A Game of Epic Proportions

Yesterday, we witnessed the longest playoff game in MLB history. 18 innings of pure competition and great pitching. How can a game that features multiple grand slams be called a pitchers duel? When Tim Hudson and Roger Clemens are involved; when it’s really not one game, but two.

This was a game of huge ups and downs. It looked like the Braves had it won; their win probability was 95.2% before Brad Ausmus’ home run in the bottom of the 9th; it was 98.1% entering the 8th inning. 90.5% entering the 5th.

But the Astros wouldn’t give up. They battled back from being down 6-1 with five outs left. Lance Berkman‘s grand slam in the 8th and Ausmus’ home run in the 9th tied the game up. And then the fun began.

We almost witnessed two complete game shutouts after that. For the next nine innings, the Astros did not allow a run. The Braves bullpen only lasted eight.

This was the type of game that we knew would end in a home run. It looked like Brian McCann or Pete Orr would end it in the 14th with the bases loaded. Didn’t happen. That’s when it became apparent that ordinary heroics wouldn’t do it. And that’s where Chris Burke came in.

Burke, a 5-11, 180 pound (soaking wet) left fielder hit exactly five home runs in 318 at-bats this season. But heroes are generally those you wouldn’t expect to be heroes. What Burke did this season didn’t really matter. He crushed the ball when it counted. And he won the game for the Astros. But, believe it or not, he wasn’t even the Astros’ MVP, according to WPA. Take a look at how each Houston player did in Game Four:

Player  Off. WPA Pitch WPA Total   Avg. P
Wheeler        0   0.429   0.429   0.183
Ausmus     0.381       0   0.381    0.06
Burke      0.364       0   0.364   0.141
Clemens   -0.069   0.429    0.36   0.129
Lidge          0   0.286   0.286   0.148
Berkman    0.218       0   0.218   0.035
Qualls         0   0.184   0.184   0.095
Springer       0   0.029   0.029   0.015
Gallo          0   0.025   0.025   0.013
Lamb      -0.005       0  -0.005   0.031
Rodrigue       0  -0.014  -0.014   0.004
Palmeiro  -0.023       0  -0.023   0.109
Chavez    -0.031       0  -0.031   0.086
Everett   -0.035       0  -0.035   0.033
Taveras   -0.057       0  -0.057   0.034
Scott     -0.065       0  -0.065   0.059
Bagwell   -0.118       0  -0.118   0.116
Bruntlet  -0.144       0  -0.144   0.062
Biggio     -0.16       0   -0.16   0.067
Vizcaino  -0.213       0  -0.213   0.095
Backe     -0.013  -0.264  -0.277    0.04
Lane      -0.294       0  -0.294   0.088
Ensberg   -0.341       0  -0.341   0.081

Astros    -0.605   1.105     0.5   0.084

That’s right, reliever Dan Wheeler, who pitched innings 13-15, was the Astros’ most valuable player. Not Burke, not Clemens, not Ausmus, not Berkman—Wheeler. How’d that happen? If you look at the last column, you’ll see that Wheeler had a ridiculously high average p-value, meaning that he was pitching in high pressure situations (obviously, extra innings in a tie game are extremely high leverage). By throwing three innings, he passed all those aforementioned guys. Burke’s home run was actually worth .416 WPA, the second-most valuable play of the game, behind Ausmus’ game-tying homer in the bottom of the 9th (.488 WPA).

And what about the Braves? How’d their players fare? Who lost the game for them? Let’s take a look:

Player  Off. WPA Pitch WPA Total  Avg. P
Brower         0   0.429   0.429   0.128
Reitsma        0   0.286   0.286   0.093
Thomson        0   0.286   0.286   0.084
LaRoche    0.261       0   0.261   0.059
Hudson     0.002   0.208   0.209   0.032
Langerha    0.18       0    0.18   0.079
Jordan     0.118       0   0.118   0.085
A. Jones   0.011       0   0.011   0.086
Furcal    -0.055       0  -0.055   0.095
Johnson   -0.107       0  -0.107   0.107
Betemit   -0.107       0  -0.107   0.107
C. Jones  -0.111       0  -0.111   0.082
Orr       -0.174       0  -0.174   0.176
Franco    -0.175       0  -0.175   0.139
Devine         0  -0.214  -0.214   0.096
Giles     -0.226       0  -0.226   0.073
Francoeu   -0.26       0   -0.26   0.102
Farnswor       0  -0.391  -0.391   0.074
McCann    -0.461       0  -0.461   0.118

You can see that it really wasn’t the pitching staff’s fault (not that this was ever a question). McCann blew opportunity after opportunity, and Jeff Francoeur and Marcus Giles were not much better. Joey Devine, who gave up the game-winning shot, was only fifth from the bottom, with a -.21 WPA. Jim Brower matched Wheeler with a .429 WPA, but with their top-three consisting of all pitchers, the Braves simply could not hit enough to win the game. Their 3-4-5 hitters combined for a -.26 WPA, though Andruw Jones ended his amazing season on a good personal note, putting the Braves in position to score with a one out double in the 14th.

The truth is, however, that the Braves should never have been in such a position in the first place. When the opposing team has a worse than 2% chance to win, and they do it anyway, I think you can safely call the game a collapse of epic proportions. Just look at this graph of the Astros’ win probability throughout the game:

image

Up until the 8th inning, the Astros had no chance. Even going into the 9th, their chances were slim and none. But the Braves blew it and the better team won.

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