April 3, 2012
The Tensest Series of All Time
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Dave Studeman is the manager and primary owner of the Hardball Times.
There’s this thing called Leverage Index that some of us like to play with. It was developed by Tom Tango—building on similar work by folks like Doug Drinen and Phil Birnbaum—to measure the criticality of a plate appearance. It’s an outgrowth of Win Probability Added, and it’s arguably the best thing about WPA.
Leverage Index allows us to say that this plate appearance was twice as critical as that plate appearance, based on the inning, score, outs, and baserunning situation. It doesn’t take specific pitchers and batters into account—it’s a generic perspective best used for measurement—but it sets a framework so that managers and fans can better understand the game situation.
The thing that Leverage Index misses, however, is the criticality of a game. When teams are out of a pennant race, are their plate appearances really that critical? This is something that Sky Andrecheck and I addressed a couple of years ago by quantifying the criticality of a game based on a team’s position in a pennant race.
I called my approach a Drama Index (because criticality is dramatic too), and Sky called his Championship Leverage Index, but they do the same thing: they quantify the criticality of a game based on a team’s position in a pennant race.
Sky took his system an extra step by applying it to the postseason, and I've combined Sky's metrics with the Leverage Index of each postseason play (thank you, Sean Forman, Baseball Reference, and Retrosheet) to tell you the following:
The most tense, intense, and dramatic postseason series of all time was played in 1924, between the Senators and Giants.
When I recently used this methodology to measure the criticality of every postseason at-bat and present my results at the SABR Analytic Conference, I realized I could also use it to select the tensest post-season series of all time. And I didn’t even know “tensest” was a word until I wrote this paragraph. Thank you, Microsoft Word.
Really, all I’m doing is summing up the Leverage Index of each at-bat during a postseason game, then multiplying the sum by that game’s Championship Leverage Index. Adding up the totals from all the games gives you an index of Series Criticality, Intensity, and Drama. We’ll call it the Intensity Score for short.
That is how the 1924 Series comes in first. Runners up include the 1991 Atlanta-Minnesota/John Smoltz-Jack Morris series, the 1975 Series between the Reds and Red Sox, and the 1912 contest between the Giants and Red Sox.
Doubt me? Read on.
When you add up the Leverage Index of every single plate appearance in this tight game, you get a total of 185 Leverage Index “points,” the seventh-highest figure of any World Series game ever. Since this was the first game of the Series, we multiply 185 by 0.313 to get a total Intensity Score of 58.
The first game of our other series? They were relative laughers. The Red Sox beat the Reds 6-0 in 1975 (though there was some drama, as Boston didn’t score any runs until the seventh inning), the Twins beat the Braves 5-2 in 1991, and the Red Sox beat the Giants 4-3 in 1912.
Actually, the 1912 Game One was a tense affair, the 18th-tensest first game of any World Series, with an Intensity Score of 31. Most notably, Boston’s Smoky Joe Wood struck out the last two batters in the ninth with the tying run on third and the winning run on second.
Giants shortstop Art Fletcher had a terrible day in the field, committing three errors behind Christy Mathewson. As a result, none of Boston’s six runs was earned. The Giants actually had a 6-5 lead in the bottom of the 10th, but Tris Speaker foreshadowed his big hit in the final game by a smacking a controversial inside-the-park home run to tie it. The game ended in a 6-6 tie with an Intensity Score of 53.
So they played a second Game Two in Boston, this one a 2-1 win for the Giants. The Intensity Score was “just” 31. The game featured a crazy bottom of the ninth, when Josh Devore caught a fly to right field with his bare hand with runners on second and third, two out, and New York nursing a one-run lead.
All three Game Twos in our other series were also one-run affairs. The 1975 Game Two posted the highest Intensity Score (34) when the Reds scored two in the top of the ninth to win, 3-2. The big hits in the ninth were a double by Bench, a single by Concepcion, and another double, by Griffey Sr.
In 1924, the Giants scored two in the top of the ninth to tie it, but the Senators’ Roger Peckinpaugh doubled in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth to win it for Washington, 4-3. Intensity Score of 23. And the Twins beat the Braves 3-2, plating the winning run on a Scott Leius home run (!) in the bottom of the eighth. Score: 27.
Wow. What is it about second games?
The other games among our top series were close, too. The Red Sox beat New York, 3-1 in 1912; the Giants beat the Senators 6-4 in 1924; and in 1975, the Reds beat the Red Sox, 6-5 in 10 innings. In this last game, Boston had tied the score on a two-run home run by Dwight Evans in the top of the ninth. Joe Morgan singled home Cesar Geronimo to win it in the bottom of the tenth.
Our two other Game Fours, however, were more intense. The Braves beat the Twins, 3-2, on a sacrifice fly after a Lemke triple in the bottom of the ninth. Score it a 38.
But the Boston/Reds matchup in 1975, a 5-4 win for the Red Sox, was even more intense. Neither team scored after the fourth, but hanging onto a one-run lead for five straight innings makes for a lot of nervous cigarette smoking in the runway. Luis Tiant managed to make the lead hold up for the Sox. Intensity Score of 43.
