Let's start with one particular player's "season" stat line:
That's a darned good season, right? If I give you the added information that this player was a leadoff hitter who played shortstop, you're looking at a surefire All-Star and perhaps even an MVP candidate. The player: Derek Jeter. But the numbers aren't for any one season during his long career. Those are his career postseason totals.
In other words, for all that Jeter accomplished for the Yankees over his 20 years in the majors, he played what amounts to an entire extra season in playoff games. The percentages are almost right on target with his regular-season totals despite the heightened competition of October baseball. And the performance is that much more valuable when you consider how much each playoff win is worth to a team's championship probability.
Even before you consider Jeter's postseason record, he's a no-brainer Hall of Famer and perhaps will make a push to become the first unanimous selection to Cooperstown when he becomes eligible in 2020. Nevertheless, if Jeter were hypothetically on the same bubble as these guys, how would we weigh his postseason record?
It's a good debate, and it has never been more relevant. Consider this: Before baseball was divided into divisions for the 1969 season, the all-time leader in postseason runs created was Mickey Mantle with 46. (That number is based on the most simple version of a run estimator and spans 273 postseason plate appearances, all of which were in World Series play. It also represents 2.4 percent of Mantle's combined total of regular and postseason runs created. Babe Ruth was second on this list (44.8), and just 1.6 percent of his career figure came from World Series games.)
Jeter's playoff total of 112.9 not only dwarfs everything that came before the division era, but it makes up 6.1 percent of his combined total. In other words, postseason results have never been a bigger part of a player's résumé. The gradual expansion of the playoff bracket has warped the all-time leaderboards in favor of recent players. For example, here are the all-time leaders in postseason plate appearances, per baseball-reference.com:
All of those players spent most of their respective careers in the wild-card era. Before the divisional era, the all-time leader in postseason plate appearances was Yogi Berra, at 295. With this sea change, shouldn't playoff numbers be given extra weight when considering Hall cases now and going forward?
There are arguments for and against this, but the consensus seems to be that positive postseason performance should be looked at as a value-added feature on a player's résumé. In other words, if a player is on the fence and had a great postseason record, then maybe that sweeps him into the Hall. But if a player toiled mostly for bad teams or didn't play well in the playoffs, voters should not rule him out based on that. The presumption is that a Hall-worthy regular-season record means that player did what he could to help his team get into the playoffs -- and that's what matters.
That's pretty much where I land on the subject, with a caveat: It's important that we recognize the impact these extra playoff games have on a player's career narrative. We could probably quantify this, as well, with a championship probability metric. That statistic would combine a player's regular-season numbers, perhaps even in the context of each season's pennant race, with his playoff performance. In theory, you'd get a lot more credit for a game-tying homer in Game 7 of the World Series than for a game-tying homer in the wild-card game. While there have been attempts at creating metrics roughly in that vein, no system has been created that works to combine playoff and regular-season impact in quite this way, to my knowledge.
So for now, voters are left to look at a player's postseason record and decide for themselves how much weight it should carry. To catch a glimpse of how this might work, let's consider this issue while looking at some borderline cases of position players on the current Hall ballot. Using the JAWS leaderboard, let's consider those whose career JAWS is within 10 points of the Hall average for their respective positions:
Jeff Bagwell: Bagwell's regular-season record is likely enough to get him into Cooperstown, and current results suggest he's going to get in. However, Bagwell got only about 1 percent of his overall runs created total from the postseason. His total of 12 RC was about 11 fewer than what you'd expect, given his regular-season rate. No boost here.
Vladimir Guerrero: Vlad's 19 postseason RC were about 17 fewer than what you'd expect and represented 1.1 percent of his career figure. We made his case, and it's a good one, but not because of his postseason record.
Edgar Martinez: Martinez was another subject of our analysis, and like Guerrero, he doesn't really get a boost from the playoffs. His record is better -- 24 runs created, 2.1 percent of his career total -- but it's nothing eye-grabbing.
Fred McGriff: McGriff should almost certainly get extra consideration for his playoff numbers. He put up 32 postseason RC, 3.8 percent of his career total. That was about six more than you'd expect based on his regular-season performance, so he stepped it up in the higher-leverage games. He homered twice in the 1995 World Series, helping the Braves win a title that year. McGriff is only at 16 percent on the latest BBHOF Tracker ballot results, so for him to gain entry, many of the remaining voters would have to see him as a bubble player in order for his solid but not overwhelming playoff record to make the difference.
Jorge Posada: Many of the Jeter-era Yankees show up high on the postseason leaderboards because New York was pretty much a playoff fixture for the better part of two decades. Posada put up 57 postseason RC for 5.3 of his career total. But he was about 17 RC below expectation, and you can fairly assess his aggregate playoff performance as a result of opportunity more than anything. This year is his first year of eligibility, and he might not get the 5 percent he needs to stay on the ballot. Posada might not be a Hall of Famer, but he deserves better than that.
Tim Raines: In his 10th year on the ballot, Raines is one of the few players who toiled more in the pre-wild-card era. His postseason record (15 RC) isn't a lengthy one, though his regular-season numbers, some of the most widely parsed of any player in history, are enough to get him in. And it appears it will finally happen this time around.
Manny Ramirez: If we can ignore the PED angle for a moment, Ramirez is the perfect example of a wild-card-era player whose playoff performance might put him over the top. His JAWS (54.6) is better than the Hall average for his position, so that's a solid beginning case. However, Ramirez also had 493 postseason plate appearances, third most all time, and his 88 RC in those opportunities rank second behind Jeter. Given his regular-season performance, that's 14 fewer than expected. Still, we're talking about a guy who hit 29 postseason home runs, seven more than anyone else.
Gary Sheffield: Most of Sheffield's playoff résumé comprises hitting three homers in helping the Marlins to the 1997 title. Overall, he had 26 playoff RC, 11 off expectation, and slugged just .398 in the playoffs. He's a player whose case needs a playoff boost, but it's not really there.
Sammy Sosa: Sosa appeared in just three postseason series. With 67 plate appearances in those opportunities, there's not enough to go on, though he did have a couple of homers in the 2003 NLCS.
Larry Walker: Walker had 18 playoff RC, mostly the result of a six-homer postseason for the Cardinals in 2004. He has a very good Hall case, which wouldn't be swayed either way by October baseball.
Sadly, in the end, none of these great hitters is likely to get into the Hall based on the extra value they created in playoff baseball. Ramirez might be an exception, if PED perception shifts over the next few years, and McGriff could deserve a second look. But we should still bear in mind how much a player's value is now derived from the postseason. While this year's ballot offers some small plates for Hall debaters, the next few will feature some feasts: Carlos Beltran, Andruw Jones and Johnny Damon. And that's just the center fielders.