Fall Classics countdownby Max Marchi
January 28, 2011
Quick links to the previous articles.
- What makes an exciting game, revisited: showing how looking at Leverage Index and Win Expectancy from several angles can give some hints on how emotions move throughout games.
- More than three decades of exciting games: enters factor analysis, an advanced statistical technique, and the regular season games played since 1974 are ranked by the excitement they produced.
- The exciting games spreadsheet: a THT live entry—a cusomizable spreadsheet of every regular season game played since 1974 sortable by the "excitement factor".
- First round thrills: moving into postseason play and ranking the top League Division Series games—and the best first round ever.
- Pennant passion: it's time for the League Championship Series, thus the best Pennant games and series are proposed.
- World Series at its best: listing the best games of baseball final act, and comparing the results to Chris Jaffe's subjective rankings.
Evaluating the best World Series is the final test for the proposed statistical method. Usually, the 1975 and the 1991 Fall Classics are considered the most thrilling ever played, and a few years ago, having the DVD of all the games, I watched both of them in a short time span and decided that my favorite was the latter (although I had a hard time putting Luis Tiant's herky-jerky deliveries and Bill Lee's lollipop curves at second).
However, if you have read Chris Jaffe's article on the 1972 affair in the 2010 edition of our Annua,l you might be tempted to throw that one into the mix as well.
And what about 1924? We'll never be able to have DVDs of that one, but it featured the greatest Game Seven ever (according to both Jaffe's personal ranking and factor analysis) and a bunch of other really good contests.
It seems we nearly have a top five, so let's see what the statistical method we have been using in the last couple of months has to say on the issue.
No. 5: 1925, Pittsburgh Pirates (4), Washington Senators (3)
The 1924 World Series was special: It had the greatest Game Seven ever and the immortal Walter Johnson, who had gone the distance in Game Five on a losing cause and got the win pitching from the ninth to the end of the game in the 12th. But that series is barely out of the top five according to factor analysis.
It's the ensuing Fall Classic that makes the list, again featuring the Senators. The team from D.C. was counting again on The Big Train to provide three strong outings, and he responded, cruising in Game One (he went the distance, striking out 10, allowing the only run of the 4-1 victory on a Pie Traynor home run) and Game Four (a six-hit shutout).
Johnson's first two games, with the Pirates hitting the wind, make for the less appealing games of the series. Anyway, even if those contests lacked drama, it should have been a thrill watching Johnson mowing down the National League champions.
Squeezed between Walter's starts, the two most exciting contests took place. Both Game Two and Game Three ended with the losing team (Washington with nobody out and Pittsburgh with one out, respectively) loading the bases in the ninth and failing to drive in the run needed to tie the game.
Following The Big Train's masterpiece, the Senators needed just one win to repeat as World Champions. They had three chances at that, the first coming at home, the final (if necessary) featuring their ace on the mound. Washington scored first in both Game Five and Six, but Pittsburgh emerged victorious in both contests, by scores of 6-3 and 3-2.
So the great Walter Johnson was needed indeed for a seventh game and it looked like an easy job for him when he walked to the rubber in the bottom of the first with his team already ahead 4-0. But even The Big Train was human and surrendered three runs in the third. Then, after being provided with another two in the fourth by his teammates, he allowed a run in the fifth and two in the seventh to make the game tied at six with two inning to play in the series.
After Roger Peckinpaugh homered in the top of the eighth to put the Senators back on top, player-manager Bucky Harris decided to let Johnson pitch, despite the 12 hits already on his line in the box score and despite having a prototypical relief specialist in Firpo Marberry (39 games finished in the season, top in baseball with a wide margin).
It proved to be an unwise choice. Johnson was reached for three doubles and the Pirates took the lead for the first time. Pittsburgh skipper Bill McKechnie summoned reliever Red Oldham to close the game and he sealed an improbable series with a perfect ninth.
Game "temperatures" Game One: 44.3 Game Two: 74.2 Game Three: 80.3 Game Four: 42.1 Game Five: 64.5 Game Six: 57.3 Game Seven: 62.3 Series Average: 60.7
No. 4: 1972, Oakland Athletics (4), Cincinnati Reds (3)
The Fall Classic of 1972 is seldom mentioned as one of the best ever, but Jaffe made a compelling case for it in the 2010 Hardball Times Baseball Annual. Thus, if you want to relive the battle between the clean-shaven, well-behaved Cincinnati Reds and the mustached fighting A's donning flashy gold and green uniforms, take last year Annual off the shelf and read Chris' "The Best Series? Get the Hook".
