Derek Jeter’s postseason heroics are legendary in the hearts of Yankee fans and also, literally, in the history books. Through a whopping 158 games, he had a slash line of .308/.374/.465 with a .838 OPS, exactly 200 hits, and 20 home runs. Most players, especially these days, don’t retire with essentially a full season’s worth of postseason games. But Jeter did, and his large sample size is essentially in line with his regular season stats that made him an obvious first ballot member of the Hall of Fame.
Jeter’s been done as a player for a long time now, though, and new playoff stars always will come to fill the stage. And like it or not, one of those players has been the Houston Astros’ José Altuve. Already, the second baseman has appeared in 77 playoff games (ahead of Sunday night’s World Series Game 5), hitting for a .288/.364/.556 line. Notably, his 23 home runs in the playoffs is already second all-time with Altuve recently passing Jeter on the list—it’s quite possible, even likely, that he’ll pass Manny Ramirez’s record of 29. He’s also already ninth on the list of all-time postseason hits.
Could Altuve be a better postseason performer than Jeter? First of all, let’s take it at face value that what the Astros said about not cheating in the playoffs is true, in order to compare their stats on an even plane (yes, I’m aware your mileage may vary on this).
Through Saturday’s World Series game, FanGraphs has Altuve’s playoffs wRC+ as 147, with 100 being league average. Jeter’s is 121—still a great performer, but not quite as high. Of course, Altuve’s could go down with a greater sample size. Jeter’s playoff career BABIP was also .361, which is fairly high but not much more so than his career mark of .350. Altuve’s is .280, well below his career average of .329. That suggests, perhaps, that with some better luck he could be even higher up the postseason career leaders lists.
Metrics aside, both infielders have shown a similar knack for big and iconic plays in the playoffs. Jeter’s “flip play” and the walk-off home run in Game 4 of the 2001 World Series are famous for good reasons. For Altuve, his big hits have unfortunately come at the expense of the Yankees more than once. His walk-off home run off of Aroldis Chapman in Game Six of the 2019 ALCS stands as an especially bitter example.
Considering their consistent success in reaching the playoffs in recent years, Altuve seems like he’ll have plenty more seasons to pad his postseason stats—or, in theory, have his hitting line fall due to lack of production, but based on his career so far that doesn’t seem likely.
Altuve does have the stain of the Astros cheating scandal on him forever, while Jeter was able to get through a long career in New York City shockingly clean of controversy. Many MLB fans could say Jeter is better in the playoffs for that reason alone, and that would be fair. But based on numbers alone, Altuve could already be considered as one of the absolute best when the lights are brightest. Another Astros World Series—one clear of scandal—could make that even clearer based on stats. When it comes to their total legacy in baseball, though, it seems likely Jeter will always remain on top.