Editor's Note: NESN.com Red Sox reporter Tony Lee will examine one hot-button baseball topic each day in December. On Saturday, he looked at why Roy Halladay is baseball's best big-game pitcher.
There was a time when Boston owned the preeminent clutch hitter in all of baseball, a guy that would be classified as being "in a slump" if he didn’t shatter dreams with extra-inning walk-off shots at least five times a week.
The days of David Ortiz electrifying Fenway Park with game-winners has somewhat faded. He is still a force in the middle of the Red Sox’ lineup, but the dramatic blasts of yesterday are few and far between — Ortiz hit .155 in "late and close" situations in 2010.
If Big Papi is no longer the guy pitchers fear with the game on the line, who is? If you could have any active hitter, who would you want up with the bases loaded and down three runs?
To begin with, you're obviously looking for someone with power as one swing of the bat puts your team on top. Regardless of that aspect, one would want someone who can work a pitcher, or take a walk. The worst that does is pull you within two and put the tying run in scoring position. The third thing you look for is someone who isn’t likely to strike out. Sure, putting the ball in play can result in a double play in certain scenarios, but nothing can come of the K in this situation. Finally, a guy who gets the ball in the air cannot hurt, simply to avoid those rally-killing DP's and to possibly drive in one run from third.
The one guy who fits each criterion and has a loaded resume to back it up is Albert Pujols, a masher who can turn a three-run deficit into a one-run lead in an instant.
To begin with, Pujols, 30, already has 11 career grand slams, including a National League record-tying five in 2009. He is no stranger to game-changing swings (more on that in a minute).
"The Machine" is also systematic in his approach. He had led the NL in walk-to-strikeout ratio four straight years before finishing second to Houston’s Jeff Keppinger in 2010. Without breaking down Keppinger’s campaign, it’s safe to say pitchers would rather see him at the plate than Pujols, whether runners are on or not. For his career Pujols has drawn 268 more walks than strikeouts, a remarkable figure this day and age.
That is a statistic not always mentioned in the same breath as homers, RBIs and OPS, but it often dictates success in such high-pressure situations. Chances are Pujols draws a walk or puts the ball in play, often in the air, the last of our four measures when determining the best guy to have up in such a situation.
Pujols ranked among the NL leaders in fly ball percentage (44.5) last year and was one of a handful of players with a ground ball-to-fly ball ratio of less than 1.0. In those instances when he didn’t get good wood on the ball Pujols would, if there were less than two outs, stay out of the double play and/or give his team a chance to score on a sacrifice fly more often than not (he is often among the leaders in that category as well).
Put it all together and you have a consistent recipe for success, which also bears out in the numbers. This is why Pujols’ monstrous career OPS of 1.050 rises to 1.073 with runners on, to 1.158 with runners in scoring position and to 1.161 with the bases loaded. He is a .352 hitter with a 1.130 OPS in "high-leverage" situations, typically defined as those with increased tension and importance.
So, there you have it. Numbers upon numbers as to why Pujols is the guy you want up when you need runs in a hurry. If you’re not a stats person, just sit back and enjoy the silence.
OK, so the bases weren’t loaded, but who cares? That highlight never fails to delight. Neither does Pujols, especially in the clutch.
If you could have any active hitter, who would you want up with the bases loaded and down three runs? Leave your comments below.
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