Six out of seven games were decided by one run, the only exception being an 8-1 Game Six Reds triumph (Cincinnati scored five runs in the seventh, and that was the only time throughout the series either team had a lead of more than two runs).
It was the Series of unlikely hero Gene Tenace, who homered in his first two at-bats in Game One (and drove in nine of the 16 runs the Athletics scored), it featured a sensational catch by Joe Rudi robbing Dennis Menke of an extra base hit in the bottom of the ninth in Game Two and was the spotlight of one of the most controversial plays in baseball lore: the fake intentional pass to Johnny Bench in Game Three.
Game Four saw the Reds scoring twice in the top of the eighth to take a 2-1 lead, and the A's coming back with two of their own (obtained with a merry-go-round of three pinch hitters and two pinch runners used by quick thinking manager Dick Williams) to steal the win and inch one game away from the Championship.
In the fifth contest it was the Reds' turn to rally with two runs in the final innings (one in the eighth, one in the ninth); the Big Red Machine was also able to escape a comeback attempt by the A's in the final frame, ending the contest with a double play featuring the final out at the plate.
After the lopsided sixth game, the deciding game ended with the tying run on base for the losing Cincinnati Reds, something that had also happened in four of the previous six games.
Game "temperatures" Game One: 65.3 Game Two: 46.3 Game Three: 65.6 Game Four: 75.6 Game Five: 68.9 Game Six: 41.4 Game Seven: 63.9 Series Average: 61.0
No. 3: 1952, New York Yankees (4), Brooklyn Dodgers (3)
One of many Yankees-Dodgers duels of the era, the 1952 version did not feature exceptional games, the best being an 11-inning 6-5 Brooklyn victory in Game Five.
I'm tempted to mark this one as a failing by the ranking algorithm; however the series featured the most interesting games right at the end.
After the extra-inning loss in the fifth, the Yankees faced elimination. The sixth contest was a pitching duel between Vic Raschi and Billy Loes, the scoring coming on flashes of talent by Duke Snider (twice), Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle, all of them connecting for solo homers.
The run making the difference was driven in by Yankees starter Raschi, who wasn't lifted for a pinch hitter with two out and Gene Woodling on second in the top of the seventh inning.
Allie Reynolds, who was called in from the bullpen for a four-out save in Game Six, was not the starter for New York in the final game, but came in to replace junkballer Eddie Lopat after three. The Yankees scored in the top of the fourth and fifth, but both runs were immediately returned by the Dodgers in the bottom of the same innings. However the Pinstripes continued to plate one run both in the sixth and the seventh, courtesy of Mantle's bat.
Even Raschi had his stint on the mound in Game Seven but, having pitched extensively the day before, loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the seventh. Manager Casey Stengel went to Bob Kuzava, who retired Snider on a pop fly to third and Jackie Robinson on a pop fly which looked destined to fall in nobody's land before second baseman Billy Martin ran in for a shoestring catch. The Yankees closer was nearly perfect for the final two innings (the only Dodgers baserunner coming on an error), and the Dodgers had to wait another year (actually three).
Game "temperatures" Game One: 60.6 Game Two: 54.1 Game Three: 57.3 Game Four: 51.5 Game Five: 79.9 Game Six: 70.4 Game Seven: 65.9 Series Average: 62.8
No. 2 & No. 1: 1975 Cincinnati Reds (4), Boston Red Sox (3) vs. 1991, Minnesota Twins (4), Atlanta Braves (3)
We are left with the two best World Series ever and the algorithm based on factor analysis agrees with common wisdom: It's a showdown between 1975 and 1991.
It's Luis Tiant's complete game">'s complete game shutout against Jack Morris, going the distance but surrendering a couple of runs (but we know he pitched to the score, don't we? This one would make a good case for the theory—Morris allowed the Braves runs when he had a safe margin to work with).
Though El Tiante's victory is more lopsided (6-0 for him against Don Gullett, 5-2 for Morris against Charlie Leibrandt), it all came down to Boston bats exploding in the sixth inning (Tiant himself started the fireworks with a leadoff single).
