Here’s a question for you: What are the best games by the best players in baseball history? When did they shine and do the most to help their teams win?
First, let’s define what’s meant by “best game.” I’m distinguishing between a great performance and a great game. A great performance can be something like Jim Bottomley’s 12-RBI game where he went 6-for-6, or Willie Mays hitting four homers in one game. Those are the best days some Hall of Famers ever had. I’m looking not only for a time when a player had a great performance, but his achievements came in key moments.
In other words, I’m looking at WPA, the story stat that’s caught on tremendously over recent years. WPA has its critics, but it does a good job covering the ebbs and flows over a game as it calculates how each plate appearance affects the chances for either team to win the game.
When you get down to it, a player whose plate appearances made the biggest difference in helping his team win, that’s a pretty good definition of what makes a great game.
With that in mind, here are the best WPA performances by a Hall of Famer in the years for which WPA is available (from 1950 onward). I’ll divide this into two lists, one for hitters and one for pitchers. I probably missed some along the way, but here’s what I got.
First the hitters.
10. July 25, 1989: Kirby Puckett. 0.989 WPA
Puckett went 4-for-5 with a double and a triple, a run and two RBIs in Minnesota’s narrow 5-4 victory over the Jays. Naturally, Puckett was instrumental in that difference.
He came to the plate in the eighth and ninth innings and delivered big time in each frame. Leading off bottom of the eight with Toronto winning 4-2, Puckett blasted a triple, which by WPA’s math doubled Minnesota’s chances of winning. His real heroism came in the ninth, when Puckett strode to the plate with two outs, runners on first and second, and the Twins trailing 4-3. Puckett won the game with a walkoff double.
|The best day in the life of a great hitter.|
9. May 13, 1993: Paul Molitor. 1.000 WPA
Molitor’s Blue Jays defeated the Tigers 6-5, largely thanks to his four RBI. Like Puckett, Molitor had two big late at-bats that helped his team. In the bottom of the sixth, he blasted a two-run homer to give Toronto a 3-2 lead.
In the bottom of the ninth, he found himself facing the exact same situation Puckett had: His team was down by a run with runners on first and second and only one out left. Again like Puckett, he doubled them both home.
8. April 22, 1967: Willie McCovey. 1.002 WPA
When Willie McCovey retired, he was second on the all-time grand slams list. Thus, it’s appropriate he’s the one guy on the list with a grand slam in his big game.
With the Giants trailing the Braves 3-0, McCovey cleared the bases with one out in the bottom of the eighth. And he wasn’t quite done for the day.
The very next inning he came up again with the bases loaded. This time they game was tied and the Giants had two outs.
McCovey didn’t really do anything terribly heroic, but what he did was good enough for WPA: He grounded to the shortstop, who botched it. But the run scored, and WPA gives McCovey the credit.
That said, the slam was worth almost twice as much to WPA as the reaching on error.
7. July 11, 1965: Harmon Killebrew. 1.029 WPA
Howard Hawks once said to make a great movie you need four great scenes and no bad scenes. Killebrew achieved his high WPA with one extremely helpful moment in the game and no really hurtful ones.
His walk-off homer with two outs and a man on first for a 6-5 victory changed the Twins’ chances of winning from nine to 100 percent. With a single plate appearance boasting a 91 percent swing, Killebrew just needed a good day the rest of the way to make this list. That’s what happened, as he also had two singles and an intentional walk. Had it not been for a strikeout in the game, Killebrew would’ve ranked fifth on this list.
6. May 10, 1991: Roberto Alomar. 1.037 WPA
He hasn’t been inducted into Cooperstown yet, but he has been elected. Close enough for me to count him.
Alomar’s team lost 5-3 to the White Sox in 12 innings, but he is the reason it went 12. In the bottom of the ninth and eleventh innings, he came to the plate with the Blue Jays trailing by a run. Both times he knocked it out of the park. Earlier that day he singled twice and walked once, but it’s the pair of game-tying homers that gets him listed here.
5. June 23, 1984: Ryne Sandberg. 1.063 WPA
Figures this one makes the list. I don’t know how well known this is around the nation, but in Chicago it’s still fondly remembered as “the Sandberg game” and is fundamental to his memory. Like Alomar, Sandberg hit two game-tying homers, in the bottom of the ninth and tenth innings, respectively. As an added bonus, both came off Hall of Fame relief ace Bruce Sutter.
