The Cardinals face possible elimination today at the hands of the Pirates. It has been a wild year for the National League Central. One could make an argument that, this season at least, the National League Central was right up there with the American League East as the best division in baseball. The Cardinals won that division and tied the Red Sox for the best record in baseball.
But it could all end for St. Louis today. Although I personally do not have a rooting interest in this series (yeah, it would be fun to see the Pirates advance, but that is not the same as being a fan of either team), it would be too bad to see the Cardinals’ Matt-heavy lineup depart. It has Matt Carpenter, a legitimate MVP candidate in his first year of full-time major league play, Matt Holliday, who overcame a relatively slow start to have another very good season, and Matt Adams, a rookie who is starting the place of the injured Allen Craig, and who managed to whack 17 home runs in part-time action.
With my own semi-vested interest in Matts, and with the Matt-loaded Cardinals playing perhaps their last game of 2013 today, a bit of trivia is in order: the best-hitting Matts in playoff history.
[Note: our database only has two hitters listed with “Matthew” as their first name, Matthew LeCroy and Matthew Porter, and only LeCroy ever came to the plate in the playoffs. As much as I would love an excuse to write about LeCroy, he did not make the cut this time.]
How exactly does one measure greatness in the playoffs? A general formula for measuring value is rate above baseline (usually average or replacement level) times playing time. That is the basis for Wins Above Replacement, but even WAR’s biggest fans understand that there are problems with applying it directly to playoff performance. Rather than trying to work out some formula to establish a ranking of Matts, let’s look at three different aspects: playing time, hitting versus average (wRC+), and the always fun Win Probability Added.
Plate appearances are not really a direct measure of value. They sort of work indirectly, at least as far as excluding terrible players, as those players (usually…) do not get much playing time and get un-select. Playoff plate appearances are a little more interesting since they indicate a player who was at least on teams good enough to get to the playoffs more than once and/or play deep into them. That indicates a good team, of course, and since the player is getting playing time in the playoffs, the player is likely to be at least pretty good.
That is definitely the case with respect to the Matt with the most playoff plate appearances, Matt Williams. Williams had 214 plate appearances in the playoffs, and made World Series appearances with San Francisco, Cleveland, and Arizona. Williams only hit .247/.319/.389 (88 wRC+) in the postseason, but he was considered a good fielder for most of his career, and had some truly outstanding seasons in the 90s, hitting 43 home runs in the strike-shortened 1994 season and a 170 wRC+ in 1995.
When we come to a straightforward evaluation of hitting quality (as measured by wRC+) in the playoffs, of the 33 Matts who have come to the plate in the playoffs, only three (as of this writing) have a wRC+ of at least 100, and two of them all still active, and, no surprise, on the Cardinals.
The highest wRC+ (prior to today’s game) by a Matt in the playoffs is Matt Adams’ 168. It is in just 13 plate appearances (all from this season), but most career playoff samples are going to be very small. Adams has yet to hit his first postseason home rune.
The second-highest career playoff wRC+ by a Matt belongs to Matt Treanor, who has a 156 wRC+ in 14 career playoff appearances. Obviously, he saves his best for his postseason at-bats (all with the 2010 Rangers), as the career backup catcher is just a career .221/.313/.305 (67 wRC+) hitter during the regular season.
The current owner of third-highest wRC+ by a Matt in the playoffs (a big honor, as the reader will have gathered by now) is Matt Holliday, who has a 106 wRC+ (.254/.333/.426) over 198 career postseason plate appearances. That is not up to his usual standard, but, of course, part of that is facing tougher pitching on average in postseason (as well as small-sample fluctations). We have written about Holliday being underrated before, so there is no need to belabor the point. As with Williams, the 189 career playoff plate appearances speaks for itself regarding Holliday’s quality as a player.
Although we do not do not want to talk about clutch hitting as if it is a skill, no one disputes that there are clutch hits. In that respect, Holliday has not fared as well (with some memorable occasions, particularly for Rockies fans), and his career playoff WPA is -0.36. The Matt with the highest career playoff WPA will not come as much of a surprise. This Matt was once something of a sabermetric hero, as he had to wait a while to get playing time as a bad-defense, low-average, high-walks and good power player. Although he finished his career with a .262/.356/.477 (115 wRC+) career line, in 26 playoff plate appearances he hit just .125/.192/.215 (20 wRC+). Not too impressive. He hit just one postseason home run, but it was a big one, and led to one of the more memorable post-game quotes ever. The Matt with the best career postseason WPA (0.40) is none other than the Legendary Matt Stairs.