Baseball is a unique sport in many ways. Unlike most other pastimes, there is no clock to keep the time and the defending team is the one who holds the ball. It’s also different from many games in that simply having one of the league’s elite players does not necessarily mean your team is going to be good. Take LeBron James in basketball, for example. In every season since 2005-06, his team has reached at least his conference semifinals, and his team has reached the championship series for six straight years.
Compare that to Mike Trout, who is essentially baseball’s version of LeBron James. His club has only reached the playoffs once during his five-year career and currently sits a whopping 20 games below .500. Trout isn’t alone, either. There are plenty of top Major Leaguers who have hardly gotten a taste of postseason play, if at all. Let’s take a look at the guys who have had the toughest luck of them all. These are the top three active players (both hitters and pitchers) in rWAR who have less than 50 plate appearances or 30 innings pitched in the postseason. Will they ever get their chance?
Regular season: 6,743 PA, .310/.393/.447, 360 2B, 28 3B, 129 HR, 800 RBI, 126 wRC+ 50.2 rWAR
Postseason: 39 PA, .286/.359/.314, 1 2B, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 0-9 record
We kick off our list with Joe Mauer, our most “seasoned” postseason hitter in the top three with 39 plate appearances in his postseason career. Mauer’s Minnesota Twins made the playoffs in 2006, 2009, and 2010, thanks in large part to prosperous seasons from Mauer, who put up 5.8, 7.8, and 5.9 rWAR, respectively. Unfortunately, the Twins were swept in three games all three times, so Mauer has yet to experience what it’s like to win a postseason game.
The question now is whether Mauer will get another shot before the end of his career. At 33 years old, he is no longer the perennial All-Star he was during his heyday, but his 102 wRC+ across 1,683 PA since 2014 and 109 wRC+ in 499 PA this season suggests he can still be a useful player. The bad news for Mauer is that he’s under contract through 2018, his age-35 season, with a Twins team that currently has the worst record in the American League. The good news is that same Twins team was 83-79 just a year ago and has a lot of good, young talent—Max Kepler, Miguel Sano, Kennys Vargas, Byron Buxton, and Jose Berrios, to name a few—who could help to right the ship in a hurry. For Mauer’s sake, I hope they do.
Regular season: 3,418 PA, .305/.402/.558, 170 2B, 35 3B, 163 HR, 479 RBI, 167 wRC+, 46.2 rWAR
Postseason: 15 PA, .083/.267/.333, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 0-3 record
Poor Mike Trout. Since his first nearly full season in 2012, he leads the Majors in overall rWAR by 13.4 over the next closest position player (Robinson Cano), has led the AL in rWAR in each individual full season from 2012-15, is doing so again in 2016, and is on pace to join Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Alex Rodriguez, and Mickey Mantle as the only players with four or more seasons with 9+ rWAR in their careers. He turned 25 less than three weeks ago. What has all of this gotten him? One measly MVP award and one trip to the postseason in which his Los Angeles Angels were swept in three games. Ironically, the 2014 season in which he won his MVP and made his trip to the playoffs was the “worst” season of his career with a wRC+ of 166 and an rWAR of 7.9. That’s the low point of his tenure in the Show.
Anyway, the question at hand here is whether Trout will ever make it back to the postseason for a chance at some real success there. He obviously isn’t in a great situation right now, signed through 2020 with a 54-74 Angels team that also has one of the league’s worst farm systems and has gotten very little Major League production from players under 25. That isn’t the end of the world for Trout, though. Even if he doesn’t make it back to the postseason in any of the next four seasons with the Angels, he then becomes a free agent at 29 years old, when he is likely still one of, if not the premier player in the league. Given how much time he still has ahead of him—he could realistically continue to play at an All-Star level for 10 more years—one has to think he’ll find his way back to the postseason eventually. It would be a tragedy if he doesn’t.
Regular season: 5,286 PA, .311/.425/.532, 300 2B, 16 3B, 212 HR, 707 RBI, 156 wRC+, 45.8 rWAR
Postseason: 37 PA, .250/.324/.250, 0 XBH, 1 RBI, 2-7 record
Last but not least, we come to Joey Votto, the only hitter here with a playoff win under his belt. Votto’s Cincinnati Reds reached the playoffs in 2010, 2012, and 2013, never making it past the division series. They looked poised to reach the NLCS in 2012 after taking the first two games in San Francisco against the Giants, but then collapsed and lost three straight at home as the Giants went on to win the World Series. Nearly 33 years old, Votto continues to put up great numbers with a 150 wRC+ in 523 PA so far in 2016; that's on the heels of a 173 wRC+ in 695 PA in 2015, the best number of his career in a year he qualified for the batting title.