Even before those homers Sandberg had a great game, going 3-for-4 with four RBI before the late-inning heroics. Even his out drove in a run.
4. August 18, 1959: Hank Aaron. 1.112 WPA
This is a combination of the Alomar and Killebrew games. Like Alomar, Aaron came to the plate in the bottom of the ninth and eleventh with his team down by a run. Like Alomar, he hit two homers in the game.
However, only one of those homers came late, his 11th-inning shot. In the ninth, a would-be game ending fly ball to Dodger Dom Demeter in center was muffed, allowing the tying run to score from first. Again, WPA counts those for Aaron. All that matters in WPA’s calculations is the situation before and after the play. If the situation changes by a double or error, it doesn’t make any difference.
Aaron had a third chance for glory when he came to the plate in the 13th inning with the Braves again down by one. This time, the Dodgers intentionally walked him. Good move, as Aaron’s team lost—again like the Alomar game.
|Brett dominated like few ever have in any game.|
3. May 28, 1979: George Brett. 1.126 WPA
What’s the record for most hits by a player in the extra innings of one game? I dunno, but Brett may have set it here, with a single, double, and homer after the ninth inning in KC’s 5-4 win over Baltimore in 16 innings.
He also tied the game twice during regulation, ending the day with five hits (including two homers) while hitting for the cycle. Predictably, Brett saved the best for last, with a walk-off homer to win it all.
2. September 10, 1971: Hank Aaron. 1.159 WPA
Did Aaron’s other entry sound a bit cheap to you because of the crucial reached on error? That’s fine, because he’s the only person to make the hitter’s list twice. He also reached on an error in this game, but it was an inconsequential at-bat early in the game.
Later in the game, Aaron found his groove, as an RBI-double in the eighth inning helped spark a comeback rally. Most importantly, with the Braves trailing by one in the bottom of the eleventh, Aaron knocked out a walk-off homer. In between, he hit a double in the tenth that didn’t lead to any runs, but helped his score here.
1. May 26, 1962: Willie Mays. 1.204 WPA
In honor of the best WPA score by any Hall of Fame batter in one game, let’s look at all of his plate appearances:
In the bottom of the first with the Giants trailing the Mets 1-0, Mays walked with two outs. San Francisco’s chances of victory inched up from 41 to 42 percent.
In the bottom of the third and the Giants now training the Mets 3-2, Mays led off with a triple that increased their chances of victory from 43 to 54 percent.
Next time, Mays flew out to end the fifth, hurting the Giants’ chances by one percent.
He made up for that in the eighth. Leading off the inning with the Mets (yet again) up by one run, Mays blasted a game-tying solo shot that all by itself increased New York’s chances for victory by 30 percent.
The game went into extra frames, and Mays came to the plate in the bottom of the tenth. As was the case in every single plate appearance he had on the day, the Giants trailed by one run. Mays’ two-run, walk-off homer increased San Fran’s victory odds from 21 to 100 percent.
Now, the pitchers.
10. August 22, 1973: Gaylord Perry. 1.088 WPA
Get used to seeing Gaylord Perry here, as he’s on it multiple times. Makes sense. The hitters list showed the importance of extra-inning glory, and Perry recorded at least 28 outs in a game more times than any other pitcher in the last 90 years, 40 in all. Every time a pitcher can hold the opposition scoreless for an extra frame, the team’s chances of winning the game goes up by 14 percent according to WPA. In fact, all the pitching performances here went into extra innings.
This was just a classic pitcher’s duel, with Perry winning 1-0 after a 12-inning complete game over the White Sox.
9. August 27, 1976: Catfish Hunter. 1.095 WPA
This is the most recent game on the pitchers’ list. You can earn the most WPA by pitching for many innings, and no one does that any more.
Hunter lasted 13 innings. No one has gone that long in a game since 1983, though rival pitcher Frank Tanana also went 13 frames against Hunter and posted an even better WPA, 1.145. Hunter held the opposing Angels scoreless despite allowing 11 hits and a quartet of walks. He made the outs when he needed to, allowing Hunter’s Yankees to eventually win in 15 innings.
8. June 20, 1952: Satchel Paige. 1.103 WPA
This one is interesting: It’s a relief appearance, as Paige threw the eighth threw 17th innings in an 18-inning game. Given the importance of extra innings in tallying a great WPA score, it shouldn’t be surprising that an extended relief stint cracks the top ten. In fact, it won’t be the only relief effort listed here.
