In the great baseball era of Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Mickey Mantle and so many other great hitters, the most feared hitter in baseball was Willie McCovey.
There’s no question about it.
In 1969, I was playing for the Oakland Athletics, but I was still a Giants fan, and since I was in Oakland, I could listen to Giants games on the radio. And I remember hearing Willie McCovey get intentionally walked in Houston with the bases loaded.
That never happened back then. It happened to me once in Seattle and I remember it happening to Barry Bonds more than once, but that’s how feared Willie McCovey was at the time. They’d rather concede the run than let McCovey hit.
But McCovey only played in the postseason twice, so we didn’t get many chances to see his incredible ability on display in October. If we did, he most certainly would have had his fair share of Mr. October moments.
Then, you look at a guy like Daniel Murphy.
I don’t think anyone could have predicted that Daniel Murphy would be the star of the 2015 postseason — that he’d hit seven home runs and become the first player to ever hit a home run in six straight postseason games. There’s no explanation for what Daniel Murphy has done. There’s no analytics. There’s no precedent.
I think it’s one of the great wonders in sports when you get a player like Daniel Murphy who basically comes out of the woodwork and has that kind of performance for five, six, seven straight games in the postseason, but it seems to happen more in baseball. Al Weis and Donn Clendenon with the ’69 Mets. The three games when Mickey Lolich dominated the Cardinals in 1968. Even Don Larsen throwing a perfect game in the ’56 World Series.
But there are some guys who are close to or at McCovey’s level who’ve performed on the game’s biggest stage so many times that not only could we predict that they would come through in the clutch in the postseason, we came to expect it.
That’s how I got the name Mr. October.
I think we throw “Mr. October” around a little too loosely these days. There will always be guys who come out of nowhere like Daniel Murphy and have a big game, or a big series, or even a big postseason. But to truly be a Mr. October, you have to do it year after year, like the guys on this list did.
So with that in mind, starting with three hitters from my era and moving forward to three from the modern era, let’s take a look back at the guys I consider to be the most feared, most clutch postseason hitters I’ve ever seen.
George Brett could do what he wanted at home plate. He was an incredible hitter — the best clutch hitter I’ve ever seen.
When we played the Royals, our approach was simple: George was a lefty, so we pitched him to allow him to get base hits to left field, because we knew if he pulled the ball, he’d hit it out of the park.
That was it. That was the scouting report on George. Limit him to base hits and avoid the longball.
It was never about how you were going to stop him. It was about how you were going to minimize the damage. He was that good of a hitter. This is a guy who hit .390 over the course of an entire season in 1980 and hit .373 combined in his two World Series appearances. He hit a big home run late in Game 5 of the 1976 ALCS to tie the game, and in the 1978 ALCS, against my Yankees, he hit three home runs in one game.
We ended up winning that series 3-1, but not because George wasn’t getting big hits. He was the most dangerous hitter in that Royals lineup, and the rest of the team didn’t do enough to capitalize on George’s big hits.
We ran into George and the Royals again in the 1980 ALCS, and that time, they got the best of us. We were facing elimination in Game 3 and had a 2-1 lead in the top of the seventh inning when George hit a three-run home run to give the Royals a 4-2 lead. That proved to be the difference in the game that sent them to the World Series.
They went on to lose that World Series, but George finally got his ring in 1985, earning the ALCS MVP along the way after hitting three home runs in that series, too.
George was never a guy you wanted to see with a bat in his hands in a big moment — especially in October. As far as clutch hitters go, he’s the best I’ve ever seen.
Frank Robinson was fearless, and everyone knew it. I think he is one of the most underrated players in history. He wasn’t quite the defender that Willie Mays or Henry Aaron were, but he was every bit the hitter.
But when you talk about Frank Robinson and being clutch, you don’t have to look any further than the 1966 World Series. That was the year before I made my Major League debut, but I still remember watching Frank hit.
