WPS and the postseason, part two

Last week, I took THT’s readers on a tour of the most (and least) exciting League Division Series and tiebreaker games, courtesy of the Win Percentage Sum (WPS) system I formulated a couple months back. Today, I take the next step and look at the League Championship Series, fast approaching us in real life.

If you read last week’s column, you know how this works, so I won’t repeat that. I will observe, to orient the reader, that with more than 700 games tabulated this way, the median WPS value for a game is settling in roughly between 305 and 310 points. (The World Series will probably alter the numbers again, so I’m being rough for now.) Half of games will be less exciting than this level, and half more. The mean would be a different number, since there is a definite minimum for the scores, but the highest scores are much further from the average, and the maximum is theoretically infinite. Just like baseball itself.

Okay, one added reminder. I’m using some more accurate numbers from Baseball-Reference than I did for my first WPS articles. If you find the same game scored a little differently then and now, that’s the reason.

That said, on to the lists.

The LCS by game

First off, we’ll glance at the least exciting LCS games ever played. All of them come from the best-of-seven era: the limpest of the pre-1985 games, Game Three of Pittsburgh versus Los Angeles 1974, comes in at No. 9.

    Year/Game     Teams     WPS Index
5.  1999 Gm.3  Bos over NYY   114.1
4.  1992 Gm.5  Pit over Atl   108.2
3.  1996 Gm.7  Atl over StL   104.6 [Clincher]
2.  2009 Gm.3  Phi over LAD   102.2
1.  1985 Gm.4  StL over LAD    89.2

1999 was sweet but brief revenge for Red Sox fans, as Boston blew Roger Clemens off the mound in a 13-1 rout that would be its only win of the series. Pittsburgh’s Game Five win over Atlanta would be echoed by a Game Six win almost as yawn-worthy (WPS of 114.4), but Game Seven would make up for that. In 1996, Atlanta crushed the Cardinals 15-0 to advance to the World Series, and one suspects the home-town Braves fans didn’t think it was boring at all. Philly’s 11-0 pasting of the Dodgers was too dull to write about, and I’ll just mention St. Louis’s nine-spot in the second against L.A. in 1985 before leaving that game to history.

One interesting point: All five of these excitement-depleted trouncings saw the home team win. I’m not implying that it means anything. It’s just interesting.

Our duty done, we can now look at the most exciting games of the League Championship Series.

No. 10. 10/4/1969, Twins at Orioles (ALCS Game 1)—694.8 points

Game       1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12    F
Twins      0   0   0   0   1   0   2   0   0   0   0   0    3
Orioles    0   0   0   1   1   0   0   0   1   0   0   1    4

WPS        1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12
Twins      9   5   5   6  19   8  50   5  14  13  13  73
Orioles    6  13   5  19  23   6  26  21  92  12  37  53
WPS Base: 536.8  Best Plays: 120  Last Play: 38  Grand Total: 694.8

Much like the LDS’ debut, the first day of LCS play produced a classic. All people usually remember about this is that Earl Weaver’s Orioles swept Minnesota on their way to a shocking upset by the Miracle Mets. In truth, for the first two games Billy Martin‘s Twins fought the Orioles as hard as you would expect Billy Martin to fight, taking them to extra innings both days.

Baltimore overcame a 3-2 lead in the home ninth on a Boog Powell homer, then tried to sneak Frank Robinson across the plate on a first-and-third double-steal, but pitcher Ron Perranoski sniffed out the deception and threw home to nail Robinson. The Twins loaded the bases in the 12th with one away, but reliever Dick Hall slammed the door. The Orioles then got Mark Belanger to third with two outs, and Paul Blair dropped a bunt into no-man’s-land that he and Belanger beat out for the win. So never let it be said that Weaver wouldn’t bunt.

The next day’s game was scoreless until the bottom of the 11th, when Curt Motton‘s pinch-single got Powell around for the winning run. Game Three would be a rout, and Billy Martin’s last game with the Twins, as his one-year contract wouldn’t be renewed.