Game "temperatures" 1975: 60.6 1991: 54.1
Both games ended 3-2, Minnesota scoring the winning run in the bottom of the eighth, Cincinnati coming back with two runs in the top of the ninth.
Tom Glavine took home a very tough loss, conceding a grand total of four base hits, while putting six goose eggs on the scoreboard between a Chili Davis two-run homer in the first and Scott Leius' solo dinger in the eighth.
Bill Lee hadn't much more luck: He was lifted after a leadoff double in the top of the ninth, the fifth hit he allowed, but reliever Dick Drago, after quickly disposing of Tony Perez and George Foster, was unable to protect the lead and allowed the consecutive hits (to Dave Concepcion and Ken Griffey) that gave the Reds the comeback victory.
Game "temperatures" 1975: 71.4 1991: 73.2
Two games ending in extra innings, the Red Sox coming back from a 5-1 deficit to tie it in the ninth (but eventually losing it one inning later), the Twins rallying from a 4-1 gap with one run in the seventh and two in the eighth (also losing the game later).
Game Three of 1975 had its signature moment when Ed Armbrister laid down a bunt which Carlton Fisk quickly collected, gthen stood in Pudge's way as he tried to retire the runner going to second. That led to a wild throw and the Reds ended up with two men in scoring position and nobody out as umpire Larry Barnett refrained from calling interference. A couple of batters later, the game ended on Joe Morgan's single to center.
The third contest of 1991 saw Braves manager Bobby Cox employ 19 players and Twins skipper Tom Kelly 23. Probably for his lack of experience with DH-less National League rules, Kelly found himself with no pinch hitter to put in for pitcher Mark Guthrie in the 11th with the bases loaded and two out; he went with Rick Aguilera, another pitcher who had some NL experience. Aguilera managed a decent fly to center, which however Ron Gant easily tracked down.
A few moments later, Aguilera was in his territory on the pitcher's mound: He retired Gant on a long fly to center, then allowed a single to David Justice, before retiring Brian Hunter on a pop fly to second. However Justice moved himself in scoring position with a steal and, after a walk to Greg Olson, rounded third on Mark Lemke's single to short left, and beat Dan Gladden's throw home for the winning run.
Game "temperatures" 1975: 65.7 1991: 89.3
Both Game Fours were decided by one run, but the game from 1975 did not have much action after the initial fireworks set the score to 5-4 Boston for good after just four innings of play. Cincinnati had one last chance in the bottom of the ninthwhen Ken Griffey Sr. and Joe Morgan went to bat with runners on first and second, but failed to drive in any of them.
The contest of 1991, on the contrary, was intense right until the end. After both teams homered in the seventh, the score was tied at two entering the bottom part of the ninth inning. The Braves' Olson was retired shortstop-to-first to open the frame, but Lemke followed with a triple. That started a chess game between Kelly and Cox.
Kelly ordered an intentional pass to Jeff Blauser. Cox sent Francisco Cabrera to the plate for pitcher Mike Stanton; Kelly countered with a double switch, sending Steve Bedrosian to the mound. Cox responded by pinch hitting for his pinch hitter.
When the actual baseball game resumed Jerry Willard hit a fly ball to right. Lemke tagged from third and the play at home was even closer than the game before: Shane Mack's throw beat him at the plate, but umpire Ted Tata signaled him safe, stirring up Bedrosian's and catcher Brian Harper's vibrant protests. However replays showed how Lemke had avoided Harper's tag with his hook slide.
Game "temperatures" 1975: 58.9 1991: 71.9
Game Fives were the least interesting of both series. The Reds won theirs 6-2, while the Braves pounded the Twins by a score of 14-5,
Game "temperatures" 1975: 49.3 1991: 41.0
Cincinnati came back from a 3-0 deficit, then Boston, four outs away from elimination, rallied from down 6-3 to tie the game on a three-run homer by pinch hitter Bernie Carbo. Boston had its chance at winning the game in the ninth, but George Foster's throw from left nailed Denny Doyle attempting to score on Fred Lynn's flyball. Then Dwight Evans robbed Morgan of a two-run homer in the top of the 11th and doubled Griffey off first on the play. The game-ending play is one of the best-known images of baseball history: Carlton Fisk waving his arms wishing the ball to stay fair on the second pitch of the 12th inning.
