Anti-Freese: Cliff Bolton, Historic Post-Season Goat
Win Probability Added (WPA) is a stat that estimates how much the outcome of each plate appearance has changed the chances of each team’s winning the game, as compared to how those chances stood just before the plate appearance took place. WPA assigns to the hitter the amount of that change as it affects the hitter’s team, and to the pitcher the amount of the effect on the pitcher’s team. So, for example, just as Jayson Werth stepped to the plate for the Nationals in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the NLDS this season, Washington’s chances of winning the game were estimated (based on the score, the inning, the outs, and the man-on-base situation) at 67%. After Werth hit his walk-off homer, those chances, obviously, rose to 100%, so Werth is awarded a +.33 amount of WPA for that plate appearance, while Lance Lynn, who threw the home run pitch, has a -.33 WPA applied to his account. If you add up a player’s WPA for each of his plate appearances in a game you get his total WPA for that game. Any player with more than a few games played in his career will have some games in which his WPA comes out positive and some where it comes out negative.
David Freese’s +.97 WPA in the sixth game of the 2011 World Series was the highest one-game WPA for any hitter in the history of the major league post-season, breaking the record previously set by Kirk Gibson’s limping, pinch-hit walk-off home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. But what about the Anti-Freese, the hitter with the absolute worst, the most negative, WPA over a single post-season game? More about that after the jump.
The very worst single WPA number for a hitter in one post-season game is the performance by Felix Millan of the Mets in Game 2 of the 1973 World Series. Millan was 0 for
5 6 in the game, and was especially futile in critical extra-inning situations. But we really can’t designate Millan as the ultimate WPA goat to match Freese as the ultimate WPA hero. First of all, regardless of Millan’s failures at the plate, the Mets won the game anyway. You don’t need a scapegoat if there is no loss to blame on anyone. Second, Millan had been much more of a goat the previous day, when he let an easy ground ball skim under him at short second base, leading to two unearned runs and a Mets loss by the score of 2-1 in Game 1 of the Series. And, finally, Millan’s extremely negative WPA for Game 2 is in large part an artifact of the misleading way WPA treats Millan’s plate appearance in the 10th inning of that Game 2. What WPA sees is that Millan came up with men on first and third and only one out, and that after Millan’s at bat the Mets’ inning was over, with no runs scored. So WPA treats Felix as if he had hit into a very damaging double play there. But this was not a conventional double play. Millan hit a fly ball, and Bud Harrelson tagged up at third and dashed for home. Replays showed Harrelson may have beaten the tag, but the ump called him out. Although the result is a crushing amount of negative WPA for Millan in that at-bat, as fans we don’t really blame Millan for the full impact of the play in the way we might have if he had bounced into a conventional infield double play there.
All in all, despite the WPA numbers Felix Millan’s 1973 World Series Game 2 is not a good choice as a classic WPA Anti-Freese goat game. But if the very worst WPA game by a hitter in post-season history does not point us to much of a goat, how about the second-worst WPA game? That one is more what one would expect from an extreme negative WPA game.
The Washington Senators had been an excellent team in the early 1930′s under their manager Walter Johnson — yes, that Walter Johnson, the one who in his playing days had been perhaps the most dominant pitcher of all-time. But under Johnson as manager, the Senators had been unable to quite break through to a pennant over their two great rivals, the Yankees and A’s. After the 1932 season, Senators’ owner Clark Griffith fired Johnson and, looking for a dramatic change of pace, named his young star shortstop, Joe Cronin, as player-manager for the 1933 season. Cronin was only 26 years old, though already on a clear course toward one of the great careers at shortstop ever. Whether it was Cronin’s skills as manager or not, the 1933 Senators did take the AL pennant in 1933, with 99 wins and only 53 losses, still the best winning percentage in the history of the Senators/Twins franchise. It didn’t hurt that the Senators had also upgraded the team’s talent after 1932, adding guys such as future Hall-of-Famer Goose Goslin and the veteran catcher Luke Sewell.
On the NL side of the 1933 regular season, the New York Giants had also been reinvigorated under a new player-manager, as first baseman Bill Terry had taken over as skipper in the middle of the 1932 season from the legendary John McGraw, who stayed on in the front office. The Giants’ best players in this period were two all-time greats in their prime, Mel Ott and Carl Hubbell. In their first full season under Bill Terry as manager, the Giants won their first NL pennant since 1924.
The first three games of the 1933 World Series were all won by the home team — the Giants taking the first two in New York, and the Senators taking the first game at Griffith Stadium in Washington, which was about two miles from the White House (the start of the game was delayed, waiting for President Frank Roosevelt to arrive. For the fourth game, Carl Hubbell, the winning pitcher in Game 1 and the NL MVP (second in bWAR in the majors to Jimmie Foxx) was back on the mound for the Giants, presenting a challenge for the home team Senators as they tried to even the Series.
