Mario Mendoza carved out a nine-year major league career from 1974 to 1982 as a defense-first shortstop and second baseman. He received a career-high 401 at-bats with the Seattle Mariners in 1979 and retired after hitting .118/.118/.118 in 12 games for the Texas Rangers in 1982.
His career was rather unspectacular, but he has become part of baseball history. The Mendoza Line is commonly used as shorthand to say that even the game’s best defensive players have to hit above .200 to stay in the majors.
As the Minnesota Twins enter the 2021 season, they carry the burden of their own stretch of futility. An 18-game postseason losing streak hangs over the franchise. Their last playoff win came in October of 2004 before the invention of the iPhone. Joe Mauer was a rookie. This means that they will have gone 200 months since their last postseason victory come July of this year.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the LeCroy Line.
Matt LeCroy took over as the Twins’ designated hitter in 2003. A “sandwich pick” in the 1997 MLB Entry Draft, LeCroy hit .287/.342/.490 with 17 HR and 64 RBI in his first full season as the DH. But this was also the year David Ortiz left Minnesota and became a baseball legend with the Boston Red Sox.
If Ortiz had stayed in Minnesota, there would be no postseason losing streak for the Twins. They would have had a lineup capable of an all-out assault on the white curtain at the Metrodome if they had put Ortiz between Mauer and Justin Morneau.
Consider the 2004 season. While the Twins lost three consecutive games to the New York Yankees in the ALDS — the beginning of the Yankee Curse — Ortiz was coming off his first All-Star appearance, hitting .301/.380/.603 with 41 HR and 139 RBI. While the dimensions at Fenway Park helped, there’s no reason Ortiz couldn’t have put up similar numbers over the baggie.
Ortiz couldn’t have helped that the Twins blew two late-inning games in that series, but he could have blown the game open with his prowess at the plate. Instead, they lost in four games to the Yankees, and the playoff losing streak began. They essentially established themselves as what they are going into this season, a good regular season team that can’t win once they’re in the playoffs. The LeCroy Line had been formed.
In the 2006 season, the Twins fought their way back from a 12.5-game deficit to win an American League Central Division title. This time, the Twins’ offense struggled against the Oakland Athletics, scoring seven runs in the first of five consecutive postseason sweeps.
Francisco Liriano’s injury is one of the biggest “What Ifs” in Twins history, but Ortiz’s absence is also something that stings. Ortiz hit .287/.413/.636 with 54 HR and 137 RBI in 2006 and was in the middle of a five-year stretch where he finished in the top five in MVP voting.
Ortiz finished third in MVP voting that season while Morneau took home the award after hitting .321/.375/.559 with 34 HR and 130 RBI. If the Twins had both of these players in the same lineup, there’s a chance Minnesota could have stood up to the Detroit Tigers, who swept the Athletics in the ALCS.
Their next postseason appearance came in 2009 when they went head-to-head with the Yankees again. Mauer was coming off a historic MVP season, Target Field was set to open the following year, and the Twins had one of the biggest victories in franchise history in Game 163 against the Tigers.
While Ortiz didn’t have his best season, having a veteran bat in the lineup would have helped against the Yankees, who once again swept the Twins and sent them to an early offseason.
After that 2009 loss, Ortiz and the Twins went in separate directions. Between 2010-2016, Ortiz hit .292/.383/.562 averaging 32 HR and 100 RBI per season. Even at age 40, he led the league in doubles (48), RBI (127), slugging percentage (.620), and OPS (1.021) during the 2016 season.
While Ortiz was getting better with age, the Twins slipped to the American League Central’s basement. After another postseason sweep to the Yankees in 2010, the Twins averaged 94 losses per season from 2011-16. In 2016, the Twins trotted out ByungHo Park as their designated hitter, who hit .191/.275/.409 with 12 HR and 24 RBI.
The LeCroy Line has lived on after Ortiz’s retirement.
It doesn’t take a sabermetrics degree to realize that the Twins would have been a better team with Ortiz, but the futility in the 2000s has contributed to where they are today. Under Rocco Baldelli, they’ve become a great regular season team worth following every day. But when they make the playoffs, fans immediately expect the bats to go cold, the bullpen to implode, or for an umpire to call a blatant double down the line a foul ball. Even under a new regime, with a new set of players, the LeCroy Line remains.
At this point, winning a playoff game is much like Mendoza’s quest to bat over .200. The Twins need to find a way to break through the LeCroy Line to free themselves from the curse of letting go of Ortiz. They need to do more than qualify for the playoffs. They need to prove that they belong there.