What Makes a Game Exciting? (Part 1)

What makes a game exciting? What makes it memorable? What makes it a game that will be remembered years from now? And conversely what makes a game dull, makes it routine, makes you reach for the remote?

The whole point of watching the game is to find out who wins and to see how they got there. Once the game is over, once it has been decided, there isn’t any reason to keep watching. So it seems obvious that close games are better than lopsided games. Outside of the South Side of Chicago, who hung around to catch the end of the White Sox thrashing of the Red Sox after they built a 10-run lead in Game 1 of the ALDS?

Conversely who stayed glued to the television for three hours watching just the nine extra innings of the Astros-Braves game? That game also featured another element that makes a game memorable … the comeback. When a team’s fortunes change dramatically … that’s exciting. Think of the Diamondbacks scoring two runs in the ninth off Mariano Rivera to turn a World Series defeat into champagne and a parade.

An additional factor is of course the significance of the game itself. Had that marathon Astros game been Game 7 of the World Series, it would have been the greatest game ever played. Had it been Game 1 of the NLDS, it would have seemed less significant than it actually was.

We can measure these things if we have lots of free time (and I have cause I do). And having measured them, we can see how the games stack up against one another. We can see how playoff series stack up against one another. We can look for answers to lots of fun questions.

What are the best games? Was Game 6 of the 1975 WS more exciting than Game 6 of the 1986 WS?

What were the worst games?

Taking the series context into account, now what is the list of best games?

What were the best World Series?

What year had the best bunch of series?

What was the most exciting series sweep?

There are certainly other factors that can add excitement to a game: the no-hitter, a hitting streak on the line, the pursuit of a record. But they are peripheral to the game itself.

The Method:

The system I’m using rates games based on the score after every half inning based on 2 factors; closeness and turnaround.

After each half inning we use Win Probability Added to estimate the home team’s chance of winning the game. The closer to 50%, the more points are awarded. More points are awarded for a tie game in the 7th than for a tie game in the 2nd inning, since a tie game late is more interesting than a tie game early; that’s closeness.

After each half-inning we also determine by how much the home team’s chance of winning the game has changed; that’s turnaround. Combine the two elements and add the results across all the innings and you get a rating for a game.

I’m sure that both the people who’ve read all that explanation and are still awake want to see some ratings. We’re getting there.

At the end of the 2005 World Series, there were a total of 1,133 playoff games. Of these,

36 had ratings in the range of 0 – 1.99 (the worst games)
164 had ratings in the range of 2.00 – 2.99
221 had ratings in the range of 3.00 – 3.99
199 had ratings in the range of 4.00 – 4.99
169 had ratings in the range of 5.00 – 5.99
117 had ratings in the range of 6.00 – 6.99
78 had ratings in the range of 7.00 – 7.99
39 had ratings in the range of 8.00 – 8.99
41 had ratings in the range of 9.00 – 9.99
20 had ratings in the range of 10.00 – 10.99
19 had ratings in the range of 11.00 – 11.99
14 had ratings in the range of 12.00 – 12.99
5 had ratings in the range of 13.00 – 13.99
3 had ratings in the range of 14.00 – 14.99
2 had ratings in the range of 15.00 – 15.99
6 had ratings above 16

The median game score is 4.71
Only 25% of the games rate above 6.33
Only 10% of the games rate above 8.84

The game ratings can kind of be compared to the runs a team scores in a game for a frame of reference. The average is around four, 1-2 is a bad game, more than 10 is excellent production.

But do the ratings work? Here are some real playoff games in ascending order of rating/excitement. You should be able to see that the line scores ‘look’ more interesting. The games stay close longer and comebacks begin to appear …

