What has been the most critical at-bat in the history of major league baseball? Think about it.
Perhaps you want some definitions. By most critical, I mean the at-bat in which the championship of major league baseball most hung in the balance. By history, I mean every year since 1901, when baseball donned its modern form.
Okay, let’s discuss criticality. For an at-bat to be critical, it has to occur in late-season games. I think that’s obvious, but just in case it’s not: When a game occurs early in the season, there is time left for the team to overcome its loss, or lose its lead. But when a game occurs late in the season, there’s no time left for major changes. You might not want to call late-season games more important, but you can call them more critical.
Let’s keep the clock moving forward. If late-season games are more critical, it stands to reason that postseason games are even more critical. World Series games are most critical. The seventh game of the World Series is the most, most critical.
Within that seventh game, late innings will be most critical. In fact, let’s just flash forward all the way to the bottom of the ninth. Take it to the extreme… two outs in the bottom of the ninth. The last tick of the clock.
The score and baserunning situation also have to be considered. A tie score is obviously tense and critical, but tie games go into extra innings if an out is made. So let’s give the visiting team a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth.
And baserunners? Put the tying and winning runs on second and third, and then you’ve got one heck of a critical situation: An out means the visiting team wins, but most base hits result in a home team win. That’s a swing of one full world championship.
So this is our hypothetical really, really critical situation: bottom of the ninth with two outs in the seventh game in the World Series, visiting team leading by one, runners on second and third. It’s happened once in the history of major league baseball. Recognize it yet?
‘Twas in 1962. The Yankees and Giants had played a terrific World Series, and the seventh game was one for the history books. The wind was blowing in at Candlestick, resulting in a terrific pitcher’s duel, the only 1-0 seventh game that doesn’t evoke a Hall of Fame credentials debate.
The Yankees had scored their lone run on a double play grounder by Tony Kubek with the bases loaded. Yankee Ralph Terry, having given up just two hits and no walks, was shutting out the Giants entering the bottom of the ninth.
Matty Alou led off the ninth with a perfect drag bunt to reach first, but Terry retired the next two batters, putting the Yankees one out away from victory. However, Willie Mays lined a double to right, Roger Maris quickly got the ball back to the infield and Alou stopped at third. Thus it was that Willie McCovey, one of the greatest batters in major league history, came to the plate in the most critical at-bat of all time.
Terry was obviously tiring; McCovey had hit a two-out triple off him in the seventh. Plus, McCovey was a lefty batter, Terry was a righty, first base was open and Orlando Cepeda, a right-handed batter, was on deck.
Manager Ralph Houk didn’t relieve Terry and he didn’t have Terry walk McCovey, two curious choices that would rarely be made today. He had Terry pitch to McCovey. The outcome was so dramatic that it resulted in the only Peanuts comic strip to ever comment on current events, when Charlie Brown cried, “Why couldn’t he have hit the ball three feet higher!?”
“He” was McCovey, and three feet was the difference between Bobby Richardson‘s head and a line drive base hit. Richardson caught the ball for the final out, the Yankees dodged a bullet and the Giants just missed out on a world championship. There’s never been a moment equivalent to it.
Yet there are moments that have come close. We can even quantify how close thanks to the work of others. Sky Andrecheck (now with the Indians) developed a system to quantify the criticality of each postseason game, and I’ve combined Sky’s metrics with Tangotiger’s Leverage Index to determine the most critical at-bats of all time. As you can imagine, each one occurred in the seventh game of a World Series.
Here they are:
The second most critical at-bat of all time, remembered only by Orioles fans
In 1979, the Pirates were leading the Orioles by one run in the bottom of the eighth inning. It was the year of Family in Pittsburgh, when Willie Stargell set the bar and tone for Dave Parker and the rest of Chuck Tanner‘s team. The Orioles also had a terrific year, led by switch-hitting sluggers Ken Singleton and Eddie Murray.
