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October 5, 2011

The Lineup Card

10 Players Whose Careers Were Defined by Big Postseason Moments

by Baseball Prospectus

1) Charles "Boss" Schmidt
In 1907, with the Tigers on the verge of losing the World Series, manager Hughie Jennings called on Boss Schmidt to pinch-hit in the ninth inning. Schmidt could have tied the game. He ended it, instead, with a pop-out to the shortstop. Somebody has to make the last out, and it just happened to be Schmidt. A year later, though, Schmidt found himself in roughly the same spot, batting in the ninth inning with his Tigers trailing and the Cubs on the verge of clinching. This time, Schmidt grounded out to the catcher to end the series. At that point, he had made the final out in 40 percent of all the World Series ever played, and if that number has decreased with time, Schmidt's singularity hasn't: he's the only player to ever make the final out of two seasons. Had he managed a single in either of those at bats, Schmidt would instead be remembered for one of two things. He was (according to the legends) insanely tough—he had a blanket challenge to fight any other player in baseball; he once wrestled a carnival bear; he could drive nails with his fists. He was also the guy who came up with the idea of recording caught stealing percentages. This is somewhat odd, because Schmidt was a terrible defensive catcher, and any objective measure would only point that out. In the 1909 World Series, he allowed 15 stolen bases and committed three throwing errors. The Tigers lost the series, but Schmidt didn't make the final out. He was on deck. —Sam Miller

2) Derek Jeter, "Mr. November"
Strictly speaking, Jeter doesn't belong on this list. He will be spoken of and remembered by generations to come for much more than his exploits on one night in 2001. But there is no doubt that that one night—Game Four of the 2001 World Series, a game that began on October 31 but ended on November 1—will forever be the leading moment in his legacy. As well it should, for as much as Major League Baseball likes to give itself too much credit in New York City's healing process following the attacks of September 11, the Yankees' run at the World Series that year was not inconsequential, and Jeter's game-winning home run in the bottom of the tenth off of Byung-Hyun Kim to tie the series at two-games apiece was very memorable.

But let us please recognize that the "Mr. November" moniker is a pale, empty carbon-copy of the true "Mr. October", deliberately calculated to sell newspapers. It is not a nickname earned of solid November play. In fact, Jeter was only 2-for-11 in the November games that year, but, because he hit his game-winning home run four minutes after midnight on the morning of November 1 and because the New York press was just dying to use their clever nickname, it stuck. Boy, how things would have changed if that game started even five minutes earlier...—Larry Granillo

3) Francisco Cabrera
On a late May evening in 1993, Francisco Cabrera walked out of Three Rivers Stadium and past a crowd of autograph seekers while barely being noticed. There was a lot of irony in that scene.

The Braves’ third-string catcher had broken Pirates fans' hearts the previous October. Cabrera's two-run single with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning rallied the Braves to a 3-2 victory over the Pirates in Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Yet he was still anonymous.

Cabrera's hit meant, in an instant, that the Braves were headed back to the World Series and the Pirates were headed home for a third straight season with an NLCS loss. Little did anyone know at the time that the Braves were in the early stages of a record run of 14 consecutive post-season appearances and the Pirates would begin a streak of 19 consecutive losing seasons the following year, a skein still active and a record for major North American professional team sports.

As for Cabrera, he remains a hero in Atlanta and a villain in Pittsburgh, even though nine out 10 fans probably wouldn't recognize him. Except for his big hit, Cabrera is nothing but a blip in baseball history as he barely played above replacement level. He played in just 193 games in five seasons with the Blue Jays (1989) and Braves (1989-93), hitting .254/.294/.453 with 17 home runs and 0.8 WARP. —John Perrotto

4) Bill Bevens and Cookie Lavagetto
It's rare that a single moment produces not one but two players whose careers are undeniably defined by a single postseason moment. It's even rarer when not only does that play overshadow the rest of their careers, but it marks their final act. Such was the case on October 3, 1947, in Game Four of the World Series between the Dodgers and the Yankees. Bevens, a 30-year-old righty who had just completed his third full season in the majors, was the weakest link in the Yankees' rotation, a pitcher who had managed to go 7-13 for a 97-57 team thanks to a high ERA (3.82: a 92 ERA+) and a paucity of run support. In 11 of his 23 starts, the Yankees scored two runs or less; he went 1-8 in those games.

