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

Today, we complete our trip through the big hits in each division, concluding with the AL and NL East. As a reminder, we’re looking for the offensive events that caused the greatest upward change in win probability for each team, using WPA and Dave Appelman’s incomparable Fangraphs website. Three weeks back we looked at the West divisions and two weeks ago we caught up with the Central divisions. Now, on to the East!

AL East

Boston Red Sox
Julio Lugo RBI infield single (+.718 WPA)
May 13 vs Baltimore
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You know you’re living a charmed existence when your biggest “hit” is a slow roller to the right side. It’s been that kind of year for the Red Sox. On May 13, Jeremy Guthrie, about the only pleasant thing to happen to the Orioles this year, held the Red Sox to three hits over the first eight innings, but was pulled after Coco Crisp reached on an error. Protecting a 5-0 lead with one out, relievers Danys Baez and Chris Raywho has had his share of memorable meltdowns this year—combined to allow a double, a single, two consecutive walks, a double, and intentional walk. With two out, the struggling Julio Lugo grounded one to the right side. Kevin Millar fielded the ball but had to hurry his throw to first. He threw behind Ray—scrambling to cover first—the ball got by, and the Red Sox completed their six-run ninth-inning comeback.

Despite their team’s success, Red Sox fans wouldn’t be happy if they weren’t upset. The object of their ire this year certainly must be Lugo, and the returns on his four-year $36 million contract are not looking promising as of yet. He’s been by far the worst regular on the team this year, so it is something of a surprise that he has the biggest hit of the year. Crisp, arguably the second-worst regular, has the second-biggest hit. On the other hand, clutch god David Ortiz has gone 1-9 with two double plays in his nine plate appearances this year with Leverage Index of 2.5 or greater. So despite his struggles, perhaps Lugo isn’t the most hated player in Beantown: I’m told that when Lugo and Ortiz go to their local watering hole, the drinks on the house for Lugo but Ortiz has to pay his own way. Such are the vagaries of clutchitude.

New York Yankees
Alex Rodriguez three-run homer (+.746 WPA)
April 19 vs Cleveland
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Anything you can do, I can do better. A-Rod also had a +.718 WPA hit against Chris Ray—his walkoff grand slam on April 7—but his biggest hit of year came off of Cleveland closer Joe Borowski. The long home run capped a six-run ninth for the Yankees and ended the game. As he rounded first base with his hands in the air, he looked happier than a clam in mud—certainly happier than I’ve ever seen him in pinstripes. The critics have gone from saying, “He can only do it in the first inning” to “He can only do it in April” to not saying anything at all. Good for A-Rod; I can’t wait until he leaves the Yankees so that I can start cheering for him again.

I’m a member of the Saves Are a Ridiculous Stat Club and we’re in the midst of picking a poster boy. Borowski is on the short list. He’s allowing more than one-and-a-half base runners per inning and sporting a 6.11 ERA. But he’s got 21 saves. Sadly, the Indians are in contention this year and look unlikely to auction their Proven Closer at the deadline. I would love to have seen what they could have received in return.

Toronto Blue Jays
Matt Stairs RBI double (+.411 WPA)
June 5 vs Tampa Bay
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As with the Red Sox and Yankees, the Blue Jays also came from behind with a six-run ninth inning. Stairs drove in the tying run with an opposite-field double into the left-center gap and scored the winning run when Aaron Hill drew a bases-loaded walk. Who doesn’t love Matt Stairs? He became an icon for the beer-league Oakland teams of the late nineties and has been a solid lefty stick deep into his thirties. He’s Canadian. He used to have a mullet. He’s built like a fire hydrant. Every time you think his career his over, he puts up a nice run of 120-130 OPS+. Eat his shorts, conventional wisdom.

