The top ten postseason series of all-timeby Chris Jaffe
October 24, 2011
Well, it’s that time of the year again—the postseason. Every year I hope for some exciting, awesome unforgettable playoff action. Wondering/thinking/hoping for great postseason baseball is on my mind, and when something is on my mind, that can only mean one thing is coming—a list.
It’s a simple question: What are the best postseason series of all-time? To date, 262 October series have been completed—the current World Series is number 263. What are the 10 best?
Rather than just arbitrarily come up with a list, I figured I’d come up with a formula. No formula can be perfect or even close, but it helps organize things in one’s mind. This is loosely inspired by Bill James’ old Hall of Fame monitor, or some various lists Joe Posnanski has done on his blog.
I’m not claiming mine works as well as James’ Hall of Fame monitor (or even some of Joe Poz’s lists), but it works effectively. Virtually all the info that goes into it can be found just by looking at the overview for a given postseason at Baseball-Reference.com without checking on individual games.
I can claim to have some idea what makes a postseason game great. Years ago, I did a series of articles here at THT on the ten best Game Ones in World Series history, the ten best Game Twos, the ten best Game Threes – and so on through the ten best Game Sevens.
In the process, you can see patterns as to what makes games memorable. Most notably, almost all really famous postseason games contain some kind of tense late-inning drama. There are a few exceptions, but only a few.
I don’t want to bore everyone with the math involved—for those interested, the exact formula is listed down in the references and resources section at the article’s conclusion. It’s not intended to be anything especially complex. For here, let’s just note the factors it contains.
Several factors go into it. Late dramatics are prioritized—if the game ends on a walk-off play, if there are lead changes or ties in the eighth inning or later, if there are extra innings, these things all help. A game gets points for having a close final score. The longer a series lasts and the more elimination games it features, the more points.
Is there great pitching? Points are awarded for shutouts and for holding the opposition to few hits. Any great hitting performances? Points for any time a batter gets multiple homers in a game. If it’s a back-and-forth game with many lead changes and ties, points for that.
They’re not all weighted equally, but as feels appropriate. Again, you can scroll down below to see the exact math. An average series scores at 45 points. One series in baseball history comes in at zero.
There’s a heavy domination of recent postseason series on this list. In part its random happenstance, and in part it’s due to the larger number of postseason series. Three-quarters of all series come from the divisional era. Perhaps more importantly, nearly half of all best-of-seven series have occurred since 1986, and longer series have more chances to score higher.
Before getting to the top ten, here’s the runner-up ten, ranked from 20th to 11th:
Series Winner Loser Score 20. 1956 W.S. NYY BRK 93.2 19. 2009 ALCS NYY LAA 93.8 18. 1972 W.S. OAK CIN 96.8 17. 2003 NLCS FLA CHC 98.3 16. 1972 ALCS OAK DET 98.3 15. 1986 ALCS BOX CAL 103 14. 2003 ALDS BOX OAK 103.3 13. 1980 NLCS PHI HOU 105 12. 1985 ALCS KCR TOR 108.3 11. 2008 ALCS TBR BOX 110.3
Let’s briefly pause. Based on the list above and your own knowledge of baseball history, care to guess what series might make the top ten below? Take a few seconds to come up with your own list before scrolling down.
Ready? OK, now for the ten best postseason series of all-time:
10. 1997 ALCS: Indians over the Orioles in six games. 110.8 points.
Did you guess this one? Me neither. I'd never heard of this series. (The late 1990s were a low point for my following of baseball). This was filled with near-constant tension and plenty of late drama.
Normally I won’t recap the series—most of these are already really famous and it takes to long. But since this one is obscure, let’s look at it.
Game One was the least eventful game in the series, notable solely for great pitching by the Orioles, who won 3-0.
Things get a little more interesting in Game Two. The Indians early 2-0 lead is erased by Baltimore, who went up 4-2. In the top of the eighth, the Indians score three for a 5-4 win.
Game Three was even more exciting still. The Indians took a 1-0 lead into the ninth inning, only to see Baltimore push the tying run across on a Brady Anderson double. Cleveland won three innings later on a walk-off steal of home by Marquis Grissom. Yes, you read that correctly—a walk-off steal of home. Don’t see that happen every day. In fact, I believe it’s the only postseason game in history to end on a walk-off steal of home.
In Game Four, the Indians won their third straight game in dramatic fashion. They entered the ninth up 7-6, when Baltimore tied it in the top of the ninth for the second straight game. For the second straight game, it was all for naught. There was no extra innings this time, as Sandy Alomar, Jr. belted a walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth for an 8-7 win.