Nobody had ever thrown a no-hitter in World Series history, but Bevens took one into the ninth inning at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field. Though he held the Dodgers hitless, he walked eight hitters through the first eight innings, allowing a run in the fifth when the Dodgers paired a couple of inning-opening walks with a couple of groundouts. The Yankees led 2-1 going into the bottom of the ninth, but the Dodgers had life in the form of a one-out walk to Carl Furillo, who yielded to pinch-runner Al Gionfriddo (whose heroic catch of a potential Joe DiMaggio extra base hit in Game Six would stand as his own career highlight in his final major league appearance). One out later, Gionfriddo stole second, so Bevens responded by intentionally walking Pete Reiser, whom he was behind 3-1 on. Reiser yielded to pinch-runner Eddie Miskis.

With light-hitting Eddie Stanky due up, Dodgers manager Burt Shotton called upon pinch-hitter Cookie Lavagetto, a 34-year-old, high-OBP infielder who had been with the club since 1937 (save for a four-year military stint). Lavagetto, who had hit .261/.370/.406 with three homers in just 82 plate appearances for the season, was all that stood between Bevens and history, but he played the spoiler. After a swing-and-miss on the first pitch, he drove the second one to right field, where it bounced off the scoreboard not only with the Dodgers' first hit but with the tying and winning runs. Brooklyn had evened the series at two games apiece, but they would go down in seven. Neither Bevens nor Lavagetto would ever play another major league game. —Jay Jaffe

5) Babe Adams
Adams had a wonderful, unique career which was mainly about comebacks and great control. He failed to impress in an early trial and got a late start, then missed most of two seasons at mid-career due to an arm injury. He came back to the majors at 36 and hung around for another eight years, his career ending only because he got dragged into a controversy between the Pirates manager and front office. In between, he walked fewer batters in multiple seasons than many pitchers do in a single season; between 1919 and 1922, he pitched 857.2 innings and passed only 74.

Despite this, Adams is best remembered for one of the more unexpected World Series performances. After the aforementioned failure to catch on with the Cardinals and the Pirates, Adams went back to the minors and pitched well, returning to the Pirates as a 27-year-old rookie in 1909. Splitting his time between the rotation and the bullpen, he took the league by surprise, posting a 1.11 ERA in 130 innings (a rookie record) and pitching three shutouts as the Pirates won the pennant. A 110-win team, the Pirates certainly had more experienced starters to go with in the World Series against the Tigers, and to this day different sources give different reasons as to why (injury to another pitcher, a suggestion by the league president that Detroit might be vulnerable to a certain style of pitching), but manager Fred Clarke tabbed the rookie to start the Fall Classic.

Adams lived up to the assignment. In Game 1, he held the Tigers to one run in a complete-game victory. Adams was roughed up a bit in Game 5, allowing four runs on two home runs but struck out eight against one walk as the Tigers went down 8-4. The win put the Pirates up three games to two, but the Tigers took Game 6 to force a seventh game. Adams came back on two days' rest to start. The Tigers never had a chance. While Buccos hitters bombed Wild Bill Donovan and George Mullin for eight runs, Adams was nearly flawless, scattering six hits and one run over nine innings. His final record for the Series: 3-0, three complete games, 1.33 ERA. Adams hung around long enough to pitch an inning in another Pirates World Series 16 years later, contributing to the 1925 championship team, and isn't it weird enough thinking about the Pirates being in one World Series, never mind two? —Steven Goldman

6) Rick Ankiel
He was the next big thing; to some he was even the next Sandy Koufax. St. Louis Cardinals 20-year-old lefty Rick Ankiel was a phenom. The summer of 2000 saw Ankiel go 11-7 as a rookie for the Cardinals, posting a 3.50 ERA—good for 10th in the National League—and a record 194 strikeouts—good for 7th in the National League, translating to a 9.98 K/9 ratio that was second only to fellow dominant lefty Randy Johnson. These would be impressive stats for a 30-year-old lefty, but these numbers belonged to a 20-year-old who topped out at 97mph: a true phenom. The Cardinals went to the postseason in 2000, and with those gaudy numbers, it was impossible not to start the young Ankiel in Game 1 of the NLDS.

