The most critical at-bat of all time

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.

Any ideas?

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.

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  1. Dustin said...

    Correction for #7 on your list: 
    The Cardinals were the home team and the “mad dash” happened in the bottom of the 8th.  The critical at bats by Partee and McBride were in the top of the 9th.

  2. Mike said...

    Most important at-bats…the last one, to remember what you learned…and the next one to put it into practive…Thx, Life-long Card fan

  3. Dave Studeman said...

    You’re right, Dustin.  Thanks.  My calculations were correct, but my description wasn’t.  So typical.

  4. Sergio said...

    How about Joe Carter’s dinger of Wildthing Mitch Williams?? Wasn’t that a bottom of the ninth hit and very critical?

  5. Dave Studeman said...

    Sergio, Carter’s dinger was in the sixth game, so the criticality wasn’t as high.  All of the situations listed were in a seventh game.

    Carter’s situation was the 93rd most critical of all time.

  6. Shane Tourtellotte said...

    “The outcome was so dramatic that it resulted in the only Peanuts comic strip to ever comment on current events …”

    Actually, I’m pretty sure that during the 1973-74 off-season, Schulz did some strips mentioning Henry Aaron’s pursuit of Babe Ruth.  And in 1999, a few months from the end of Peanuts’s run, Charlie Brown was seen working on his “Joe Torre face” that he meant to wear during a game, finally guaranteeing victory for his team.  That could plausibly count as current events.

    Interesting that the most notable intrusions of contemporary matters into Peanuts involved baseball. (I do recall Peppermint Patty doing a 60s-style student protest, but let’s not spoil my baseball-flattering conclusion.)

  7. Sabertooth said...

    While I greatly enjoyed the article, especially #1, the correct answer to your question is:

    Carl Mays v Ray Chapman.

  8. Timothy A Jennings said...

    That 1972 postseason also had the at bat by Johnny Bench, leading off in the bottom of the ninth in the deciding game 5, Reds down by a run, facing the Pittsburgh closer Dave Giusti; Bench hit a 450 foot opposite field homer to tie the score, the Reds won later that inning on a wild pitch.

  9. Dave Studeman said...

    That was the 1,076th most critical postseason at-bat of all time, and the third most critical postseason at-bat of Bench’s career.

  10. David said...

    Great article!  Seems a natural follow-up would be the most critical regular season at-bats.  Seeing as how the 2011 regular season ended.

  11. charles said...

    Mark Bellhorn’s at bat in game 6 of the ALCS, Yankee Stadium, Yankee pitcher John Lieber.  It wasn;t Roberts steel that ended the curse, it was Belborn, who was aweful for most the playoffs (with Francona’s unconditional love keeping him in the order and Variteks 12 pitch moneyball previous at bat) who hit a two strike pitch opposite field homer, that created the cushion and the momentum in Yankee Stadium for Schilling to pitch his bloody sock gem without having to nibble at the edges.  Belhown got blistering hot and hit a very important game one homer in the World Series, when it actually mattered….only to have the Red Sox faithful run him out of town in the very next season.

  12. Michael Caragliano said...

    Most people forget that Schulz followed up the “three feet higher” strip a few weeks later with an exactly identical strip, except for one detail: “three” was replaced with “two”.

  13. Dave Studeman said...

    Folks, big hits are not the same thing as critical situations.  When there’s a critical situation, the batter may get a hit, or the pitcher may get an out. We don’t care about that here.  We’re measuring the criticality of a situation BEFORE the outcome is known.

    That at-bat of Bellhorn’s occurred in the 19,113th most critical postseason situation of all time.

  14. Kenny said...

    Yet by defining everything in relation to winning a given year’s championship, you have failed to calculate the criticality of particular playoff series’ against each other. Given that the curse was/is about cosmology and the existence of a higher being, and not merely the 2004 championship, objectively, anything that happened in the 2004 Yankees-Red Sox series was necessarily more critical than anything else that has happened in the history of baseball.

  15. Dave Studeman said...

    Well, I said “since” 1900, which is meant to mean beginning in 1901, when the American League was born and roughly when most of the modern rules of baseball coalesced into their current version.