Here’s a game rated 2.00 (5-1 game)

road 0-0-0-0-0-0-1-0-0
home 4-0-0-0-1-0-0-0-x

a game rated 3.00 (5-2 game)

road 0-2-0-2-0-0-0-0-1
home 0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-2

a game rated 4.00 (4-1 game)

road 0-1-0-0-0-0-0-0-0
home 1-0-0-0-2-0-0-1-x

a game rated 5.00 (2-1 game)

road 0-0-0-1-0-0-0-0-0
home 0-1-0-0-0-1-0-0-x

a game rated 6.01 (7-1, tied after seven)

road 0-0-1-0-0-0-0-2-4
home 0-0-0-1-0-0-0-0-0

a game rated 7.03 (3-2 game)

road 0-0-2-0-0-0-0-0-0
home 0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-3

a game rated 8.00 (7-4 game)

road 1-0-0-2-0-0-0-0-4
home 0-0-0-2-2-0-0-0-0

a game rated 9.03 (5-3 in 10 innings, leads blown in 8th and 9th)

road 0-0-0-0-0-0-0-3-0-2
home 0-0-0-1-1-0-0-0-1-0

a game rated 10.04 (15-14 game)

road 3-0-4-0-0-2-0-6-0
home 4-2-0-1-5-1-1-0-0

a game rated 11.02 (4-3, leads blown in 7th and 10th innings)

road 0-0-0-0-0-0-1-0-0-2
home 0-0-1-0-0-0-0-0-0-3

Extra credit to the first person to identify all those playoff games.

OK, so hopefully you can see that the method does the job. Better looking line scores have higher ratings. Now comes the payoff … a few lists.

The Best Games:

Here are the most exciting games in postseason history …

   Game        Road Team       Home Team   Innings 	Rating
2005 NLDS2 G4  Braves    6    Astros   7      18	20.09
1995 ALDS1 G2  Mariners  5    Yankees  7      15	19.84
1999 NLCS G5   Braves    3    Mets     4      15	19.29
1986 NLCS G6   Mets      7    Astros   6      16	16.95
2005 WS G3     White Sox 7    Astros   5      14    	16.35
2004 ALCS G5   Yankees   4    Red Sox  5      14	16.24
1916 WS G2     Robins    1    Red Sox  2      14	15.76
1995 ALDS2 G1  Red Sox   4    Indians  5      13	15.66
2004 ALDS2 G2  Twins     6    Yankees  7      12	14.79
2003 NLCS G1   Marlins   9    Cubs     8      11	14.10
1914 WS G3     A’s       4    Braves   5      12	14.06
2000 NLDS2 G3  Giants    2    Mets     3      13	13.80
1975 WS G6     Reds      6    Red Sox  7      12	13.58
2004 ALCS G4   Yankees   4    Red Sox  6      12	13.51
2000 WS G1     Mets      3    Yankees  4      12	13.45
1945 WS G6     Tigers    7    Cubs     8      12	13.14
1924 WS G7     Giants    3    Senators 4      12	12.97
1977 WS G1     Dodgers   3    Yankees  4      12	12.97
2003 ALDS1 G1  Red Sox   4    A’s      5      12	12.90
1999 NLDS1 G3  Braves    5    Astros   3      12	12.67

A few things you’ll note…

  • They’re all extra-inning games. This makes perfect sense (though I did not expect it when I started). An extra-inning game will feature either a game that is close in the late innings, or a comeback. It also gives you a few bonus innings in which to rack up extra points. There’s more “game” in the game. And since the extra innings are each possibly the final inning of the game, they are automatically very exciting innings.
  • We’ve seen most of these games. Before 1969 there was only the World Series, so there were only 384 postseason games from 1903 to 1968. From 1969 to 2005 there have been 749 postseason games.
  • Yes, you just watched the highest rated playoff game ever played.
  • We’re no longer waiting for someone to play a better World Series game than Game 2 of the 1916 World Series, a complete game victory for someone named George Ruth, who foolishly gave up pitching. Game 3 of the this year’s World Series rates the highest of this year’s World Series games.

How about the best 9-inning games …

   Game         Road Team        Home Team   Innings  Rating
1976 NLCS G3    Phillies   6    Reds      7    9      11.08
1993 WS G4      Blue Jays 15    Phillies 14    9      10.04
1960 WS G7      Yankees    9    Pirates  10    9       9.92
1977 NLCS G3    Dodgers    6    Phillies  5    9       9.82
1984 NLCS G4    Cubs       5    Padres    7    9       9.40
2000 NLCS G2    Mets       6    Cardinals 5    9       9.15
1908 WS G1      Cubs      10    Tigers    6    9       8.78
1995 NLDS1 G1   Braves     5    Rockies   4    9       8.77
2005 NLCS G5    Cardinals  5    Astros    4    9       8.75 
2004 NLDS2 G4   Braves     6    Astros    5    9       8.64
2005 WS G2      White Sox  7    Astros    6    9       8.64
1972 WS G4      Reds       2    A’s       3    9       8.58
1995 NLDS1 G2   Braves     7    Rockies   4    9       8.56
1988 ALCS G2    Red Sox    3    A’s       4    9       8.55
2001 WS G7      Yankees    2    DBacks    3    9       8.47
1923 WS G1      Giants     5    Yankees   4    9       8.45
1986 NLCS G3    Astros     5    Mets      6    9       8.37
1985 NLCS G6    Cardinals  7    Dodgers   5    9       8.36
1985 WS G6      Cardinals  1    Royals    2    9       8.36
1988 WS G1      A’s        4    Dodgers   5    9       8.34

