It’s the most exciting way for a game to end. It’s the bottom of the ninth (or extra innings) when a bat connects on a pitch for a hit that drives home the game-winning and game-ending run.
A walk-off win.
Wanna know how much the culture of baseball fandom loves walk-off wins? Well, Almost all of baseball’s most famous games end on walk-offs. Think about. The Carlton Fisk game. The Kirk Gibson game. The Bill Mazeroski game. Last year’s World Series gave us the David Freese game. You can find some great games that aren’t walk-offs, but the enduring appeal of the walk-off winner is obvious.
In that spirit, I recently engaged on a project. At the Event Finder at Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index, you can get a list of every walk-off hit since 1948, so I thought I’d look up that info and do some research based on it. Based on playing around with that data, here are 10 things I didn’t know about game-ending hits.
1. Not all game-ending hits are walk-off hits
Far too late into looking through the data, I realized that not all game-ending wins are walk-off wins.
Via B-ref’s Play Index, I have on file over 9,800 wins, but about 330 of them weren’t game-ending hits. Some were hits that ended the game because a runner got thrown out on the bases. Or it was the last out before a rain delay. Throughout the project, I thought I was just looking up walk-off wins, but that isn’t quite what I got. It’s “only” 97 percent of the games I have on file. Eh, close enough.
For the rest of this list, pay close attention to when the article says “game-ending” or when it says “walk-off,” as those phrases aren’t being used interchangeably here but specifically to refer to either the full list or just 97 percent of it.
2. Career leaders: most game-ending hits
Here’s the main reason why it’s fun to look up all the game-ending hits: so you can find out who are the all-time leaders. Here they are:
Hitter Hits Frank Robinson 26 Tony Perez 22 Dusty Baker 21 Andre Dawson 20 Robrto Clemente 20 Brooks Robinson 19 Lou Whitaker 19 Manny Mota 19 Rusty Staub 19
All hail Frank Robinson! He’s easily the 1948-onward champion at the walk-off hit. All 26 of his game-ending hits were walk-off hits, too. He peaked with four in 1959, three of which came in under three weeks in July-August. His next-to-last career hit was a game-winning pinch-hit single in 1976. He had nine walk-off singles, five doubles, and a dozen homers, including a walk-off grand slam in August 1962. Over half of his walk-offs, 15, came in extra innings.
While all of Robinson’s game-enders were walk-offs, the same can’t be said for Tony Perez. He once singled with none on just before a rain delay in a contest that ended in a tie. Another time he doubled only to have the would-be tying run thrown out at the plate to end the game. Thus Perez has “only” 20 walk-off hits.
That means Dusty Baker has the second most walk-off hits with 21. Most notably, Baker had walk-off bases-loaded singles in back-to-back games on May 28-29, 1972. While he’s No. 2, he’s still five behind the leader. All hail Frank Robinson, indeed.
In his playing days, Baker gave fans plenty to cheer about.
That would put Perez in a tie with Roberto Clemente and Andre Dawson with 20 walk-offs, except that Clemente only had 19 walk-offs and one game-ender that didn’t win the game. Among guys on the leaderboard, only one other has a game-ender that didn’t win it, Brooks Robinson.
3. Percentage kings
Most of the guys on the leaderboard above were guys with a ton of hits. Of the top nine guys in game-ending hits, only Clemente had 3,000 hits, but most were over 2,000 hits, usually well over 2,000. Dusty Baker was just under 2,000, with 1,982 career hits. That means slightly over one percent of his career hits were game-ending safeties, an impressive achievement.
There have been over 2,180,000 hits in major league baseball from 1948 onward but barely over 9,800 game-ending hits (and under 9,500 walk-offs). It works out to one game-ending hit per 222.6 hits overall. At that rate, Baker should’ve had nine but instead had more than double that, an impressive achievement.
But of course, Baker’s rate pales in comparison to one other man listed above: Manny Mota, who hit 19 game-ending hits (all walk-offs, too) out of just 1,149 career base knocks. That’s almost four times the number you’d expect.
Ah, yes, but Mota has a trick up his sleeve. He was the all-time grand champion pinch-hitter, allowing him to come up far more often than one would expect with the game on the line.
Mota and Baker are two of only six batters in history with over 1,000 hits and more than one percent of their career hits going for game-enders. Here’s a list of all six:
Batter Game-Enders Total Hits Dusty Baker 21 1981 Manny Mota 19 1149 Hector Lopez 15 1251 Bob Aspromonte 13 1103 Ken McMullen 13 1273 Ryan Zimmerman 12 1049
In every case, every game-ending hit was also a walk-off hit. Ryan Zimmerman hasn’t had any yet this year but had a half-dozen in 2006-07, including two in three days against the Marlins in early July, 2006.
