The Biggest Play in MLB History

We watch the game of baseball for the big home runs, and the important at-bats. But how do we determine who hit the biggest home run or had the most important at-bat of them all? Lee Gregory sets out to determine what the biggest play in MLB history was.

The objective of a baseball team is to win a championship. So it stands to reason that a search for the biggest play in MLB history starts with the question “What one play had the most impact on a team winning or losing a championship?”

I began to ponder this question as a result of a debate with a friend who is a Texas Rangers fan. From the moment it happened, I have contended that the most egregious play ever was Nelson Cruz‘s failure to track down David Freese’s fly ball in the bottom of the ninth in Game Six of the 2011 World Series. With two on and two out, the Rangers leading the series 3-2 and the game by two runs, Freese lifted a fly to deep right that, if caught, would have given the Rangers their first-ever title. But Cruz was playing unusually shallow. He drifted toward the ball rather than chasing it at full speed, and it eluded him. Two runs resulted and the Cards won in extras, then took the series in Game Seven. Red Sox broadcaster Dave O’Brien cites an unnamed Rangers’ team source as saying that Cruz admitted to cheating in on Freese as he was anxious to join the celebration on the mound.

My friend, knowing my deep allegiance to the Red Sox, has always counter-punched with the ball that rolled through Buckner’s legs in Game Six of the 1986 World Series. So I decided to analyze those two situations to determine objectively which was the bigger play.

As it turns out – relying on Baseball-Reference.com’s win expectancy (WE) and win probability added (WPA) stats – the Cruz-Freese play decreased the Rangers’ chances of winning that game by 54% (from 92% to 38%). In contrast, Buckner’s error in 1986 changed Boston’s fate in Game Six from 40% to 0%. So, on that basis alone, it’s clear that the Cruz play had more impact than the Buckner play.

To understand this, please recall – as any good Red Sox fan who remembers watching that gut-wrenching set of events play out will remind you – that the Mets had already tied the game prior to Mookie Wilson’s grounder, and had a runner on second. As such, they were already favored to win Game Six before that infamous play sealed Boston’s fate. And many Sox fans will point to the Stanley-Gedman cross-up that led to the tying run as a bigger blow – which, per WPA, it was, reducing the Red Sox’ win expectancy from 81% to 40% in the blink of an eye.

But as memorable as these and other Game Six plays are, including Fisk’s walkoff in 1975 which added 36% to the Red Sox win expectancy that night, or Bernie Carbo’s three-run homer in that same game that added 44%, here’s the thing about Game Sixes… they are Game Sixes. Even a play that transforms a Game Six from a certain loss to a certain victory only increases a team’s championship hopes by 50% because of the possibility of Game Seven. So we really need to examine championship expectancy (CE), not win expectancy.

In this light, the Cruz play cost the Rangers 27% WE because before the play they were 92% likely to win that game and the series, but also 4% likely to win the series in Game Seven (8% likelihood there would be a Game Seven and 50% chance of winning that). So their championship expectancy (CE) prior to Nelson’s misadventure was 96% (92% plus 4%). Afterward, they were 38% likely to win Game Six and 31% to win Game Seven (the 62% chance that Game Seven would now occur, times 50%), for a CE of 69%. So that play had a negative championship percentage added (CPA) of 27%. By similar arithmetic, the Stanley-Gedman play added 20.5% to the Mets’ hopes, and Buckner’s muff cost the Sox 20% CPA.

In fact, if any play in a Game Seven had more than 50% WPA (which for Game Sevens is the same as CPA), then we need only examine Game Sevens to find the biggest play in MLB history. And in the 37 instances of a series coming down to a deciding game, there are two such plays – in 2001 and in 1960. But they may not be the plays that first come to mind from those two exciting and hard-fought series.

In Game Seven of the 2001 World Series, the Diamondbacks came up in the bottom of the ninth trailing 2-1 against the emerging star closer of the Yankees, Mariano Rivera. Mark Grace led off with a single, and Damian Miller reached on an error by Rivera on a sacrifice bunt attempt. Jay Bell’s subsequent sacrifice attempt resulted in a force out at third. Tony Womack then came to the plate and drove a 2-2 pitch to right field for a double, scoring one run to tie this decisive match and moving the potential series-winning run to third. This hit lifted the Diamondbacks’ chances from 35% to 85%, and is the second-biggest CPA play in baseball history.

