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January 30, 2012

Pebble Hunting

Searching for the Worst Game of 2011

by Sam Miller

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There were 2,429 games in the major leagues in 2011. Each one of them was a miracle. Each one of them was a precious gift to us. Each one lit up our lives. But in a sample that large, at least one of those miracles is going to grow up to be Fred Phelps. This is an attempt to find the worst game of the 2011 baseball season.

STEP ONE: Average Leverage Index.

A 17-2 game is not a close game, and therefore not a very good game. But it might have been 2-1 into the seventh inning, so for two hours it was a good game. To really measure lopsidedness, to find a game detached from competitive urgency, we have to use Baseball-Reference's average leverage index. It measures the average leverage of each of a team's plate appearances in a game. For an entire game's aLI, we'll just mash the two teams' average leverage indexes together to get a simple average. Our lowest 20 games, by aLI:

  • Sept. 18: Dodgers 15, Pirates 1
  • June 21: Twins 9, Giants 2
  • April 13: Cardinals 15, Diamondbacks 5
  • September 18: Brewers 8, Reds 1
  • August 23: Dodgers 13, Cardinals 2
  • July 2: Giants 15, Tigers 3
  • May 25: Red Sox 14, Indians 2
  • May 19: Yankees 13, Orioles 2
  • September 6: Red Sox 14, Blue Jays 0
  • July 20: Padres 14, Marlins 3
  • April 18: Giants 8, Rockies 1
  • June 1: Indians 13, Blue Jays 9
  • July 25: Rangers 20, Twins 6
  • April 11: Rays 16, Red Sox 5
  • September 6: Tigers 10, Indians 1
  • July 30: Yankees 17, Orioles 3
  • May 29: Mets 9, Phillies 5
  • Sept 22: Rays 15, Yankees 8
  • July 29: Phillies 10, Pirates 3
  • July 8: Red Sox 10, Orioles 3

Twenty not-tense games. Not being tense doesn't mean the game is not worth watching, though. One of the most lopsided games I've seen in person was this one, a 16-4 Giants victory in 1997. All of the runs came in the first four innings, followed by two hours of nothing. It was Candlestick Park in July, so by the end of the game literally dozens of people literally died of literal hypothermia and had to literally be carried out in body bags, figuratively speaking. But also, my favorite player at the time, Bill Mueller, hit a massive home run into Candlestick's upper deck. And the most exciting player in the sport, Barry Bonds, homered. And the Giants' ace, Shawn Estes, got the win, and as he was chasing 20 wins that season this was exciting to me. And, even though they won by 12, the Giants did overcome two deficits on the way. This is one of the half-dozen most memorable Giants games I ever went to. Which is to say, a lack of leverage doesn't guarantee a worthless game. So…

STEP TWO: Game Redemption Checklist.

1. First time amazing thing happened
Eliminated: Rays/Yankees 09/22/2011.

Matt Moore pitched this game. It was his first major-league start. It was against the Yankees. He struck out 11, didn't allow a run. If Matt Moore turns out how we want Matt Moore to turn out, this is the game you tell your grandkids about, assuming your grandkids aren't little punk bastards. This was not only not the worst game of the year, it was one of the very best.

2. Closer than it looked.
Eliminated: Indians/Blue Jays, 06/01/2011.

The Indians jumped ahead 12-0 through two innings against Kyle Drabek and Shawn Camp. By win probability, the Indians were 100 percent likely to win by the end of the third inning. But the Blue Jays did put some life into the game, with three runs in the fifth, three in the sixth, and one in the seventh. The first three batters reached in the ninth, so the Blue Jays were within two bloops and a bomb of tying the game up. Not enough to make this a good game; it was a garbage game. But too exciting to be the worst game of the year.

3. Great starting pitcher pitches great start.
Eliminated: Phillies/Pirates, 07/29/2011.

Roy Halladay threw seven innings, walked nobody, allowed one hit. That's only the fifth time in his career he has allowed one hit or fewer in a start. This is basically the best-case scenario when you buy a ticket to this game, other than the better-case scenarios.

Also too good to be the worst game of the year: Jon Lester's seven shutout innings/11 strikeouts on 09/06/2011, Lester's six shutout innings on 05/25/2011, Zack Greinke's 10 Ks on 09/18/2011, CC Sabathia's eight shutout innings on 05/19/2011, and Clayton Kershaw's six shutout innings on 08/23/2011.

