Monday, November 17, 2014

The best single-postseason hitting performances of all time

All right, now that we’ve got all the negativity out of the way, let’s return to the study of legends. Here are the ten best hitting performances in a single postseason, chosen as always by Championship Probability Added.

10. Dwight Evans, 1986 (+.435 CPA)

Wait, Dwight Evans of the title-deprived Red Sox shows up on a postseason best-of list? In a year in which the Sox famously choked away the World Series?

Apparently so. Let’s find out why.

Evans didn’t do too much in the ALCS, going 6 for 28 with a double, a homer, and three walks. He did drive in four runs, however, which helped his .214/.290/.357 slash line turn into at least somewhat useful production.

The World Series was another story (in a good way). Evans went 8 for 26 with two doubles, two homers, four walks, four runs scored, and nine RBI. That’s a .308/.400/.615 line, and more than an RBI per game. Which is really good.

His best work of the Series came in the final two games, which CPA tends to appreciate. Evans doubled in the first run of Game 6 in the top of the first. After the Mets came back to tie it, Boston put runners at the corners with one out in the seventh, and Evans hit a well-timed RBI groundout to retake the lead. He also reached on an error in the ninth after New York evened the score yet again. Evans didn’t factor into either half of the infamous tenth inning, but his early production kept the Sox in the game, giving them multiple chances to clinch their first title since a season that was shortened due to World War I.

Evans's Game 7 was even better. He led off the second with a homer that represented the game’s first run. Six innings later, the Mets had rallied to take a 6-3 lead, but the Red Sox started the eighth with a pair of singles. Evans then doubled both runners home, pulling Boston within one and putting the tying run at second with nobody out.

Jesse Orosco stranded Evans at second, and New York put the game away with two runs of their own in the bottom of the inning, but Evans had posted a +.314 WPA in Game 7 of the World Series, two days after putting up a +.250 in Game 6.

So yes, he does belong on this list. But at the same time, it’s easy to see why he doesn’t come immediately to mind; the fans who would have the best chance of remembering his contributions have done their best to block those two games completely out of their memories.

9. Tony Womack, 2001 (+.436 CPA)

Tony Womack hit .246/.297/.319 for the Diamondbacks in the 2001 postseason, which is both very bad (especially in 2001), and not terribly different from his usual regular season work (.266/.307/.345 that year). If you’ve been keeping up with this series of posts so far, you can probably already guess why he’s here. But just in case you haven’t: he had good timing.

In the first four games of the NLDS, Womack had two hits, one run, and no RBIs. But in the fifth, with Curt Schilling and Matt Morris locked in a pitcher’s duel, Womack singled in the first and third innings to help create scoring opportunities. Both of those chances were squandered, and the only runs that came across in the first eight innings came on one solo homer for each team.

The Cardinals turned the game over to their bullpen in the ninth. A double, a bunt, and an intentional walk put runners at the corners with one out and Womack at the plate. Bob Brenly may have lacked confidence in his leadoff man, or may have just been overmanaging a bit; either way, he called for a double steal that got the lead runner thrown out at home. But Womack bailed him out, singling the winning run home from second to end the series.

The NLCS passed quietly for Womack, who went 4 for 20 with a double, four runs, and one time caught stealing. The World Series also got off to a bad start, with an 0 for 11 through the first three games; Womack recovered slightly with a pair of hits in Game 4, but then went 1 for 6 in a 12-inning loss in Game 5, and Arizona returned home trailing 3-2 in the series.

The D-Backs rallied with a 15-2 beatdown in the sixth game, one in which Womack contributed three hits, including a double, two runs, and two RBI. That set the stage for Game 7, which proved to be yet another Curt Schilling pitcher’s duel, this one against Roger Clemens.

The game was scoreless through five. Arizona scored once in the bottom of the sixth, but New York tied it in the seventh. Womack singled with one out in the bottom of the seventh, which chased Clemens from the mound, but he was promptly caught stealing. Alfonso Soriano put the Yankees in front with an eighth-inning homer, and Mariano Rivera, the greatest postseason pitcher ever, took the mound with the intention of sealing New York’s fourth consecutive title. His outing began with a scoreless eighth, which Randy Johnson countered with a perfect ninth.

Mark Grace led off the bottom of the ninth with a single. Damian Miller bunted, and Rivera committed a throwing error in trying for the lead runner, allowing both men to reach safely. Jay Bell bunted into a force at third, bringing Womack to the plate.