No. 9. 10/15/1986, Mets at Astros (NLCS Game 6)—706.3 points

Game       1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16    F
Mets       0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   3   0   0   0   0   1   0   3    7
Astros     3   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   1   0   2    6

WPS        1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16
Mets       4   4  13   4   4   4   4   8  77  13  25  13  13  75  19  48
Astros    44   3   2   2   4   4   0   0  12  12  12  22  12  62  12  51
WPS Base: 588.3  Best Plays: 102  Last Play: 16  Grand Total: 706.3

Arguably, the narrative surrounding this game produced more tension than the game itself. The Mets were up 3-2 in the series, but both losses had come against a dominant (and, so said the Mets, a cheating) Mike Scott. If they faced him in Game Seven, they were already psychologically whipped. Only the Astros faced elimination, but it was as much a must-win game for New York.

An early Houston 3-0 lead made the second through eighth innings a WPS disaster, but the Mets rallied in the ninth to tie, and the marathon commenced. A Mets run in the 14th received a Billy Hatcher homer in reply. New York erupted for three in the top of the 16th, but Houston scrabbled back, plating two and putting the winning runs aboard. Jesse Orosco, drained from three innings of relief, got Kevin Bass to chase on a full count and found just enough reserve energy to celebrate with his teammates.

No. 8. 10/17/2004, Yankees at Red Sox (ALCS Game 4)—712 points

Game       1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12    F
Yankees    0   0   2   0   0   2   0   0   0   0   0   0    4
Red Sox    0   0   0   0   3   0   0   0   1   0   0   2    6

WPS        1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12
Yankees    5  17  26   7  10  62  14  14  11  22  46  32
Red Sox   11   8   6   6  64  18  12  34 101  15  30  34
WPS Base: 610.0  Best Plays: 75  Last Play: 27  Grand Total: 712.0

Oh dear. Time to re-open this old wound, I guess.

The Yankees had an opportunity to sweep their hated rivals out of the playoffs, which certainly doesn’t guarantee excitement from the game itself. A stretch in the fifth and sixth, when the Red Sox wrested away a lead only to have it snatched back, was the first sign of something special. The one-run margin held until the last of the ninth, when Kevin Millar‘s walk, Dave Roberts‘ steal, and Bill Mueller‘s single against Mariano Rivera evened the score. Mueller got to third with one out, but Mariano bore down and stopped the rally, ending it with a David Ortiz pop fly.

Ortiz did not let it stand at that. The teams stayed deadlocked until the home 12th, when he came up with Manny Ramirez at first. Homering here was actually a touch of overkill, but Ortiz did not care, and neither did the fans at Fenway.

Elimination was staved off for one night, but the Yankees still had it sewn up, right? Right?

No. 7. 10/7/1972, Tigers at A’s (ALCS Game 1)—732.9 points

Game       1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11    F
Tigers     0   1   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   1    2
A's        0   0   1   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   2    3

WPS        1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11
Tigers     4  21   4   5   6   6  21  37  77  11  57
A's        4  23  26   8   6  21  15  21  11  11 121
WPS Base: 518.9  Best Plays: 143  Last Play: 71  Grand Total: 732.9

The excitement here came in late spurts, and at just the most memorable times. Detroit threatened to bust a 1-1 tie open in the top of the ninth, putting Duke Sims and Norm Cash on the corners with no outs. Rollie Fingers came in and doused the blaze on a foul-out and double play. He’d stay on into the 11th, when Al Kaline took him deep for a 2-1 lead. Fingers yielded a Sims triple next, but stranded the catcher on third, seemingly too late.

Al Kaline was the hero. And in a few minutes, he would become the goat.

Oakland got its first two batters aboard, but a failed sacrifice left it first and second with one out. Pinch-hitter Gonzalo Marquez came up, and his single to right scored Mike Hegan. Kaline in right came up throwing to third—or more precisely, past Aurelio Rodriguez at third. With pitcher Chuck Seelbach backing up the plate, Gene Tenace was able to scramble home with the winning run.

It was the first ALCS game ever not won by the Baltimore Orioles, who had swept from 1969 to 1971. It was also the fourth ALCS game that Billy Martin, on his second managerial stint, would lose. He eventually got the knack, though.

