The clutchiest hitter of all?by Carl Aridas
June 13, 2013
Baseball's best clutch hitter since World War II has been...
Bobby Murcer. I kid you not.
A recent article by William Tasker highlighted that Bobby Murcer has had the most key regular season hits in Yankees history since 1945. More big hits than "Mr. October," "Mr. November," and "Mr. May." More than Mickey Mantle or Yogi Berra, both of whom had a few ribbies while with the Yankees even if they didn’t get named after a month.
While researching, I found out that Mr. Tasker’s article understated the significance of key hits by Murcer. In fact, Bobby Murcer was actually the best clutch hitter, as measured by WPA, in all of baseball since World War II.
Using WPA, developed in large part by Tom Tango and defined in Baseball Reference's Glossary as "given average teams, this is the change in probability caused by this batter during the game. A change of +/-1 would indicate one win added or lost." The site has WPA going back to 1945.
Starting at a somewhat arbitrary WPA bar of .700, I was able to export data from Play Index to list all 1,511 such games and create the following chart of all players with five or more games with WPA >.700 as well as the sum of WPA in those games. As shown, Murcer is tied for the most such games and is second in total WPA produced during those games:
Player Name Games Sum of WPA Frank Robinson 8 6.55 Bobby Murcer 8 6.36 Eddie Murray 7 5.56 Al Kaline 7 5.40 George Brett 6 5.28 Hank Aaron 6 5.21 Harmon Killebrew 6 5.06 Todd Helton 6 5.02 Dante Bichette 6 5.01 Bobby Bonds 6 4.89 Tony Perez 6 4.78 Barry Bonds 5 4.52 Dwight Evans 5 4.34 David Ortiz 5 4.27 Albert Pujols 5 4.16 Willie McCovey 5 4.15 Willie Horton 5 4.13 Albert Belle 5 4.12 Raul Ibanez 5 4.09 Carlos Beltran 5 4.07 Reggie Smith 5 4.05 Alex Rodriguez 5 4.00 Kirk Gibson 5 3.93 Bobby Bonilla 5 3.92 Miguel Tejada 5 3.87 Steve Garvey 5 3.77 Dave Winfield 5 3.76
Raising the bar to players with at least four games with >.750 WPA and rerunning the reports and Excel queries yields the following table:
Player Name Games Sum of WPA George Brett 6 5.28 Todd Helton 6 5.02 Bobby Murcer 6 4.90 Frank Robinson 5 4.38 Raul Ibanez 5 4.09 Eddie Murray 5 4.09 Tony Perez 5 4.08 Al Kaline 5 3.95 Barry Bonds 4 3.78 Harmon Killebrew 4 3.64 Dave Kingman 4 3.60 Willie Montanez 4 3.58 David Ortiz 4 3.57 Dante Bichette 4 3.56 Dick Stuart 4 3.53 Lou Whitaker 4 3.52 Willie McCovey 4 3.44 Willie Horton 4 3.42 Albert Belle 4 3.38 Carlos Beltran 4 3.35 Reggie Smith 4 3.32 Roy Campanella 4 3.31 Jack Clark 4 3.30 Alex Rodriguez 4 3.29 Chipper Jones 4 3.28
Still tied for the most games, but now third in total WPA in those games.
Lifting the bar still higher, up to WPA>.800, I was able to export data from Play Index to list all 648 such games and create the following chart of all players with three or more games with WPA >.800 as well as the sum of WPA in those games. As shown, Murcer leads all of baseball in both categories.
Player Name Games Sum of WPA Bobby Murcer 6 4.90 Barry Bonds 4 3.78 George Brett 4 3.71 Harmon Killebrew 4 3.64 Dave Kingman 4 3.60 Frank Robinson 4 3.59 David Ortiz 4 3.57 Lou Whitaker 4 3.52 Raul Mondesi 3 3.07 Bobby Grich 3 3.00 Carlos May 3 2.97 Willie Montanez 3 2.80 Dante Bichette 3 2.80 Dusty Baker 3 2.77 Dick Stuart 3 2.75 Amos Otis 3 2.75 John Romano 3 2.68 Albert Pujols 3 2.67 Willie McCovey 3 2.67 Paul Molitor 3 2.61 Alan Trammell 3 2.60 Roy Campanella 3 2.55 Raul Ibanez 3 2.54 Hobie Landrith 3 2.53 Chipper Jones 3 2.53 Joe Carter 3 2.51 Mickey Vernon 3 2.51 Bobby Bonilla 3 2.47
Most readers of a certain age, especially those who are Yankees fans, will immediately think that one of the six must be the first game back on Aug. 4, 1979 after the funeral of Thurman Munson when Murcer drove in all five runs in a 5–2 game. In that game, however, Murcer had a WPA of .400. The six games included in the list above include:
1) Aug. 5, 1969 – WPA .839 In the highest WPA game of his career, Murcer did not even start. Brought in as a pinch-hitter in the seventh, Murcer flied out to left against Ken Tatum.