If the 1975 contest was Fisk's game, Kirby Puckett put his signature on 1991 Game Six: He went three-for-four with a triple and the game-winning homer, stole a base, drove in three of Minnesota's four runs (scoring himself the other) and made a sensational leaping catch against the plexiglass to rob Gant of an extra-base hit. In the bottom of the 11th, he hit the walk-off blast which prompted Jack Buck's famous "And we'll see you tomorrow night."
Game "temperatures" 1975: 83.1 1991: 78.6
The Red Sox looked on their way to win the 1975 Fall Classic when they ran away with a 3-0 lead in the third exploiting Gullett's wildness (four walks in the inning, two of them forcing in consecutive runs). But the Reds crept closer when Tony Perez sent one of Bill Lee's signature lollipop curves over the Green Monster for a two-out, two-run homer. The Big Red Machine completed the comeback one inning later, on a single by Pete Rose, again with two out, driving Griffey home. The series was fittingly decided in the ninth inning of the final game, when Morgan singled home Griffey. Once more the Sox were one out away from escaping from the inning.
The 1991 World Series was decided even later. The scoreboard was still full of goose eggs after the regulation innings, thanks to a double masterpiece by veteran Jack Morris and youngster John Smoltz.
The eighth inning saw the most action from both teams. Atlanta opened the top part with a single by Lonnie Smith. Following him, Terry Pendleton unleashed a line drive to left-center, good enough for a double. However, thinking quickly, the Twins' keystone combo (Greg Gagne and Chuck Knoblauch) pretended to force Smith at second on a grounder, and the runner slowed down a little. Due to his hesitation, Smith was able to reach only third on Pendleton's double.
The inning was anyway promising for the Braves, since they had runners on second and third and nobody out. Gant's ensuing grounder was collected by first baseman Kent Hrbek, who managed to keep both runners glued to their base. Justice was intentionally sent to first to load the bases and Sid Bream grounded to first. Hrbek nailed Smith at home and quickly returned to his bag to collect Harper's throw to complete the 3-2-3 double play.
Minutes later, Hrbek was at the plate in a similar situation: He hit a bases loaded line drive to second baseman Jeff Blauser, who doubled Knoblauch off the base to end the inning.
Atlanta managed to escape another threat in the bottom of the ninth, which the Twins had opened with consecutive singles. Alejandro Pena was brought in to replace Mike Stanton (who had taken Smoltz out of the jam in the eighth) and took care of the situation, inducing Mack to ground into a double play and striking out pinch hitter Paul Sorrento.
Morris breezed through his 10th inning of work. Then, Gladden opened the bottom of the 10th with a double and was moved to third via a sacrifice. Consecutive intentional walks brought DH Jarvis Brown to the plate, but Kelly sent Gene Larkin to bat for him: his long flyball went over the shallow Braves outfielders, giving the Twins their second World Series title.
Game "temperatures" 1975: 71.5 1991: 85.4
It's unbelievable how the two greatest World Series resemble one another: a not-much-fought Game One, a 3-2 Game Two decided in the final innings, an extra-inning Game Three with the rallying team ending up on the losing side, a one-run Game Four, a forgettable Game Five, a Game Six decided by a walk-off blast in extra innings and a Game Seven resolved on a run in the last inning. It should really be a tie, only we have to follow the factor analysis ranking. Thus 1975 comes in second and 1991 first.
Average "temperatures" 1975: 65.4 1991: 68.2
Special mentions: shorter Series
Sometimes even a series not going the full seven can be very exciting. We have seen an example in the Pennant series article, with the 1999 NLCS.
I remember watching the 2005 World Series on TV and having the feeling of having been treated to a great series—even after a sweep!
So let's introduce the best of the shorter World Series.
Four games: 2005, Chicago White Sox (4), Houston Astros (0)
The 2005 World Series averages the highest game temperature according to factor analysis. It was indeed an exciting series, despite the White Sox sweeping the Astros. The 5-3 Game One was the most lopsided, as Ozzie Guillen's players won Game Two on an improbable walk-off homer by Scott Podsednik (no dingers in the whole regular season), Game Three in 14 innings and Game Four 1-0, the only run coming on a two-out single by Jermaine Dye in the eighth.