No. 6. 10/12/1980, Phillies at Astros (NLCS Game 5)—733 points

Game       1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10    F
Phillies   0   2   0   0   0   0   0   5   0   1    8
Astros     1   0   0   0   0   1   3   2   0   0    7

WPS        1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10
Phillies   4  34  11   9   4   4  20 125  32  66
Astros    26  10  20  16  15  44  54  92  12  17
WPS Base: 616.0  Best Plays: 113  Last Play: 4  Grand Total: 733.0

An amazingly taut series kept to the script for its concluding game. A three-run surge in the home seventh seemed to break the game the Astros’ way. Nolan Ryan ran out of gas the next half-inning, though, and two relievers couldn’t staunch the bleeding until Philadelphia had stormed ahead 7-5. Then it was time for a Philly pitcher meltdown, as Tug McGraw, spent from seven relief innings in five days, let Houston knot it right back up.

Philadelphia couldn’t convert Larry Bowa‘s leadoff single in the ninth, but had better fortune in the 10th, as doubles by Del Unser and Garry Maddox pushed the Phils back ahead. Dick Ruthven completed two innings of perfect ball to nail down the series and clear the path to the Phillies’ first-ever world title.

No. 5. 10/12/1986, Red Sox at Angels (ALCS Game 5)—741 points

Game       1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11    F
Red Sox    0   2   0   0   0   0   0   0   4   0   1    7
Angels     0   0   1   0   0   2   2   0   1   0   0    6

WPS        1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11
Red Sox    5  32   4   5  14  14  14  13  96  66  42
Angels     7  18  25  10  15  46  18   0 106  20  21
WPS Base: 594.0  Best Plays: 142  Last Play: 5  Grand Total: 741.0

We know the moment, and its horrible long-delayed sequel, that defines this game for us, but there was so much more. A pair of two-run innings put the Angels six outs away from their first pennant, and they cut it to three without incident. Then the fateful rally began, sparked by a leadoff single from (retrospectively ironic) hero Bill Buckner.

Don Baylor‘s homer cut the lead to one, but California got to one out away before Rich Gedman wore a Gary Lucas pitch, and the call went out for Donnie Moore.

Dave Henderson, one pitch from ignominy, homered to put Boston ahead. But that wasn’t the deciding blow.

California rallied for the tie, and had the bases jammed with one out before reliever Steve Crawford wiggled free. With Moore still on the mound, the Angels held off Boston in the 10th, but he couldn’t hold the line in the 11th. Dave Henderson hit the sacrifice fly that this time really did decide the game. Calvin Schiraldi shut the door, a taste of glory that would soon enough turn to ashes in Shea Stadium. Such is the lot of the closer.

No. 4. 10/9/1988, Dodgers at Mets (NLCS Game 4)—743.4 points

Game       1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12    F
Dodgers    2   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   2   0   0   1    5
Mets       0   0   0   3   0   1   0   0   0   0   0   0    4

WPS        1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12
Dodgers   40   3  11  13  13  20  12   6  83  12  29  53
Mets       4  22  15  47  10  25   2   0  12  27  30 122
WPS Base: 612.4  Best Plays: 106  Last Play: 25  Grand Total: 743.4

This day belonged to the future managers. Facing a 4-2 deficit in the ninth, Mike Scioscia homered off Dwight Gooden to tie the game, though Randy Myers stopped the bleeding before the Dodgers could pull in front. Neither team really threatened again until the 12th, when a hobbled but not yet crippled Kirk Gibson went deep for a 5-4 lead.

Then it got really interesting. Mackey Sasser and Lee Mazzilli singled; Gregg Jefferies couldn’t advance them, but Keith Hernandez did, working a walk from 1986 Mets hero Jesse Orosco. Up came Darryl Strawberry. Orosco won the lefty-lefty match-up, of course, coaxing a pop to second. Kevin McReynolds was no lefty, though, so Tommy Lasorda went to—Orel Hershiser, who had pitched seven innings yesterday! And it worked, Bulldog inducing the pop fly to center to end the whipsaw inning, and the game.

