Big Hits and Green Grass: The Biggest Hits of 2007 (Part One)

With a third of the 2007 season in the books, now is a good time to look back at the most memorable moments in the young season. To do this, we’ll look at the offensive events that caused the greatest upward change in win probability for each team, using WPA and Dave Appelman’s incomparable Fangraphs website. This week we’ll look at the West divisions (DH and non-DH variety), next week we’ll check in on the Centrals, and we’ll conclude with the East divisions. Even if your team is struggling, hopefully the memory of these hits will put a big smile on your face.

AL West

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Gary Matthews Jr. two-run single (+.368 WPA)
June 1 vs Baltimore
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The Angels are off to a very good start, opening a five-game lead over their division rivals on the strength of Vladimir Guerrero and the second-best pitching staff in the AL. But the Angels haven’t been winning in dramatic fashion. Their collection of aces throws well every day, Vlad does something physically impossible, and Angel fans go home happy.
If you wanted to construct a team that would win without a lot of drama wrapped up in individual events, the Angels might make a good blueprint. They have stifling pitchers, keeping almost every game within reach. Their offense is built on a high-average, low-power model, so a typical come-from-behind victory in this case would be better defined by several hits rather than a single big one. Drama is a team effort.

As if to drive the point home, the Angels offensive play of the year came over the weekend when Gary Matthews Jr. singled home the tying and go-ahead runs in the bottom of the seventh against Daniel Cabrera and the Orioles. Exciting, yes, but not the game-breaking moment that you expect when you think of the biggest hits of the year. Pity, although Angel fans have plenty to be happy about without dwelling on their lack of big WPA moments.

(I’m just now hearing that Vlad has hit a two-run walkoff homer in the bottom of the ninth, for a WPA change of over +0.700. Impeccable timing.)

Oakland Athletics
Marco Scutaro three-run homer (+.903 WPA)
April 15 vs New York
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I don’t believe in clutch hitters. Sorry, I just don’t. There’s a lot evidence that clutch hitting is not a repeatable skill. We choose to selectively remember the few times that a player comes through and forget the times that he lets us down. I don’t believe in clutch.

But I do believe in Marco Scutaro. Since 2004, the oft-overlooked utility man has provided the game-winning hit nine times. April 15 of this year was the most unbelievable.

April 15 was turning out pretty badly for the A’s. Rich Harden left in the seventh inning due to injury, and Joe Kennedy came in and promptly gave up the lead. The A’s trailed 4-2 as they faced Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth. With two outs, Todd Walker lined a single into left field and Jason Kendall drew a nine-pitch walk. Scutaro worked a 1-2 count, and then, with all the might in his little Venezuelan body, hooked a high drive down the left line. It hit the foul pole. Three-run homer, game over. Scutaro literally danced his way around the bases, arrived at home plate, and partied with the big boys.

Seattle Mariners
Adrian Beltre solo homer (+.404 WPA)
May 7 vs New York
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Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson have been lumped together as two overpriced free agent busts, just a couple of bloated contracts to players with fortuitously timed power spikes. That analysis really isn’t fair; USS Mariner has pointed out that Beltre and the more highly regarded Aramis Ramirez are equals on the field, if not the balance sheet. Richie Sexson, on the other hand—well, that’s the bloated contract.

On May 7, Beltre’s heroics were on display when he launched the first pitch he saw from Rivera deep into left-centerfield for a two-out, tie-breaking, game-changing home run. The Mariners win expectancy went from 38.9% to 79.3%, and ace closer J.J. Putz came on to finish off the Yankees.

But Beltre would never have had the chance to win the game if it weren’t for Willie “The Ignitor” Bloomquist, who has parlayed a 1.000+ OPS cup-of-coffee in 2004 into an embarassingly tenure with the Mariners. His .255/.310/.325 career line is clearly mitigated by his ability to cloud the judgement of umpires. In the eighth inning of this game, Bloomquist came on as a pinch runner for Jose Vidro at first base. With Johjima batting, Bloomquist was gunned down trying to steal second base, the tag being applied a good three feet before Bloomquist got to the bag. (Don’t believe me? Click here). The ump blew the call, Johjima singled Bloomquist home, and the stage was set for Beltre.

Texas Rangers
Brad Wilkerson two-run single (+.588 WPA)
April 28 vs. Toronto
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Tough year for Ron Washington, the rookie manager of the Texas Rangers. An unexpectedly lousy offense coupled with predictably bad pitching has led to a league-worst 20-37 record. They need to pick up the pace if they want to avoid the ignominy of finishing behind both the Devil Rays and the Royals. At least the future is looking bright for those two teams, the Rangers…not so much.

One bright spot has been Brad Wilkerson, who is rocking a 112 OPS+ after disappointing mightily in 2006. He’s no Alfonso Soriano—even Alfonso Soriano is no Alfonso Soriano—but at least the Rangers are salvaging something out of the trade. On April 28, he capped a furious Ranger rally in the top of the ninth against the Blue Jays and Jason Frasor. With two outs, the bases were loaded and the Rangers trailed by one run. Wilkerson stroked a line drive up the middle; Royce Clayton got a glove on it and almost made the game ending catch, but it popped out of his glove and trickled into the outfield. Ian Kinsler scored the go-ahead run.

Clayton redeemed himself with a tying single in the bottom of the ninth, but the Rangers won the game when Hank Blalock‘s sacrifice fly brought Michael Young in to score in the 10th inning. It is a good memory in an otherwise disappointing year for the Rangers. But hey, at least they got out from under that A-Rod contract.