The 1950 Yankees sweep of the Phillies, with three one-run contests, is the runner-up.
Five games: 1915, Boston Red Sox (4), Philadelphia Phillies (1)
In 1915 the Phillies disposed of the Red Sox 3-1 in less than two hours in Game One Baker Bowl. The ensuing four games saw the Bostonian emerge victorious by the minimum margin (three times 2-1, then 5-4 in the final contest). Only once in the series did the winning run cross the plate before the eighth inning. The winning team sent to the mound a grand total of three pitchers, countered by four on the losing side.
Coming at second is the 2000 Subway Series featuring games decided by two runs at most.
Six games: 1992, Toronto Blue Jays (4), Atlanta Braves (2)
The 1992 World Series had just one lopsided game (Atlanta winning Game Five 7-2) and one two-run affair (Atlanta winning Game One 3-1), while every Blue Jays victory was obtained with the minimum margin.
Toronto rallied in Game Two from a 4-2 deficit, scoring once in the eighth and twice in the ninth; the Blue Jays scored one run in each of the final two innings of Game Three to win it 3-2; and they held on their slim 2-1 lead in Game Four.
In Game Six, the Braves were able to survive when they tied the contest in the bottom of the ninth on Otis Nixon's single, but they surrendered two runs in the 11th on a two-out double by Dave Winfield. Atlanta cut the Jays lead in half in the bottom of the frame and had the tying run 90 feet from home with two out. Otis Nixon tried to catch the Canadian defense off guard but his bunt was cleanly fielded by reliever Mike Timlin who had just entered the game.
Ranked second is the 1980 Phillies-Royals Fall Classic, featuring three games decided by one run (one in extra innings) and two decided by two.
An October for the ages
In the 2003 postseason, 38 games were played of the theoretical maximum of 41.
In the first round the Yankees defeated the Twins 3-1, while Boston came from behind 2-0 to win three in a row and advance to the ALCS. Except for Oakland's 5-1 win in Game Two, they were all very close games, two of them decided in extra innings.
In the National League, the Marlins won 3-1 over the Giants, thanks to a 4-3 win in 11 innings in Game Three and a 7-6 victory in Game Four, ended with Ivan Rodriguez holding the ball on J.T. Snow charging of home plate. The Cubs and the Braves went the distance, exchanging punches in four games decided by two runs until Chicago emerged with an imposing 5-1 score in Game Five.
Both Championship Series went the full seven games. Two of the first four games of the Marlins-Cubs series had required extra innings, but the Cubs were just one victory away with three remaining to play. Chicago lost Game Five 4-0, then moved to the friendly confines of Wrigley Field, where it found itself five outs away from the World Series with a commanding 3-0 lead. Fan Steve Bartman's alleged interference gets often the blame for the North Siders' collapse, but the fact is the Marlins scored eight runs in that eighth inning and the won Game Seven.
Battling for the junior circuit title, the Red Sox won the first, the fourth and the sixth games of the ALCS and were resting on ace Pedro Martinez's shoulders with a 5-2 lead after seven and a half in the deciding game. Manager Grady Little had a slow hook, leaving his starter on the mound to surrender four consecutive hits (three doubles and a single) in the eighth, allowing the Yankees to tie the game. Later in the night, Aaron Boone deposited an 11th-inning Tim Wakefield knuckleball in the stands, sending the Yankees to the World Series.
The final act of the season looked like a David vs. Goliath affair, and the Yankees actually crushed the Marlins with scores of 6-1 in both Game Two and Three. Nevertheless the Fish managed to take home the close contests, winning 3-2 in Game One, 4-3 in 11 innings in Game Four, 6-4 in Game Five, and 2-0 in the final Game Six, thanks to a five-hit shutout by a young Josh Beckett.
According the factor analysis, the 2003 postseason is the most exciting in baseball history.
References and Resources
This series of articles would not have been possible without Retrosheet's effort in collecting and sharing tons of play-by-play data.
Also big thanks to FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference for making those data easily available.
After creating a baseball rendition of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper cover, Max began his baseball writing because he needed an excuse to show the picture. He wrote for an Italian audience for six years before making the jump to The Hardball Times. You can contact him by e-mail.