First round thrills

A two-part series was dedicated in the past few weeks to the construction of a statistical tool which uncovers potential exciting games among the thousands played in the last three decades (and then some) of Major League Baseball (read part one and part two). In case you missed it, a spreadsheet came out in our Live section ranking every game played since 2006, i.e. those available in the MLB.tv archive. The goal of the work was to find games worth watching during baseball’s winter hiatus.

A new variable was added to the mix: it’s the portion of the game for which the Win Expectancy of either team does not exceed 60 percent. This variable obviously is a measure of equilibrium, thus it’s highly correlated with factor number three, the one identifying equilibrium.

Factor analysis for discovering exciting games is somewhat less useful for the postseason, because the contests played in October are a very small number, and since they all count they are easier to remember. However, winter is a good time to resume old arguments like, what’s the greatest postseason game ever played, or was the 1991 World Series more exciting than the 1975 one? So here we are to put factor analysis into the mix.

In this first installment the Division Series are covered. Division Series baseball saw the light in the first postseason after the 1994 strike; actually another strike, in 1981, had given baseball fans a taste of the best-of-three first round.

On the very first day, Oct. 3, 1995, a couple of interesting games were played, followed by another one the following day. According to the tool proposed for regular season games, two of them are in the Division Series top five, and the remaining one is barely out of it.
But let’s present the games in countdown mode.

For each game a “thermometer” is proposed, giving hindsight on why the game is considered exciting. The thermometer has four values, one for each factor (late-game importance, rally, equilibrium) and an average of the three (overall), all in the 0-100 range.

Let’s say, for example, a game scores 100 in the equilibrium factor. That means the game had more balance than any of the nearly 81,000 regular season games played from 1974 to 2010, which serve as the comparison basis. If a game scores 80, that means it would be in the top 20 percent. As you will notice looking at game thermometers, equilibrium and late game importance are nailed pretty well by factor analysis, while the rally component isn’t always consistent.

5. Twins @ Yankees, Game 2, Oct. 6, 2004

Both teams got quickly out of the gate in this one: Justin Morneau doubled off Yankee starter Jon Lieber to drive Torii Hunter home, but the Bronx Bombers were even quicker getting on the scoreboard, thanks to Derek Jeter‘s leadoff homer. Minnesota racked up a couple more runs in the second, only to be reached again in the third on the second long ball surrendered by starter Brad Radke, this time courtesy of Gary Sheffield. The next two runs originated from Alex Rodriguez‘s bat, a solo homer in the fifth and a single to bring Miguel Cairo home in the seventh.

Minnesota had won the first game 2-0 and the series was going to move to the Metrodome for a couple of games, so Buck Showalter felt it necessary to bring in his ace Mariano Rivera for a five-out save when the Twins put two men on in the eighth. Things did not go as planned: Justin Morneau singled and Corie Koskie doubled off the stopper, and the game was tied once again.

In the top of the 12th, Torii Hunter took advantage of a tiring Tanyon Sturtze (he had relieved Mariano and was serving his third inning of work), belting a pitch in the stands with two outs.

Joe Nathan, also beginning his third frame in the bottom of the 12th, fanned John Olerud and then lost control, walking both Cairo (batting in the ninth slot) and Jeter. A-Rod came up with a big clutch hit, a double tying the game and moving captain Jeter 90 feet from home with one out; after the free pass to Sheffield to load the bases, Hideki Matsui hit a fly ball deep enough to allow Jeter to score and the Yankees to tie the series.

Game thermometer
late game importance:	79.6
rally: 			95.6
equilibrium: 		90.8
overall: 		88.7

4. Braves @ Rockies, Game 1, Oct. 3, 1995

The young Rockies franchise debuted in postseason play in their third season, hosting for Game 1 the team of the decade, the Atlanta Braves. The reigning and soon-to-be-confirmed Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux was opposed to Kevin Ritz, whose win-loss record at the time was 22-35 with a 5.14 ERA.

The game was not one for the ages as both pitchers were continuously reached for base hits and the teams combined for five errors. So why does factor analysis rank it as the fourth most interesting game in Division Series history?

There was a little rally by the Braves who were trailing 3-1 after five; there was equilibrium, as the game remained tied until the end of the eighth inning after the Braves came back in the sixth; and there was huge late-game drama as Mark Wohlers loaded the bases with one out and a one-run lead to protect in the bottom of the ninth. (Leverage Index skyrocketed to 8.62 and 10.9 for the final at-bats of this game.)

With a total of 25 hits, the eight combined walks allowed and the aforementioned five errors, base runners abounded in each frame of the game, constantly threatening to score.