Game Five was the first possible elimination game of the series, as Baltimore needed a win to stay alive. They got it, with a narrow 4-2 victory. It nearly was a third straight walk-off win for Cleveland, as they scored twice in the bottom of the ninth and had runners on second and third when the game ended.
Game Six was yet another tension-filled game. For nine innings, neither side could score, causing the second straight extra-inning contest. Heck, Cleveland only had two hits at that point. They got their third in the 11th though, when Tony Fernandez belted a solo homer for a 1-0 win and the pennant.
It’s stuff like this that makes me use some sort of mathematical formula for figure out the best series. Sure, no formula is perfect, but aside from some Indians or Orioles fans, who’d ever think to include this in a list of ten greatest postseason series of all-time? Looking at it, though, it has a solid case.
9. 1924 World Series: Senators over the Giants in seven games. 112.8 points.
This is the only pre-divisional play series to make the list. If you’re curious, here’s a list of the highest-scoring postseason series by decade, 1900s-60s:
Decade Series Winner Loser Pts 1900s 1908 World Series CHC DET 49 1910s 1912 World Series BOX NYG 99.7 1920s 1924 World Series WAS NYG 112.8 1930s 1935 World Series DET CHC 72.8 1940s 1947 World Series NYY BRK 72.7 1950s 1956 World Series NYY BRK 93.2 1960s 1960 World Series PIT NYY 84.5
The 1924 Fall Classic featured two extra-inning games, including its Game Seven, which wins my vote as the greatest Game Seven of them all. A third game ended on a walk-off double by Roger Peckinpaugh in the bottom of the ninth. Prior to 1975, it was the only World Series with two walk-off victories.
8. 2004 NLCS: Cardinals over the Astros in seven games. 114 points.
This Cardinals-Astros series set an LCS record that still stands with two walk-off home runs. It also happened in the 1988 World Series, but that’s it.
In fact, the walk-off home run is the most likely way to ensure a game becomes a classic. Think for a few seconds, what are some of the most famous World Series games you can think of? There’s the Carlton Fisk game, the Kirk Gibson game, the Bill Mazeroski game—all walk-off homers. Those shots score really well (and even more if it comes in extra innings), which is why the 2004 NLCS makes the top ten.
Both games ending with walk-off dingers in the 2004 NLCS were rather impressive contests even aside from the game-ending blast. Game Five was one of the greatest pitching duels ever. Entering the bottom of the ninth, not only was it a double shutout, but a double one-hitter. After a walk and a single, a Jeff Kent three-run dinger won it for Houston.
The next game ended on 12th-inning walk-off home run by Jim Edmonds. The only reason that one went 12 frames was because Houston tied it in the top of the ninth.
There was also a lot of back-and-forth in this series. Ten times a team trailing came back to either tie the score or take the lead outright, which ties the 1980 NLCS and Boston’s win in the 1999 ALDS for the second-most comebacks to at least tie in a postseason series.
7. 2004 ALCS: Red Sox over the Yankees in seven games. 124 points.
Rather famously, this is the only time a team came back from a three-games-to-none deficit to win it all. It’s the only series with four potential elimination games.
Two of its games ended in walk-off hits, which also helps. Both those games also saw late-inning comebacks in regulation. The comebacks in Game Four and Game Five are so famous that is isn’t worth recapping them.
One quick note, because my memory played tricks on me with this one. I thought both comebacks ended on walk-off home runs, but that wasn’t the case. David Ortiz belted a walk-off home run in Game Four, and a walk-off single in Game Five. He did, however, belt another walk-off homer earlier in the postseason, in Game Three of the 2004 ALDS over the Angels.
In all, the 2004 postseason featured six walk-off hits, five of which were home runs. Nice.
6. 1986 NLCS: Mets over the Astros in six games. 132 points.
Only twice in history has a postseason series gone at least six games with all its contests decided by two runs or fewer. This is one, and the other we’ll see later on. In all, four of the games in the NLCS came down to one run, and two runs decided the other pair of games.
It featured a pair of extra-inning games that combined for a postseason record 10 innings of extra play. So even though this was a six-game series, it had more innings in it than a typical seven-game showdown.
My hunch is that this series is underrated by my system. You don’t get any points for comebacks within a game that fall short, and this had one of the most exciting thwarted comebacks of all-time. In the 16th inning of Game Six, the Mets scores thrice in the top of the frame, only to see Houston score two in the bottom of the inning and load the bases before the Mets shut them down.