Womack doubled, driving in pinch runner Midre Cummings from second to even the score at 2 and putting the winning run 90 feet away. Two batters later, Luis Gonzalez would single the Series-ending run home. Gonzalez’s hit is the one that always gets played in highlight videos, but Womack’s double was the Series-turning event, swinging win expectancy by a full 50% in the seventh game of the World Series.

And that kind of timing is how a terrible hitter shows up on a best hitters’ list.

8. Willie Stargell, 1979 (+.441 CPA)

Stargell’s raw October numbers for the ’79 Pirates would probably be enough of an explanation: 5 for 11 with two doubles, two homers, and six RBI in the three-game sweep of an NLCS (including a game-winning 3-run shot in the eleventh inning of Game 1); 12 for 30 with four doubles, three homers, seven runs, and seven RBI in the seven-game World Series win over the Orioles. Stargell’s slugging average for the postseason was .927, which is belief-defying.

And yet, there’s a bit more to it than that. As per usual, the bit more to it came in Game 7 of the World Series. Stargell led off the second inning of a scoreless game by reaching second on a single-and-error. He was stranded there, and Baltimore pulled ahead in the fourth; Stargell then proceeded to double with one out in the bottom of the inning, and reached third before being left on again. Having apparently grown tired of waiting for his teammates to drive him in, Pops took matters into his own hands in the sixth inning, hitting a go-ahead two-run homer that gave the Pirates a lead they would not relinquish. He doubled again in the eighth, then ended a ninth-inning insurance rally by hitting into a pretty unimportant double play.

All told, it was a 4 for 5 with 3 extra-base hits, one of which turned a deficit into a lead. The performance was worth a WPA of +.411 in the biggest game you can have. And that’s a good way to show up on this list.

7. Tris Speaker, 1912 (+.444 CPA)

The numbers are good – 9 for 30 with four walks, a double, two triples, a steal, four runs and two RBI, a .300/.382/.467 line – but not exactly the stuff of legends. But then, nobody makes legends out of postseason batting lines anyway. They make legends out of huge moments, and Speaker had two of them in the 1912 Series.

The first came in Game 2, which was an excellent one and would be remembered as a classic today but for one perceived flaw. Speaker’s contribution came in the bottom of the tenth. With his Red Sox trailing by a run and Christy Mathewson of the Giants on the mound, Speaker stepped to the plate with one out and tripled to center. Not satisfied with three bases, Speaker tried for home on the play – and scored the tying run when catcher Art Wilson dropped the throw. One inning later, the game was called due to darkness, entering the books as a 6-6 tie (in which the Red Sox did not score a single earned run). That's why nobody talks about it today; ties generally aren’t seen as interesting.

In this case, however, the tie was very interesting, both because it was an exciting game, and because it eventually helped necessitate the playing of a Game 8. And that game is where we pick up Speaker’s story. With Mathewson once again on the mound, Speaker singled in the first, but was stranded. New York pulled ahead in the third; Speaker struck out in the bottom of the inning, then walked in the sixth with the deficit still at 1-0. Boston tied it in the seventh without Speaker’s input, and the game went to extras tied at 1.

The Giants pulled ahead 2-1 in the top of the tenth, and Mathewson had a chance to finish off his second world title. Pinch hitter Clyde Engle led off the bottom of the inning by reaching on a highly famous error by Fred Snodgrass. Harry Hooper’s deep flyout moved Engle to third, and Steve Yerkes walked to put runners at the corners. Up stepped Speaker. After the Giants misplayed his foul popup, he stroked a single to right, tying the game at 2 and moving the winning run to third. The hit was good for a win expectancy swing of 38%, and it helped Boston secure the victory in one of baseball’s earliest great games.

So, Speaker helped the Red Sox make it to Game 8 with what was effectively a game-tying extra-inning homer, then propelled them to a win in Game 8 with a game-tying extra-inning single. Yeah, I can see why he’s here.

6. Harry Walker, 1946 (+.497 CPA)

1946 was an awkward year for major league baseball, primarily because the end of World War 2 meant the reintegration of the hordes of players who’d missed the last several years due to military service. Harry Walker of the Cardinals was among those players. He had made his MLB debut in 1940, but not played with any regularity until ’42, when he was already 25 years old. He hit well in part-time duty that year, then played 148 games for the 1943 pennant winners, and then shipped out for two years in the armed services.