I’m quite proud that my Phillies lost three of the top four games. Ouch. What makes that 1976 game the best? I’ll relive the pain.

Phillies 0-0-0-1-0-0-2-2-1
Reds 0-0-0-0-0-0-4-0-3

Scoreless through 3
1-0 Phillies lead in innings 4-6
3-0 Phillies lead after the top of the 7th … looks like they have the game in hand
4-3 Reds lead after the bottom of the 7th
5-4 Phillies lead after the top of the 8th
6-4 Phillies lead after the top of the 9th … looks like they have the game in hand, again
7-6 Reds victory in the bottom of the ninth.

It’s always close and there’s a lot going on, three lead changes in the last three innings.

More games there that I recall among that list …

Still there are some games there that don’t leap to mind.

How about the least exciting games ever?

   Game         Road Team        Home Team   Innings  Rating
1967 WS G4     Red Sox   0       Cardinals 6    9      1.73
2003 WS G2     Marlins   1       Yankees   6    9      1.73
1996 NLCS G5   Braves   14       Cardinals 0    9      1.72
1995 ALCS G4   Mariners  0       Indians   7    9      1.61
1999 ALCS G3   Yankees   1       Red Sox  13    9      1.59
1960 WS G3     Pirates   0       Yankees  10    9      1.56
1996 NLCS G7   Cardinals 0       Braves   15	  9      1.56
2001 WS G6     Yankees   2       Dbacks   15	  9      1.56
1998 WS G2     Padres    3       Yankees  9	  9      1.55
2003 NLCS G2   Marlins   3       Cubs     12	  9      1.53

Hopefully no explanations are necessary. Big early leads for one team and no comebacks.

How have this year’s games been you ask? Pretty good by this measure, I answer.

We had two epic games. All the World Series games were good to very good. The average game score was 5.69, compared to the all time average of 5.28. The Division Series games tended to be the weak sisters.

   Game         Road Team        Home Team   Innings    Rating
2005 NLDS2 G4   Braves    6      Astros    7    18	  20.09
2005 WS G3      White Sox 7      Astros    5    14	  16.35
2005 NLCS G5    Cardinals 5      Astros    4     9	   8.75
2005 WS G2      Astros    6      White Sox 7     9	   8.64
2005 ALCS G2    Angels    1      White Sox 2     9	   7.33
2005 ALCS G5    White Sox 6      Angels    3     9	   6.73
2005 ALDS1 G3   White Sox 5      Red Sox   3     9	   6.71
2005 WS G4      White Sox 1      Astros    0     9	   6.56
2005 ALDS2 G4   Angels    2      Yankees   3     9  	   6.34
2005 ALDS2 G3   Angels    11     Yankees   7     9  	   6.26
2005 ALDS1 G2   Red Sox   4      White Sox 5     9  	   6.11
2005 ALCS G1    Angels    3      White Sox 2     9  	   6.02
2005 NLCS G4    Cardinals 1      Astros    2     9  	   5.50
2005 WS G1      Astros    3      White Sox 5     9  	   5.04
2005 ALDS2 G2   Yankees   3      Angels    5     9  	   4.98
2005 NLDS2 G1   Astros    10     Braves    5     9  	   4.92
2005 NLCS G2    Astros    4      Cardinals 1     9        4.69
2005 NLCS G3    Cardinals 3      Astros    4     9  	   4.69
2005 ALDS2 G5   Angels    5      Yankees   3     9  	   4.62
2005 NLDS2 G3   Braves    3      Astros    7     9  	   4.34
2005 NLCS G6    Astros    5      Cardinals 1     9  	   3.31
2005 ALCS G3    White Sox 5      Angels    2     9  	   3.12
2005 ALDS2 G1   Yankees   4      Angels    2     9  	   2.85
2005 ALCS G4    White Sox 8      Angels    2     9  	   2.79
2005 NLDS2 G2   Astros    1      Braves    7     9  	   2.67
2005 NLDS1 G2   Padres    2      Cardinals 6     9  	   2.66
2005 NLDS1 G3   Cardinals 7      Padres    4     9  	   2.53
2005 NLCS G1    Astros    3      Cardinals 5     9  	   2.33
2005 NLDS1 G1   Padres    5      Cardinals 8     9  	   2.06
2005 ALDS1 G1   Red Sox   2      White Sox 4     9  	   1.82

