On January 9—this year by the calendar but generations in the past, emotionally and culturally—the Tampa Bay Rays traded pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore to the Cardinals for slugger José Martínez, an exchange of supplemental draft picks, and a fairly anonymous rookie fourth outfielder. Martínez was an offensive game-breaker for St. Louis in last year’s playoffs, contributing seven hits in 13 plate appearances for a club that otherwise struggled to get on base. His titanic defensive weaknesses and struggles against right-handed pitching kept him from being an everyday player for the Cardinals, but for a Tampa Bay team that platoons heavily at the corners and plays in the American League, he seemed like he could be a useful addition to the lineup.
Indeed, the Rays did get their offensive linchpin in that trade, but not in the form of Martínez, who lasted all of 24 games in St. Petersburg before being shipped over to the Cubs at the trade deadline. Instead, it was the fourth outfielder, diminutive 25-year-old Cuban Randy Arozarena, who grew into Tampa Bay’s postseason hero.
Amazing how much things can change after 10 months, a shipping container full of chicken and rice, and tens of thousands of push-ups. Arozarena is hitting .382/.433/.855 this postseason and has reached base in 13 of his 14 starts. He is, to quote a phrase from Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson, “the straw that stirs the drink.”
Among players with at least 30 at-bats this postseason, Arozarena is first in batting average, fourth in OBP, and first in slugging percentage. His seven home runs lead all batters, as do his 14 runs scored. Arozarena is technically still rookie-eligible, and though the sum total of his postseason experience to this point was five hitless games for the Cardinals last year, he’s already second all time in career postseason slugging percentage. He won ALCS MVP honors last week, and a post-ALDS dance-off against teammate Brett Phillips.
It’s clear by now that Arozarena is the breakout star of the 2020 postseason, and that he’s been the best position player of the playoffs to this point. But how does his run stack up against the best ever?
Arozarena enters the World Series within striking distance of several postseason records. He’s one bomb away from tying the single-postseason home run record, five hits from tying the single-postseason hits record, and seven runs scored from tying the single-postseason runs record.
But as Arozarena gears up for an assault on the record books, it’s worth taking a moment to discuss the impact of playing time on postseason statistics. Among the top 10 marks for batting average, OBP, and slugging percentage for a single postseason, all were recorded by players who either didn’t play in the World Series, or who only played in the World Series. For instance: The all-time single-postseason records for batting average and OBP belong to Lloyd McClendon, who went 8-for-11 with four walks in the 1992 NLCS. If the Pirates had advanced, McClendon, a career .244 hitter, would almost certainly have seen his rate stats drop precipitously.
By rate metrics alone, the best postseason ever probably belongs to Lou Gehrig, who went 6-for-11 with four home runs, six walks, and no strikeouts in the 1928 World Series. Babe Ruth went 10-for-16 with three homers and three doubles that same series; it therefore will surprise no one to learn that the Yankees won in a sweep.
But it’s just not possible to keep up that pace over two rounds, let alone three or four, as the modern playoff schedule demands. Through his first five playoff games this year, Arozarena was, in fact, hitting almost as well as Ruth and Gehrig did in 1928: .600/.636/1.250. That would’ve been good for sixth all time in playoff OPS. Arozarena is nowhere near those numbers now; in fact, he’s currently on a 3-for-16 skid that’s been obscured by the fact that all three of those hits have been home runs. But it’d be ridiculous to assert that he’s somehow having a worse postseason than before because he’s got a .944 OPS over a period in which his team has won two series.
And as Arozarena threatens the counting stat records, it’s important to remember that this postseason has given him more opportunities to do so. Gehrig and Ruth could play a maximum of seven postseason games a year; between 2012 and 2019, a player could suit up for as many as 20. Nobody’s ever actually done this; even in the wild-card era, the record for games played in a single postseason is 18. But thanks to two extra games in this year’s wild-card round, on top of the ALDS and ALCS having both gone the distance, Arozarena has played 14 games before the World Series has even started. Unless the series ends in a sweep or he gets hurt or benched, Arozarena will break the games-played record this year. So will Joey Wendle, Willy Adames, and Brandon Lowe, for what it’s worth; but because Arozarena is higher up in the lineup, he’s almost certain to finish this run with the most plate appearances in a single postseason in history.
A purely statistical reading of Arozarena’s postseason, therefore, has to be viewed in context. His impressive counting stats are the result of more games, as are his comparative weaknesses in rate stats. Any playoff run in the discussion for “best playoffs ever” has to take both into account. One example: Carlos Beltrán in 2004. That year, Beltrán hit .435/.536/1.022 in 56 plate appearances, with eight home runs and six stolen bases in six attempts.
What Beltrán didn’t have that year, however, was a single World Series plate appearance. The early rounds are for building up numbers, while the World Series is for building a legacy. In 1977, Jackson hit .160 through the Yankees’ first eight playoff games. But all anyone remembers is what he did in the last three games of that postseason: 7-for-11 with five home runs and eight runs scored, including three dingers in the clincher, to earn the sobriquet “Mr. October.” In 2014, Pablo Sandoval set a single-season playoff record with 26 hits, but ask anyone what his best postseason performance was and they’ll say it was 2012, when the Panda had 24 hits overall, as well as a three-homer game of his own in the World Series.
There is, of course, a way to quantify World Series impact: championship win probability. Just as win probability measures a given play’s impact on winning a game, championship win probability measures impact on winning the World Series. The record for cWPA in a single postseason belongs to David Freese in 2011, when he increased the Cardinals’ cWPA by 84.5 percent. About 73 percentage points’ worth of that came in games 6 and 7 of the World Series—really, in the span of three consecutive plate appearances.
Arozarena’s cWPA this year, 9.38, is tops among Rays position players. But Cody Bellinger, who’s having a good postseason but not a great one (.250/.365/.545), has a cWPA of 12.40. Almost all of that positive impact is tied to Bellinger’s game-winning home run in Game 7 of the NLCS, a hit that moved the championship needle more than any other this season so far.
It’s possible—perhaps not even unlikely—that we will not even remember Arozarena as this postseason’s standout hitter. Corey Seager, for instance, is hitting .298/.358/.766 with 13 runs scored and six home runs. If he has a big World Series while Arozarena struggles, it will be Seager who finishes with not only the greater impact on the title but the better numbers overall. Everything is still to play for, both in terms of the title and Arozarena’s professional reputation.
The only thing we can say with certainty now is that Arozarena has been phenomenal up to and through the ALCS—as good as anyone realistically can be up until the World Series. If he finishes this postseason with a good World Series run and a title, this will go down as one of the all-time great postseason runs. But only then.