As baseball's regular season winds down, all eyes are beginning to turn to the possible postseason matchups. And with but a handful of games left on the regular season slate, the playoff picture is beginning to take shape. The Orioles, Angels, and Nationals all seem to have their division titles well in hand, but the other divisions may well be a dogfight until the final game of the season as teams battle for a postseason slot.
The MLB postseason is where legends are born. Over the history of baseball, we've seen pitchers absolutely dominate a series and carry their team to a title. And at other times, we've seen hitters do the same thing. The bright lights of baseball's second season have brought out the best in some athletes, while it's brought out the worst in others. The playoffs have created some of the most dominant players and performances we've ever seen. On the other side of that coin though, when the stakes are the highest, we've also seen players who've been tremendous regular season performers wilt tremendously beneath those lights. For every Derek Jeter, we've seen twenty Frank Robinson's – players who are incredible during the regular season, but simply vanish on baseball's biggest stage.
We've also seen plenty of one-hit wonders pass through baseball's hallowed postseason history – players who put up an amazing game or two, never to be heard from again. Too many people seem to prop up a player who had a terrific game, or even one terrific series, perhaps even helping lift their club to a title, and proclaim them to be one of the all-time greats. It's something we disagree with.
To be considered one of those elite players, one of the greatest postseason performers in baseball history, you need to have done it for more than just one game. For more than just one series. To be one of the best, you have to be at your best when the lights are the brightest and the stakes couldn't be higher. Baseball history is filled with players who did just that – stepped up time and time again during the postseason and delivered.
With that in mind then, let's look at just a few of the best performers in MLB's postseason history...
25 Barry Bonds
Say what you will about Bonds, but the man could flat out hit. Though he has yet to admit it, there seems to be little doubt that he juiced. The bigger question is when did he start? Not knowing that, we can't completely discount everything he did on baseball's biggest stage – In 208 plate appearances over 9 postseason series, Bonds had a .936 OPS, compiled a .245 BA, hit 9 home runs, drove in 24 RBI's, scored 33 times, and was walked an incredible 52 times. Put an asterisk next to this if you wish, but he put up some pretty decent numbers.
24 Tony Gwynn
One of the best pure hitters to ever play the game, Gwynn didn't see much postseason action, but when he did get to the postseason, he delivered. In his 6 postseason series, Gwynn hit .306 – hitting .371 in 2 World Series appearances – knocked in 11 runs, scored 11 more, and hit one home run. Had he not been with the Padres, and had been with a team that saw more postseason games, there is little doubt, Gwynn would have put up all-time best numbers.
23 Orel Hershiser
The Bulldog was one of the fiercest competitors in the history of the game. And over the course of his 18-year career, he put up numbers comparable to some of the all-time greats. And he never failed to find another level when the postseason rolled around. In 12 playoff series (including 3 World Series), Hersheiser posted am 8-3 record with a sparkling 2.59 ERA. In 132 innings of postseason work, Hershiser struck out 97 and gave up just 38 earned runs.
22 Cole Hamels
Hamels has always been an above average pitcher for the Phillies. But he was even better when Philadelphia made the postseason. In 10 playoff series, Hamels went 7-4 and posted a 3.09 ERA – with an amazing 1.82 ERA in NLDS games. He struck out 77 in 81.2 innings of work while walking just 21. Here's hoping that Philly can get back to the playoffs so we can see more of Hamels in big games.
21 Manny Ramirez
There's a lot that can be said about Manny Ramirez – and some of it might even be true. But one thing that can't be disputed is that when the playoffs rolled around, ManRam was a one-man wrecking crew. In 23 playoff series over his career, Ramirez batted .285, blasted 29 home runs, and knocked in 78 RBI's. He has a career .937 playoff OPS and drew a very Bonds-esque 72 walks. Dude might be crazy, but he could flat out hit.
20 Andy Pettitte
Pettitte still owns the MLB record for most postseason victories with 19. It's a pretty stunning accomplishment when you consider some of the pitching staffs he was a part of – with names like Cone, Wells, Clemens – players who were celebrated far more than Pettite ever was. Though he may have been overshadowed by the rest of the staff, there is no denying that he is one of the best postseason performers ever. In 32 playoff series and 276.2 innings of work over the course of his career, Pettitte notched those 19 wins and posted a respectable 3.81 ERA, striking out 183 and walking just 76.
19 Paul Molitor
A part of the small-market Milwaukee Brewers, Molitor is another of those players who flew beneath the radar to most of the baseball world. But there is no denying that he was one of the best hitters in the game and when the lights of the postseason were on, he was even better. In 132 playoff plate appearances, Molitor batted .368 with 6 home runs and 22 RBI's. In his two World Series appearances, Molitor hit .418 and had an incredible OPS of 1.112. But Molitor suffered the same fate as Tony Gwynn – being saddled with a club that didn't see the postseason very often.