Will Votto ever get another chance? He’s starting to get older but so far has been able to maintain his elite level of play. That, obviously, is good, but Father Time is undefeated and will undoubtedly remain so in Votto’s case. The question is when, not if, his decline will begin. Currently signed to a rebuilding Reds team through the 2023 season with a full no-trade clause and public comments stating that he has no intention of playing elsewhere, it’s quite possible that we’ve seen the last of Votto’s days playing in the postseason. Even if he does make it back, it’s very possible he’ll be there as a role player rather than the star he is now.
Regular season: 2,380 IP, 152-105, 3.12 ERA, 128 ERA+, 8.5 SO/9, 2.6 BB/9, 52.1 rWAR
Since entering the league in 2005, Felix Hernandez is second among big league starting pitchers with 52.1 rWAR and is first in innings pitched and strikeouts. Sadly, all of his excellence has added up to exactly zero playoff appearances. He and his Seattle Mariners came closest in 2014 when they finished 87-75 and missed the second wild card spot by just a single game. Unlike the rest of the teams/players on this list, King Felix and the Mariners are also in the hunt this season, currently sitting at 68-60, two games out of a wild card berth.
If Hernandez, one of the best pitchers of our era, is ever going to get a crack at the playoffs, this year might be his best chance. At just 30, he isn’t at an advanced age, but the wear and tear that comes from leading the league in innings pitched for a decade is clearly taking its toll. Hernandez’s average fastball velocity is down nearly 1.5 mph to 90.4, by far the lowest of his career. His SO/9 of 7.73, BB/9 of 3.67 and SO/BB ratio of 2.10 are all the worst of his career. He’s also sporting career worsts in FIP (4.32), xFIP (4.21), and SIERA (4.34). Given that he’s pretty clearly in decline and the Mariners’ other top contributors include Robinson Cano (33), Hisashi Iwakuma (35), and Nelson Cruz (36), if it doesn’t happen now, it may not happen at all.
Regular season: 1,061 IP, 72-47, 2.95 ERA, 138 ERA+, 10.1 SO/9, 2.1 BB/9, 30.9 rWAR
Sale, like Trout, is on this list because he has been very good in a short amount of time. After pitching in relief in 2010-11, Sale has been one of the league’s most dominant starters since the 2012 season (he’s third in rWAR among starting pitchers since then), but his Chicago White Sox have yet to make the playoffs with him on the roster. That 2012 season is the closest Sale has been, as his White Sox finished 85-77 and missed out on the AL Central crown by only three games.
Also like Trout, Sale would seem to have a longer remaining shelf life than the other players on this list due to being only 27 years old. Unlike Trout, however, pitchers in general typically have a shorter shelf life than position players, and that’s working against Sale here. In fact, we may already be starting to see signs of decline. After putting up 10.3 SO/9 his first four years as a starter, that number has dipped down to 9.1 so far this season while his fastball velocity has dropped from an average of 94.5 mph in 2015 down to 92.9 mph this season. (That 92.9 mph, however, is more in line with his career average, so it may be by design.)
Under team control through the 2019 season, Sale has already been the subject of trade rumors. That the club is apparently willing to move him to a contender if they aren’t in it themselves would seem to make it more likely that he’ll get his shot in the postseason.
Regular season: 1,991 IP, 147-92, 3.54 ERA, 114 ERA+, 7.1 SO/9, 2.4 BB/9, 35.7 rWAR
Postseason: 27⅔ IP, 2-1, 2.60 ERA, 9.1 SO/9, 3.9 BB/9
Weaver is perhaps the most surprising name on this list. Many of us now think about the guy who throws his fastball an average of 82.8 mph these days, but don’t forget he had eight consecutive seasons with an ERA+ of 103 or better from 2006-13, as well as three straight top five finishes in Cy Young voting from 2010-12. He also has made the postseason four different times with the Los Angeles Angels, the most appearances of any player on this list. In 2009, he even got to experience the ALCS, and he’s also the only player on the list who can claim that. However, he personally has thrown fewer than 30 playoff innings and has yet to make it to the World Series.
Those, quite frankly, may be the only playoff appearances Weaver has in his career. He’s a free agent after the season and has been well below replacement level with stuff that clearly is no longer good enough to get big-league hitters out. The one thing he has going for him is the extraordinarily weak free agent class this winter, so it’s possible someone gives him a shot in 2017. The odds that team is playoff caliber, however, are not high. His days as a big leaguer are most likely nearing their conclusion.
In baseball, having the best player doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have the best team. It doesn’t even guarantee that you’ll have a good team. It’s one of the many things that ultimately makes it such a great sport, but it’s also the reason many of the league’s best players are often left out in the cold.
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Ryan Freemyer is a contributing writer at Beyond the Box Score. He also writes for Purple Row, SB Nation's Colorado Rockies blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @RFreemyer.