As for hitting with runners in scoring position, the past six World Series teams ranked first, first, 16th, third, fifth and 10th. That trend would seem to work against Atlanta (16th in the NL) and the Yankees (11th in the AL), both of whom have had trouble hitting in key spots. The teams that best fit the profile of a rally team this October? Keep an eye on the Cardinals (fourth in fewest strikeouts, fourth in RISP) and the Rangers (fourth, third) again, as well as the Tigers (sixth, first) and Giants (first, sixth).
"I think you want hitters in the middle of your lineup who are flat-out great hitters, not just power hitters," says Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. "What makes the Giants so tough is that they have two guys in the middle, Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, who hit good pitching and are tough outs. They're not high-strikeout guys. Posey is such a great pure hitter, and Sandoval is so tough because even when you don't throw him strikes, he still can barrel it up. A pitch you would normally throw when you're pitching around a guy isn't bad enough when you're pitching to Sandoval. He's like Vlad Guerrero that way: tough to get out even outside the zone."
The Giants have hit the fewest home runs in baseball but have produced the sixth-most runs in the NL by spraying the ball through gaps, particularly at home in spacious AT&T Park. Though the club lost outfielder Melky Cabrera, one of its top hitters, to a 50-game suspension on Aug. 15 after he flunked a drug test for using synthetic testosterone (his ban will end after San Francisco's fifth postseason game, but the club said last week he is not welcome to return), the offense improved over the past two months.
"When [Angel] Pagan went back to the leadoff spot and Scutaro took over the number 2 spot, that's when things really clicked," Sabean says. "And of course, there's Buster. He's been huge in the second half."
Posey is the favorite to win the NL Most Valuable Player Award, what with his .334 batting average, 23 home runs and 100 RBIs and the Comeback Player of the Year Award, after he missed the last four months of last season after breaking his leg in a collision at home plate. Posey has been particularly productive this season in the second half (a .389 average after the All-Star break), with runners on base (.355) and with runners in scoring position (.348). Posey is such a difficult out that with runners in scoring position, he has more walks (30) than strikeouts (25). Though the average major league hitter bats .178 with two strikes, Posey hits a robust .264, fourth best in the majors. (The Braves' Martin Prado leads with a .290 average.)
"He's one of the toughest outs in baseball because of his swing path," Sabean says of Posey. "He's very direct to the ball. He doesn't mind hitting with two strikes."
Sabermetricians argue that clutch hitting is not a defined, repeatable skill measurable the way power or speed are. But Mozeliak, a strong proponent of using advanced metrics, has come to believe that certain players do have a knack for producing in such spots. "If you watch the game enough, it does seem like an innate ability," he says. "I understand that the hard-core community says it's not and that in time it averages out. But you know what? Sometimes you don't get enough time to see if it evens out."
It may be that hitting style also helps define whether a player is "clutch." For instance, the Cardinals' lineup is loaded with hitters who put the ball in play and hit to all fields, such as Freese, leftfielder Matt Holliday and catcher—and MVP candidate—Yadier Molina. Pull hitters tend to hit for lower averages and sacrifice strikeouts for power. St. Louis has no extreme pull hitters. "We felt like we could pound them in last year," says Texas G.M. Jon Daniels. "It's a team that looked for the ball out over the plate, the outer third. That was part of our approach: make them pull the ball. We didn't do a great job of that."
The Rangers, despite the free-swinging ways of slugger Josh Hamilton, are another dangerous rally team because of the depth of their lineup and their ability to make contact. Says Daniels, "We do look for players who are tough outs, who put the ball in play. [Hitting with] runners in scoring position, I think, is a hard thing to target when acquiring players. But whether you're from the school that says it's clutch or luck, the bigger issue may be strikeouts, especially in an era where the power is down somewhat."
Assuming the Tigers, who had a three-game lead over the White Sox in the AL Central through Sunday, make it into the postseason, they could be a perfect fit for the tournament. They put the ball in play, hit well with runners in scoring position and best satisfy Mattingly's criteria for anchoring the lineup with two tough outs: Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. With three games to play, Cabrera led the AL in batting average, home runs and RBIs, putting him in position to win the first Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Cabrera and Fielder have combined to hit 73 home runs, the second most by teammates, behind only Hamilton and Adrian Beltre of the Rangers, who have hit 79. (Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson of the Yankees have hit 70.) But the Detroit tandem has struck out only 181 times while hitting .346 with runners in scoring position, making it more dangerous in rally situations than the Yankees' pair (286 strikeouts, .254 RISP) or the Rangers' duo (236, .282).