# The Play’s the Thing

Bill Shakespeare had it right over 400 years ago. A baseball game in its essence is a sequence of plays, always starting at the same point and then tracing out a unique road that leads to the final outcome. And all the best games have a long and winding road. Having previously established that Power WPS is the ULTIMATE measure of how exciting a baseball game is, we’re ready for the real fun to begin. The fun of course being the compiling of various lists which can be the basis for pointless arguments. Since we rate the games based on the plays, we should establish a framework by first talking about the plays. When we remember a game, what we really remember is a few plays. So what is a typical play, what is the distribution of plays, what is a ‘big’ play?

Through 2017 there have been 305 playoff series, comprised of 1535 games and 119,712 plays, or about 78 plays per game. The average play moves the probability by 3.4%; The median play moves the probability by 2 percent. The table below shows the distribution of all those plays.

Only about 6.27 percent of all plays move the needle by as much as 10%, so a typical game will have about 5 of those.

Only about 1.14 percent of all plays move the needle by as much as 20%. A typical game will have about 1 of those. That’s the play they’ll show on the evening news.

Only about 0.42 percent of all plays move the needle by as much as 30%. About 1 in 3 games would feature a play like that.

Only about 0.13 percent of all plays move the needle by as much as 40%. About 1 in 10 games would feature a play like that.

Only about 0.03 percent of all plays move the needle by as much as 50%. A team might have about 4 of them in a season.

 Change in winning% # Plays % of plays Cum % Change in winning% # Plays % of plays Cum % 0% 13673 11.42% 11.42% 26% 70 0.06% 99.44% 1% 24970 20.86% 32.28% 27% 53 0.04% 99.49% 2% 26781 22.37% 54.65% 28% 57 0.05% 99.53% 3% 17106 14.29% 68.94% 29% 50 0.04% 99.58% 4% 11175 9.33% 78.28% 30% 44 0.04% 99.61% 5% 6649 5.55% 83.83% 31% 40 0.03% 99.65% 6% 4562 3.81% 87.64% 32% 39 0.03% 99.68% 7% 3208 2.68% 90.32% 33% 28 0.02% 99.70% 8% 2357 1.97% 92.29% 34% 45 0.04% 99.74% 9% 1725 1.44% 93.73% 35% 40 0.03% 99.77% 10% 1414 1.18% 94.91% 36% 33 0.03% 99.80% 11% 1145 0.96% 95.87% 37% 25 0.02% 99.82% 12% 922 0.77% 96.64% 38% 32 0.03% 99.85% 13% 664 0.55% 97.19% 39% 27 0.02% 99.87% 14% 499 0.42% 97.61% 40% 14 0.01% 99.88% 15% 379 0.32% 97.93% 41% 15 0.01% 99.89% 16% 328 0.27% 98.20% 42% 19 0.02% 99.91% 17% 309 0.26% 98.46% 43% 16 0.01% 99.92% 18% 279 0.23% 98.69% 44% 9 0.01% 99.93% 19% 208 0.17% 98.86% 45% 6 0.01% 99.94% 20% 140 0.12% 98.98% 46% 13 0.01% 99.95% 21% 128 0.11% 99.09% 47% 9 0.01% 99.95% 22% 98 0.08% 99.17% 48% 6 0.01% 99.96% 23% 91 0.08% 99.25% 49% 7 0.01% 99.97% 24% 91 0.08% 99.32% 50% 5 0.00% 99.97% 25% 73 0.06% 99.38% >50% 36 0.03% 100.00%

Caveat: BBRef has updated the percentages over time, my results reflect the values I captured over the years which may differ slightly from the current values.

Choosing one great game, we can see what at all of those levels look like. Game 6 of the 2011 World Series (Cards 10 Rangers 9, in 11 innings) has them all.

In the top of the 2nd, Ian Kinsler hit a 2-out double with a man on second tying the game at 2 (11%)

In the top of the 7th, Adrian Beltre hit a leadoff homer, breaking a 4-4 tie (21%)

In the bottom of the 11th, David Freese led off with a walk-off homer (37%)

In the top of the 10th, Josh Hamilton hit a 1-out 2-run homer to break a 7-7 tie (43%)

In the bottom of the 9th, David Freese hit a 2-out 2-run triple to tie the game at 7 (54%)

Obviously, the biggest plays will tend to come at the end of the game when there are fewer (or no) opportunities to come back.

But what are the highest rated early plays in a game?