Conventional wisdom should also consider eating WPA’s shorts. If you learn one thing from this series on WPA—and based on my skill as a writer, your learning one thing would be miraculous—it should be that tie games are paramount. Pitchers that preserve ties are rewarded. Hitters that create ties are rewarded. And since WPA is the only metric which correlates perfectly to team wins, we should conclude that playing for the tie is almost always the smart move.

Baltimore Orioles
Jay Payton RBI single (+.463 WPA)
June 13 vs Washington
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The biggest hit for the Orioles this year came when Jay Payton blooped a single on an excuse-me check swing with two out in the bottom of the ninth. The ball just eluded second baseman Felipe Lopez and Freddie Bynum came in with the game-tying run. But even lady luck couldn’t deliver this year’s Orioles a win, as they lost to the hated Nationals in extra innings.

Which team in baseball doesn’t own its own broadcast rights? As part of the deal that brought the Nationals to Washington, Major League Baseball awarded the TV and radio broadcast rights to the Orioles. In an act of minor karmic retribution, the Nats defeated the Orioles four of six times this season. If Peter Angelos were dead, he’d be turning in his grave. But Angelos is not dead; he is alive and has in fact committed over $93 million to the 2007 iteration of the Orioles. His club is in danger of having a worse record than his geographical rivals despite two-and-half times the payroll.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Carl Crawford grand slam (+.506 WPA)
April 24 vs New York Yankees
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In the San Francisco Giants portion of this series, I wrote that Eliezer Alfonzo‘s might have been “the greatest single-play WPA change in the seventh inning thus far this year.” I was wrong; Carl Crawford’s grand slam against the Yankees on April 24 was slightly more important per WPA. With the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Crawford reached over the plate to line the ball into the left field seats. The homer gave the Rays a 6-3 lead and they would go on to defeat the Yankees.

Since his debut in 2002, Crawford has improved his OPS every single year, and he’s still a month away from his 26th birthday. Will the Devil Rays build a contender quickly enough to make him a franchise centerpiece on a relevant team, or will they trade him for a boatload of prospects? He always seems to be touted as a potentially above-average defensive centerfielder, although he has rarely played the position in his career. Even as a centerfielder, his trade value is probably going through a valley, as a team in need of a centerfielder can save its prospects and spend its cash this offseason as Andruw Jones, Torii Hunter, and Ichiro Suzuki
headline a bumper crop of free agent centerfielders. Still, his contract keeps him under team control until 2010, which makes him both valuable on the trade market and to Devil Rays, who may yet build a contender by then.

NL East

New York Mets
Damion Easley three-run homer (+.628 WPA)
May 3 vs Arizona
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Damion Easley has been hanging around the fringes of the major league teams for a while now, hitting acceptably in mostly part-time roles on mediocre or worse teams. Seemingly out of nowhere, he’s become a key contributor on a division leader, posting a 110 OPS+ for the Mets. He also had the biggest hit of the year for them thus far, hitting a key home run in—wait for it—a six-run ninth inning comeback. Talk about old hat. His homer against Jose Valverde put the Mets up 6-4, and David Wright tacked on another three-run shot for insurance.

The putative ace of a very good Arizona bullpen, Valverde has a 156 ERA+, which is a nice rebound from a disastrous 82 ERA+ last season. Last year, his FIP was 3.28, indicating that batted balls were the culprit for his poor season; was Valverde or his fielders who are to blame? On the one hand, his defense converted only 65% of his batted balls into outs. On the other hand, he gave up a whole mess of line drives, which couldn’t have made it easy on his poor teammates. Was the frozen rope brigade a result of hitters getting unusually lucky or were his pitches just that hittable last year?

Atlanta Braves
Kelly Johnson three-run homer (+.432 WPA)
April 22 vs New York Mets
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Kelly Johnson, a lefty hitter, had whiffed four times against lefthander Oliver Perez on April 21. But he bounced right back the next day, going 3-4 with a walk and two home runs, including this three-run tiebreaker against Aaron Heilman. A few more games like this in Queens and he’ll have to consider naming his child Shea.