Technically speaking, this was a blown save. Paige entered with two on and no out in the eighth, and both inherited runners scored on a single and error. After that, Paige only allowed one runner to even reach third. The game ended in a 5-5 tie.
7. September 10, 1950: Hal Newhouser. 1.237 WPA
This is just a classic high-WPA pitching performance. Extra innings? Check—this one went 12 frames. A 1-0 score? Check again—the only run came on a Detroit triple-and-single combination in the top of the 12th.
The game had a bit of an exciting ending, as the White Sox got a runner to third base with two outs in the bottom of the twelfth, only the second time all game they made it to third. The Sox called up veteran contact-hitting specialist Luke Appling as a pinch hitter in that clutch situation. Newhouser fanned him.
Mind you, Appling only whiffed 528 times in over 10,000 plate appearances, but Newhouser got him anyway. As it happened, this was Appling’s final strikeout. He never went down on strikes in the remaining three weeks and 47 plate appearances of his career.
6. May 31, 1964: Gaylord Perry. 1.240 WPA
Yup, Perry again. This is different, though, as this was a relief appearance. Of his 40 outings over nine innings long, this was the only one out of the bullpen.
Perry entered in the 13th inning of a Mets-Giants game tied 6-6. When he left after the 22nd inning, it was still 6-6. He did get the win when the Giants scored twice in the top of the 23rd. And a well-earned win it was, as Perry allowed only eight base runners in ten innings with nine Ks.
It was actually the second game of a doubleheader. The two games lasted a combined 9 hours and 52 minutes, the record long for a non-rain-delayed doubleheader.
5. August 6, 1959: Hoyt Wilhelm. 1.319 WPA
Yeah, another relief appearance. Wilhelm lasted 10 innings of scoreless ball, allowing the opposing White Sox to garner only two hits and three walks along the way. Ultimately, the game ended in a 1-1 tie.
Incredibly, Wilhelm’s performance wasn’t the best WPA in the game. White Sox starting pitcher Billy Pierce posted a 1.332 by throwing the first 16 of the game’s 18 innings.
4. May 26, 1966: Juan Marichal. 1.327 WPA.
Marichal threw a complete-game, six-hit shutout in the Giants’ 1-0 victory over the Phillies in 14 innings. It’s not the longest 1-0 game Marichal ever won, and for that reason this isn’t the only time Marichal appears on this leaderboard.
|Ford: Best one-game WPA by a Hall of Fame American Leaguer.|
3. April 22, 1959: Whitey Ford. 1.413 WPA
Like the Perry relief game, this one is also a record setter: Ford’s great moment happens to be (I believe) the longest American League 1-0 game featuring a home run; Moose Skowron’s long ball in the 14th.
Ford went the distance, preventing anyone from reaching third base while he fanned a career-high 15.
2. July 2, 1963: Juan Marichal. 1.470 WPA
Here’s arguably the most famous pitcher’s duel in baseball history: The day Juan Marichal and Warren Spahn went at it for 16 innings until a Willie Mays homer won it for San Fran and the Giants, 1-0.
Spahn ended the day with a 0.970 WPA, which is amazingly high for a pitcher who lost the decision.
1. September 1, 1967: Gaylord Perry. 1.601 WPA
Perry is all over this list: Three appearances on his own, and he has a fourth performance that didn’t miss by much, either: a 1.023 WPA game in 1974. He even worked a few innings in relief in the Willie Mays game topping the hitter list.
This is the best WPA performance by any Hall of Famer, and by a wide margin. It’s also the best one-game WPA score by any player since 1955.
He threw 16 innings. It’s the only time anyone has thrown 16 innings in a game since the Juan Marichal-Warren Spahn duel in 1963. Only twice has a pitcher gone 15 innings since this game, and one of those times was by Perry. Oh, and he didn’t allow a single run. Not one. Thus, it’s the longest scoreless pitching appearance in MLB since Carl Hubbell went 18 innings in 1933.
Damn shame he didn’t get the win. The Giants emerged victorious, but it wasn’t until the 21st inning that they pushed a run across the plate. Or, more accurately, the opposing pitcher pushed a run across, as the game ended on a walk-off-walk.
At any rate, those are the greatest games by Hall of Famers. Then again, maybe this misses an even more enjoyable question: What are the worst games by Hall of Famers? We’ll look at that another time.
References & Resources
This project was based on the usage of Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index.