Down 2-0 in the bottom of the ninth, Ron Woods walked but things looked bleak as Roy White flied out and Joe Pepitone grounded to first. However Yankees catcher Frank Fernandez also walked and Angels manager Lefty Phillips brought in Clyde Wright, a tough lefty who went on to win 22 games in 1970. Murcer hit a three-run homer to win the game.
2) June 20, 1977 – WPA .836 In the second highest WPA game of his career, Murcer was batting clean-up for the Cubs against the Giants at Candlestick Park.
The game started quietly for Murcer, who ground out ground out against Jim Barr in the second and flied to left in the third. However in the fifth, following back-to-back singles by Larry Biittner and Bill Buckner Murcer homered, giving the Cubs a 4-0 lead. Murcer also doubled in the top of the eighth, scoring when Jerry Morales followed with a homer.
With his team behind 8-6 in the top of the ninth, Murcer came to the plate with the bases loaded and one out against Giants closer Gary Lavelle. Lavelle, a lefty, gave up a bases-clearing double to Murcer, who proceeded to steal third. The Giants tied the score in the bottom of the ninth against Donnie Moore, but the Cubs won 10–9 in 12 innings. For the game, Murcer had six RBIs.
3) Aug. 14, 1979 – WPA .810 Just 12 days after the death of Munson, the Yankees were hosting the Texas Rangers. In this game, Murcer batted lead-off and bunted for a hit in the third and following a Willie Randolph single, scored on Reggie Jackson’s single.
With the Yanks behind 3-2 in the seventh, Murcer hit a home run, evening the score against Rangers starter Doc Medich, a former Yankee. Down again 5-4 in the bottom of the eighth, with Roy White at first, Murcer hit a game winning two-run home run against Jim Kern.
4) June 14, 1980 – WPA .808 The scene was set with the Yankees trailing 1-0 against Rick Langford of the Oakland A’s at Yankee Stadium in the top of the ninth inning. With two outs and Reggie Jackson on first, Murcer hit a two-run homer. Langford led the AL with 28 complete games in 1980, while pitching 290 innings, directed by former Yankees manager Billy Martin.
5) July 7, 1971 – WPA .805 Murcer was one of the best players in the American League in 1971. That season, he had a career-best .331 batting average and led the league in OBP with .427 and OPS at .969. His OPS+ of 181 also lead the league. (Hank Aaron led all of baseball in OPS+ with a 194). An All-Star for the first of five consecutive years, Murcer had 6.5 WAR and finished seventh in MVP voting.
In this game at Tiger Stadium, Murcer doubled home Munson in the first. He singled with two out in the second, walked to lead off the fifth and grounded out in the eighth. In the 10th he doubled following a Munson single, but the Yankees did not score in the inning. In the 11th, Murcer plated Horace Clarke, who had singled, and Munson, who had walked, with a double, giving the Yankees a 5-3 lead they did not relinquish.
6) June 24, 1970 – WPA .804 The last game that met our criteria, this was the second game of a double-header at Yankee Stadium. Murcer had homered in his last at-bat of the first game. Batting second, Murcer hit a home run in the bottom of the first against left-hander Mike Paul. Murcer walked in the third and in the fifth, with the Yankees trailing 2-1, he hit a two-run home run. Facing Fred Lasher in the eighth, with the Yankees again trailing, this time by the score of 4-3, Murcer hit his third home run of the game and fourth of the day to tie the game. The Yankees won the game in nine 5 -4.
Murcer was signed to a contract in June 1964 by Yankees scout Tom Greenwade, the same scout who signed fellow Oklahoman Mickey Mantle. After coming up briefly to the Yankees in 1965 and 1966 amid high expectations—he was hailed as the "next Mickey Mantle"—Murcer fulfilled his military obligation in 1967 and 1968 before being called up to the majors to stay in 1969.
Never quite fulfilling the promise of becoming the “next Mickey Mantle,” Murcer still had a fine career triple slash line of .277/.357/.445 and finished with 252 home runs and 1,043 RBIs. As I hope this article helps illustrate, Bobby Murcer, who passed away from cancer on July 12, 2008, should be remembered not for what he did not become but instead as a hitter who was able to deliver more timely hits in key situations to help his team win—more than any other ball player since 1945.
An avid baseball fan who came of age reading the annual Baseball Abstracts of Bill James, Carl can be reached via e-mail at carlaridas AT gmail DOT com.