No. 3. 10/17/2009, Angels at Yankees (ALCS Game 2)—793.8 points

Game       1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12  13    F
Angels     0   0   0   0   2   0   0   0   0   0   1   0   0    3
Yankees    0   1   1   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   1   0   1    4

WPS        1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12  13
Angels     9   5   9   9  55   9  38  35  15  31  47  31  36
Yankees    5  19  18   4  29  18  20  12  36  32  58  47  38
WPS Base: 666.8  Best Plays: 99  Last Play: 28  Grand Total: 793.8

This game followed an excellent recipe for excitement: Go into late and extra innings tied, and keep producing rallies frame after frame. Of the final 15 half-innings, sixth to 13th, only two went 1-2-3 (plus a couple double plays by the L.A. of A. infield). Chone Figgins drove in the go-ahead run for the Angels in the top of the 11th, but Alex Rodriguez promptly lined a homer to keep things percolating.

Both teams continued to threaten. Robinson Cano‘s botch of a grounder gave the Angels a good start to the 13th, but pitcher David Robertson let nothing out of the infield and quelled the rally. Then it was the other second baseman’s turn for an error, but Maicer Izturis made his with a runner on second. His wild throw brought Jerry Hairston Jr. across with the game-winner.

No. 2. 10/17/1999, Braves at Mets (NLCS Game 5)—881.7 points

Game       1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12  13  14  15    F
Braves     0   0   0   2   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   1    3
Mets       2   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   2    4

WPS        1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12  13  14  15
Braves     5   5  18  49  20  39  33  31  27  39  27  26  21  21  72
Mets      28  12   4  10  10  44   9  23  15  15  21  29  15  29  80
WPS Base: 779.7  Best Plays: 86  Last Play: 16  Grand Total: 881.7

This Mets win was an inning shorter than the 1986 Astros classic, though it took over an hour longer to play. (I recall timing it at 15 minutes shorter than the Battle of Stalingrad.) Unlike that game it had virtually no letup in tension from the fourth inning onward, despite the scoring drought. Threats arose, only to fade, and even when threats didn’t bubble up, it was late enough to stay tense, as one player could win the game with a Hobbsian lightning-strike.

The flash of lightning came from Keith Lockhart, whose 15th-inning two-out triple drove Walt Weiss home. But the Mets games on this list have shown, when the visitors score in extras, to get ready for a wild bottom frame.

Bobby Valentine pulled out all the stops, throwing his last two bench players into the breach, including one who batted for the Mets’ ninth pitcher of the game. A theoretical 16th would have featured Al Leiter, who went seven innings two days before, utterly shattering the rotation and possibly Leiter’s arm. Down 3-2 and three outs from elimination, Valentine had no choice. It was now or never.

Was it ever now. Backup catcher Todd Pratt squeezed out a bases-loaded walk to tie, and then Robin Ventura hit—well, it’s hard to say. The ball cleared the fence in right-center, but jubilant teammates mobbed Ventura between first and second, and he never finished his circuit of the bases. History now dubs it the “Grand Single,” and in the annals of crazy endings to great games, it might just be the craziest.

No. 1. 10/18/2004, Yankees at Red Sox (ALCS Game 5)—912.1 points

Game       1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12  13  14    F
Yankees    0   1   0   0   0   3   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0    4
Red Sox    2   0   0   0   0   0   0   2   0   0   0   0   0   1    5

WPS        1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12  13  14
Yankees    9  21  15  29  18  71   6  14  39  16  28  40  48  16
Red Sox   40   5  17   5  12   9  38  61  29  39  50  27  15  63
WPS Base: 778.1  Best Plays: 96  Last Play: 38  Grand Total: 912.1

Game Four got the “MLB’s 20 Greatest” spot, but WPS likes this one much better. The script is a little different in who leads when, but they share the late Red Sox comeback, this game starting the ratcheting tension an inning earlier. David Ortiz sparked that eighth inning rally with another home run, and people were starting to comment on his unnatural clutch ability.

Opportunities went back and forth. A two-out Yankees chance miscarried when Tony Clark‘s long shot bounced over the wall, stopping Ruben Sierra at third. Boston tried the Dave Roberts steal trick again twice, hoping to spark another winning rally, but Johnny Damon and Ortiz both got cut down. (Oops, not too clutch for Big Papi.) Jason Varitek nearly muffed the game away with two passed balls in the 13th (maybe not his fault: it was knuckler Tim Wakefield pitching), but Sierra fanned to end the threat. The numbers kept climbing.