The O’s threatened by placing runners on second and third with two out in the bottom of the eighth. Singleton was up, but Tanner chose to walk him to have Kent Tekulve pitch to Murray. It was an understandable but still dubious move, registering a slight decrease in the Pirates’ win expectancy and adding significantly to the criticality of the situation.
Like McCovey, Murray came close to a big hit, hitting a long fly to Parker on the warning track in right field for the final out of the inning. The Pirates scored two more runs in the top of the ninth to seal their world championship, and the moment was ultimately forgotten by all but the most rabid, disappointed, Baltimore fans.
The third, and overlooked
You may remember the seventh game of the 1997 Series as a crazy 11-inning affair capped by Edgar Renteria‘s two-out RBI single with the bases loaded for a Marlins victory. That was a mighty critical at-bat, but there was an earlier, more critical at-bat.
In the bottom of the ninth, the Indians were still leading the game by a run with closer Jose Mesa on the mound and Craig Counsell at bat. Runners were on first and third; one out. Counsell hit a hard sacrifice fly (really, it was more of a line drive than fly ball) to deep right, tying the score and setting the stage for Renteria’s slightly less critical moment (yet more memorable hit) in the 11th.
The fourth was a classic
The 1912 World Series was the first truly legendary series. The seven-game series was stretched to eight games due to a tie in the second game, and the eighth, final game was stretched to 10 innings. The Giants took a 2-1 lead with a run in the top of the 10th, but they gave the Red Sox a golden opportunity when Fred Snodgrass dropped Clyde Engle’s flyball to start the bottom of the tenth inning.
A couple of batters later, the great Tris Speaker faced the great Christy Mathewson with one out and runners on first and third and the Sox still down by a run. Speaker singled to right, tying the game and setting up the eventual sacrifice fly.
Mathewson’s travails in this Series inspired some of the most memorable sections of The Celebrant, one of the best baseball novels ever written.
Sidebar: Speaker’s at-bat was slightly less crucial than Counsell’s—even though they both faced identical out/score/baserunner/inning situations—because Speaker’s implied run environment was slightly higher than Counsell’s. We can debate this one until the cows come home, but you can see the impact that run environments have on Leverage Index in the Hardball Times’ WPA Inquirer.
The fifth and also overlooked
How about the seventh game of the 2001 World Series—probably the worst moment in Mariano Rivera‘s career? Arizona staged a big comeback in the bottom of the ninth (against history’s greatest closer) to take the game and World Series, capped by Luis Gonzalez‘s soft line drive over the infield.
But that was not the most critical moment in the inning. The most critical moment occurred two at-bats earlier with Tony Womack at the plate. The D-backs, down by a run, had placed runners on first and second with one out when Womack stepped into the batter’s box. His double was the big hit of the game—one of the biggest in postseason history—though most of us remember Gonzalez’ final hit much more vividly.
The sixth was not so overlooked
The Renteria single in 1997, just over Charles Nagy’s head.
Time for another quick sidebar. Criticality is measured by the range of potential outcomes of a situation. For instance, Renteria stepped to the plate in an obviously critical situation, but the score was tied. The result of an out would have been more extra innings, not a Marlins loss.
In the earlier, ninth-inning at-bat by Counsell, the Marlins were very close to a loss because they were down by a run, but they were also close to a tie and kind of close to a win due to the out/baserunner situation. The range of possibilities was wider in Counsell’s at-bat, and that’s why it ranks slightly above Renteria’s in criticality.
By the way, have you noticed that batters have gotten hits, or hit the ball hard, in each of our top six most critical situations?
The seventh involves The Cat and The Hat
Head all the way back to 1946, when the Cardinals and Red Sox played a tight seven-game series. The score had been tied in the bottom of the eighth when Harry “The Hat” Walker doubled and Enos Slaughter scored on his famous “mad dash” from first base to give the Cardinals the lead.