NL West

Arizona Diamondbacks
Stephen Drew two-run homer (+.898)
April 25 vs San Diego
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Offensively-struggling middle infielder hits come-from-behind, game-ending homer off of Hall of Fame closer. Stephen Drew showed that lightning can strike twice, accomplishing the feat only ten days after Scutaro. The big difference, of course, is that Stephen Drew is a highly-touted young player with a pedigree to match whereas Scutaro is a career scrub. Still, Drew’s homer off of Trevor Hoffman was just as unlikely, particularly after the Diamondbacks hitters had been made to look silly by Jake Peavy. Peavy struck out 16 in only seven innings, leaving the game in the hands of rock-solid Scott Linebrink and Hoffman. With two outs, though, Hoffman left a 3-1 pitch up, and Drew lined it over the fence in right field, sending his teammates—and the television play-by-play announcer—into a tizzy.

Los Angeles Dodgers
Russell Martin two-run double (+.442)
April 27 vs San Diego
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Brian McCann and Joe Mauer get all the young catcher press, but 24-year-old Russell Martin is doing all the right things: controlling the strike zone, hitting for power, and banging out line drives. He trails only Jorge Posada and Victor Martinez in GPA among catchers. And his middle name is Coltrane—how cool is that?

Just two days after giving up Drew’s walkoff shot, Hoffman allowed another young hitter to beat him. With Nomar Garciaparra having already tied the game, the Padres were just trying to get out of the ninth inning with a tie. They elected to intentionally walk Luis Gonzalez, and Martin responded by blasting a 1-0 pitch into deep centerfield. Mike Cameron almost tracked it down, but the ball nicked the edge of his glove and hit the ground for a double. Two runs scored, and the Dodgers withstood a Jose Cruz Jr. homer in the bottom of the frame to win the game 6-5.

At the conclusion of the game, Hoffman sported a 7.04 ERA. The deaths of both Rivera and Hoffman were proclaimed around this time. Since the April meltdowns, however, both Hoffman and Rivera have regained their old forms. For years, Hoffman has toiled in Rivera’s shadow—and rightly so, as Rivera has been godlike for a number of years while Hoffman has been merely immortal. But will history change how we view these pitchers based on who slows down first?

San Francisco Giants
Eliezer Alfonzo three-run double (+.497)
May 4 vs Philadelphia
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What happens when one of baseball’s oldest pitchers takes on one of baseball’s oldest lineups? Only a young hitter can save the day. Jamie Moyer threw his usual collection of junk over the first six innings, striking out only three but not walking anybody. The Phillies entered the seventh up 2-0. That’s when the Giants loaded the bases with two out and sent Eliezer Alfonzo, at 28 one of their youngest hitters, to pitch hit for pitcher Matt Morris. He launched a fly ball that just eluded Aaron Rowand, the bases cleared, and the Giants took the lead. Brad Hennessy and erstwhile whipping boy Armando Benitez held the Phillies down for two innings and the Giants won the game, 3-2.

What is most unusual about this play was that it happened so early in the game, in the seventh inning. Most of the big WPA swings happen late in games. But turning a multi-run deficit into a lead is a big deal in the WPA framework, which makes sense—scoring more runs than your opponent is indeed the object of the game. It would not be surprising if this were the greatest single-play WPA change in the seventh inning thus far this year.

San Diego Padres
Adrian Gonzalez two-run homer (+.394)
April 4 vs San Francisco
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Adrian Gonzalez came to the Padres along with Chris Young and Terrmel Sledge as the booty from the Akinori Otsuka/Adam Eaton trade. Some people will always tell you that it’s too early to judge a trade—just you wait, Larry Andersen may yet work out for the Red Sox—but Billy Killian is going to have to be the next Mike Piazza for this to work out for the Rangers. Yes, Gonzalez was blocked at first base by Mark Teixeira and Otsuka has been excellent for the Rangers. But Adam Eaton had a bad year in Arlington and then bolted for the Phillies, while Young has blossomed into a good starter and Gonzalez is now hitting for the power that many doubted would ever come.

He showed some of that power in the eighth inning of a tie game on April 4. Giants lefty Jack Taschner had the platoon advantage, but Gonzalez hit a long home run over the Pac Bell’s right field brick wall. It didn’t have the distance for a splash hit, but the Padres took the lead and won the game. Gonzalez is still only 25 and now looks primed for a number of productive years in the heart of the Padres lineup.

Colorado Rockies
Matt Holliday one-run single (+.470)
May 20 vs Kansas City Royals
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Interleague! A time for American League and National League players, dreaded rivals to the last, to determine which league is superior. Intrigue! Excitement! The Royals/Rockies tilt did not fail to deliver, as the leagues sent their weak sisters to battle. Royals closer Joakim Soria tried to close the game out in the ninth, but Matt Holliday delivered a run-scoring single that tied the game at four apiece. But that’s not the hit mentioned above, as that particular game-tying single had a WPA of +.465. The marginally bigger dramatics came with the Rockies again trailing by a run, this time in the eleventh. Holliday came up to the plate with Troy Tulowitzki at first. A clean single to left looked like it would put runners at the corners, but Tulowitzki scored when left fielder Emil Brown kicked the ball around the outfield.

Perhaps it isn’t fair to give Holliday credit for all of the WPA in that situation. Surely Brown deserves some demerits. But WPA is a kind mistress—Brown keeps the goat horns in the locker for another day Holliday is a conquering hero. All his heroics came to naught, however, as the Royals put the game away with five runs against Ramon Ramirez in the top of the twelfth. This is the kind of interleague drama that we all live for.

That wraps ups the West divisions. Next week, we’ll catch up with the exciting hits in the Central divisions.

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