Speaking of Perez: the Pirates have made a lot of puzzling moves over the years, but have any been more puzzling than shipping Oliver Perez to the Mets for Xavier Nady? Nothing against Nady, of course—he’s a Golden Bear, after all—but for a team perpetually in need of a rebuilding program, I can’t think of a more pointless player to target.

Philadelphia Phillies
Ryan Howard three-run homer (+.526 WPA)
June 3 vs San Francisco
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In an attempt to drown the misery of the offseason, I would cozy up on the couch Thursday nights to watch The Office. But even an office-based mockumetary couldn’t make me forget the absence of baseball; the show takes place in Scranton Wilkes-Barre and features a character named Ryan Howard. On what minor league team did the Phillies stash future baseball superstar Ryan Howard while they tried to unload Jim Thome? Scranton Wilkes-Barre. The long, cold offseason always seems to last forever. I hate winter.

Howard blasted this go-ahead shot with two strikes and two outs against lefty specialist Jack Taschner. Catcher Bengie Molina called for the pitch high and outside, but it ran back over the plate and it was crushed. Evidently, Molina was not pleased with the outcome. Not more than a fraction of a second after bat met ball, he erupted in anger. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a catcher react quite like that. Also, make sure you check out the Phanatic admiring the flight of the ball. Oh, to be a mascot.

Florida Marlins
Aaron Boone RBI single (+.439 WPA)
May 23 vs Philadelphia
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What a nutty game! Lee Gardner, a scrap heap bullpen pickup if ever there was one, failed to maintain a one-run deficit in top of the ninth for the Marlins. Instead of keeping the game close, he allowed the Phillies to plate three runs and blow the game open. Brett Myers, six saves into the Phillies experiment with him in the bullpen, came in for the routine one inning non-save and quickly found himself in trouble. With three runs already in and Hanley Ramirez representing the tying run on second, Myers hung a curveball to Aaron Boone. Boone—who is enjoying a revival of sorts this year—lined the ball into left; Jayson Werth gathered the ball his throw home beat Ramirez by a good fifteen feet. It should have been the final out of the game.

But catcher Rod Barajas inexplicably stood up to apply the tag, and Ramirez slid right between his legs to score the tying run (yet again, WPA shows her love for tie games). Barajas and Phillies manager Charlie Manuel were both ejected in the ensuing argument. To make matters worse, Myers injured his arm a few pitches later—he hasn’t pitched in a game since. It wasn’t all bad news for the Phillies, however, as they came back to win the game in the tenth inning. The craziness was good for one of the better WPA graphs of the year.

Washington Nationals
Nook Logan RBI single (+.496 WPA)
May 20 vs Baltimore
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Nook Logan: what a waste of a great baseball name. If this guy could manage even league-average offense, he would be a star on the strength of his name. Sadly, not even his moniker is enough to make up for a 46 OPS+. A third of his hits have gone for extra bases and he’s still slugging .294. His eighth inning grounder to the right side found a hole and plated the tying and go-ahead runs.

The Nationals may be new to the area, but the online coverage by The Washington Post is sophisticated in at least one regard: as far as I know, theirs is the only mainstream media website that tracks WPA in real time. They have a live update on their Nationals Gameday website. It’s nice to see WPA gaining a foothold in mainstream media outlets, and it speaks to the accessibility of analyses using the WPA framework.

As I was going through the online video archive at MLB.com, I was struck by how many of the game-breaking hits as judged by WPA were judged to be MLB.com Top Plays (videos for which are freely available). I won’t suggest that the video editors at MLBAM consult fangraphs for their choices; instead, take it as evidence that WPA as a metric correlates to our own sense of what constitutes a big play. There is little that is difficult to grasp about this “new-age stat”; WPA is as accessible as it comes. David Appelman at fangraphs deserves a lot of credit for turning the accessibility into availability for baseball fans everywhere.

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