Then, with two out and two on in the home 14th, Ortiz came up again. This time it was an economical single that scored Damon, won the game, and built Ortiz’s legacy. The Red Sox lived to fight another day, and—well, I won’t say more. The re-opened wound, and all that.

The LCS by series

Looking at whole series, we are forced to divide our attention. The League Championship Series was three-out-of-five from 1969 to 1984, then switched to four-out-of-seven for the 1985 season. It’s unfair to apply a counting statistic to them and ignore the massive deficit facing the earlier series, so I’ll split the lists into best-of-five and best-of-seven.

We look briefly as always at the worst, starting with the five-game sets, of which there have so far been 32.

   Year     Teams     WPS Index
3. 1982  StL over Atl   804.8
2. 1975  Bos over Oak   795.3
1. 1970  Bal over Min   763.4

The Twins’ second shot at the dynasty Orioles was competitive for about three innings. Maybe they really did need Billy Martin—except that his 1981 A’s hit No. 4 on this list, falling to his ex- and future team, the Yankees.

The least exciting four-out-of-five series was the Dodgers and Pirates in 1974; the most tepid five-out-of-five was Milwaukee edging out California in 1982, which comes in right at the middle of the pack among the 32 best-of-five League Championship Series.

As for the best-of-sevens that promoted good sleeping habits:

   Year     Teams (Games) WPS Index
5. 2001  Ari over Atl (5)   1418.3
4. 2000  NYM over StL (5)   1393.3
3. 2007  Col over Ari (4)   1388.7
2. 2006  Det over Oak (4)   1287.4
1. 1990  Oak over Bos (4)   1128.2

Not very much to say about that group, except that yes, Roger Clemens getting tossed for cussing out that umpire was the most exciting thing to happen in the 1990 series. The 1997 Marlins-Braves series was the weakest of the six-game affairs, and the Cardinals and Giants in 1987 produced the least exciting LCS to go all seven. Quantity does have a quality all its own: None of the four-game sweeps finished higher than the worst seven-gamer.

I intended to give synopses of the five leading best-of-five LCSes, but after seeing how far ahead the top two are, I’m going to scale back on numbers three through five. The chart-toppers are just that superior. (All five went the limit. The best four-out-of-five was Baltimore and California in 1979; the best three-game sweep was the Orioles and Twins in 1969.)

   Year     Teams     WPS Index
5. 1981  LAD over Mon   1561.1
4. 1973  NYM over Cin   1622.1
3. 1976  NYY over KC    1628.8

All three series managed to be memorable beyond the pure excitement factors. 1981 would be the closest the Montreal Expos would ever get to a pennant: they had Lasorda’s Dodgers on the ropes, down 2-1, before it slipped away. 1973 had Pete Rose vs. Bud Harrelson, a recapitulation of the David vs. Goliath series. Bud may not have won, but David did. The 1976 ALCS ended with Chris Chambliss trying to run out his series-winning homer in the middle of a riot. Well after the game, he returned to the field and stepped in the hole where an uprooted home plate had been, just to be sure.

No. 2. 1972 ALCS, A’s over Tigers—2023.7 points

The great Game One we’ve seen already. Game Four would repeat the themes, with the home team recovering from an extra-inning deficit to pull out the win. This time it was the Tigers, extending the season by carving up the back end of the A’s bullpen and completing its three-run rally without an out expended. The series would conclude with a taut 2-1 Oakland win that didn’t actually run up a big WPS score. It was still plenty to plant the series far ahead of third—but far, far out of first.

No. 1. 1980 NLCS, Phillies over Astros—2614.1 points

It began with a pretty good game, a 3-1 Phillies win, and then traveled to a parallel universe where baseball games last 10 innings. Or more. Four straight extra-inning games gave us a series one would barely believe in fiction.

Houston piled up four runs in the 10th inning of Game Two, but Philadelphia fought back to get Mike Schmidt to bat as the tying run—and he flied out. For Game Three, Joe Morgan‘s triple to lead off the home 11th would make him the game’s lone score. Philly struck back in Game Four, weathering a ninth-inning Astros comeback to notch two runs in the visitor’s 10th, led by Pete Rose’s mad dash home on a Greg Luzinski double. Then it was Game Five, which I’ve already covered.

