that season, then added another 52.2 innings in October. Bumgarner did a lot with those innings, going 4-1, 1.03 and pushing the Giants to a third championship in five years. He started and won Games 1 and 5 of the World Series, then threw five innings of scoreless relief in Game 7 to take Series MVP honors.

Clutch Pitchers
Win probability added (WPA) leaders for a single postseason since 1995

1Curt SchillingARI20014001.1248.16562.1
2Madison BumgarnerSF20144111.0352.26451.7
3Randy JohnsonARI20015101.5241.18471.6
John WettelandNYY19960072.1912.16151.6
5Mariano RiveraNYY20000061.7215.21101.5
6Josh BeckettFLA20032202.1142.212471.4
Cliff LeePHI20094001.5640.16331.4
Orel HershiserCLE19954101.5335.19351.4
Mariano RiveraNYY20031050.56160141.4
Mariano RiveraNYY19992060.0012.1191.4

Albert Pujols

Pujols is a three-time National League MVP who might have won another award or two had he not gone up against Barry Bonds’ all-time seasons of the early 2000s. In 2004, Pujols hit .331/.415/.657 with 46 homers for the Cardinals but finished third in MVP balloting. An epic postseason that included a 1.286 OPS to go with six homers and 14 RBIs in 15 games might have put him over the top.

A Pair Of 2019 Nationals

By starting the year 19-31 and then dispatching the 106-win Dodgers and 107-win Astros in the postseason, the 2019 Nationals are one of the most unlikely World Series champions ever. They owed a lot of their success to a pair of homegrown stars.

Third baseman Anthony Rendon placed third in National League MVP voting but delivered a series of key postseason hits with three homers, seven doubles and 15 RBIs. Righthander Stephen Strasburg placed fifth in NL Cy Young Award voting but dominated in October, going 5-0, 1.98 with 47 strikeouts in 36.1 innings. He won Games 2 and 6 of the World Series.

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