Unfortunately for the Cardinal faithful, and more so for Ankiel himself, this was not a Cinderella story, and there would be no Hollywood ending for the young left-handed pitcher.  Ankiel took the mound in that first game of the NLDS, and what happened next would be a moment that would define his career and overshadow those gaudy regular season rookie numbers. Innings one and two went as planned: no runs allowed, and Ankiel was dialed in … until the 3rd. If Rick Ankiel could rewind and redo one moment in his baseball life, it would undoubtedly be the 3rd inning of Game 1 of the 2000 NLDS. Ankiel’s pitching line for that inning looked like this: eight batters faced, 35 pitches, four earned runs, two hits, four walks, and five wild pitches.

The fact that the Cardinals would win the game 7-5 was a tribute to the lineup and the bullpen. The comeback, however, was not the story; the story was the meltdown of the phenom. The questions would come. “Can he bounce back?” “Is this an injury, or is Ankiel lost?” The Cardinals and Ankiel didn’t have to wait long, as Ankiel would take the mound again in Game 2 of the NLCS where he would throw 20 pitches, of which five sailed to the backstop but only two would count as wild pitches since there were no runners on base for the rest. The control was gone, the phenom was a basket case, and the Cardinals were at a loss for answers. Still, they would try him one more time that postseason; in Game 5, Ankiel would come on in a relief role. He would pitch in the 7th inning, face four batters, walk two, and add two more wild pitches to his resume.

11 years later Rick Ankiel is still in baseball… as a journeyman outfielder. —Adam Tower

7) Joe Carter
Spend enough time in Kansas City, and you’re bound to run into Joe Carter eventually—at the ballpark, in line at the grocery store, or maybe on the practice range at a local golf course.

By just about any measure, Carter had an excellent career, collecting 2,184 hits and 396 home runs in 16 seasons in the majors. But he’s remembered for one swing: his walk-off, three-run home run to win the 1993 World Series for the Toronto Blue Jays.

His swing still draws onlookers, even if his power displays come on the driving range these days. People stop. Gawk. Whisper. And if there’s any doubt about just who that is out-driving everyone on the practice tee, it usually only takes 10 or 15 minutes before you hear something like, “Hey Joe! That one took off like the ball you hit off Mitch Williams.”

You’d think that gets old after awhile. He’s prepping for a round of golf with friends and some stranger wants to talk about a ball he hit 18 years ago. Then you see Carter flash a big smile—not unlike the ear-to-ear grin he carried around the bases that night at Toronto’s Skydome—and you realize that it really never gets old at all. —Jeff Euston

8) Jim Leyritz
Part of what makes the MLB playoffs great is how someone can change a series and define a career with a single at-bat. Most of the other players mentioned are defined by a single moment, but Jim Leyritz stands out as someone whose career is defined by continued “clutch” playoff moments. Though he posted a slightly above league average 106 OPS+ during his career, in the playoffs he posted a .926 OPS—equal to Frank Robinson’s regular season career mark.

Leyritz made an impact in each of his four postseason appearances. On the 1995 Yankees team that rallied in the last two months of the year to take the first wild card, Leyritz capped off a wild Game 2 of the ALDS with a 15th inning home run off of the Mariners’ Tim Belcher. It was his only hit of the series. Another added bonus to this homer: it gave the win to a 25-year-old, super-skinny Mariano Rivera. Clearly Leyritz’s super clutch postseason magic gene wore off on Mo, right? I’m mildly surprised no one pushed that narrative in the mid-90’s.

The next year, Leyritz contributed his most famous playoff moment to the Yankees. His three-run homer off of a Mark Wohlers’s hanging slider to bring the Yankees back from a 6-0 deficit in Game 4 of the World Series turned the tide of the game and the series. In 1998, Leyritz returned to October with the Padres. In the NLDS vs. Houston, he put up an OPS of 1.664 and hit three homers as the Padres advanced. In 1999, he made the Yankees’ playoff roster as the 3rd catcher. With the Yankees three outs from a repeat in Game 4, Leyritz iced the game with a solo homer in the bottom of the eighth. Once again, it was his only hit in the series. His off-the-field issues aside, Jim Leyritz probably would not be remembered today if it weren’t for his flair for the dramatic in late 90’s Octobers. —Sam Tydings