Hopefully this exercise has stirred up a few memories.

I know what you’re thinking. No matter how great the line score, Game 3 of a three-game sweep is lacking in the drama that a decisive Game 5 or 7 can achieve. If we were to take the series situation into account, we’d wind up with more of Games 6s and 7s that possess greater drama.

OK, let’s do it. We can look at how the games rate once the series situation is accounted for. This will give us the best games from the tail end of series that went the distance (or close to it).

In a 7-game series, game 7 is weighted at 100%. This represents the potential swing in a teams series-winning odds. After Game 6, you basically have a 50% chance to win the series. The next game will either raise that to 100% or reduce it to 0% (100%-0% = 100%).

If a team leads 3-0 in a seven game series, a team’s chance of coming back is 1/16 = 6.25%. After Game 4, the chance will be either 12.5% of 0%, so that game gets rated at 12.5% (12.5%-0%). Which just says that we’re never going to be riveted to a Game 4 where one team is looking to avoid the sweep, since we almost always know who will win the series before the game even begins.

The final game of a series (Game 5 of a five game, Game 7 of a seven game series) is weighted at 100%, the game prior to that (Game 4/Game 6 is weighted at 50%), Game 5 (in a seven game) is also weighted at 50%, as is Game 3 (of a five game) if either series is tied. All other games are weighted at < 50%.

71 series have gone the distance, so 71 games are rated 100%
220 games are rated at 50%
345 games are rated at 37.5% (e.g., Game 1 of a five game series)
279 games are rated at 31.25% (e.g., Game 1 of a seven game series)
179 games are rated at 25% (e.g., Game 5 of a seven game series led 3-1)
29 games are rated at 12,5% (Game 4 with the series at 3-0)

A few games have other odd weights for some ancient 9-game series

So here are the top 20 games with the series situation factored in.

Game            Road team       Home team 	 IP       Total  Weighted
1924 WS G7      Giants     3    Senators     4   12     12.97    12.97
1980 NLCS G5    Phillies   8    Astros       7   10     12.36    12.36
1995 ALDS1 G5   Mariners   6    Yankees      5   11     11.27    11.27
1912 WS G8      Giants     2    Red Sox      3   10     10.79    10.79
2005 NLDS2 G4   Braves     6    Astros       7   18     20.09    10.05
1960 WS G7      Yankees    9    Pirates     10    9      9.92     9.92
2003 ALCS G7    Red Sox    5    Yankees      6   11      9.83     9.83
1997 WS G7      Indians    2    Marlins      3   11      9.75     9.75
1991 WS G7      Braves     0    Twins        1   10      9.13     9.13
1986 NLCS G6    Mets       7    Astros       6   16     16.95     8.48
2001 WS G7      Yankees    2    Dbacks       3    9      8.47     8.47
1976 ALCS G5    Royals     6    Yankees      7    9      8.28     8.28
1999 ALDS1 G5   Red Sox   12    Indians      8    9      8.24     8.24
1925 WS G7      Senators   7    Pirates      9    9      8.12     8.12
1972 NLCS G5    Pirates    3    Reds         4    9      7.77     7.77
1995 ALDS1 G2   Mariners   5    Yankees      7   15     19.84     7.44
1975 WS G7      Reds       4    Red Sox      3    9      7.27     7.27
1981 NLCS G5    Dodgers    2    Expos        1    9      7.20     7.20
1992 NLCS G7    Pirates    2    Braves       3    9      7.15     7.15
2001 NLDS2 G5   Cardinals  1    Dbacks       2    9      6.96     6.96

What we have here, very good games coming at the end of tight playoff series.