The visiting Red Sox came back in the top of the ninth, however. They had runners on second and third with one out when Roy Partee stepped up to face Harry “The Cat” Brecheen. (Yes, we’re talking about The Cat and The Hat. Both named Harry.) Unfortunately for Sox fans, Partee fouled out and the Cardinals were World Champs when pinch hitter Tom McBride subsequently grounded out.
One last sidebar: Why was Partee’s at-bat more critical than McBride’s? After all, there was only one out with Partee at bat but two out with McBride at the plate, right? Shouldn’t McBride’s be considered more critical?
The difference is that a Red Sox win was more possible with one out than it was with two out. In other words, the range of outcomes was meatier with one out than two outs. Sure, the Red Sox were more desperate with two outs than with one out, but we’re not measuring desperation here. Criticality is our concern.
The eighth and ninth came in succession
Our last two most critical at-bats (I’m going to stop at nine because that is the maximum proposed length of any World Series. Also my fingers are tired.) occurred in the same inning of the same game against the same pitcher. It was the seventh game of the 1972 Series between the Reds and A’s, and Rollie Fingers—the second greatest postseason reliever of all time—was on the mound.
The 1972 Series was loaded with terrific moments; these were just two of them. In the bottom of the eighth, down by two runs, the Reds’ Pete Rose and Joe Morgan led off with hits. One out and an intentional walk to Johnny Bench later, the Reds had the bases loaded with Tony Perez at the plate.
Perez was known as an RBI man, and he didn’t disappoint. He lofted a sacrifice fly to right, scoring Rose and moving Morgan to third. But here’s the thing: The sacrifice fly actually lowered the Reds’ probability of winning because it added a second out. It was a critical at-bat, the ninth most critical of all time, but Fingers came out the winner overall, not Perez.
Bench then stole second with Denis Menke at the plate and suddenly the two teams were in a situation that was even more critical than Perez’ at-bat. With runners on second and third, two out and down by a run, Menke’s at-bat situation closely mimicked Willie McCovey’s—but Menke’s critical moment came in the eighth inning. McCovey’s came in the ninth.
Anyway, Menke flew out to left field and the A’s wrapped up their world championship in the next inning.
There they are, the most critical moments in major league history. Have I ruined your enjoyment of the game by quantifying what seems, at its core, emotional? Maybe, but I hope I’ve also added a little nuance to your appreciation of this most nuanced of games.
A technical note
You may be wondering how the criticality of a game is specifically determined. Here’s the math…
It all comes down to the range of possible outcomes of a game (i.e. a win or loss). When two teams play a seventh game of a World Series, there is one full world championship at stake. Think of the possible outcomes: One team wins and is 1-0 in championships; the other team loses and is 0-1 in championships. One minus zero is one, so we give the seventh game a criticality value of one.
When two teams play the sixth game of a World Series, there are two possible outcomes. The team that is ahead in the series might win, which would give it a championship. Or it could lose, which would result in a seventh game… which the team has a 50 percent chance of winning. The difference is one minus 0.5, or 0.5.
Conversely, the trailing team could win, which would give it a 50 percent probability of winning the seventh game, or could lose and lose the championship overall. The difference is 0.5 minus one, or 0.5. Same as the leading team.
The sixth game is half as critical as the seventh.
In all cases, a postseason game is equally critical to the leading and trailing team.
You can use this approach for all games in a series. You can even apply it to previous series. For instance, the final game of a League Championship Series will be worth 0.5 world championships, because the winner has a 50 percent probability of winning the World Series while the loser gets zero world championships. So you see that the final game of a league championships series is as critical as the sixth game of the World Series.
That’s the math behind Sky Andrecheck’s system . (Sky adds an additional wrinkle by comparing each postseason game to an average regular season game.) It’s also the general idea behind Tangotiger’s in-game Leverage Index, though in-game LI is much more complex due to the many different possible outcomes of a plate appearance.
References & Resources
This little history lesson would have been impossible without the contributions of Sky Andrecheck and Tangotiger. Plus, I owe Sean Forman of BaseballReference a big show of thanks for contributing the postseason play-by-play data for this exercise.