9) Dave Henderson
When asked about players with long careers defined by a single postseason moment, my first thought usually goes to a single play and a single Red Sox player during the 1986 postseason.  No, not that player or that play. Bill Buckner’s epic fail in Game 6 was unforgettable, of course, but it wasn’t even the largest Win Expectancy swing in that game, let alone that Red Sox postseason. When Bob Stanley uncorked a wild pitch to Mookie Wilson, allowing Kevin Mitchell to come home with the tying run and putting Ray Knight in scoring position, Boston’s win expectancy plummeted from 81 percent to 40 percent—a bigger drop than Buckner’s ensuing boot. Even if Buckner makes that play, however, the Sox don’t clinch the series—the game was already tied. Nor were the Sox facing elimination, already up three games to two when Mookie gorked his ill-fated roller towards first. No matter the outcome, the series would go on after that play.

The same can’t be said about Game 5 of that year’s ALCS, however, when the Angels were one strike away from clinching their first World Series appearance:

Dave Henderson’s two-run shot off Donnie Moore put the Red Sox ahead, and after the Angels tied it in the bottom of the ninth, Henderson’s sacrifice fly in the 11th provided the winning margin. If Henderson had struck out in the ninth, the Sox wouldn’t have had a chance to endure their Bucknerian nightmare; his blast, however, produced a 74 percent win expectancy swing and an even bigger change in championship expectancy since an out would have ended Boston’s season then and there. Hendu spent 14 years in the majors and left with almost 200 home runs in the books, but they all fade in comparison to the one he launched in Anaheim that left him bounding down the first base line in child-like wonder. —Ken Funck

10) Luis Sojo
It’s completely appropriate that Sojo played in an Old-Timers’ Game before he played in his last major-league one, since the pudgy infielder never looked much like an active player. Sojo’s flailing, flat-footed, step-in-the-bucket swing looked like it would barely work in the beer leagues, let alone the big leagues, where it served him well enough to delay his professional demise for 13 seasons. He also memorably faceplanted while fielding a routine grounder in the 2000 ALDS and posed for this triple-chinned picture while holding a job ostensibly intended for elite athletes. Nonetheless, he attained a level of celebrity and fan affection normally reserved for far more productive players, such that a mention of his name still incites smiles in New York long long after memories of contemporary futility infielders have faded (in most minds, at least; my first autographed baseball came courtesy of Clay Bellinger, which granted him a notoriety in my mind that he achieved in few other places). Much of Sojo's surprisingly enduring legacy stems from post-season success.

Overall, Sojo produced quite poorly at the plate—he finished with a negative VORP at primarily defense-first positions—but his empty batting averages hovered around league average. That meant that he was generally a safe bet to do something on the rare occasions that he was given a full game’s complement of plate appearances, though it wasn’t often pretty. His obvious imperfections as a player made him an unlikely candidate to become a first-division fixture and a bad-bat blemish on the otherwise clear complexions of several championship teams—if the 1998 Yankees had rostered a replacement player instead of him, they might have won 115—but his glove and good nature gave him a Zelig-like ability to blend in with his more talented teammates until he seemed almost equally integral to the squad's success. (As Sojo once said, "Everywhere I go, I get a standing ovation.")

Sojo specialized in singles that weren’t fit for TV, since his ungainly swing was light on line drives but served up a steady supply of bloopers, bleeders, and seeing-eye grounders that appeared destined for an infielder’s glove until they improbably found outfield grass. One of the last variety won a World Series for the Yankees, as Sojo scored Jorge Posada and Scott Brosius with a weak single off Al Leiter in the top of the ninth inning in Game Five of the 2000 Fall Classic (a game he hadn’t even started) to give Mariano Rivera a lead he wouldn’t relinquish. That hit is the highlight most often associated with Sojo, but for a player whose playing time came so infrequently, the Venezuelan had more than his fair share of memorable moments.

Jay Jaffe once penned a paean to Sojo (whom he dubbed “a lumpy role player trapped in the body of a third base coach”) far longer than this space (or even a single webpage) permits, so be sure to read what he had to say to learn more about the man, the myth, the light-hitting middle infielder. Ben Lindbergh

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