This time of year, the web is flooded with highlight compilations of the greatest buzzer-beaters in March Madness history. It's a great time on the calendar for basketball, but is there any relation to baseball, a sport with no clock dictating the end of a game?
Baseball does have its own version of the buzzer-beater. In fact, in the last game that counted, we had the table set for a similar kind of walk-off moment, one that would have put any Christian Laettner turnaround shot to shame. That was Game 7 of the World Series, with the Indians down a run with two outs in the bottom of the 10th. Rajai Davis was on first, and up to the plate, with a chance to steal a championship, stepped ... Michael Martinez.
This was not ideal. Martinez was a 34-year-old journeyman utility player with a .197 career average and a professional record that reads like the directory of an atlas. But Terry Francona's bench was empty, and that left Martinez to make his mark on history by hitting a slow bouncer to the Cubs' Kris Bryant for the final out.
Given the option, Francona would certainly have picked a different hitter for that Series-deciding spot. His hypothetical decision would be either straightforward or incredibly complicated, depending on how you frame the issue.
The easy answer is that you simply want your best hitter up. But by factoring in clutch performance, we might detect differences in performance that complicate what seems like an obvious decision. Let's go through this on a team-by-team basis.
Goldschmidt is the perfect representative of our main point. His baseline hitting ranks third in all of baseball over the past three seasons. His regressed clutch rating, however, is in the bottom two percentile. Nevertheless, if given the choice, would you expect Torey Lovullo to send up, say, A.J. Pollock with the game on the line instead of Goldschmidt?
Freeman has an even worse clutch rating than Goldschmidt. Still, over the past three years, he has led the Braves with 323 runs created. Second? Nick Markakis at 168. Freeman would be the guy every time.
This one's sure to be controversial because of the awesome presence of Manny Machado on the other side of Baltimore's infield. However, not only has Davis created more runs the past three years (273 to 269), but also his clutch score rates in the top percentile across the majors. Nevertheless, the trends clearly are in Machado's favor, and he would probably be Buck Showalter's pick.
We're considering only active players, but in case you're wondering: Yes, David Ortiz would be the guy if he had not retired. Betts is a worthy successor.
Kris Bryant might top this list with one more season under his belt, but it won't be easy. Rizzo ranks second overall by these measures: in the top percentile in overall win probability added and in the top two percentile by clutch.
Abreu ranks poorly by clutch, but so does Chicago's second-best hitter in WPA, Todd Frazier.
There's no contest here. Votto is not only far and away Cincinnati's best offensive player, but also his OPS in high-leverage spots (1.065) is 80 points better than his overall career mark.
As it turns out, the answer for Francona is the newcomer Encarnacion, who edges injury returnee Michael Brantley. Still, expect to see Francisco Lindor's name in this slot sooner rather than later.
Arenado is simply good at everything.
Another no-brainer, though J.D. Martinez would be the pick if he were on a number of other teams.
Altuve faces stiff competition in the coming years from younger teammates such as Carlos Correa, but he seems a perfect choice, given not only his bottom-line production but also his ability to handle the bat. Nevertheless, his career OPS in high-leverage spots is .743, 47 points lower than his overall career mark.
Hosmer has always been a player who can downshift from big, early-count swings to put the ball in play in key spots when needed. His career OPS is .763, but in high-leverage spots, it jumps to .847.
If you need one guy in baseball for an at-bat, it's this one. That's true if we're talking clutch spots, blowout games or batting practice.
Turner doesn't often get credit for how good he is at the plate, but over the past three years, he has been the Dodgers' most valuable hitter. Subjectively speaking, most of us would take Corey Seager, and the numbers might arrive at the same conclusion with a monster sophomore season from the shortstop.
Stanton isn't exactly a surprise choice, but he didn't out-point teammate Christian Yelich by that much. Like many of the big swingers on this list, it's Stanton's overall value that outstrips an iffy clutch metric. However, between Yelich's solid score and Stanton's missed games, the gap is small.
On a very young roster, Braun is the clear choice. More interesting is scanning the list to find the next option. Subjectively, it could be Korea import Eric Thames, but he has no recent big league track record to work with. After that, let's just say you get far down the rankings before you land on Jonathan Villar.
Miguel Sano is the comer here. The big-swinging Dozier has put up prodigious power numbers the past few years but is near the bottom in clutch. His track record makes him the pick, but Sano has just 830 big league plate appearances, and his early clutch score (88th percentile) could make him the choice as soon as this season.
Cespedes is not only the centerpiece of the Mets' lineup, but also his clutch score ranks in the top percentile. No drama here.
Among the Baby Bombers, not even Gary Sanchez has done enough to outrank veteran newcomer Holliday, who is aided by a clutch score in the top two percentile.
Davis has been pretty good in the clutch, despite some unfortunate strike-zone indicators. But he is an abject lesson making the previously mentioned point that it's often about how you define clutch. Davis has an .881 OPS in high-leverage spots, well above his overall mark of .817. By the clutch metric, he's in the 95th percentile. Yet if you're looking only at his small subset of results with two outs and runners in scoring position, he has a .513 OPS. Nevertheless, you wonder whether Bob Melvin might anoint Rajai Davis his go-to clutch hitter based on Game 7 alone.
Maikel Franco should take over this spot soon enough.
The Pirates are an interesting case study. Based on recency, you might want Starling Marte or even Jung Ho Kang. Still, despite an off 2016 season, you know Clint Hurdle would still go with McCutchen when it matters most. The numbers would agree with that pick.
Wil Myers seems to be the trending player in San Diego, but over the past three years, the Padres' top bat has been Solarte. The gap widens when you consider the latter's clutch score, built on a career OPS that rises by 26 points in high-leverage situations.
Of the players on this list, only one has a higher clutch score than the Giants' franchise catcher. He's a pretty good hitter overall, too.
It's a little surprising that Robinson Cano isn't the pick here, but then again, Cruz has hit 127 homers the past three years. Neither batter rates particularly well in clutch. Cruz, in fact, has the worst clutch score on the board. His career OPS in high-leverage situations (.712) pales in comparison to his overall numbers (.915). Yet it's the latter result that carries the day. On this team, manager Scott Servais might go with his gut and take Cano, and it would be hard to blame him.
Carpenter is not just an excellent hitter overall, but also his clutch score for the past three years is the best in baseball. For his career, Carpenter has an .874 OPS in high-leverage situations. The past two years, that mark has been 1.006.
Longoria hasn't been particularly sharp in clutch in recent years, but he's still the default answer to every Rays query. It's like in Trivial Pursuit: If you get a hockey question and don't know the answer, just flip a coin and say Wayne Gretzky or Gordie Howe.
Of course you're going to take the first-ballot Hall of Famer. Still going strong at 37, Beltre had a .952 OPS in high-leverage situations last season.
Donaldson is a fairly easy choice, even though teammate Jose Bautista ranks just five spots behind Donaldson's No. 4 slot on this leaderboard. Donaldson's clutch score ranks in the top 3 percent across the majors.
Harper's clutch numbers have not been great, though it's not enough of a ding to drop him behind a teammate. Daniel Murphy would get the nod if we were measuring off just the past season. But Murphy's overall clutch numbers haven't been elite, either. The real question is who Dusty Baker would pick if given the leeway to pull any player off the bench with the game on the line. Goodness knows these numbers wouldn't influence his decision.