Long Shots

David Freese’s homerun last night in the 11th capped a phenomenal game that saw the Cardinals come back a million times. After the game, ESPN radio broadcaster, Dan Shulman, asked Orel Hershiser if it was the most exciting baseball game he’d ever seen. Hershiser answered with a definitive yes. Given the importance of the game and all the plays that took emotions to extreme levels for even a Mariners fan—I admittedly missed the middle innings, but caught the bottoms of the tenth and eleventh—that may very well have been the most exciting game Hershiser has ever seen.

But was Freese’s homerun itself the most important play that Hershiser has ever seen? I don’t think so. In 1988, Hershiser tossed 267 innings for the Dodgers, limiting batters to a 0.579 OPS en route to a 23-8 record and 2.26 ERA. He pitched 24.2 innings in the NLCS against the Mets, posting a 1.09 ERA, and helped get the Dodgers into the World Series against, guess who, Tony La Russa’s Bash Brothers & Co.

In game one of the 1988 World Series, the Dodgers found themselves down 4-3 going into the bottom of the ninth. Two outs later, with nobody on, Tommy La Sorda went with pinch hitter, Mike Davis. Facing Dennis Eckersley, a guy who walked just 9 batters in 73 innings, Davis drew a walk. Up to the plate limped Kirk Gibson. The Dodgers had a 9% chance to win the game according to win expectancy, and a 13% chance after Davis stole second. Three pitches later, Gibson famously shattered that 13% and won the game on a two-run blast.

Because Gibson’s heroics occurred in a non-elimination game, they don’t carry the same psychological allure as Freese’s shot last night. However, consider the following. In game one 23 years ago, Gibson increased his team’s chances of winning the game by 87%, and thus increased the Dodgers’ chances of winning the series from about 39% to 65%*, a 26% jump.

Fast forward to the bottom of the 11th last night. David Freese steps in to face the legendary(?!?) Mark Lowe with the game tied and no outs. Batting the in bottom of the inning at home, St. Louis had a 62% chance to win the game. When he launched that game-winner to center, he effectively increased his team’s chances of winning by 38%, and increased the Cardinals’ chances of winning the World Series from about 31% to 50%, “just” a 19% jump.

So, you’re trying to fathom how a game-6 winning homerun could possibly be outdone by a game-1 winning homerun. Remember that if Freese makes an out, the Cardinals still have two outs to win the game, and the worst case scenario is more innings. In Gibson’s case, an out meant going down 1-0 in the series because there were two outs, and the Dodgers were losing…not tied with no outs.

Maybe you don’t like win expectancy. Win expectancy is, after all, based on league averages. In other words, an average team with average hitters facing an average pitcher has a 62% chance to win a game in the bottom of the potential last inning when the game is tied. Same goes for that 13% in the 1988 World Series. Ok, well… Kirk Gibson was injured, facing one of the best closers ever. David Freese was perfectly healthy, facing one of the most averagest relievers ever. If you want to argue my use of averages and approximations, arguing against win expectancy in this situation is not going to help your cause.

We as fans tend to put a lot of weight—a disproportional amount, I’d argue—on elimination games, fourth quarters, ninth innings and second halves. We see the games/series being won at the end, and forget how we reached that scenario. Because Gibson’s homerun was so much more important than Freese’s within the individual game, the fact that last night’s win staved off elimination was more than negated by the Dodgers’ dire situation in game one before Gibson dug in against Eckersley.

Dave Cameron notes that, according to win expectancy, Freese’s triple in the ninth was more important than his homerun later. That play by itself raised the Cardinals’ World Series chances by 27%, using the same method and assumptions from above. 

*Working on the assumption that win expectancy is an accurate approximation and that each team has a theoretical 50% chance to win each game.

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