Rivera then hit Counsell with a pitch, ironically improving the Yankees’ chances infinitesimally by putting the inning-ending double play in order, before Luis Gonzalez attained immortality with his flare over Jeter’s head to win the series for the D-Backs.

The classic 1960 series pitted the mighty Yankees against the upstart Pirates. The images of Bill Mazeroski’s jubilant lope around the bases at Forbes Field after this homer over Yogi Berra’s head in left that mid-October afternoon are etched in our memories. It is the first walk-off, deciding-game homer in World Series history and at the age of seventy-nine, Maz remains a hero in the Steel City to this day.

But the single biggest play in MLB history (by CPA) occurred the inning before, as part of arguably the greatest rally in MLB history. The Pirates had jumped out to a 4-0 lead against starter Bob Turley with a two-run homer by Rocky Nelson in the first followed by another two-run shot by Bill Virdon in the second. Turley yielded to lefty Bobby Shantz in the bottom of the third, and the Yankees went on to more than erase that deficit with seven unanswered runs, punctuated by Yogi Berra’s three-run blast off Pirates’ starter Vern Law in the sixth. (Berra’s homer ranks near the top of the list of all-time CPA plays as it added 34% to the Yankees’ chances.)

With Shantz still on the mound, the Pirates came to bat in the bottom of the eighth trailing 7-4. (Interestingly, with two out in the top of the eighth and runners at first and third, Casey Stengel elected to let Shantz hit for himself and he grounded out to end the inning. It’s difficult to imagine that happening today.)

Pinch-hitting for reliever Roy Face, Gino Cimoli greeted Shantz with a single to right. Then Bill Virdon hit a potential double play ball to Tony Kubek that famously found a pebble and caromed into Kubek’s throat, going as a single. Kubek had to leave the game and was replaced by Joe DeMaestri. Dick Groat hit a 3-1 pitch past DeMaestri into left field, scoring Cimoli from second. With the Pirates still trailing 7-5, All-Star left fielder Bob Skinner laid down a sac bunt for the first out of the inning, moving Virdon to third and Groat to second. Roberto Clemente hit next, and with the count 1-2 beat out a weak roller, scoring Virdon and advancing Groat to third.

To the plate stepped journeyman platoon catcher, Hal Smith. Smoky Burgess (a left-handed hitter) handled the bulk of the catching for the Bucs in 1960, and had started Game Seven behind the dish. But after Burgess singled to lead off the seventh, Danny Murtaugh elected to pinch-run and Smith took over the catching duties in the top of the eighth. Smith had appeared in only two other games in the series, accumulating two singles in seven at-bats. But over the course of the season he had shown some pop, hitting 11 homers in 286 plate appearances and recording an .859 OPS, good for a 131 OPS+ that year.

And on a 2-2 pitch, Smith launched a long HR to left, scoring Groat and Clemente ahead of him and lifting the Pirates from a 7-6 deficit to a 9-7 lead. The WPA swing was 64% (from 30% WE before to 94% afterward). This is the single biggest play by “championship percentage added” in major-league history (at least since the introduction of the World Series).

However, the Yankees rallied for a pair in the top of the ninth to set the stage for Maz’s heroics, explaining why Hal Smith doesn’t leap to mind in a discussion of great moments in World Series history.

And for Red Sox fans who might be interested, the play that contributed the most to the Red Sox winning or losing a championship was not, as you and I might have guessed, “Slaughter’s Mad Dash” in 1946 which lifted the Cards’ championship expectancy by 32%. That honor actually goes to Tris Speaker, who singled in the home half of the tenth inning of the eighth and deciding game of the 1912 series (Game Eight necessitated by a tie earlier in the series). Speaker’s hit tied the game and put the eventual winning run at third (38% CPA).


Lee Gregory has written about following the game with a win expectancy matrix, a fan’s responsibility, and the value of hustling.

Follow Lee on Twitter @ToeKneeArmAss.

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