Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The best single-postseason pitching performances of all time

As promised, we’re following up on the discussion of 2014’s best performers by addressing the question that arises from an analysis of Madison Bumgarner’s exemplary work throughout this October: Just how historically rare was the effort we just saw?

The short version: Very. For the long version, I present the ten best Championship Probability Added scores ever accrued by a pitcher in a single postseason.

10. Herb Pennock, 1926 (+.580 CPA)

Pennock started Game 1 of the Series for the Yankees, and beat the Cardinals 2-1. He started Game 5 of a 2-2 series, and posted a 3-2, 10-inning victory to put the Yanks on the brink of the title. And in Game 7, he relieved in the seventh with New York trailing 3-2 and threw three scoreless innings, giving one of baseball’s best lineups ever its best chance to rally.

They didn’t capitalize on that chance… but we’ll get to that later. For Pennock’s part of the story, we get two exemplary starts followed by one key relief appearance. We may just see that combination again.

9. Waite Hoyt, 1921 (+.582 CPA)

Hoyt is the second pitcher on the list whose team lost the World Series; he’s also the last. As you’d expect from his appearance here, the defeat was anything but his fault. Hoyt’s Series started with a 2-hit shutout in Game 2, which his Yankees won 3-0 (though the lead was 1-0 for most of the game). Four days later, Hoyt was at it again in Game 5, this time allowing a lone unearned run in a 3-1 complete game victory that put the Yanks ahead 3-2 (which is not quite as promising an edge as it would be today, since the ’21 Series was the last of the best-of-9 matchups).

The Giants won the next two games to take a 4-3 lead, and the Yanks sent Hoyt in Game 8 with their backs to the wall. In the first inning, two walks and an error combined to permit the Giants an unearned run; Hoyt recovered to hold them scoreless the rest of the way, completing a World Series effort in which he threw 27 innings with an ERA of zero. However, opposing starter Art Nehf countered with a shutout, and the Giants took home the title despite Hoyt’s rather literal best efforts.

8. Rollie Fingers, 1972 (+.606 CPA)

 The ALCS saw Fingers make three appearances, throw 5.1 innings, and allow just one run, earning an extra-inning win in Game 1 for his trouble. And that was just the warmup.

Fingers pitched in 6 of the 7 games of the World Series, working 10.1 innings and permitting 2 runs. He made an excellent Series debut in Game 1, entering in the sixth with no outs and the tying run at second, and working a scoreless inning and two thirds before turning the ball over to Vida Blue. He earned the save in Game 2 (albeit by retiring just one batter), threw another 1.2 scoreless in Game 3 to keep the A’s within a run, and picked up a win in Game 4 with a goose egg in the ninth, after which Oakland rallied from a one-run deficit to prevail 3-2.

Game 5 served as Fingers’s lone black mark, and even that may be a bit unfair. He entered in the fifth, and stranded the tying run on base, then threw 1-2-3 sixth and seventh innings to keep the one-run lead intact. He finally surrendered the lead on a walk, steal, and single in the eighth, then allowed Cincinnati to pull ahead on a single, bunt, error, and single in the ninth – but he was pitching for the third consecutive day, and in his fifth consecutive game, and maybe shouldn’t have been asked to stay in the game quite that long.

Two days later, the Reds had evened the Series, necessitating a seventh game. And this time, the A’s moderated their workload expectations a bit, keeping Fingers in reserve until the eighth. With Oakland ahead 3-1, Catfish Hunter allowed a single, and Ken Holtzman then gave up a double to put the tying runs in scoring position with nobody out. Enter Fingers, who went popup-IBB-sacrifice fly-flyout to minimize the damage, then worked a scoreless ninth to finish off the Series with a huge two-inning save worth +.426 WPA.

That is how a reliever earns a place on this starter-heavy list.

7. Johnny Podres, 1955 (+.650 CPA)

Yeah, this is a pretty famous one – partly for the performance (two complete-game wins, most notably a 2-0 shutout victory in Game 7), but more for the fact that it gave the Dodgers their first championship ever.

Podres establishes a common trend among guys who rank highly on this list: a lot of them threw shutouts in Game 7, generally ones in which their team did not score many runs. Low-scoring shutouts are WPA catnip, and anything that WPA likes, CPA likes, especially when it’s given the overpowering weight of a World Series Game 7.

6. Sandy Koufax, 1965 (+.691 CPA)

Speaking of 2-0 shutouts by Dodger left-handers in Game 7…

Koufax’s clincher earns a slightly lower WPA than Podres’s did, largely because it was somewhat easier to throw a shutout in 1965 than it was in ’55. (It was probably harder to do it on two days’ rest, but CPA doesn’t hand out bonus points for degree of difficulty in that regard.) However, Koufax had an extra start to work with (he opened Games 2, 5, and 7 in this one), and his Game 5 shutout was both more impressive than Podres’s 3-run complete game in Game 3 a decade earlier, and gets more weight because it came later in the Series.

