Sabermetricians are often accused of not enjoying the game of baseball and instead just caring about the numbers. But it’s entirely possible to love both. And in the best case scenario, the numbers can help us even further appreciate our enjoyment of the game.
A great way to experience that best case scenario is to look at a memorable baseball moment and see what the numbers show us that might give us more insight into the game. For me, the most exciting World Series I ever watched was also the first World Series I was old enough to stay up and watch: the 1991 matchup between the first two teams to ever win the pennant after finishing in last place the year before, the Atlanta Braves and the Minnesota Twins. Even then-commissioner Fay Vincent remarked, “It was I think probably the greatest World Series ever!”
Using Win Expectancy (WE), a metric that tells us the likelihood a team will win a game at any moment during that game, I decided to re-evaluate that World Series to see if the plays and moments I found most memorable were actually the most important ones in the Series. I created a new metric, Championship Expectancy (CE). CE takes the current in-game WE and combines that, using weighted averaging, with the likelihood of winning enough of the remaining games to win the series, assuming that every game later in the series has a 50% chance of going either way. The resulting percentage is the likelihood, at a particular point during the Series, that a team will win the championship.
Below, I walk through each of the games of this exciting Series and look at the major shifts in Win Expectancy and Championship Expectancy. You will find after major plays that I write in parenthesis the change in WE and CE, such as (WE: 50% to 60%, CE: 50% to 53%). I have also included graphs of the Twins’ CE after each game, with the major plays labeled. By looking at these numbers, we can better appreciate all the excitement – the obvious and the non-obvious – that occurred during a thrilling World Series.
The Twins sent Jack Morris to the hill against the Braves’ Charlie Liebrandt. I remember watching that night and thinking that Greg Gagne‘s 3-run home run in the fifth, that changed a 1-0 Twins lead into a 4-0 lead, put the entire Series in the Twins’ control. But instead, that three run blast (WE: 82% to 93% CE: 60% to 63.4%) only added 3.4% to the Twins’ chances of winning it all. The Twins did go on to win the game, and now had a 65.6% CE.
Tom Glavine pitched against Kevin Tapani the following night. The game was tied going into the bottom of the eighth when Scott Leius, with a career .353 SLG, homered to give the Twins the lead (WE: 61% to 87%, CE: 69.1% to 77.2%). This was the largest jump at that point in the Series. The Twins went on to win and now had a commanding 81.2% CE.
Down two games to none, The Braves sent out NLCS MVP Steve Avery against Scott Erickson, who had a 134 ERA+ for the Twins in 1991. The Braves took a 4-2 lead into the top of the eighth, when Chili Davis hit a two-run homerun to retie the game (WE: 20% to 50%, CE: 73.7% to 81.2%) and eventually send it into extra innings, for the first of three times in the Series.
In the top of the twelfth, with Dan Gladden on first and no one out, the Twins’ Chuck Knoblauch reached on an error by Braves’ Second Baseman Mark Lemke, sending Gladden to third. The Twins now had a 65% WE and an 86% CE. Oddly enough, even though the Twins wound up not scoring because they had run out of hitters and their pitcher, Rich Aguilera, was forced to hit, this moment had the highest CE odds that they would have until they actually won it all.
The Braves turned the Series around in the bottom of that inning. Aguilera allowed two runners on with two outs when Mark Lemke batted. Lemke had a career .617 OPS, but in the 1991 WS, he turned into Albert Pujols, mounting a 1.170 OPS. His game-winning single lowered the Twins’ CE from 78.5% to 68.75%, which was by far the biggest change in CE in the entire series up until that point.
John Smoltz pitched Game Four for the Braves, and Jack Morris pitched his second game of the Series on just three days rest for the Twins.
This game featured a pitcher’s duel and two seventh inning solo home runs, one by Twins’ third baseman Mike Pagliarulo (WE: 46% to 68%, CE: 67.3% to 75.5%), and the other by Lonnie Smith (WE: 73% to 48%, CE: 72.8% to 65%). The game was tied at two in the bottom of the ninth when Mark Lemke, the Game Three hero, batted with one out in the bottom of the ninth and tripled to left-centerfield (WE: 42% to 18%, CE: 60.1% to 55.6%). One IBB later, pinch-hitter Jerry Willard batted for Atlanta against Steve Bedrosian and hit a flyball to right field. Jack Buck announced the play, “The runners tags at third, here’s the throw from [Shane] Mack, here’s Lemke…he is out…safe, safe, safe! They called him safe! Atlanta wins and they’re going to say Harper did not tag him!” The series was tied at two. And what seemed like a huge play was indeed a huge play, lowering the Twins’ CE from 56.8% down to 50%.
The Braves won Game Five handily, by a score of 14-5. This was the only game of the entire series that was decided by more than three runs, and the only game other than Game One that was decided by more than one run. The Braves needed to take only one of two games in the Metrodome.