1st play 12%: A Pete Rose homer off Catfish Hunter in G5 of the 1972 WS

2nd play 16%: Most recently a Stephen Piscotty 2-run homer off Jason Hammel in game 4 of the 2015 NLDS

3rd play 21%: A 1-out 2-run homer by Frank Robinson off Don Drysdale in game 1 of the 1966 WS

4th play 23%: A 1-out 3-run homer by Willie Stargell off Doug Rau in Game 3 of the 1974 NLCS

5th play 24%: A 2-out 3-run homer by Garrett Anderson off Randy Johnson in Game 3 of the 2005 ALDS

6th play 26%: A 2-out 3-run homer by Lucas Duda off Jason Hammel (AGAIN) in Game 4 of the 2015 NLCS

7th play 23%: A 2-out 3-run double by Moises Alou off Greg Maddux in Game 1 of the 1997 NLCS

8th play 25%: A 2-out 3-run homer by Bob Watson off Jerry Reuss in Game 1 of the 1981 WS (bottom of 1st)

9th play 26%: A 2-out 3-run homer by Ron Cey off Dave Righetti in Game 3 of the 1981 WS (AGAIN) (bottom of 1st)

10th play 26%: A 2-out 3-run double by Alex Gordon off CJ Wilson in Game 3 of the 2014 ALDS (bottom of 1st)

11th play 33%: A 2-out Grand Slam by Ryan Roberts off Randy Wolf in Game 4 of the 2011 NLDS (bottom of 1st)

15th play 24%

16th play 33%: A 1-out 3-run homer by Gene Tenace off Jim McGlothlin in Game 5 of the 1972 WS (bottom of 2nd)

17th play 25%

18th play 39%: A 2-out Grand Slam by Jose Canseco off Tim Belcher in Game 1 of the 1988 WS (Top of 2nd, turned into a footnote 7 innings later)

19th play 30%

20th play 30%

The earliest we get a 40% play is

41st play 42%: A 2-out grand slam by James Loney off Ryan Dempster in Game 1 of the 2008 NLDS (top 5th). Gives team 2 run lead

The Earliest we get a 50% play is

56th play 55%: A 2-out 2-run Pete Rose homer off John Candeleria in Game 3 of the 1975 NLCS (top 8th). Gives team 1 run lead

Speaking of those over 50% plays, how many of those biggest 41 plays that changed the odds by at least 50% can you think of? No credit for naming the Pete Rose play…

Part of the fun of a list like that is the memories of players I have not thought of in many moons (apologies to the Cleveland Indians for that cultural appropriation) and other players that I’d never heard of in the first place. Of course while these plays turned an individual game around, some had a greater impact on the outcome of a series, those plays being the ones that happened in the closing games of a series. We can make that list too…

Here are the 24 plays that changed the odds of victory for a playoff series by at least 35%. NINE of them occurred in just four games (they are marked with funny symbols).