The Giants took the lead in Game 4 on Terry’s solo homer in the fourth inning, but the Senators scratched out a tying run in the seventh on a single and two bunts, one of which Hubbell misplayed for an error. The game remained tied 1-1 through nine innings, and then through ten innings, with starting pitchers Hubbell and Monte Weaver still going. At last in the 11th inning Weaver (a good pitcher, but pitching what would ultimately turn out to be the second longest appearance of his career in terms of batters faced) began to flag, and the Giants broke though with a run on two hits. Cronin brought in his relief ace Jack Russell who closed out the inning to keep the Senators within one run going into the bottom of the 11th (Washington had been a pioneer in the use of a relief specialist with Firpo Marberry in the 1920s, and before the 1933 season traded for Jack Russell, who revived his career as Washington’s newest relief specialist — he even made the 1934 All-Star team in that role).
In the bottom of the eleventh, the Senators chipped away at Hubbell. A lead off single by Fred Schulte was followed by a dribbling bunt by Joe Kuhel down the first base line. Terry waited for the bunt to go foul but it stayed fair. First and second, nobody out. Ossie Bluege then sac-bunted the runners over: tying run now at third, winning run at second, one out. The chess game continued between Cronin and Terry as the Giants walked catcher Luke Sewell intentionally to load the bases with the pitcher’s spot coming up in the batting order. Cronin now had a choice to make. To pinch-hit against the screwball-throwing Hubbell, he had two lefty hitters sitting on his bench. On the one hand there was the great but ancient Sam Rice. At 44 years old, Rice at that moment trailed only Cobb, Speaker and Eddie Collins on the all-time AL career hit list. On the other hand, there was the young third-string catcher Cliff Bolton, who for months had been blisteringly hot as a pinch hitter. In 26 games (including three starts) from July 22 to the end of the regular season, Bolton had put up a batting average of .517 with an OPS of 1.232. Cronin chose the hot hand over the veteran, sending Bolton to the plate. Cronin had specifically selected Bolton for the major league roster back in spring training based on a fine hitting record in the minors, to complement the Giants two strong-fielding catchers, starter Luke Sewell and backup Moe Berg (now famous for interweaving his baseball career with parallel pursuits as an international spy and a man of letters). And having seen Bolton in action in crucial situations through the summer and fall, Cronin knew the guy could hit and do so under pressure.
Now it was Bill Terry’s turn for a decision. Play the infield in for a force play at the plate, or play the infield back looking for a game-winning double play? The Giants infield huddled at the mound. Terry later said that his second baseman and shortstop pleaded to be allowed to set up at double-play depth, and it’s also reported that Charlie Dressen, the Giants’ veteran back-up third baseman, in his final season as a player, got the message to Terry that he had seen Bolton in the minors and found him especially slow afoot, and prone to the double-play. Advice received, Terry agreed to let the infielders play back, at second and at short, and encouraged Hubbell to throw low screwballs to Bolton in the hope of inducing a ground ball. After watching one ball out of the strike zone go by (or was it two balls? — the sources seem to differ), Bolton swung and missed at a low screwball, probably again out of the zone. Hubbell came back yet again with the same type pitch and, just as the Giants infield had planned, Bolton sent a bouncing grounder directly to short, a perfect double play ball the Giants handled flawlessly, 6-4-3, to end the game. Washington D.C. baseball fans not have enjoyed a World Series game win for a home town team in the 79 years since.
The Giants went on to win Game 5, again in extra innings, to take the Series four games to one, and the Senators suffered a series of injuries in 1934 that derailed any hope of another pennant. After 1934, the team was broken up, most prominently by selling Cronin off to the Red Sox, where he would both star and manage for many years, though getting back to the World Series only in 194
56, after retiring as a player.
When Bolton stepped to the plate with the bases loaded in the 11th inning of that Game 4 in 1933, the Senators’ Win Expectancy for the game was at 55%, a better-than-even chance at knotting the Series at two games apiece with two more home games coming up. But with one ill-timed ground ball off one of the greatest pitchers of all time, Cliff Bolton cost Washington that entire 55% of win probability, collecting in the one plate appearance the second most negative game-WPA by a hitter in post-season history. Bolton stayed with the Senators for several years thereafter, and was the regular starting catcher for Washington in 1935, when he was one of the best hitting catchers in the majors. But he was already 26 in 1933, his first full season in the majors, and he was essentially done in the majors by age thirty. On the other hand, he played on in the minors for many years thereafter, and was still playing pro ball at age 45, in North Carolina where he had been born back in 1907 and where he died in 1979. His biggest single moment as a ballplayer turned out badly, but baseball, and life, go on.
Big hat tips here to a couple of key books that cover the history of the 1933 season and its World Series: Carl Blaisdell’s “Carl Hubbell: A Biography of the Screwball King” and Gary Sarnoff’s “The Wrecking Crew of ’33: The Washington Senators’ Last Pennant”. Both highly recommended. Game descriptions also aided by contemporary New York Times reports. And of course the indispensable baseball-reference.com
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