You all remember the ’24 series, right?

Senators take 1-0 lead in the bottom of the 4th
Giants take 3-1 lead in the top of the 6th
Senators tie the game 3-3 in the bottom of the eighth
Scoreless 9th/10th/11th/top of the 12th
Senators win it with a run in the bottom of the 12th

A win for Walter Johnson in relief. When your ace starter wins a game in relief, that’s a sure sign it was quite a game.

Some other notes:

  • I also see the Phillies’ classic comeback over Nolan Ryan
  • The recent Astros game remains but is no longer number one
  • Mr. Mazeroski appears again
  • The Twins-Braves scoreless duel through 9 innings also shows up

At the other end of the scale … the least interesting games. Mostly dull Game 4s with one team leading three games to none. Naturally none of these games went to extra innings.

Game            Road team       Home team 	 IP        Total  Weighted
1999 ALCS G3    Yankees   1     Red Sox   13      9      1.59   0.40
1999 WS G4      Braves    1     Yankees    4      9      3.01   0.38
1937 WS G4      Yankees   3     Giants     7      9      2.81   0.35
1990 ALCS G4    Red Sox   1     A's        3      9      2.78   0.35
1950 WS G4      Phillies  2     Yankees    5      9      2.68   0.34

If these conjure up many memories, you need to get out more. This is when you’re supposed to hand the remote to the girlfriend so she can watch Fried Green Tomatoes again.

Wait, wait, there is one more thing we can do. The Division Series is certainly not equal to the League Championship Series, which is also not equal to the World Series.

So we can weight the World Series at 100%, the League Championship Series at 50% and the Division Series at 25% and create yet another list. These weights were chosen since the winner of the League Championship Series has a 50% chance to win the World Series, the Division Series winners have only a 25% chance to win the World Series. Surprisingly, the winner of the World Series has a 100% chance of winning the World Series.

Top games factoring for series level and series situation:

Game	        Road team       Home team        IP    Total    Weighted	
1924 WS G7      Giants    3     Senators   4     12     12.97    12.97
1912 WS G8      Giants    2     Red Sox    3     10     10.79    10.79
1960 WS G7      Yankees   9     Pirates   10      9      9.92     9.92
1997 WS G7      Indians   2     Marlins    3     11      9.75     9.75
1991 WS G7      Braves    0     Twins      1     10      9.13     9.13
2001 WS G7      Yankees   2     Dbacks     3      9      8.47     8.47
1925 WS G7      Senators  7     Pirates    9      9      8.12     8.12
1975 WS G7      Reds      4     Red Sox    3      9      7.27     7.27
1975 WS G6      Reds      6     Red Sox    7     12     13.58     6.79
1945 WS G6      Tigers    7     Cubs       8     12     13.14     6.57
1926 WS G7      Cardinals 3     Yankees    2      9      6.29     6.29
1982 WS G7      Brewers   3     Cardinals  6      9      6.24     6.24
1980 NLCS G5    Phillies  8     Astros     7     10     12.36     6.18
1958 WS G7      Yankees   6     Braves     2      9      6.14     6.14
1946 WS G7      Red Sox   3     Cardinals  4      9      6.10     6.10
1979 WS G7      Pirates   4     Orioles    1      9      5.98     5.98
1962 WS G7      Yankees   1     Giants     0      9      5.97     5.97
1940 WS G7      Tigers    1     Reds       2      9      5.93     5.93
1986 WS G7      Red Sox   5     Mets       8      9      5.89     5.89
1986 WS G6      Red Sox   5     Mets       6     10      5.89     5.89

Here we’ve distilled all those 1100+ playoff games down to the 180-proof, hardcore, best-est ones of all.

16 were the last game of the World Series (1912 had a tie game).
3 were Game 6 of the World Series
1 was the last game of the League Championship Series

Both the 1975 and 1986 series have Game 6 and Game 7 on the list. Oddly, they listed right next to each other. (That should be a clue when we start looking at series).

15 are one-run games
8 are extra-inning games (and all of them are one-run games)

I think anyone looking at the list is going to remember a lotof these games. Clearly this is the best of our lists and these should be on any list of the best postseason games ever played.

Check back tomorrow for the best series of all time …

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