The Orioles beat the Dodgers four straight in that series, and it was one of those where you knew the Dodgers were in trouble right away. In the top of the first inning of Game 1, Frank Robinson hit a two-run home run off Don Drysdale, who, along with Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal, was one of the top right-handed pitchers in the game at the time. Then, in Game 4, Frank hit a second home run off Drysdale.
That home run accounted for the only run in the game as the Orioles won the game 1-0 and finished off the sweep to win the World Series.
Frank put together one of the great seasons in the history of the game at the plate in 1966. He won the Triple Crown (.316/49/122), AL MVP, World Series MVP and, of course, the World Series. There was no Divisional Series or LCS in 1966 — it was just the best team from each league facing off in the World Series — so it was a little harder to be Mr. October in that day. But the way Frank was hitting that season, it’s probably best they just got right to the point and got the World Series over with. Nobody was going to stop him.
But somehow, when the conversation of the greatest hitters of all time come up — especially clutch hitters in the postseason — his name seems to be one that’s left out.
It shouldn’t be.
When I talk about clutch hitters, I have to include Thurman Munson.
Not only was he a tremendous hitter, but he hit in front of me in the Yankees lineup, so I probably talked to him more during big games than anyone else. Before at-bats, we would talk in the on-deck circle about who was pitching and what he and I were going to do together to drive in a run.
There was a game against the Dodgers in the 1977 World Series at Yankee Stadium where a right-handed pitcher was on the mound, and since Thurman was a right-handed hitter and I was left-handed, he said to me, “How do you hit the left-hander that might come in to face you?”
“I hit him okay.”
“Okay, then I’m going to move the runner over so you can get him in.”
And then another time, the Red Sox had a guy name Andy Hassler — who was really tough on me — on the mound, and Thurman said, “How do you hit this guy?”
“I don’t hit him very good … ”
“Okay, then I’m going to try to get a hit and score the run.”
And he did.
Thurman was a guy who could do whatever he wanted at the plate. He may not have hit the longball as often as I did, but he got as many clutch hits as I did when we played together — maybe more.
I remember in Game 3 of the ALCS in 1978 against a guy named Doug Bird for the Royals. We had one of those talks in the on-deck circle. Thurman didn’t hit Bird that well, but I did. There was a runner on first base, so Thurman was going to just try and move him over so I could bring him in. He had the ability to hit the ball to right field and get a base hit, and if he missed getting a hit, he would advance the runner. We were down by a run, and all he was trying to do was make solid contact. He hit a home run to left-center over the 430-foot sign at Yankee Stadium to give us a one-run lead.
This is a guy who hit .357 in the postseason in his career and got big hit after big hit, and I was lucky enough to have a front-row seat.
There aren’t a lot of guys who were as clutch as Thurman Munson.
The neat thing about the guys from my era is that I got to know them and became good friends with a lot of them. More recently, I’ve still had the opportunity to meet and get to know some of the best hitters in the game, but more than anything, I get to be a fan. I watch the games on TV, and I enjoy it when a Daniel Murphy or another Mr. October candidate becomes that clutch guy during a postseason run — that guy every team fears when he steps into the batter’s box.
And when you talk about the guys in recent years who fit that mold, there’s really only one place to start.
In postseason history, Derek Jeter has the most hits (200), the most doubles (32), is tied for the most triples (5) and has the third-most home runs (20). He’s also the all-time postseason leader in games played and plate appearances — which helps those other stats — but you could give a guy all the opportunities in the world in the postseason, and most guys won’t rise to the occasion.
Derek Jeter always rose to the occasion.
Derek wasn’t a home run hitter, but he hit 260 in his 20-year career, and so many of those home runs came in big spots, whether they were against the Red Sox or in playoff games. He just had a knack for hitting home runs in big moments. He didn’t have great power, but he always seemed to find a little extra when it mattered most.
The one home run that comes to mind, of course, is the one he hit in Game 4 of the 2001 World Series. Major League Baseball took a week off that season after the events of September 11th, which pushed the postseason schedule back. Game 4 fell on October 31st and went into extra innings, so when Derek went to the plate in the bottom of the 10th, the clock had just hit midnight, officially making it November 1st, the first time Major League Baseball had ever been played in November.