The big plays all occurred in the final two innings of the contest. Pinch hitter Dwight Smith drove in Ryan Klesko with a single to put the Braves ahead 4-3 in the top of the eighth, raising Atlanta’s Win Expectancy by 23 percentage points; Ellis Burks answered in the bottom part of the inning, doubling home Dante Bichette and pushing Andres Galarraga to third (for a plus-26 in Win Expectancy). In the ninth Chipper Jones connected for a two-out homer, his second of the night (+38 WE), and in the bottom half Mark Wohlers took himself out of troubles as he struck out Galarraga (+27) and pinch hitter Lance Painter (+30) to strand three Rockies on base.

Game thermometer
late game importance: 	91.0
rally: 			97.2
equilibrium: 		80.1
overall: 		89.4

3. Braves @ Astros, Game 4, Oct. 9, 2005

Game 4 of the 2005 NLDS in Houston didn’t look like it was going to turn into a game for the ages. The Braves were up 6-1 and needed six outs to extend the series to the fifth game to be held in Atlanta. Win Expectancy for the Braves was at 98 percent before Lance Berkman hit a grand slam off Kyle Farnsworth in the bottom of the eighth to close the gap at 6-5. Despite the big blast things didn’t look bright for the Astros: the first two batters of the ninth went down quickly, light-hitting catcher Brad Ausmus was up, and Game 5 starter Andy Pettitte was home with flu symptoms.

Ausmus unexpectedly extended the game with a home run, the fifth run against Farnsworth who had been 10-for-10 in save situations for the Braves during the regular season.

Nobody had a clue that another nine-inning contest was going to be played at Minute Maid Park that night. After a merry-go-round of pinch hitters, pinch runners, double switches and infield realignments, Phil Garner was forced to employ his Game 2 starter, 43-year-old Roger Clemens, as a pinch hitter (!) for reliever Dan Wheeler, and subsequently on the mound.

Position players who had served on the mound in their college days were being warned to be prepared to be used as pitchers, and ailing Andy Pettitte, waking up at home during the night to take a glass of water, discovered the game was still going on and readied himself to drive to the park to give the Astros a few more innings.

Chris Burke, who was inserted into the game as a pinch runner in the 10th, little expected to rack up three plate appearances. His third trip to the plate, occurring in the 18th, turned out to be the most dramatic of his career, as he secured the nearly six-hour marathon and the series for his team with a solo homer off Joey Devine.

Game thermometer
late game importance: 	79.9
rally: 			91.6
equilibrium: 		97.5
overall: 		89.7

2. Giants @ Mets, Game 3, Oct. 7, 2000

San Francisco had won the first game 5-1 on October 4. The following day the Mets scored twice in the ninth to take a 4-1 lead, but the Giants were able to extend the game with a three-run homer by J.T. Snow. Finally the New Yorkers scored an unanswered run in the top of the 10th and the series was tied.

The series moved to Queens where Russ Ortiz and Rick Reed were scheduled to toe the rubber.

The Giants scored twice in the fourth on singles by Bobby Estalella and Marvin Benard. New York halved the gap on a single by Timo Perez, then scored on Edgardo Alfonzo‘s double off closer Robb Nen, who was brought in for a four-out save.

In the 13th Benny Agbayani took Aaron Fultz deep for a walk-off homer which paved the way for a 3-1 series win by the Mets.

Game thermometer
late game importance: 	92.4
rally: 			87.0
equilibrium: 		95.3
overall: 		91.6

1. Red Sox @ Indians, Game 1, Oct. 3, 1995

Back to Division Series Day 1 and another future Hall of Famer (that was what we thought for sure at the time…) was on the mound for the Red Sox in Cleveland.

Roger Clemens faced El Presidente Dennis Martinez and got a couple of runs to work with in the third, thanks to a John Valentin home run. The Indians came back in the sixth, when a two-out walk and three straight hits transformed what seemed a harmless inning into a three-run rally.

Luis Alicea connected for a long ball to tie the game in the eighth and then there was no scoring for a while. In the eleventh Tim Naehring went deep against Jim Poole, but Albert Belle answered with a leadoff shot off Rick Aguilera.

In the bottom of the 12th the Indians had the speedy Kenny Lofton 90 feet from home and running on a one-out bases-loaded grounder by Eddie Murray; the game was to go on some more as third baseman Naehring gunned down the Lofton Express.

In the bottom of the 13th Zane Smith quickly disposed of Manny Ramirez and pinch hitter Herbert Perry, but was reached by catcher Tony Peña‘s blast, a two-out walk-off dinger.

After losing what factor analysis considers the most exciting Division Series game ever, the Red Sox were unable to recover and were swept by the Tribe.

Game thermometer
late game importance: 	95.8
rally: 			98.5
equilibrium: 		86.7
overall: 		93.7

The most exciting Division Series ever.

Series rankings have been obtained by simply summing the overall “temperature” of each game. In this way longer series generally come out on top, but the fifth game doesn’t get any special treatment.