4. Crisp.
Eliminated: Giants/Rockies 04/18/2011

This game could be eliminated from this list for all sorts of reasons. Tim Lincecum struck out 10 and pitched brilliantly into the eighth inning. Ryan Vogelsong made his first appearance in the big leagues since 2006, a couple mop-up innings that we now know were the first innings of an amazing story. It was closer than it looked by virtue of being played in Coors Field. But it was also the quickest game on this list, 2 hours and 21 minutes. Can't be the worst game of the year in 2 hours and 21 minutes. Takes more time than that to marinate the suck. 

Also too fast to be the worst game of the year: Giants/Twins, 06/21/2011

5. Pennant-race rivalry.
Eliminated: Rays/Red Sox, 04/11/2011

Even in April, a Rays/Red Sox game carries too much significance to ignore. This game—in Tampa—was also Carl Crawford's first game against the Rays. Did you know that this game determined the entire American League Wild Card race? It's true, it technically did! Cooperstown should ask for Cesar Ramos' glove or something.

6. Michael Cuddyer pitches.
Eliminated: Rangers/Twins, 07/25/2011.

Position player pitching is always too interesting to be the worst game of the year. Position player pitching is like a surprise stinger-gag at the end of the movie credits.  Michael Cuddyer will retire with a 0.00 ERA. Michael Cuddyer will retire with a 9.76 xFIP.

Also: Marlins/Padres 07/20/2011 (Bryan Peterson, scoreless inning.)

7. Brawl.
Eliminated: Orioles/Red Sox, 07/08/2011.

Even a bad brawl excuses a game from this list. Especially a bad brawl, maybe. Baseball players are so bad at fighting that watching them fight badly is sort of the point. Imagine you were at a hockey game and, midway through, they all stopped playing hockey and started riding show horses around the ice. They would all fall down! It would be so funny! Baseball players fight like they're riding animals with which they're unfamiliar on a surface that is unconventional. This analogy is A-plus-plus.

These punches do not hit faces:

8. Extremely hot superstar doing hot superstar things.
Eliminated: Mets/Phillies, 05/29/2011.

Jose Reyes entered the game with five consecutive multi-hit games. He had four hits in this game.

9. “MVP!” chant.
Eliminated: Dodgers/Pirates, 09/18/2011.

Matt Kemp homered in the first. The crowd got to chant MVP. Matt Kemp drove in a run with a single in the second. The crowd got to chant MVP. Matt Kemp doubled and scored in the third. The crowd got to chant MVP. Matt Kemp went out to his position in the top of the sixth and Don Mattingly stopped the game so he could pull Kemp from the field, and the crowd got to stand and chant MVP.

Epilogue: Matt Kemp didn't win the MVP award.

10.  Metaphor!
Eliminated: Tigers/Indians, September 6, 2011.

From the MLB.com game story of this game:

“A magenta sky illuminated Progressive Field in the second inning on Tuesday. The visual captured the attention of the onlookers in the stands and offered them a reminder of the Indians' rosy start to the season.

“Minutes later, a pitch-black nighttime backdrop crept, reflecting the reality of how the brightness of the 2011 campaign has dimmed for the Indians.”

Admittedly, this isn't much of an endorsement for this game. (“How was the game, honey?” “Great. I saw a metaphor.”) But we're down to some really awful games.

Three games remaining. Yankees 17, Orioles 3; Giants 15, Tigers 3; Cardinals 15, Diamondbacks 5. The Yankees were the only home team of the three to win, so let's remove this game because at least there was a lot of cheering. Two awful, awful, awful games left. The Cardinals, though. Well. The Cardinals entered this game 4-7, in fifth place. They won this game, and the next three, and 12 of 16, and soon they were in first place. The Cardinals won the World Series. Lance Berkman had started slowly, but he hit four home runs in this series against the Diamondbacks, including a grand slam in this game. If you were writing the book about the 2011 Cardinals' season, you might use this game as a significant plot point. It's a big ol' stretch, but it's something.

So the worst game of the year is one that featured:

  • Barry Zito, winning pitcher;
  • Barry Zito striking out one batter in six innings;
  • An exciting young pitcher getting humiliated at home;
  • A 15-0 lead;
  • One of those three-inning saves where the reliever pitches like crud;
  • Emmanuel Burriss;
  • Virtually nothing that would have helped your fantasy team;
  • Not a single defensive highlight good enough to make MLB.com's wrap-up;
  • Victor Martinez getting injured;
  • And, oh yeah, a freaking two-hour, 46-minute rain delay.

That's all stuff that can be determined with just a quick glance at this game. To truly appreciate it as the worst game of the year probably requires a live blogging of it. So that's what I'll do next week. 


Sam Miller also writes for the Orange County Register.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  2011

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