In 1912, the Giants beat the Red Sox 5-2. Smoky Joe Wood was reportedly held out of this game by the owner so that he could pitch the next one and draw a bigger crowd back at Fenway. Substitute starting pitcher Buck O’Brien was supposedly hung over from drinking too much the night before. He hadn’t been told he’d start until the morning of the game. Which is why, kids, you should never mix drink and baseball.
After the loss, the Red Sox were still leading the series, 3-2 (and one tie) and returning to Fenway Park. If you count up the Intensity Score of each game through the first five games, this Series ranks as the second tensest of all time, with an asterisk. The asterisk concerns the tie game, which means that they’d played one more (very intense) game than most other series.
In 1924, the Giants beat the Senators 6-2. They scored three runs in the bottom of the eighth to do it, so there was some intensity here: the most of any of these Game Fives, but still just 17th among all Game Fives in all World Series. Walter Johnson pitched a complete game loss, just as he had lost Game One to Nehf. The Series was headed back to Washington.
The Giants led the Series by a 3-2 margin, and the two teams had a Series Intensity Score of 184, the third-tensest first five games of a World Series ever. The only Series that were more intense through their first five games were the 1973 contest between the Mets and the A’s and the 1980 struggle between the Phillies and the Royals.
After five games, the 1975 Reds had built a 3-2 edge over Boston with the series returning to Fenway. They won the fifth game by a comfortable 6-2 margin. The Intensity Score of that Series through five games was 161, 14th on the all-time list.
The Braves drubbed the Twins 14-5 in 1991. At this stage, Minnesota had won the first two games in the Hump Dome, and the Braves had won all three games at County Stadium. The series, with an overall lntensity Score of 155, was headed back to Minnesota.
The most intense game of any of these Series was still the first one between the Giants and Senators, that 12-inning match in 1924. This is surprising, because the first game of a series doesn’t get a very high Championship Leverage Index overall—which illustrates just how intense a game it was.
All of that was about to change.
At any rate, the series was tied, setting the stage for a most legendary final game.
In 1924, the Senators managed to tie the Giants in the Series by beating them 2-1. The big hit was a fifth-inning two-run single by 27-year-old player-manager Bucky Harris. Art Nehf was the losing pitcher. Tom Zachary pitched a complete game for the winners. Roger Peckinpaugh, who was having a big series for the Senators, was 2-for-2. Close game, but the Intensity Score was a mere 41. Still, the Senators had managed to tie the Series. Game Seven was a day away.
You’ve seen the video, so you know what happened in 1975: Carlton Fisk twisted, turned, and willed a baseball to stay fair and give the Red Sox a dramatic 7-6, 12-inning win over the Reds. It was a great moment, but the greater story occurred in the bottom of the eighth, when the Reds’ probability of winning was over 90 percent. That was when Bernie Carbo hit a two-out, three-run home run to tie the game and give the Sox and Fisk their golden opportunity four innings later.
This was iconic baseball, the best you can imagine. The Intensity Score was 78, the fifth-highest of all Game Sixes. Among the few Game Sixes that have ranked higher are last year’s Texas-St. Louis game (the most intense Game Six of all time) and, alas for Red Sox fans, the 1986 Game Six.
There is a statue outside Target Field, the Twins’ new home. It’s a statue of Kirby Puckett rounding the bases after hitting a dramatic postseason home run, an 11th-inning bomb that forced a seventh game against the Braves in 1991. The home run capped a night of drama, including a single and triple by Puckett.
Overall, Game Six in 1991 had an Intensity Score of 64, seventh all-time among Games Sixes.
So you should not be surprised by what you are about to read. But you should be amazed at what actually happened.
The final game of the 1912 Series was really the eighth game of a seven-game series (other Series have had tie games, but this was the only one that was actually extended by a tie game). They flipped a coin to determine where to play the game; the Red Sox won, and they played in Fenway. The snakebit Christy Mathewson was on the mound for the Giants, and Hugh Bedient hurled for the Sox.
The game was tied 1-1 after nine innings. Mathewson was looking dominant and Bedient had been relieved by Smoky Joe Wood, who had made a terrible one-inning start the day before. Wood looked good in the eighth and ninth innings, but he gave up a run in the top of the 10th when Fred Merkle singled home Red Murray. Mathewson had the lead and the World Championship in hand when he took the mound.
But it was not to be. Fred Snodgrass dropped a fly ball in center field to start the inning, and Clyde Engle reached second base. Snodgrass tried to make up for it with a terrific catch of a long line drive off the bat of Harry Hooper, but Engle tagged and moved to third. Mathewson proceeded to walk Steve Yerkes—incredibly, Mathewson walked five batters in this game—bringing Tris Speaker to the plate in one of the most critical post-season at-bats of all time.
