Surprise Postseason Heroes
[I delivered this brief talk in my hometown of Catskill, at Beattie-Powers Place, on Saturday.] There are probably a good many Mets fans among you, so forgive me for bringing up a painful memory: the 2015 World Series, which the Kansas City Royals captured in five games. If only baseball were a game of eight innings rather than nine, it is the Mets who would have won in five; three times they took a lead into the ninth and coughed it up. Bad luck, but as some wit once said, it is unlucky to be behind at the end of the game.
The MVP of the World Series was Royals’ catcher Salvador Perez, who had some key hits but drove in only two runs. Daniel Murphy of the Mets, who had ridden into the World Series in a Cinderella glass carriage after seven home runs in the first two rounds, rode back in a pumpkin after collecting only three singles in the World Series.
I am telling what you already know, either from press reports or by having witnessed it with your own eyes. My point is simply this: that over the many months of the regular season we keep track of the WHO and the WHAT of baseball accomplishment, but the postseason adds, sometimes poignantly, the dimension of WHEN, which creates ephemeral demigods—men who may have exhibited no similar skill beforehand, and typically revert to form thereafter.
The list of relative nonentities who became fleeting heroes is long, beginning with outfielder Curt Welch of the 1886 St. Louis Browns. In the World Series of that year—yes, there had been one in the early years, before the advent of the American League—the prize pot of $15,000 went entirely to the winning club, and Browns’ owner Chris von Der Ahe renounced his personal share if his club would win. With the Browns having won three of the first five contests, Game 6 was settled in the tenth inning by what instantly came to be known as “Welch’s $15,000 slide,” as the winning run scored by Browns’ outfielder Curt Welch assured his teammates that much in shared winnings.
Chances are that you never heard of Welch, or of George Rohe, the substitute infielder on the “Hitless Wonder” Chicago White Sox of 1906. Playing third base only because a regular was unable to take the position, Rohe hit two game-winning triples, and added three more hits in the clincher. The Sox defeated the powerhouse Cubs—whose regular season record was 116 wins against only 36 losses—in what remains the greatest World Series upset of all time.
I could go on to list other unlikely heroes, but that would be a bit dull. A partial roll call might include New York second-tier players Bucky Dent, Dusty Rhodes, Billy Martin, Don Larsen, and Joe Page, as well as other forgettable figures such as Gene Tenace, Larry Sherry, and David Freese. An exploit at the end of a final game—think Bill Mazeroski’s homer in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, or, to a lesser extent, Joe Carter’s in Game Six, 1993—will cement a reputation and even pave the way to Cooperstown.
In a postseason series the significance of every hit, run, and error is magnified so as to create the illusion of clutch performance. Because it happened when it happened, it must be clutch, right? Reggie Jackson’s three home runs off the first pitch from three different pitchers in the deciding Game Six of the 1977 World Series—well, it can’t get any clutchier than that, can it?
Several sabermetricians, myself among them, believe that if clutch ability were anything more than an optical illusion—if it attached to an individual as his attribute—then it would be replicable, season to season, as other abilities are. Over his career, a home run hitter will tend to hit home runs, a strikeout pitcher will tend to strike batters out, a premier shortstop will tend to get to more balls than his rivals at the position. But it turns out that a strong clutch performer in one season may be among the league’s worst in the following campaign.
In 1969 and 1970, the Mills brothers (the nonsinging variety, in this case Eldon and Harlan), who were partners in a self-started enterprise called Computer Research in Sports, tracked two entire major-league seasons on a play-by-play basis. Then they applied to that record the probabilities of winning which derived from each possible outcome of a plate appearance, as determined by a computer simulation incorporating nearly 8,000 possibilities.
What, for example, was the visiting team’s chance of winning the game before the first pitch was thrown? Fifty percent, if we are pitting two theoretical teams of equal or unknown ability on a neutral site. If that first man fails to get on base, the chances of the visiting team winning are reduced to 49.8 percent; should he hit a double, the visiting team’s chance of victory is raised to 55.9 percent, as determined by the probabilistic simulation. Every possible situation—combining half inning, score, men on base, and men out—was tested by the simulator to arrive at “Win Points.”
The Millses’ purpose was to determine the clutch value of, say, hitting a homer with two men on and one man out in the bottom of the ninth, with the team trailing by two runs, the situation that Bobby Thomson faced in the climactic National League game of 1951. (It gained for him 1,472 Win Points; had it come with no one on in the eighth inning of a game in which his team led 4-0, the homer would have been worth only 12 Win Points.)
What the Mills brothers were attempting to do was to evaluate not only the what of a performance, which traditional statistics indicate, but the when, or clutch factor, which no statistic to that time could provide. If this project, detailed in a small book issued in 1970 called Player Win Averages, sounds familiar, it is because at last it has been adopted by modern-day statisticians, in all sports. Win probability mid-game is a feature, for example, of NFL broadcast analysis.
Good hitters are good hitters and weak hitters are weak hitters regardless of the game situation. Who would you wish to appear at the plate in a clutch situation—your cleanup batter or your number 8 hitter?
My friend Dick Cramer wrote, in a landmark article in 1977: “But there is no reason why a weak hitter shouldn’t be fortunate enough to get a series of fat pitches or good swings in crucial situations. Given enough time, this might even happen over some player’s whole career. After all, what was really meant when someone was called a ‘clutch hitter’? Was he really a batter who didn’t fold under pressure—or was he a lazy batter who bothered to try his hardest only when the game was on the line?”
Each year, postseason heroes and goats abound—Daniel Murphy went from hero to goat in an instant, it seemed—but both are accidents of time and place rather than indications of character and ability.