To find someone that tops Mota’s percentage of hits that ended games, you have to go way down to Damon Berryhill. A career .240 hitter, Berryhill was not a career pinch-hitter like Mota, yet he somehow hit 10 game-ending walk-off hits among his 488 career knocks. Go figure. Berryhill is the only person with over 300 career hits who had more than two percent of his hits end games.
To find someone who tops Berryhill, you have to go down all the way to Chris Jones. A National Leaguer in the 1990s, Jones had eight game-ending hits (all walk-offs) out of just 257 career hits. With 1,119 plate appearances in 548 games, Jones was used as a pinch-hitter fairly often, ramping up his totals.
To find someone topping Jones, you have to go all the way down to 109 career hits, where you find Miguel Ojeda and his six game-ending shots. Like Jones, Ojeda averaged just a little over two trips to the plate per game. One of Ojeda’s game-enders wasn’t a walk-off, but even five out of 109 gives him the percentage lead among batters with over 35 hits.
4. Most hits, no game-enders
Let’s flip this around and see who has the most hits from 1948 onward with zero game-ending hits? As it happens, of the 757 guys with over 1,000 hits in that period, only these three guys never ended a game with a hit:
Never did it Hits Norm Cash 1820 Don Blasingame 1366 Greg Gross 1073
Who knows what Norm Cash’s problem was? By and large, having power helps because a home run is the easiest way to get a walk-off. Yet despite hitting well over 300 homers and having so many hits overall, Cash never ended a game with any sort of hit.
In his career, he came up at home in the ninth inning or later in a tie game 111 times. He had just 14 hits in those plate appearances, 13 singles and one double. His best game was on June 11, 1961, when he singled in the bottom of the ninth and then again in the 11th. That 11th-inning single came with runners on first and second but couldn’t score anyone because it was an infield single. Cash’s power just evaporated in those games.
He wasn’t worthless in them, though. Despite having just 14 hits in those 111 times at the dish, he also had 27 walks (12 intentional) and two hits-by-pitch, for a respectable on-base percentage of .387, but he never did end any game.
Thirty-one of those plate appearances came with a runner in scoring position. Cash received 15 walks (12 intentional) and otherwise was 1-for-16 with an infield single and only four balls making it out of the infield.
5. Fewest career hits with a game-ender
From 1948 onward, 699 players have exactly one hit in the big leagues. Of those, just one had his sole career hit end a game: Dan Ardell. He had six career plate appearances with the 1961 Angels and only one hit. Rather frustratingly, his game-ending hit is one of the 300-some shots that didn’t result in a walk-off win. A base runner got thrown out on his hit, thus, no batter has his only hit end a game.
One player had two career hits and one game-ender, and in this case it was, in fact, a walk-off. On Aug. 26, 1993, Richie Lewis stepped to the plate for the Marlins in the bottom of the 13th inning against the Astros. He was still looking for his first big league hit, and no one expected him to get it here.
After all, he was just a relief pitcher. He only came to the plate because Florida was out of pinch hitters. But damned if he didn’t connect for an RBI single. He wouldn’t get another hit for four years, ending his career with two hits in 10 at-bats in 217 appearances.
Among position players, three men had three hits each but hit a walk-hit shot: Rodney McCray, Dave Criscione, and Randy Schwartz. What, were you expecting it to be people you’d heard of? Criscione’s walk-off was a homer, and McCray’s walk-off came in his last career plate appearance.
6. Game-enders by pitchers
Mentioning Richie Lewis brings up a fun fact: some of these game-ending hits came from the bats of pitchers. In all, 64 pitchers combined for 69 game-ending hits, with Mickey McDermott hitting three and two apiece coming from Carl Scheib, Bob Lemon, and Mel Queen.
Those guys all played long ago, and sure enough, most of these game-enders are from long ago, as 49 of the 69 are from before 1970. Only three have happened since the 1994 strike.
The most recent one came on May 24, 2005, when Reds reliever Randy Keisler hit a single in the bottom of the 14th with runners on second and third for a 5-4 win over the Nationals. Two years before that, Brewer pitcher Glendon Rusch hit a bases-loaded walk-off single in the bottom of the 14th. In 1997, Dennis Cook did it for Florida in the 12th inning.
Rusch: one game-ending shot hit, and one career game-ending hit allowed.