18 Ken Griffey Jr.
The Kid's career didn't end on the highest of notes, but for a time, he was one of the most feared hitters in all of baseball. He was so good, he made it look easy. Though he had a 22-year career, Junior only saw 4 postseason series. But he made the most of it, posting a .290 batting average to go along with a .947 OPS, 6 home runs and 11 RBI's. In his lone LCS appearance, he hit .333 with a fantastic 1.011 OPS. Unfortunately, we never got to see what Griffey could do on the biggest stage of all.
17 Reggie Jackson
Jackson was always an above average hitter during the regular season, but when October rolled around, he always found another gear as his legend was born in the playoffs. He isn't called Mr. October for nothing. In 17 playoff series – including 5 appearances in the World Series – over his career, Jackson batted .278, but hit 18 bombs (3 in one WS game alone) and knocked in 48 RBI's. He also scored 41 times and had a career .885 OPS in the postseason.
16 Roy Halladay
Doc Halladay had a pretty good career. He posted a 203-105 career record with a 3.38 ERA. But where he was at his best was in the postseason. In his 3 playoff series, Halladay was 3-2 with a sterling 2.57 ERA. He even threw a no-no in one memorable playoff game. In 38 innings of playoff work, he struck out 35 while walking just 5. But like Ken Griffey Jr., Doc never got to a World Series, appearing in only one LCS. As dominant as he was, he needed help he never got.
15 George Brett
Brett is simply put, one of the best ballplayers to ever play the game. His fire and passion for the game is unrivaled, and his career .305 average is among the best. But when the calendar turned to October, Brett kicked it up another notch – or two. He hit .337 in 9 career postseason series, smacking 10 homers and knocking in 23 RBI's. He scored 30 runs and had an OPS of 1.023. He may have been a hothead and had a fondness for pine tar, but Brett was one of the best performers baseball has ever seen.
14 David Ortiz
Some may bristle at the idea of putting a designated hitter on the list of baseball's best, but there is no denying what Big Papi can do with a bat in his hand. He's participated in 17 playoff series over his career and posted a .295 batting average to go along with a fantastic OPS of .962. He's belted 17 homers, driven in 60 runs, scored 51 times, and has drawn 57 walks. Teams tend to pitch around Big Papi when the game is on the line – and with good reason.
13 Vic Raschi
Vic who? Yeah, most people probably won't know who Vic Raschi is – outside of the hardcore rotisserie leaguers – but Raschi was a pitcher for the Yankees back in the 40's and 50's. He spent 8 of his 10 years in the league in pinstripes and was one of the better pitchers on a loaded team – especially when the postseason rolled around. In 6 playoff series with the Yanks, the Springfield Rifle went 5-3 and posted a scorching 2.24 ERA – and against some of those old Brooklyn Dodgers teams, that was no small feat. In 60 innings of work, he struck out 43, threw 3 complete games, and even chipped in with a couple of hits. Raschi may not be well known, but he was definitely a prime time performer.
12 John Smoltz
Atlanta was a dominant team for more than a decade thanks to a pitching staff that was unbelievable. Smoltz, as good as he was, always seemed to be overshadowed by Glavine and Maddux – but he may have been the best of the three, especially in the postseason. In 25 postseason series over his career, Smoltz went 15-4 with a sparkling 2.67 ERA. He threw 2 complete games, 1 shutout, and even chipped in with 4 saves. He struck out 199 in 209 innings of work and walked just 67. Glavine and Maddux usually got all of the headlines, but Smoltz put together a resume that equals either of them.
11 Ron Guidry
Guidry, otherwise known as Louisiana Lightning, had always been a good pitcher for the Yankees, posting a career record of 170-91 with a 3.29 ERA, but was even better once the postseason hit. He has a career postseason mark of 5-2 with a 3.02 ERA, but that doesn't tell the whole story. In four appearances over three World Series that encompassed 32 innings of work, Guidry struck out 26 while going 3-1 with an outstanding 1.69 ERA – with two of those games being complete game efforts.
10 Babe Ruth
How could you have a list of the best without including the Bambino? The Bambino was unique in that he was not only a dominant hitter, but he was also a pretty dominant pitcher as well. In 10 series over the postseason, Ruth posted a .326 batting average, belting 15 homers, knocking in 33 RBI's, and scoring 42 runs. In 2 postseason pitching appearances with Boston, Ruth went 3-0 with an astounding 0.87 ERA. Ruth was unique in a lot of ways, and was one amazing ballplayer – in any era.