Like many players, Walker struggled in his return to baseball. He played 112 games in 1946, and hit .237/.300/.338 as part of a surprisingly mediocre five-man outfield timeshare that moved Stan Musial to first base for the year. But in the World Series, it all changed.

Walker played in all seven games (although he didn’t start two of them and was removed from another). He went 1 for 2 in Game 1, 1 for 3 in Game 3, and 1 for 2 with an RBI and a pair of intentional walks in Game 4. Up next was a 2 for 4 effort in Game 5, which included a double and the driving in of all three St. Louis runs for the day. After an 0 for 3 in Game 6, Walker was 5 for 14 (.357) with four RBI and two runs scored going into the decisive seventh game.

Boston took the lead in the top of the first, but St. Louis tied it in the second on a double, a groundout, and a Walker sacrifice fly. Walker and the Cards struck again in the fifth; after Walker’s leadoff single, starting pitcher Murry Dickson doubled him home with the go-ahead run, and Red Schoendienst singled Dickson in afterward. Walker drew a base on balls in the sixth, but didn’t score.

In the top of the eighth, Dom DiMaggio tied the game with a two-out, two-run double. And in the bottom of the inning came the play for which this game is remembered. Enos Slaughter led off with a single, and was still on first two outs later. The next hitter doubled to center; the relay throw came in to shortstop Johnny Pesky, and Pesky (maybe) held onto the ball too long, allowing Slaughter to race home from first with the eventual winning run. Boston would put runners at the corners in the top of the ninth before Harry Breechen recovered to strand both of them and finish off the St. Louis victory.

Slaughter’s “mad dash” got the press – but it was Harry Walker who hit the double that drove him in, and it’s Walker who gets the credit from CPA for the Series-winning hit. Combined with his production earlier in the game, the decisive double gave Walker a +.403 WPA in Game 7, and a .412/.524/.529 line for the Series as a whole.

There’s a bit of a postscript to this one, too. Normally, a player who has an unusually hot postseason will regress to his typical level of play the next year. But in 1947, Walker belied that trend; playing mostly for the Phillies, he hit .363, becoming one of the most surprising batting champs of all time. He backslid a year later, but the span from October of 1946 to September of ’47 was a very good 12 months for Harry Walker.

5. Lance Berkman, 2011 (+.512 CPA)

Lance Berkman’s phenomenal postseason career has managed to turn itself into one of my favorite topics to write about. In fact, I have already given him his own post, laying out not only his 2011 heroics for the Cardinals, but also his fine work for Houston in 2004 and 2005, all of which went almost entirely unnoticed.

That post is here, and it does Berkman’s work more justice than I would expect to be able to do in covering it again. As for the reason that nobody thinks of his 2011 postseason as belonging on a list like this… we’ll get to him later.

4. Max Carey, 1925 (+.513 CPA)

Carey went 11 for 24 for Pittsburgh in the seven-game 1925 World Series, with four doubles, three steals (and one time caught), two walks (and three times hit by pitch), six runs scored, and two RBI. While a line of .458/.552/.625 is obviously extraordinary, the numbers actually manage to undersell Carey’s contributions in some ways. He had positive WPA figures in each of the last six games of the Series, most notably a +.224 in Game 3 (in which his ninth-inning single moved the tying run to third with one out, though his teammates would go on to leave it there).

But Carey’s best work of the Series by far came in Game 7, against Walter Johnson. He went 4 for 5 with three doubles, three runs scored, and both of his RBI. He doubled in the first while the Pirates trailed 4-0. He singled in the third to pull them within 4-2, then came around to score on a groundout, a steal, and a single to cut the deficit to one. He led off the fifth with a double and scored again, reducing the Washington lead to 6-4. He hit his third double of the day in the seventh, driving in a run and making it 6-5, then scored the tying run on Pie Traynor’s two-out triple (Traynor was thrown out going for an inside-the-parker, which would have been AMAZING).

Carey wasn’t quite done yet, either. The Senators pulled ahead again on a Roger Peckinpaugh homer in the eighth, but the Pirates rallied to tie in the bottom of the inning, and Carey stepped to the plate with two outs and the go-ahead run in scoring position. He grounded to short… and Peckinpaugh threw the ball away on an attempted force, loading the bases for Kiki Cuyler, whose double pushed two runners across and wrapped up the Series.

It was that kind of day for Carey – even his outs weren’t outs. And if you’re going to have a game that serendipitous (not to mention putting up a +.404 WPA), Game 7 of the World Series is about the best possible time you can choose.