The last time any pitcher hit a walk-off hit in regulation came on July 31, 1990, when San Francisco’s Don Robinson smacked a bases-loaded single against Houston for a 3-2 win. Earlier that year, Zane Smith hit the last extra-base walk-off shot by a pitcher when he doubled in a run in the 13th inning. That was also against Houston (though against a different reliever).
Craig Lefferts can claim to be the only pitcher in the last 40 years to hit a walk-off home run, which he did in 1986.
Five times a pitcher has driven in the game’s only run with his walk-off hit. In 1980, Joe Niekro did it in the 17th inning, which is tied for the latest walk-off hit by a pitcher.
7. Pitchers giving up game-ending hits
Since we’re looking at pitchers, let’s look at it from the other angle: who gave up the most game-ending hits? Whereas Frank Robinson leads hitters with 26 game-enders, 17 different pitchers can top that. It makes sense if you think about. Pitchers can be used exclusively in relief in close games, but hitters have to follow the batting order. Even a pinch hitter like Manny Mota won’t get as many chances as a relief pitcher.
At any rate, here are the leaders among pitchers:
Pitcher Hits Rollie Fingers 44 Roy Face 40 Lindy McDaniel 39 Rich Gossage 35 Gene Garber 35 John Franco 34 Mike Marshall 32 Kent Tekulve 32 R. Hernandez 32 Randy Myers 31
On July 28, 1971, all-time walk-off hit king Frank Robinson faced all-time walk-off hits allowed king Rollie Fingers with two on and Robinson’s Orioles trailing by two. Naturally, Robinson hit a three-run walk-off home run. Added bonus: the day before, Fingers surrendered a walk-off home run to Frank’s fellow Robinson teammate, Brooks. It was the only time in his career that Fingers surrendered walk-off homers on consecutive days.
This list is mostly guys from the 1970s and 1980s. Back then pitchers completed more games, but then again, you only had a five-man bullpen. Also, the relief ace wasn’t used in exclusively save situations, but as a general fireman, which meant more times entering the game with the score tied.
Fingers may top the list, but Face had the most impressive pace for a while. He allowed seven walk-off hits in 1960 and then six more in 1961. Fingers never had a single year like that, let alone two.
8. Game-ending triples
A game-ending home run might be the most storybook way to end a game, but a game-ending triple is far more rare. There are 3,098 walk-off homers since 1948, but only 139 triples.
No one has done it three times, but several have done it twice: Al Kaline, Ed Ott, Floyd Robinson, Garth Iorg, Jack Clark, Sibby Sisti, and Vada Pinson. All the game-ending triples by these guys were also walk-offs.
The best walk-off triple of that bunch belongs to Ed Ott. In a game-tied 4-4 with no one on, he hit one to center and tried for an inside-the-park home run. The throw beat him but was nowhere near the plate, causing the scorer to mark it as 3B/E8. Ott hit just 10 career triples, but danged if two of them weren’t walk-off triples.
Jack Clark is the only one to do it twice in one season, as his pair of walk-off triples came barely five weeks apart in 1980.
9. Game-ending doubles
OK, so that’s triples, but what about doubles? These aren’t nearly as rare, with 889 in all, but that’s still pretty infrequent.
The king here is, fittingly, Frank Robinson. He has five game-ending doubles, all of which were walk-offs. That they were all walk-off sets him apart from Brian Giles, who also had five game-ending doubles, but only four of his were walk-offs. A would-be game-tying double in Aug., 2004 resulted in the runner being thrown out at the plate to end the game.
That said, Giles can still stand proud, as he and Robinson are the only ones with more than three game-ending doubles. Several dozen men are tied with three, though.
About a dozen men have hit two game-ending doubles in one year. R.J. Reynolds hit a pair just 15 days apart in 1984, but only one was a walk-off. The closest bunching of two walk-off doubles belongs to Paul Molitor, who hit two just 22 days apart in 1993. At the other extreme, Pete Rose hit two game-ending doubles 14 years apart.
(Oh, if you’re looking for info on game-ending homers, I covered that in this article).
10. Game-ending hits and teams
The club with the most game-ending hits since 1948? The Dodgers, with 473. They handily top the Indians at 436. Cleveland narrowly wins the battle for second place over its state rival, the Cincinnati Reds, who have 431.
Obviously, all pre-expansion teams have an edge in this, and sure enough, they’re the top 16 teams. The fewest for any pre-expansion team is 365 by the Detroit Tigers. They barely edge the Houston Astros at 353. Blame Norm Cash.