And he hit the game-winning and series-tying home run that earned him the nickname “Mr. November.”
It’s kind of funny. You wouldn’t say Derek had great power, great speed or a great arm, and he certainly wasn’t the fastest guy. But he was a winner and a leader, which elevated everything else about him and made the whole of his ability so much greater than the sum of his attributes. For that reason, he’s recognized as one of the great players of his era. Some call him the greatest.
When the postseason came and he would just get big hit after big hit in the clutch, it just reinforced his greatness.
If there is such a thing as the “clutch gene,” Derek Jeter — and all these guys I mention here — have it.
Manny Ramirez was a tremendous performer in the clutch. He was pretty unbelievable. He was so cool and relaxed at the plate that he almost looked like he slept between pitches. Never any angst.
Whether you’re talking about the game-winning home run in Game 5 of the 2003 ALDS, the walk-off home run in Game 2 of the 2007 ALDS or the 2004 World Series, where he won MVP, all Manny did was get big hits when it mattered most, especially in the postseason. He’s the all-time leader in postseason home runs with 29. That’s partly because, like Derek Jeter, he played in the modern era of the expanded playoffs — a luxury the guys from my era didn’t have — but he’s another guy who’s made the most of his opportunities to get big hits in clutch postseason moments.
He did much of that in Boston, but a lot of people forget that when he left Boston in 2008, he went straight to Los Angeles and picked up right where he left off in the postseason. In eight postseason games that year, he hit four home runs and drove in 11 runs. He hit .520 combined in those two series.
Here’s a perfect example of the kind of hitter Manny was: In that Cubs series in that 2008 postseason, he got completely fooled by a pitch and got caught way out on his front foot. But one thing about him was that he always kept his body in the hitting area for a long time, keeping his hands back and his body in position to hit. And because he was always in hitting position and he was so powerful, even though he was fooled on this particular pitch, he still had enough left to hit the ball into the left-center field bleachers.
The execution on that home run was just an awesome exhibition of hitting that I’ll never forget. If my team is in a clutch situation, the guy I want at the plate is the guy who can get completely fooled on a pitch, but somehow still go down and get it and hit it out of the ballpark.
Manny Ramirez is that guy.
If there’s a list of great clutch hitters, I think you have to include David Ortiz, and the reason is pretty simple. If you look at the other guys — the George Bretts and the Derek Jeters — they always presented the image of humility. They’re tremendously confident in their ability, but they’re gentlemen, and the presentation can fool you sometimes into underestimating them.
Ortiz has a bravado that comes with him — a presence — and it’s partially because of his size. He’s listed at 6’3’’ and 230 pounds, but if you’ve ever seen him up close, he’s probably closer to 6’4’’ and 250, and he flaunts it. He’s got great attitude.
When he steps into the batter’s box in a clutch situation, it just feels different. He knows he’s a threat, and everyone else does, too.
His success speaks for itself.
He was the MVP in that 2004 ALCS when the Red Sox came back from the 0-3 deficit to beat the Yankees in seven games, and he hit the walk-off home run in Game 4 that started the comeback.
He went on to finish that series with three home runs and 11 RBI, and with 17 career postseason home runs and 60 career postseason RBI, he’s a guy who can hit the longball at any moment and puts runs on the board, and he does it when his team’s back is against the wall. That, along with his bravado, makes him one of the most feared postseason hitters ever.
There aren’t any of these types of guys left in this postseason. I haven’t seen one. The guys on this list were no one-hit wonders. There have been some tremendous performances this year, but none of these guys are approaching that Mr. October territory just yet. It takes more than just one clutch postseason to reach that level.
I think we all love to see guys step up in big moments, no matter who it is. There’s still a lot of baseball left to play in this World Series, and we’ll see who can step and be that clutch guy when the opportunity presents itself.
Whoever it is going to be, we’ll all be watching.