Speaker first lofted a catchable foul ball, but it fell between Merkle and catcher Chief Meyers. Given new life, Speaker singled home the tying run. One intentional walk later, Larry Gardner’s sacrifice fly won the game for the Red Sox.
It was the third-most-intense final game of all time, with an Intensity Score of 151. Overall, the 1912 Series had a total of 358 intensity points, fourth-most of all time (with an asterisk due to the extra game). Snodgrass’ error is one of the most famous blunders of post-season history. For the Series, Mathewson was 0-2 with three complete games and a 0.94 ERA. It was the second of three consecutive World Series appearances for the Giants. They lost all three.
Leap ahead to 1975, where the Red Sox had just tied the Series in Boston in dramatic fashion. In the seventh game, the Sox jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the third when Don Gullett lost control and walked home two runs. But that would be the total offensive tally for Boston on this day.
The Reds clawed back. Tony Perez hit a two-run home run in the top of the sixth, and Pete Rose singled home Griffey Sr. in the top of the seventh. The score remained tied until the ninth inning, when Jim Burton managed to get two outs but also allowed two walks. Joe Morgan made him regret his loss of control by singling home, who else, Griffey Sr. Will McEnaney put down the Sox in order in the bottom of the ninth, and the Big Red Machine took home the trophy.
This may sound like a relatively straightforward game, but that just shows how inured you’ve become to great post-season drama. The Intensity Score of this game was 122, the fifth-highest figure of all post-season games ever.
Let’s leap ahead a little more, to the 1991 Series in Minnesota. You all know this game. Jack Morris vs. John Smoltz. Lonnie Smith’s baserunning blunder. Gene Larkin’s game-winning single (after two intentional walks—including one to Puckett) in the bottom of the 10th. Well, actually, maybe you’ve forgotten Larkins’ single, because Morris tends to get all the credit for the Twins’ win.
As he should. This was the single best post-season pitching performance of all time. Shutting out a team for 10 innings in the seventh game of a World Series? We can quibble about how much credit he should get, or his fielders should get, or how much Smith’s blunder helped. But give the guy his due.
This was the fourth-tensest post-season game of all time, with an Intensity Score of 143. The total Game Intensity Scores of this series was a virtual tie with the 1975 Series, 362 points to 1975’s 361. These were two great Series, with many intense affairs, the second- and third-most-intense Series of all.
Which brings us back to 1924, where we started.
Bucky Harris was a rookie player-manager with the Senators in 1924, and he was a fresh thinker. That was the year he created the relief specialist by having Firpo Marberry take on the role of bullpen ace. And Harris did something even more devious in this seventh game.
Harris had little-known pitcher Curly Ogden start the game, despite the fact that Ogden hadn’t even warmed up at anytime during the postseason. After Ogden struck out and then walked a batter, Harris replaced the righty Ogden with his rested left-handed starter, George Mogridge. (You can read more about his strategy here.
Why? Because Harris felt that the Giants’ batters, and particularly Bill Terry, had a tough time handling lefties. By starting a right-hander, Harris forced Giants manager John McGraw to bat Terry fifth. When he brought in the lefty Mogridge, he effectively got an edge over his competitor. (Terry hadn’t even started against Mogridge in the fourth game).
The strategy seemed to work well, as Mogridge took a 1-0 lead (behind a home run by, of course, Bucky Harris) into the top of the sixth. Mogridge allowed the first two batters to reach base, and McGraw replaced Terry with Irish Meusel, whereupon Harris brought in his bullpen ace, right-hander Marberry. The strategy appeared to be working exactly as planned.
Unfortunately, the Giants’ fielders didn’t cooperate, and two errors led to three New York runs in the sixth. The Giants held a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the eighth. The Senators managed to load the bases with two out when Harris stepped up to the plate and hit a grounder to third base. The ball took a bad hop over Freddie Lindstrom’s head, and the Senators tied the game.
Then Harris brought in Johnson to relieve Marberry in the top of the ninth. After losing two games, it was Johnson’s chance for ultimate redemption. Several innings (and several baserunners) later, the Senators came to bat in the bottom of the 12th. With one out, Muddy Ruel hit a foul pop, but catcher Hank Gowdy tripped on his mask and dropped the ball. Ruel subsequently doubled.
Batting for himself, Johnson reached on an error, and the next batter, Earl McNeely, hit a potential groundball double play to third base… where the ball once again took a bad hop over Lindstrom’s head and Ruel raced home with the winning run.
Four Game Sevens have gone into extra innings, but no other has gone as many as 12. And no World Series game has ever come close to the Intensity Score of this one, 191. The overall Intensity Score for the 1924 series was 416, far ahead of 1991’s 362. The combination of personalities, plays, and metrics puts 1924 at the top of our list for tensest series ever.
Of course, there are many ways to measure the intensity of an at-bat, game, or Series. This one happens to have a lot of solid math behind it, but that doesn’t make it right. The point here is to measure something—and not just rely on opinion—to help us answer a specific question. Perhaps we’ve learned something along the way.
And had a little fun too.