9 Roger Clemens
He may be a bit of a jerk, but Clemens was one of baseball's most dominant pitchers for a long time. And as good as he was in the regular season, he was even better during the playoffs. Over 24 career postseason series, Clemens went 12-8 with a 3.75 ERA. He appeared in 6 World Series, going 3-0 with a stellar 2.37 ERA in 8 starts. He struck out 173 in 199 innings while walking just 70 and destroyed the dreams of a lot of batters.
8 Chipper Jones
He was never the most celebrated player, especially in Atlanta where the pitchers got most of the run, but Chipper Jones was quietly, relatively speaking, one of the best hitters in the game, posting a 19-season career BA over .303. But when the lights were on in October, Jones led his team's offense and performed at an even higher level. In 21 career postseason series, Jones his .287 while launching 13 homers, knocking in 47 RBI's, and scoring 58 runs.
7 Lou Gehrig
The Iron Horse was often overshadowed by his Yankee teammates, but was always one of the steadiest, most consistent, and most productive members of his team. He made a name for himself on a team full of big personalities and that speaks to his greatness. Of course, his .340 career batting average doesn't hurt either. As great as he was during the regular season, he was equally as great in the playoffs, posting a career .361 postseason average over 7 World Series appearances. He hit 10 home runs, scored 30 times, and knocked in another 35. Unfortunately, he succumbed to ALS, otherwise we might be marveling at the even bigger numbers he would surely have posted.
6 Sandy Koufax
Plain and simple, Sandy Koufax was one of the most dominant pitchers to ever play the game. Over his 12 year career, Koufax went 165-87 with an outstanding 2.76 ERA. The 3-time Cy Young award winner, won 4 World Series rings, won the triple crown 3 times, and also tossed 4 no-hitters and one perfect game. In the postseason, Koufax only added to his legend going 4-3 but posting a 0.95 ERA over 57 innings of work. Koufax was simply untouchable in the postseason.
5 Derek Jeter
Jeter's stellar 20 year career is coming to an end this season, and we're all poorer for it. For a lot of years, the Captain has showed us the right way to play the game. He may not have been the most dominant, but he was one of the most consistent, and when the postseason lights were on, he was one of the best ever. The 14-time All Star, and 5-time World Series champ, has posted a career .308 playoff batting average, clubbing 20 home runs, driving in 61 RBI's and scoring 111 times. He has a career postseason .838 OPS, and was the one guy the Yankees could count on to deliver a big hit when they needed it the most.
4 Carlos Beltran
You wouldn't think of Beltran as being the player to eclipse the likes of Ruth and Gehrig in postseason production, but you'd have to think again. In 10 postseason series, Beltran is actually the best ever with a 1.128 OPS. He's also racked up a .333 batting average, blasted 16 home runs, and knocked in 40 more. He's also scored 45 times himself. He's quietly put together a resume that should land him in Cooperstown one day.
3 Curt Schilling
The legend of the bloody sock aside, Schilling was one of baseball's most dominant postseason performers for a long, long time. In 12 postseason series, the 6-time All Star and 3-time World Series champ went 11-2 with a stellar 2.23 ERA. In 7 World Series appearances, he was virtually untouchable, going 4-1 with a 2.06 ERA, striking out 43 in 48 total innings. If you faced Schilling in the postseason, the chances were high that you were going to lose.
2 Mariano Rivera
Just as some might bristle at the notion of including a DH on the “best of” list, some might also take issue with including a closer. Closers pitch limited innings, but they can effectively make or break a team's fortunes. In the case of Mariano Rivera, he made the Yankees' fortunes more often than he broke them. Rivera was by far, the most dominant closer to ever play the game and he only got better and nastier when the stakes were the highest. In 96 postseason appearances, Rivera went 8-1, notched 42 saves, and posted an insane 0.70 ERA. It used to be said that if you were going to score runs on the Yanks, you had to do it before the 9th inning otherwise you were as good as done – and rightly so.
1 Bob Gibson
A longtime pitcher for the Cardinals, Gibson was a 9-time All Star, 2-time Cy Young winner, and 2-time World Champion. He was also a 2-time World Series MVP, and with good reason. In 9 postseason appearances – 8 of them complete games – Gibson went 7-2 with 2 shutouts, and posted an ERA of 1.89. He also still holds the MLB record for most strikeouts in a World Series game with 17. Gibson very nearly won the 1967 World Series for the Cards, winning 3 games – all of them complete games – on his own. What he accomplished in his limited postseason experience is something no other MLB pitcher will ever be able to touch.