 Series Road Team score home team score IP Top Play Series Impact Game weight Description 1992 NLCS G7 Pittsburgh Pirates 2 Atlanta Braves 3 9 73.0% 73.0% 100.0% Francisco Cabrera 2-out 2-run walk-off single off Stan Belinda 1960 WS G7 New York Yankees 9 Pittsburgh Pirates 10 9 63.0% 63.0% 100.0% Hal Smith 2-out 3-run Homer off Bob Coates in the bottom of the 8th. **** 1912 WS G8 New York Giants 2 Boston Red Sox 3 10 51.0% 51.0% 100.0% Tris Speaker 1-our 1-run single off Christy Mathewson ties game, winning run advances to 3rd. 2001 WS G7 New York Yankees 2 Arizona Diamondbacks 3 9 50.0% 50.0% 100.0% Tony Womack 1-out 1-run double off Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the 9th puts winning run on 3rd 1972 NLCS G5 Pittsburgh Pirates 3 Cincinnati Reds 4 9 45.0% 45.0% 100.0% Johnny Bench leadoff homer in the bottom of the 9th off Dave Guisti ties the game…the inning isn’t over yet ^^^^ 2006 NLCS G7 St. Louis Cardinals 3 New York Mets 1 9 42.0% 42.0% 100.0% Yadier Molina 1-out 2 run homer off Aaron Heilmanin the top of the 9th breaks the tie 1981 NLCS G5 Los Angeles Dodgers 2 Montreal Expos 1 9 43.0% 42.0% 100.0% Rick Monday 2-out homer off Steve Rogers in the top of the 9th breaks the tie 1982 ALCS G5 California Angels 3 Milwaukee Brewers 4 9 41.0% 41.0% 100.0% Cecil Cooper 2-out 2-run single off Luis Sanchez in the bottom of the 7th breaks the tie 2012 NLDS1 G5 St. Louis Cardinals 9 Washington Nationals 7 9 41.0% 41.0% 100.0% Pete Kozma 2-out 2-run single off Drew Storen in the top of the ninth breaks the tie \$\$\$\$ 1980 NLCS G5 Philadelphia Phillies 8 Houston Astros 7 10 40.0% 40.0% 100.0% Manny Trillo 2-out 2-run triple off Ken Forsch in the top of the 8th breaks the tie #### 2016 WS G7 Chicago Cubs 8 Cleveland Indians 7 10 39.0% 39.0% 100.0% Rajai Davis 2-out 2-run homer off Aroldis Chapman in the bottom of the 8th ties the game 2001 NLDS2 G5 St. Louis Cardinals 1 Arizona Diamondbacks 2 9 39.0% 39.0% 100.0% Tont Womack (again) 2-out 1-run walk-off single off Steve Kline 1972 NLCS G5 Pittsburgh Pirates 3 Cincinnati Reds 4 9 38.0% 38.0% 100.0% Bob Moose’s walk-off wild pitch in the bottom of the ninth allows pinch runner George Foster to score ^^^^ 1980 NLCS G5 Philadelphia Phillies 8 Houston Astros 7 10 38.0% 38.0% 100.0% Garry Maddox 2-out 1-run double off Frank LaCorte in the top of the 10th breaks the tie…again #### 1985 NLCS G6 St. Louis Cardinals 7 Los Angeles Dodgers 5 9 74.0% 37.0% 50.0% Jack Clark 2-out 3-run homer off Neidenfur in the top of the ninth gives Cards the lead 1976 ALCS G5 Kansas City Royals 6 New York Yankees 7 9 38.0% 38.0% 100.0% Chris Chambliss 0-out 1-run walk-off homer off Mark Littell 1968 WS G7 Detroit Tigers 4 St. Louis Cardinals 1 9 37.0% 37.0% 100.0% Jim Northrup 2-out 2-run triple off Bob Gibson in the top of the 7th breaks a scoreless tie 1960 WS G7 New York Yankees 9 Pittsburgh Pirates 10 9 37.0% 37.0% 100.0% Bill Mazeroski’s leadoff walk-off homer off Ralph Terry in the bottom of the ninth breaks the tie **** 2003 NLDS1 G3 San Francisco Giants 3 Florida Marlins 4 11 73.0% 36.5% 50.0% Ivan Rodriguez 2-out 2-run walk-off single off Tim Worrell 1977 ALCS G5 New York Yankees 5 Kansas City Royals 3 9 36.0% 36.0% 100.0% Mickey Rivers 1-out 1-run single off Larry Gura ties the game in the top of the 9th. Winning run to 3rd 2003 ALCS G7 Boston Red Sox 5 New York Yankees 6 11 36.0% 36.0% 100.0% Aaron Boone 0-out walk-off homer off Tim Wakefield in the 11th 2012 NLDS1 G5 St. Louis Cardinals 9 Washington Nationals 7 9 36.0% 36.0% 100.0% Daniel Descalso 2-out 2-run single off Drew Storen in the top of the 9th ties the game \$\$\$\$ 1924 WS G7 New York Giants 3 Washington Senators 4 12 35.0% 35.0% 100.0% Buckey Harris 2-out 2-run single off Virgil Barnes in the bottom of the 8th ties the game 1980 NLCS G5 Philadelphia Phillies 8 Houston Astros 7 10 35.0% 35.0% 100.0% Jose Cruz 2-out 1-run single off Tug McGraw in the bottom of the 8th re-ties the game ####

Yep, of the top 24 decisive plays EVER affecting a series outcome, Three happened in Game 5 of the 1980 NLCS.

You can also factor in the series level (WS =100%, CS=50% DS=25%). As this focuses down to just a few games, repeats become more common

A list dominated by the 42 World Series that went a least seven games.

Now don’t get accustomed to seeing these kind of results. One would need to watch nearly a decade of games to see this many impactful plays.

We hoped you liked reading The Play’s the Thing by Dennis.Boznango!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Member
Ryan

Great work, I expected the Rajai Davis home run to be weighted a bit more but I guess the fact that it was only a one run game and it only tied the game really limited it. Oh well.