3. Bucky Harris, 1924 (+.558 CPA)

Well, we just had someone put in an appearance from a great series that was lost by the Walter Johnson Senators. I suppose it makes sense for someone to show up from the classic they won a year earlier.

Harris’s basic numbers were good but not spectacular in the ’24 Series – he went 11 for 33 with a pair of homers, five runs scored, and seven RBI. He had at least one hit in every game, including a solo homer in Washington’s one-run victory in Game 2 and pairs of singles and runs scored in a 7-4 Game 4 triumph.

But his place on the list was really assured by the last two games of the series. Harris went only 1 for 4 in Game 6, but the lone hit was a two-run single in the fifth that turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead, which would remain intact as the game’s final score.

And that was merely the prologue to Game 7. Harris opened the scoring with a solo homer in the fourth, but the Giants rallied with three runs in the sixth. Harris led off the seventh with a single, but was erased on a double play ball. And then came the bottom of the eighth. A double, a single, and a walk loaded the bases with one out. A flyout brought Harris to the plate with two away. Harris grounded toward third – and the ball hit a pebble and hopped over Freddie Lindstrom’s head and into left field, allowing the tying runs to score.

The game progressed into legend from there – Walter Johnson threw four innings in relief and the Senators won it in the twelfth with the help of another grounder that hit a pebble and hurdled Lindstrom on its way into left field and history.

Harris was not directly involved in the Series-clinching rally. But without his performance at the plate in both the preceding game and the preceding innings, the Series would have been long over already. Instead, the Senators were able to give the aging Walter Johnson a first richly-deserved championship, and Harris earned justifiable plaudits both for his play and for his performance as the team’s manager at age 27.

2. Hal Smith, 1960 (+.655 CPA)

Hal Smith is here for the same reason that Jim Coates was on the worst single-season pitchers’ list: by CPA, he had the single biggest hit in baseball history, a 3-run homer with two outs in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series that turned a 7-6 deficit into a 9-7 lead. That home run is discussed in considerable detail from Smith’s perspective in this post (he’s #6 of the top 20), and from Coates’s perspective in this one (#2 of the bottom 10).

Hal Smith’s homer is the Lance Berkman of individual postseason events – hugely important and completely overshadowed by everything that happened around it. Suffice it to say, CPA likes it a LOT. Hence, Hal Smith at #2. In fact, he would have held the top spot on this list for about half a century, until…

1. David Freese, 2011 (+.787 CPA)

Yeah, that seems about right.

Freese actually got off to a slow start in the 2011 playoffs – he was just 2 for 12 with a double and an RBI through the first three games of the Cardinals’ NLDS. But in Game 4, he went 2 for 3 with a go-ahead two-run double and a lead-assuring two-run homer in St. Louis’s 5-3 victory, and he was off to the races from there.

Freese’s NLCS performance was jaw-dropping – 12 for 22, three doubles, three homers, two walks and one time hit by pitch, seven runs and nine RBI in a six-game series. The batting line was an absurd .545/.600/1.091. In each of the six games, he either had multiple hits, scored multiple runs, or drove in multiple runs, and that was capped by a Game 6 in which he accrued three of each, putting up a +.313 WPA in a pennant-clinching 12-6 win that was more exciting than the score would indicate.

Freese did not keep up quite the same level of hitting in the World Series, though his 8 for 23, three doubles, one triple, one homer, five walks, four runs, and seven RBI (.348/.464/.696) was certainly still impressive. But it was his timing in the seven-game classic that was truly exceptional. In the first game, Freese went 1 for 2 with a walk and a double; the double came with one out in the sixth inning of a tie game, and Freese would go on to score the decisive run in a 3-2 victory. In Game 3, Freese had an RBI double and an RBI groundout during the close early stages of an eventual 16-7 Cardinal win. However, the second, fourth, and fifth games of the Series didn’t go as well for either Freese or the Cards, and St. Louis entered Game 6 trailing 3-2.

There is a slight possibility that you may already know what comes next. Freese had two massively important hits in the legitimately epic sixth game, a two-out, two-run, game-tying, ninth-inning triple and an eleventh-inning walkoff homer. Throw in a key walk in the sixth and you get a WPA of +.964, the largest single-game total by any hitter in postseason history. And if that wasn’t enough (even though it was), Freese also tied Game 7 with a two-run double in the first, adding another +.201 WPA in the Series-ending victory.

So yes, as it turns out, Freese's 2011 was just as remarkable as we all thought while we watched it happen.

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