  16. Dave Studeman said...

    By the way, I’ve made a couple of corrections to the article, based on some of the excellent comments here.  Specifically, I changed the Red Sox/Cards inning description and also changed 1900 to 1901.

  17. stephen finch said...

    Not a mention of Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round The World”, October 3, 1951?  This is still considered by those with a feel for the game, rather than those who are enslaved to metrics, as the single most dramatic event in all sports history, surpassing the 1980 Miracle on Ice.

  18. Dave Studeman said...

    A “slave” to metrics?  No feel for the game? Nice dig. Very original, too.

    Thomson’s at-bat was clearly critical, but there was only half a world championship at stake.  It was the equivalent of a League Championship Series final game, half as critical as the final game of the World Series.

    To repeat: this article isn’t about drama or impact.  It’s about criticality.  We’re measuring a different thing than what you’d like us to measure.

    Not that you’re a slave to anything…

  19. TomH said...

    nice article. It does make a for a different set of answers when you ask the Q, as Dave did, about criticality BEFORE outcome. The biggest world-series-WPA I believe is Hal Smith’s home run in 1960 game 7, followed by Womack’s hit off Mariano.

  20. CraigM said...

    What about Mookie Wilson’s AB, in game 6 of the 1986 WS. He was several times one strike away from the Sox winning the WS. By continuing to foul off pitches, he enabled the game-tying wild pitch to occur. And his speed probably caused the infamous Buckner error at first.

  21. Dave Studeman said...

    Mookie’s at-bat was obviously a tremendous at-bat, but this is a good example of why I enjoy this approach.  According to our championship LI, his at-bat wasn’t the most critical in the series.  The most critical at-bat occurred in the next game, when Keith Hernandez came to bat in the bottom of the sixth with the bases loaded and the Mets down by three.

    The in-game LI of Hernandez’s at-bat was lower, but the game itself was twice as important as the sixth game.  It was the 80th most critical of all time.

    Personally, I love it when metrics give us a new insight into the game. I know that not everyone shares that enthusiasm.

  22. Steve Treder said...

    I’m with you, Studes.

    That dramatic game-winning rally by the Mets, puncutated of course by the Buckner boo-boo, is the thing we all so clearly remember about that World Series.  But what we so often overlook in that memory is that it was only the sixth game.  Had the Red Sox been able to hold on to the 3-run-lead they took into the sixth inning of Game Seven, then the Boston meltdown that ended Game Six would be largely forgotten today, entirely overshadowed by detailed recollections of Game Seven and the resulting demolishment of the Bambino Curse.

  23. CraigM said...

    Okay, this is not scientific, so apologies in advance. But I think that once the Red Sox blew game six, it,was inevitable the Mets would win the series. If you look at the most heartbreaking near misses in game 6’s of post-season series, the team that lost game 6 always lost game 7. Examples: the Cubs in the 2003 nlcs, the Giants in the 02 WS, the Cards in 1985, and the Rangers last year.

  24. CraigM said...

    Oh, one more think. Yes, I get it. Hernandez AB was huge, and it was a game 7, but there was still a chance that the Mets could have come back and won the game. There was three innings left. To repeat, in game 6 the Boston Red Sox were one out away from winning the World Series, when three straight battered got base hits, and then Mookie fouled off multiple two strike pitches, before the WP.

  25. Dave Studeman said...

    No need to repeat yourself.  We all know what happened.  The thing is, what I’ve done is quantifiable; yours is opinion.  Opinions are fine, but if you want to speak to the article, speak to the math, or offer an alternative math.

    The inevitable win thing is just silly.  Explain Cincinnati in 1975.

  26. Steve Treder said...

    “But I think that once the Red Sox blew game six, it,was inevitable the Mets would win the series.”

    Well, you’ve admitted that your observation is unscientific, but this is a vivid illustration of the problem with an unscientific, anecdotal observation.  Namely:  unless we compare the number of teams, in a seven-game series, who won Game Seven after losing Game Six with the number of teams who lost Game Seven after losing Game Six, then we have no idea how “inevitable” those Mets winning the World Series was.