It’s part of what made Game Six arguably the greatest game ever, but comebacks that don’t come all the way back don’t score here.
5. 1995 ALDS: Mariners over the Yankees in five games. 132.7 points.
Wait—five-game series? Really? Yes, really.
Fun fact: This series set an all-time postseason record. Thirteen times, the trailing team rallied to either tie the score or take the lead. That’s the most, and it’s the most by a good margin. No other series has more than 10. In the 1995 ALDS, six times the trailing team tied, and seven times they took the lead.
Plus, the series featured two ridiculously exciting extra-inning games full of plenty of drama after the ninth inning.
Since baseball went to three rounds of playoffs in 1995, there have been nine times all the LDS in a given year didn’t add up to the 132.7 points of the 1995 Mariners-Yankees ALDS. Of the 84 best-of-five postseason series in history, only 10 score half as many points as this one, and only three have three-fourths of the points of this one. Yeah, it was a nice series.
4. 2001 World Series: Diamondbacks over the Yankees in seven games. 134.7 points.
This memorably featured three walk-off hits, including one home run. The two Yankee walk-off wins came in extra innings, and in each case the game lasted that long because New York tied the contests in the bottom of the ninth. Arizona’s walk-off, of course, was Game Seven, in which Arizona scored twice to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 win.
In other words, three times a team entered the bottom of the ninth trailing but went on to win the game. That’s never happened before or since in the postseason.
This even scores well in some of the more minor categories. For instance, a series gets one point every time a team is held to exactly three hits, and that happened a record-tying three times in this series. (It also happened in the infamous 1919 World Series thrown by the Black Sox).
3. 1975 World Series: Reds over the Red Sox in seven games. 135.7 points.
Oh yeah, this one. It’s one of the most iconic series ever. In my system, the 1975 World Series scores well in several categories.
Most notably, it’s tied for the lead in ninth-inning points with 26. In Game Two, the Reds scored twice in the top of the ninth to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 win. The next game, the Red Sox scored twice in the ninth to tie the game 5-5, only to lose 6-5 in extra innings. Finally, in Game Seven, the Reds broke a 3-3 deadlock by scoring the championship-claiming run in the top of the ninth.
Plus, there’s the legendary Game Six, in which both teams took turns coming back from three-run deficits before ending on Carlton Fisk’s legendary walk-off home run off the foul pole in the 12th inning.
Five games were decided by one run, and another contest featured a complete game shutout. Not bad.
2. 1991 World Series: Twins over the Braves in seven games. 137.5 points.
This scores as the greatest World Series in history. Given how many of the games went down to the wire, that’s not too surprising. Four games ended on a walk-off hit of some sort, the most by any series in October-dom. As an added bonus, one was a walk-off home run (by Kirby Puckett in Game Six), which is worth extra.
Rather fitting for a series with so many walk-off winners, five of its games were decided by one run, including its famous 10-inning, 1-0 Game Seven with Jack Morris tossing a complete-game shutout for the Twins over the Braves.
It’s also fitting that Game Seven went into extra innings. It was the third game of the series to do that, an all-time record in the World Series. Only the 1980 NLCS can top it, with four games that went beyond nine innings.
1. 1999 NLCS: Braves over the Mets in six games. 147.3 points.
This series coming in first is an upset, because it didn’t even last seven games. It still managed to pack more drama into six contests than any other series has in seven.
Remember how the 1986 NLCS was one of only two series to have all its games decided by two runs or fewer? Well, this is the other one. This series actually is a bit more impressive, because it had five one-run games, whereas 1986 had four.
What’s really sets the 1999 NLCS series apart is how much late-inning drama it contained. Three times, a team tied the score in the eighth inning. Three times, a team took the lead in the eighth inning. Twice a contest went into extra innings. Both those contests ended in walk-off wins.
And the walk-off extra inning wins weren’t even ordinary walk-off extra-inning wins. Only ten times in postseason history has a team fallen behind in the top half of an extra inning only to rally for the victory in the bottom of the frame. One of them came in Game Five of the 1999 NLCS, when the Mets won 4-3 in 15 innings after Atlanta took a 3-2 lead in the top of the 15th inning.
Only nine times has a team fallen behind in the top half of an extra inning only to tie it and force further extra innings. One of them came in Game Six of the 1999 NLDS. A Met run in the top of the 10th put them ahead 9-8, but Atlanta tied it then before winning on their pennant winning walk-off walk in the 11th inning.