Steve Avery and Scott Erickson both pitched on three days rest in game six. The game went into extra innings thanks to Kirby Puckett and Terry Pendleton theatrics. In the top of the eleventh, Rick Aguilera allowed a single to Braves’ first baseman Sid Bream. After that single, the Twins had a 42% WE and 21% CE, the highest the Braves’ odds would get at any point during the series. Kevin Mitchell pinch ran for Bream, was caught stealing (WE: 42% to 56%, CE: 21% to 28%) and Aguilera escaped the 11th (WE: 64%, CE: 32%).
Kirby Puckett led off the bottom of the eleventh against Game One starter Charlie Liebrandt who now made his only appearance other than Game One. On a 2-1 count, Jack Buck made his famous homerun call, “Into deep left center, for Mitchell…and we’ll see you…tomorrow night!” Here’s where numbers and pure fandom converge. Everyone knew that was a huge hit, and the numbers agree. That hit was the biggest of the World Series at that point, raising the Twins’ CE from 32% to 50%.
The biggest change in Championship Expectancy going into this game had been Puckett’s Game Six walk-off, but Game Seven featured four plays that had an even larger effect on the teams’ odds of winning it all. Smoltz pitched again for the Braves, and Morris pitched his third game of the Series for the Twins.
Through the first seven innings, neither team scored. By the time the last few innings of Game Seven rolled around, plays repeatedly changed the CE by more than almost any event in the first five games. Lonnie Smith led off the top of the eighth with a single. Terry Pendleton followed with the largest play of the Series so far, a double to send Smith to third (CE: 43% to 24%).
The Braves’ chances didn’t get any better that inning; instead, the Twins pulled off the biggest play of the Series, a play that is probably not remembered as one of the top five moments from the Series, if it’s remembered at all. Morris got Ron Gant to ground out weakly to first, and intentionally walked David Justice. Then Sid Bream batted with bases loaded and one out. He hit a groundball to first baseman Kent Hrbek who threw home to Brian Harper who threw back to Hrbek for the 3-2-3 double play. This play had a larger effect on CE than all four of the Series’ walk-off hits, from 32% to 61%. For reference, that 29% gain in CE was larger than Kirk Gibson‘s 1988 WS HR (+27% CE), Bill Buckner‘s 1986 WS error (-20% CE), and Carlton Fisk‘s 1975 WS HR (+18% CE). In fact, this was the biggest change in CE on a run-less play in major league baseball history.
The Twins threatened in the bottom of the eighth. Chuck Knoblauch’s one out single sent Al Newman to third with one out (CE: 61% to 75%). After Mike Stanton intentionally walked Puckett, Kent Hrbek lined into a double play to end the threat (CE: 77% to 50%). Like the Twins’ double play in the top of the inning, this double play was the biggest play for the Braves’ CE in the Series.
Morris sent the Braves down in order in the ninth. In the bottom of the inning, Brian Harper’s bunt single put two runners on with no one out (CE: 71% to 82%), but Shane Mack grounded into a double play (CE: 82% to 63%), another play that hurt the Twins more than Puckett’s Game Six walk off helped them. After an IBB, Braves reliever Alejandro Pena struck out Paul Sorrento (CE: 64% to 50%).
The Twins sent Jack Morris out for the tenth inning, and he put down the Braves in order. Alejandro Pena allowed a leadoff double to Dan Gladden in the bottom of the tenth (CE: 64% to 81%). After a sacrifice bunt and two intentional walks, Gene Larkin pinch hit with the bases loaded and one out against Alejandro Pena. The Twins’ CE was 83% at this point; Larkin swung at the first pitch. Vin Scully called the play on the radio, “Pena, right foot on the rubber. You can taste the pressure here in the ‘Dome as Alejandro straightens up. And the pitch to Larkin. Swung on, a high flyball to left center, the run will score, the ball will bounce for a single, and the Minnesota Twins are champions of the world!” The odds went from 83%…up to 100%.
What I found amazing about this exercise was how many of the biggest plays were not necessarily the most memorable ones. I remember Mark Lemke scoring on a sacrifice fly in Game Four, Puckett’s walk-off in Game Six, and Morris shutting down the Braves in the top of the tenth of Game Seven, but apparently the bigger plays were double plays that ended threats in Game Seven.
What’s interesting is that my five most memorable plays were not the ones that had the biggest change in CE. In the table below, I list my top five most memorable plays in the left column with the CE next to it, and the top five largest plays overall in the third column with the CE next to it.
As analysts have started looking more at Win Expectancy and value added in terms of Wins in general, it is important to keep in mind that the ultimate goal of baseball is to do what the Twins did in 1991-win the World Series. Considering the effect of brief moments on the Championship Expectancy is a more direct method to learn what we are curious about, and it is also is quite an exciting way to let the numbers behind the ballgames enhance your enjoyment of it.