  27. Roy in Omaha said...

    IMHO, Kirk Gibson’s walk-off home run in the 1st game of the ‘88 World Series has to rank high on the list of the most “critical” at-bats of all time. It won a World Series game in a last at-bat. The opposing team was an overwhelming favorite to win the World Series both in the press and in Vegas. It was Gibson’s only plate appearance of the entire World Series. It came off one of the greatest relievers of all time, Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley in the middle of one of the greatest seasons of his career (.0867 WHIP in ‘88), a pitcher that finished 2nd in the Cy Young voting and 5th in the AL MVP voting. The overwhelming series favorite A’s were so shell shocked by Gibson’s heroics that they went down in 5 games—when most press pundits had the A’s winning the series in, perhaps, a 4 game sweep.

    Sorry, I don’t care what “subjective criteria formula” was used here to determine the all time critical at-bat. This one not being at least prominent on the list presented here defies logic. While I am at it, how about Joe Carter’s home run that actually won the ‘93 World Series? How does that not get on the list? Because it was the 6th game and not the 7th? O.K., then, where is Mazeroski’s World Series winning home run in the 7th game of the ‘60 Series against another team that was an overwhelming Series favorite?

    The technical notes that describe the formulaic “criteria” for consideration for the list allow for the omission, apparently, of two at-bats that actually won the whole enchilada and another that was so memorable that it was included as a finalist in a Major League Baseball contest to determine the sport’s “Greatest Moment of All-Time.”

    I’d sure like to know where these 3 events stand because they are ALL bigger at-bats than any on this list (in my personal opinion) and I think almost any fan would agree with me.

  28. Dave Studeman said...

    Roy, if you want an article that supports your pre-existing beliefs, if you’re not flexible enough to consider different definitions of criticality and learn something in the process, go read Bleacher Report.  That’s not what we do at THT.

  29. CraigM said...

    @Steve: I wasn’t talking about simply winning or losing game 6,I was writing about specifically losing game 6 in a heartbreaker: snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The Rangers, especially, had nothing left for game 7. It resembled the Giants game 7 in 2003 to a tee.
    I’d put some of the do or die AB’s the Cards had in game 6 last year in the same category as Mookie.

  30. Brian Gunn said...

    Good point, Studes. CraigM, there are many examples of “heartbreaking” postseason defeats that were supposed to carry over into the next day. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. Think about the D’backs shrugging off those crushing homers off of Byung-Hyun Kim in 2001, or the Reds shrugging off the Fisk homer in 1975, or the Astros shrugging off the Pujols homer in the ‘05 NLCS. I will grant you that a heartbreaking defeat may have some carryover effect into the next day, but it would be wrong to say it’s inevitable. (I took up this topic in a Hardball Times piece in 2005:

  31. CraigM said...

    It occurs to me that I didn’t express my position correctly, so let me attempt to be more mathematical. If Mookie Wilson had made that out in game 6, the Mets chances of winning the 1985 WS would have been 0% (game over, series over). Instead his hit enabled a game 7, where the Mets had about a 55% chance of winning. So his AB increased the Mets chances of winning the WS by about 55%. There is no way that Keith Hernandez’ AB increased the Mets chances of winning game 7 by 55%. No way any teams chances jump up by that amount from any 6th inning AB. AB’s in the middle innings can be defined as important, but never critical. There is still time to come back, plus the other team can still score runs.

  32. CraigM said...

    OK, I was mistaken in using the word inevitable. If I really thought that way I would have rushed out to the bank to withdraw my life savings to bet on the Cards for game7 last year. Instead I bet nothing because I felt the betting line was proper (Cards were -185, if memory serves). But clearly the heartbreaking nature of game 6 increased the Cards chances the next night, than if they had just won a normal game, and the odds makers agreed.

  33. Dave Studeman said...

    CraigM, you’re confusing post-at-bat impact vs. the pre-at-bat criticality of the situation.  This article is about the latter.

    The LI of Mookie’s at-bat was high (7.1) but the game only had half a world championship at stake.  In Game Seven, with a full championship at stake, Hernandez’s LI of 3.9 puts it above Mookie’s in total championship criticality.

    It’s true that the championship added of Mookie’s at-bat was larger given the outcome, but that’s a different article for another day.

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