Nothing like that has ever happened in back-to-back games, except for here. There really is nothing quite like the end of the 1999 NLCS.
References and Resources
All info comes from Baseball-Reference.com.
As for the formula itself:
Most of this is straightforward, except for the math on comebacks. I did the most research there and so spent more time on its math. Let’s save that for last and do the easier stuff first.
A series gets five points for every elimination game after the first one. (Since all series have to have at least one elimination game, it’s no achievement to have one).
A one-run game is worth three points, plus an additional point if the final score is 1-0. A two-run difference is worth one point.
A walk-off win is worth 10 points, plus an additional five points if it’s a walk-off home run. (Walk-off homers are the only part you can't find just by looking at the overview for a postseason series on its given page at Baseball-Reference.com.)
If a team ties the score in the ninth inning, it’s six points. If they take the lead, it’s seven points. Thus, if a team is down by a run entering the ninth and takes the lead, that’s 13 points total—six for tying and seven for the lead. Technically, a game can get 26 points in one ninth inning. If a 2-1 game entering the ninth becomes 3-2 after the top of the frame, and then 4-3 after it, that’s two ties and two leads taken in the ninth. (Plus whatever additional points you can get for the walk-off hit). No single ninth inning has ever generated 26 points, but it’s possible.
If a team ties the score in the eighth inning, that’s three points. If they take the lead, it’s four separate points. Thus, a team can get seven points if it goes from a one-run deficit to a one-run lead in the eighth. If both teams rally for the lead in the eighth, that’s a maximum of 14 points.
If a game goes into extra points, that’s three points. To that, add four points for every inning beyond the ninth. If a team falls behind in the top half of an extra inning and ties it in the bottom of the frame, that’s five point. If they take the lead, that’s an additional five points.
A series also gets points for its length. Here’s how it breaks down for a best-of-seven game series: 15 points for a full seven games, five points for six games, three points for five games, and no points for a sweep. For a best-of-five series, it’s 10 points for going the distance, two points for going four games, and none for a sweep.
For the handful of best-of-nines (1903, 1919-21 World Series), an eight-game series gets five points, and seven games is worth three points. That accounts for all of those series.
For great pitching, a shutout is worth two points, plus an additional point if it’s a complete-game shutout. A no-hitter is worth 10 points, plus an additional 10 if it’s a perfect game. Holding the opposing team to one hit is worth five points; a two-hitter is three points; one point for a three-hitter; and a half-point for a four-hitter.
An individual player getting three homers in a game nets seven points. If he gets just two homers, it’s two points.
Now for comebacks. There are three steps for it.
First step: The math here depends on progressive addition. Combing back from a one-run deficit is worth one point. Coming back from two runs is worth an additional two points, three in all (1+2). A three-run comeback is worth three more additional points, six in all (1+2+3), and so on. The biggest comeback in history is from an eight-run deficit, and that’s worth 36 points (1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8).
Second step: The above is nice, except there are two types of comebacks. Some just tie the score (erasing the old lead) and the other has the formerly trailing team take the lead. The latter is given extra points. Actually, it’s double. If a team trailing by one takes the lead, give them an extra point. If a team trailing by two runs takes the lead, give them an additional three points (1+2, again). And six additional points for taking the lead from a three-run deficit (1+2+3) and so on.
Third step: OK, the above steps are nice but lead to a huge problem—the points from comebacks overwhelm the overall scoring. Simply put, there are too damn many points floating around. Total comeback points based on this are 5,063, which would be a third of the overall score. Yeah, that’s too much. So the third step is simple—take all the above and divide by three. (This is why there are fractional scores, but oh well).
For example, look at the biggest comeback in postseason history. In the 1929 World Series, the A’s trailed the Cubs 8-0, but won 10-8. That’s 36 points for the comeback, and an additional 36 points for taking the lead. 72 points in all—until you divide by three. That leaves that comeback with 24 points.
Combing everything above, 262 postseason series combine for 11,728.8 points. Here’s a breakdown for them.
Comebacks are still the biggest item, at 1,687.7 points. Extra-inning points are next, at 1,637 points. Then comes walk-off wins (home runs and otherwise) at 1,500 points. Next, close games (one or two runs differences) are worth 1,495 points. Another 1,449 points are handed out based on length of the entire series. 1,220 points come from tying the score or taking the lead in the ninth. 861 points come from tying the score or taking the lead in the eighth. 755 points come from possible elimination games. 501 points come from shutouts. 380.5 points come from low-hit games. Finally, 283 points come from players with multi-home run performances.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.