Not only is this the best five-game LCS ever, it’s a close-running sixth when you include all the best-of-seven LCSes (there have been 52 through the 2011 season). Add even an average Game Six, and it would be the most exciting ever.

So what do those best-of-sevens look like? I’ll start with the ones the 1980 NLCS has beat.

    Year     Teams (Games)  WPS Index
10. 1988  LAD over NYM (7)   2430.8
9.  1986  NYM over Hou (6)   2433.5
8.  2003  Flo over ChN (7)   2530.9
7.  1985  KC  over Tor (7)   2546.6
6.  1986  Bos over Cal (7)   2568.9

Mets-Astros underperforms its reputation, especially considering it had four one-run decisions, but poor numbers for Games Two and Four hold it back. The Marlins-Cubs series finishes so high due to Games One and Three: the Bartman game had a WPS just a little above average. Red Sox-Angels had a trio of duds (below WPS 200), including the final two games, but Game Five and an awfully good Game Four elevate it.

None of those series are far from No. 1: the entire 1-10 spread for the seven-gamers would fit inside the margin between One and Two in the five-gamers above. The two highest late-LCS series are, at any reasonable assumption of precision, a dead heat.

No. 5. 2004 NLCS, Cardinals over Astros (seven games)—2655.9 points

Bill James said that most of the value of being a star player is in the part that gets you up to average, especially when combined with longevity. This series follows those precepts. Four of the games were merely average in excitement, maybe a touch below. Two were exciting contests: In Game Two, the Cardinals put up homers by Pujols and Rolen in the home eighth to win by two, and in Game Four, Carlos Beltran‘s eighth dinger of the 2004 postseason broke a tie in the home seventh, and Houston made the one-run lead stand up.

Then there was Game Six. Back and forth in the early going, it settled into a 4-3 Cardinals lead from the fourth through the eighth. In the top of the ninth, with an Astro on second and two out, Jason Isringhausen intentionally passed Beltran for obvious reasons. So it was Jeff Bagwell instead who hit the game-tying single. Nobody else reached base the rest of the game, save for Jim Edmonds. His two-out walk-off home run in the 12th won the game and knotted the series, providing the stepping-stone to St. Louis winning the pennant the next day.

No. 4. 2009 ALCS, Yankees over Angels (six games)—2685.9 points

Game Two, as listed, was a classic, but Game Three wasn’t too far behind. New York built a 3-0 lead, but the Angels pieced together three straight scoring innings to move ahead 4-3. Jorge Posada tied it back up with a homer, and the game advanced to extras. L.A. put Mariano Rivera in a 10th-inning jam, first and third with no outs, but three good defensive plays by Mark Teixeira at first base kept them off the board. The heroics went for naught, as the Angels cracked Alfredo Aceves in the 11th for the win.

There weren’t really any other very good games in this series. There was one fantastic inning in Game Six, when the Yankees battered the starter and two relievers for six runs to erase a 4-0 deficit, only for the Angels to batter the starter and two relievers for three to regain the lead they’d hold till the end. That was enough, though, to plant this series high on the mountain.

Addendum: The Angels’ losing pitcher in the decisive Game Six of the series was Joe Saunders, who carried off credit for the Baltimore Orioles’ Wild Card win in Texas last Friday, and who could be back to pitching playoff baseball against the Yankees as early as Thursday.

No. 3. 1997 ALCS, Cleveland over Baltimore (six games)—2774.7 points

Speaking of Baltimore playoff baseball, the last time they were in the postseason was this series, and it was a corker. Four of the six games were decided by one run, all of those cracking the 500 WPS barrier that is my personal marker for a “great” game. The best of those were Games Three and Four, both walk-off wins for the Tribe, the former in 12 innings, and the latter coming after Rafael Palmeiro drove in Roberto Alomar to tie it in the visitor’s ninth.

Game Six was no yawner either, unless you love offense. The teams were scoreless through 10 innings, Cleveland managing a scant two hits. Their third came in the 11th, on Tony Fernandez‘s round-tripper. Baltimore managed its 10th hit in the home ups, but when Roberto Alomar struck out looking, it was his brother, Sandy Alomar Jr., going back to the Fall Classic.