They’re still very close, but even if you want to make a subjective call between the two of them, I’d have to think the near-tie goes to the guy on famously short rest, right?

5. Grover Cleveland Alexander, 1926 (+.710 CPA)

Remember the rest of the story we were going to get to from the Pennock comment? Here it is.
Alexander started the games right after Pennock’s in the ’26 Series, and pitched about as well as his Yankee counterpart; he threw complete games in Game 2 (6-2 win) and Game 6 (10-2 win). And then came Game 7.

As mentioned previously, Alexander’s Cardinals held a 3-2 lead going into the seventh. Pennock relieved in the top of the inning and kept the score where it was, and St. Louis’s Jesse Haines got into a bit of trouble in the bottom of the inning. Earle Combs led off with a single, and was bunted to second. Babe Ruth was intentionally walked, for obvious reasons. Bob Meusel hit into a force at second, and Lou Gehrig walked as well to load the bases for Tony Lazzeri.

Alexander was summoned from the bullpen on zero days’ rest (and possibly nursing a celebratory hangover after his sixth-game gem). He proceeded to strike out Lazzeri on four pitches, throw a perfect eighth, and then see Ruth get caught stealing to end the Series in the bottom of the ninth.

Two good starts, one great (and famous) relief appearance worth +.510 WPA in the clincher. Told you we’d see that formula again.

4. Lew Burdette, 1957 (+.740 CPA)

This is the Koufax model of Series performance – starting Games 2, 5, and 7. The difference is that Burdette both went the distance all three times, and won all three times, by scores of 4-2, 1-0, and 5-0. The Braves gave Burdette more support in Game 7 than some of the pitchers below him on the list got, but the 1-0 effort in Game 5 more than makes up the difference.

3. Madison Bumgarner, 2014 (+.969 CPA)

And so we have our answer. Bumgarner’s six high-quality starts, including a shutout in the Wild Card game and another in Game 5 of the World Series, plus a five-inning one-run save in Game 7, amount to the third-best postseason any single pitcher has ever had. Moreover, the margin between #3 and #4 is huge – larger, in fact, than the gap from 4 to 10 (or, as it turns out, from 4 to 16).

Incidentally, Bumgarner’s World Series followed Alexander’s pattern very closely – two excellent starts, one classic relief outing. The primary difference between them is that Bumgarner had three additional playoff rounds in which to accrue value, and took full advantage of the extra opportunities.

We've still got a pair of pitchers left. Who are they, and how close did Bumgarner come to beating them?

2. Ralph Terry, 1962 (+.981 CPA)

Entering the '62 Series, Terry was most famous for allowing Bill Mazeroski's Game 7 walkoff homer two years earlier. This performance did a rather impressive job of rehabilitating his reputation.

Terry made three starts on the Koufax-Burdette schedule of Games 2, 5, and 7, albeit without the short rest; there were six days between games 5 and 7 of the ’62 World Series. Terry took a tough-luck loss in Game 2, throwing seven innings of two-run ball, then came back with a complete game 5-3 win in Game 5. But like most of these guys, he earned his place on the list in Game 7, a 1-0 shutout in which Willie McCovey lined out to Bobby Richardson to end the game in the ninth.

So what beats a 1-0 shutout in Game 7, you ask? (You probably already know the answer, but just in case…)

1. Jack Morris, 1991 (+1.015 CPA)

Morris was all right in the ALCS; he won both of his starts, but the victory in Game 1 (5.1 innings, 4 runs allowed) definitely required bailing out by Minnesota’s hitters. Game 4 went much better, as he threw 8 innings, allowed 2 runs, and the Twins won 9-3.

Then came the World Series, which remains one of the best ever played. Morris again started Game 1, and pitched well, throwing 7 innings and allowing 2 runs in a 5-2 win. His Game 4 start lasted 6 innings and saw him give up just one run; the Twins took the lead in the top of the seventh, but Morris was pulled for a pinch hitter, and their bullpen allowed the Braves to rally for a 3-2 win.

The Braves won Game 5 easily; the Twins won Game 6 with far more difficulty, and that, of course, brought Morris back to the mound for Game 7, whose story you have surely heard before. Morris threw a 10-inning shutout, leading his team to a 1-0 victory in a performance that was highly laudable even if it was abetted somewhat by Atlanta baserunners.

We already knew that Madison Bumgarner had a fantastic 2014 postseason. Championship Probability Added gives us a tool for assessing just how good it was (on par with the greatest ever). And hey, it can also be used to examine the best hitting postseasons... or the worst.

Guess what we'll be getting to next.

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