The clutchiest hitter of all?

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.

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Comments

  1. designated quitter said...

    Bobby Murcer was my idol growing up.  Somehow, I remember today the Yankees games you summed up here.  I was crushed when he was traded.

    My recollection of the 8/4/79 game was that the Yankees played the Orioles and that they were trailing until Murcer homered late. Am I mistaken?

  2. Carl said...

    hopbitters,

    I apologize for my typo, you are quite correct that the Munson game referenced in the paragraph before I start listing the description of the top WPA games in Murcer’s career was played on August 6, 1979 not August 4, 1979 and the score of the game was 5-4 not 5-2.

    designated quitter,

    In the 8/6/79 game, the Yankees were losing 4-0 until Murcer hit a 3-run homer in the 7th to make it 4-3 and in the bottom of the ninth with 2 out and men on second and third, Murcer singled to score 2 and win the game.

  3. Andrew said...

    So six games out of almost 2000 that he played is enough to label him the best clutch hitter since WWII?  I don’t think that only looking at the very best games out of someone’s career is the best way to answer this question.

  4. John C said...

    Just subjectively based on the baseball I’ve seen in my lifetime, I would have said George Brett was the best clutch hitter in the recent history of the game, with David Ortiz not far behind. The fact they’re both on the list, and Brett is at or near the top, tells me that at least some of my impressions must have been valid.

  5. Ron said...

    Smart, Professional, Clutch Hitter….
    You will always see Kaline’s name mentioned with the above words used to describe a Hitter of his caliber.

  6. Marc Schneider said...

    This is simply an interesting exercise designed, it seems to me, to point out that Murcer was an underrated player. It’s not clear that there is any such thing as a “clutch hitter.”  There are obviously players that get clutch hits, but a lot of that is simply opportunity and, more generally, overall hitting ability.  I don’t think that Carl would argue that Bobby Murcer was a better hitter than Mickey Mantle or Yogi Berra. His status is a function of a particular definition of clutch hit.  All of the players on the lists were good hitters, but, as with RBIs, they got a lot of clutch hits because they were good hitters, they weren’t good hitters because they got a lot of clutch hit.

  7. Carl said...

    Hi Marc,

    I certainly would not argue that Murcer was a better hitter than either Mantle, Berra or dozens of other elite hitters.  Murcer was underrated in my opinion and the article was written to point out what was a surprise finding of my exercise, which does rely on both a particular tool (WPA) and definition (various levels of WPA per game) of “clutch”.  I actually started the exercise expecting to find a more traditional big-name slugger to lead the lists.

    What I did not highlight in the article that although Murcer’s career OPS .802 (shown in last paragraph) his OPS in the ninth inning was .891 (11% better than his career average) and the highest of any inning in his carer.  His OPS is extra innings was .851 (6% better than his career average).  Perhaps just an ability to focus just a little more in higher leverage situations?

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