The best Division Series ever played, according to the method proposed in the last few articles, is the 1995 ALDS featuring the Mariners and the Yankees (barely edging out 2003 ALDS between Oakland and Boston, the only one for which an argument could be made on being the best).

In Game 1 the teams exchanged punches until the Yankees erupted with four runs in the seventh; the game was not memorable, but it’s well above average when compared to the 1974-2010 regular season database (overall: 60.0, late game importance: 40.2, rally: 63.5, equilibrium: 76.0).

Game 2 is one of the main reasons for this series to be the best among baseball first rounds.

The memorable contest took place at Yankee Stadium, featuring Andy Benes for the Mariners against Andy Pettitte for the Wild Card Pinstripes.

The starting pitchers were pretty much in control for five innings. Pettitte had conceded a solo shot to Vince Coleman in the third; Benes had also surrendered one run on Bernie Williams‘ double. In the sixth the Martinezes put Seattle back on top as Edgar doubled to start the frame and Tino drove him home with a single. The Bronx Bombers responded with back-to-back shots by Ruben Sierra and Don Mattingly to open the bottom half of the sixth—that was the game for Andy Benes.

The back-and-forth punching continued in the following inning, with the Mariners connecting for three consecutive hits to tie the game and scoring the go-ahead run on the subsequent sac fly by Luis Sojo. The lead wasn’t going to last for Seattle either: after two quick outs in the Yankee seventh, Paul O’Neill took Norm Charlton deep for the final run of the regulation innings.

At the time the Yankee closer was John Wetteland who entered the game in the ninth to stop a threat (a pinch leadoff single by Alex Diaz); he was still in the game in the 12th and was relieved by one Mariano Rivera following Ken Griffey‘s homer, which gave the M’s a 5-4 lead. Down to their last out, the Yankees refused to die once again. With men on first and second, Ruben Sierra doubled off Tim Belcher, driving in Jorge Posada; Bernie Williams also rounded third, but was gunned down by shortstop Sojo’s relay.

Mariano retired eight consecutive Mariners and managed to complete the 15th after giving up consecutive singles. He got the win when Jim Leyritz hit a two-run homer, giving the Yankees a compelling 2-0 lead in the best-of-three series.

This game barely missed the top five presented above, and it’s ranked sixth among Division Series contests (overall: 88.6, late game importance: 73.6, rally: 93.0, equilibrium: 99.1).

Game 3 was the dullest of the series, but an average game when compared to the thousands played in the last 35 summers (overall: 51.2, late game importance: 30.0, rally: 55.0, equilibrium: 70.6). Seattle was up 6-1 by the end of the sixth and was able to keep the Yankees at a distance, setting the final score at 7-4.

In Game 4, the Mariners looked headed to elimination, being behind 5-0 after two and a half, but they scored four runs in the third, tied the game in the fifth and put their nose ahead in the sixth. New York tied it in the eight, but Seattle erupted for five runs in the same inning, thanks to a grand slam by Edgar Martinez and a solo shot by Jay Buhner. The Yankees had some more gas left in the tank for the ninth, but they could make it only to 11-8.

The game thermometer for this one is the following: overall 60.0; late-game importance 63.0; rally 78.6; equilibrium 38.5.

The deciding Game 5 rivaled in intensity with the second duel of the series. It is ranked eighth overall among Division Series contests (overall 87.4; late-game importance 86.2; rally 95.9; equilibrium 80.2).

Seattle struck first (a Joey Cora home run in the third). The Yankees rapidly answered with a two-run bomb by Paul O’Neill in the top of fourth, and the game was again tied in the bottom part of the frame on a single by Jay Buhner.

Don Mattingly hit a bases-loaded ground-rule double to put the Pinstripes two runs ahead in the sixth. The Mariners answered in their next-to-last attack. Griffey homered, then pinch hitter Doug Strange drew a bases-loaded walk to tie the game again and send starter David Cone to the showers.

When the game went into extra innings, manager Lou Piniella went to his ace Randy Johnson for an emergency relief appearance.

The Big Unit responded by striking out the side in the 10th. Buck Showalter, on his part, resorted to small-ball tactics to score a run against the tall flamethrower: after a leadoff walk he removed catcher Mike Stanley for pinch runner Pat Kelly, who was promptly moved to second via the bunt by Tony Fernandez; the ensuing Randy Velarde‘s single was enough to drive Kelly in from the keystone sack.

After having come back from a two-game deficit, the Mariners needed one more rally in the bottom of the 11th inning of Game 5.
Cora and Griffey singled back-to-back and Edgar Martinez hit a line drive into deep left field; Griffey motored all the way from first to home, and his teammates piled up on him when he slid safely to end the series.

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