— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Saturday, October 25, 2003
Elimination Games: A Study
How pitchers have performed in the 76 winner-take-all games throughout baseball history.
We don?t know yet whether the 2003 World Series will go seven games, but we?ve already had a great postseason. In fact we?ve seen four winner-take-all elimination games this October, making this one of just three seasons in baseball history ? 1981 and 2001 are the others ? to feature so many elimination games.
For purposes of this article, we?ll define an "elimination game" as any game in which the team that wins either advances to the next round of playoffs, or wins the World Series.
In all, there have been 76 winner-take-all games in baseball history:
To study how pitchers have performed in those games, we?ll use the Game Score, a fun stat invented by Bill James in the 1980s. Here?s how it works: For each pitcher, start with 50 points. Add one point for each out recorded, and another point for each strikeout. Subtract four points for a run given up, two for an unearned run, two for each hit given up, and one for each walk issued. Finally, add two points for each inning that the pitcher completes after the fourth. Voilà! You?ve got a game score!
The scale works like this: 55 is a pretty respectable game, 70 or 75 is excellent, and 90 is a truly great game. Only a handful of the greatest games ever pitched approach a game score of 100.
Of course, this is an imperfect method. For one thing, it doesn?t give nearly enough credit for innings pitched. It also arguably over-emphasizes strikeouts. But it works well enough to make it a good quick-and-dirty way to compare game performances between pitchers. So, of all 152 pitchers who?ve started a winner-take-all game (plus one reliever, just for kicks), which performed the best? Here are the Top 20:
It should surprise nobody that Sandy Koufax holds the top spot, along with Randy Johnson?s memorable performance against the Angels in the 1995 one-game playoff. What is a little surprising, though, is that no one has ever broken the 90 barrier ? that is, nobody in baseball history has ever pitched a truly great game in a winner-take-all situation. Koufax pitched terrifically, to be sure, but that Game Score of 88 was surpassed by 17 pitchers ? including Joe Kennedy and Billy Traber ? during the 2003 regular season alone.
Anyway, the rest of the list includes some of the most famous pitching performances in postseason history, including those by Jack Morris, Orel Hershiser, Bob Gibson, and Dizzy Dean. It also includes some games that for whatever reason have garnered relatively little notoriety, such as Al Leiter?s masterful work which got the 1999 Mets a postseason berth.
Now, here are the 13 worst performances ever in an elimination game:
There?s one remarkable thing about this list that you should notice right away. There are not one, not two, but three games (Game 7 of the 1925 World Series, and Game 5 of the 1999 and 2000 AL Division Series) in which both of the game?s starting pitchers turned in a performance that?s among the eight worst of all time. Andy Pettitte turned in the fourth-worst performance ever, and yet his team still won the game (and, of course, the series). Amazing.
Incidentally, neither Walter Johnson nor Kerry Wood really has any business being on this list, but due to the previously-discussed flaws in the Game Score formula, that?s the way the numbers add up. Anyway, Johnson and Vic Aldridge certainly have a good excuse: Game 7 of the 1925 World Series was played under shameful conditions, probably the most abominable weather conditions in which any major league baseball game has ever been played. It was so wet and foggy that the pitchers couldn?t grip the ball, the fielders couldn?t field it, and the umpires couldn?t see it. Walter Johnson should get a medal instead of a place on the ten-worst list.
What?s interesting is what you won?t find on the above list: the two pitchers who were unable to record even a single out in an elimination game. They were Dennis Leonard (1976 ALCS; 36 Game Score) and Hank Borowy (1945 World Series; 32 Game Score). Also missing is Curly Ogden, who was Senators manager Bucky Harris? decoy starter in Game 7 of the 1924 World Series. Ogden faced only two batters, walking one and striking out the other. That netted him a darn impressive game score of 51.
For reasons I?ll leave to others to figure out, there are three Game Scores that are worse than any of the others by a wide margin, and all three of those have come since the start of Wild Card play.
Now it?s time to take a look at some hard-luck pitchers. Here are the seven pitchers who posted the highest Game Score in an elimination game, yet failed to win the game:
Remarkably, there has never been a truly hard-luck pitcher in an MLB elimination game. Cuellar?s performance ranks as the 27th-best out of 153 performances. He?s in the top 20 percent, but just barely. In all must-win games in baseball history, nobody has ever pitched a truly top-notch game that they didn?t win. Just off the bottom of this list, incidentally, is Christy Mathewson?s loss in Game 8 of the 1912 World Series, which scored a 64. Mathewson and Jack Morris are the only two pitchers ever to throw more than nine innings in an elimination game.
For most fans, the most disappointing winner-take-all games are those like the seventh game of the 1985 World Series, where one team scores a lot of runs early and never looks back, winning in a blowout. Here are the six elimination games where the winner outpitched his opposing starter by the greatest margin:
And now, here are some pitchers who?ve just gotten lucky. Below are the 9 pitchers who turned in the worst Game Scores in a game their team eventually won:
Terrible as they were, the top three pitchers on this list had the good fortune to face a pitcher who was even worse than they were (namely, Gil Heredia, Charles Nagy, and Walter Johnson, respectively). The rest just got outpitched, but their team bailed them out in the end anyway. (Incidentally, in case you were wondering, the worst performance ever to get credit for a win in an elimination game was by Jaret Wright. He gave up two earned runs in just over five innings in Game 5 of the 1997 AL Division Series, a game score of 44.)
Only once in elimination games has a man oupitched his opponent by more than 10 points, yet still lost the game. That was Game 7 of the 1926 World Series, in which Jesse Haines was outpitched by Waite Hoyt. Haines came away the winner anyway, of course, thanks to famously terrific relief work by Pete Alexander.
In case you were wondering, the mean performance for pitchers in elimination games is 5.8 innings pitched, 5.4 hits, 2.3 earned runs, 3.75 strikeouts, and a 3.52 ERA. Here?s the innings pitched breakdown:
Should you happen to find yourself pitching a winner-take-all game, here?s a friendly bit of advice: Don?t pitch eight innings. Thirteen pitchers have pitched exactly eight frames of an elimination game, and in 10 of the 13 cases, their team lost the game. Meanwhile, 26 of the 28 pitchers who went nine innings or more won the game, with the two exceptions being Christy Mathewson and Bob Gibson.
Only 23 pitchers in baseball history have started at least two elimination games. Not surprisingly, 18 of them pitched after the advent of divisional play; the other five are Don Newcombe, Don Larsen, Lew Burdette, Bob Gibson, and Johnny Podres. There are obvious sample size issues, of course, but judging by their records in these games, John Smoltz is the one pitcher in baseball history you?d most want on the mound, followed closely by Podres, Leiter, and Burdette.
*Includes one relief appearance.