No. 2. 2004 ALCS, Red sox over Yankees (seven games)—2850.7 points

Man, that re-opened wound is looking worse that steak tartare right now.

You have already seen the two reasons this series reaches so high on the list: Games Four and Five. None of the other games are remotely as exciting, the deciding Game Seven being a painfully bad 145.1 points. Game Three gives you something with its first four innings: a 6-6 slugfest through three, with a five-run Yankees eruption in the fourth for an added jolt. It sags into a rout after that, fun only for scoring junkies and Yankees fans.

Two astounding games were enough, however, to put this series in a statistical tie with No. 1. Which one you prefer likely depends a lot on geography, and whether you would enjoy salting the wound right now. Go ahead: I think it’s beyond sensation by this point.

No. 1. 1999 NLCS, Braves over Mets (six games)—2853.8 points

And speaking of sensation (not to mention forced segues) …

Another series on the edge of a sweep turned into something incredible. Six games were decided by a combined margin of seven runs, though the WPS scores were a little restrained on the first four. Nothing was restrained about Game Five, as you’ve seen.

As for Game Six in Atlanta, it looked to be over just as it began. The Braves put up five in the first, knocking out Al Leiter and getting immediately into a bullpen still recovering from an all-hands Game Five. Several innings of a five-run margin sapped much excitement from the game, until the Mets’ comeback began in the sixth. By the seventh-inning stretch it was seven apiece.

They traded runs in the eighth, and again in the 10th. Atlanta might have won it then, but for Ryan Klesko undermining the rally by getting thrown out at third on Ozzie Guillen‘s RBI single. They got another chance an inning later. A double and sacrifice put the pennant-winning run on third with one out. Kenny Rogers got the word to intentionally walk Chipper Jones and Brian Jordan. Presumably he was not told to walk Andruw Jones to hand Atlanta the win, but he did it anyway.

Perhaps it’s for the best that the series ended in six. A seventh game might have filled the cardiac wards of the whole country.

Touching base and wrapping up

Last time, I reinterpreted the series results I got using something called Series Percentage Sum (SPS), which combined the series-winning leverage of each game with the excitement of the games. I’m not going to get deep into those numbers this time, long as I have already gone, but a few facts deserve comment.

The standings for best-of-sevens get completely overthrown by using SPS. The top two series by WPS (1999 NLCS and 2004 ALCS) plunge to 14th and 17th, primarily because they both went 3-0 and left the most interesting games with diminished series leverage. The series that rises to the top with SPS is—this is just one of those ironies—the 2003 ALCS. Yeah, the one the Yankees didn’t blow.

The reasons are pretty clear. Neither team ever got more than one game ahead, and the seventh game, with much the highest leverage, was borderline great. The latter isn’t enough by itself: the 1992 NLCS concluded with a much better Game Seven, but four of the other six games were absolute stinkers, one of them on the Worst Game list. That series gets #9 on the SPS list for best-of-sevens, but no higher.

None of these series, though, end up competing with a challenger from the best-of-five days. SPS turns the 1980 NLCS’ dominance of its category from ridiculous to ludicrous and, with only five games to do it, outstrips all the seven-game series for the best SPS total of any League Championship Series. I’m wary of comparing apples to oranges, but this shows dramatically how special that series was.

May we be lucky enough to see something like it in the days to come.

P.S. For the World Series installment of this series, future readers may follow this link. Readers of the present will have to wait until the 24th, the day of Game One of the 2012 Series. Pretty good timing, I think.

References & Resources
Baseball-Reference, as usual, provided my historical WPA data. I eked out my historical perspective on the games with some online archives of The New York Times and a peek at Cecilia Tan’s The 50 Greatest Yankee Games. (No, the 2004 ALCS wasn’t in there. Where’s the gauze?)

To encapsulate briefly the WPS calculations for those who don’t want to search my earlier articles: Base WPS is calculated by adding up the absolute (i.e., positive) Win Percentage Added value of each play in a game. The Best Plays modifier adds the value of the three highest WPA plays in the game, those presumably being ones that stick in the memory. The Last Play modifier adds the WPA value of the game’s final play, to reflect the influence that a critical walk-off play has on our appreciation of the game.

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