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 19456, 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


Anti-Freese: Cliff Bolton, Historic Post-Season Goat — 27 Comments

  1. Nice historical recount, birtelcom.

    On the flip side of the “life goes on” theme, Al Gionfriddo made his spectacular grab of what would have been Joe DiMaggio’s game-tying HR in game 6 of the 1947 series, enabling the Dodgers to extend the series to the limit. Gionfriddo was a most unlikely hero, not least because he was the 3rd player to patrol LF for the Dodgers that day. Though only 25, it would also be his final career game – life goes on.

    I was going to say that, WPA aside, I still lean to Bill Buckner as the all-time WS goat. I remembered the tying and winning runs scoring on Buckner’s gaffe, but it was actually only the winning run. If Buckner had made the play, the game would have gone on, so it wasn’t like he actually had a World Series title rolling towards him.

    The key play, in fact, was Mookie Wilson somehow avoiding being hit on Bob Stanley’s wild, wild pitch right at him, that missed the plate by a yard and allowed the tying run to score. If Mookie gets hit, then the bases are loaded, but the Red Sox still have the lead.

    • There are many moments burned into my memory of listening to games on the radio when I was growing up. And there are even large portions of games that I saw in person that I can recall with a little effort.

      For whatever reason television just hasn’t had the same staying power with me. Part of it is probably the prevalence of high lighted “Plays of the Day” everywhere so trying to recall if that few second snippet is part of a game you watched or all that you saw of it is almost impossible. The two exceptions are the entire Mets half of the inning of the Buckner game that you mentioned and the entire last inning of game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Those 2 moments I can almost recall on a pitch by pitch basis.

  2. Ron Gant (1991) and Morgan Ensberg (2005) are the only players with 3 losing games in a single World Series with WPA of -0.2 or less. Given that Gant’s Braves lost in 7, and Ensberg’s Astros were swept, I’m inclined to give Gant the goat edge.

    Rk Player Year #Matching
    1 Ron Gant 1991 3 Ind. Games
    2 Morgan Ensberg 2005 3 Ind. Games
    3 Denis Menke 1972 2 Ind. Games
    4 Mark Lemke 1996 2 Ind. Games
    5 Aaron Boone 2003 2 Ind. Games
    Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
    Generated 11/3/2012.

    As many will recall, Atlanta held a 3-2 series lead before losing games 6 and 7 in Minnesota, both times in extra innings.

    Gant’s unheroics in game 6 were mainly to do with his 10th inning at bat when he followed a leadoff single by lining out to shortstop for a double play. Earlier, Gant had driven in the game-tying run with a one-out bases loaded fiedler’s choice in the 7th inning. But, that play actually reduced the Braves’ winning chances by 1%.

    In a game 7 that stayed scoreless through 9 innings, Gant made the final out of the inning in the 1st, 3rd and 5th innings, the latter two times with two runners on. But, his real blunder came in the eighth with runners at 2nd and 3rd and nobody out. Gant’s weak roller to 1st advanced nobody, and reduced Atlanta’s winning chances by 19%.

    But, Gant was not the Braves’ biggest game 7 goat. That dishonor fell to Sid Bream who, later in that same 8th inning, grounded into an inning-ending, bases-loaded double play. good for -0.29 WPA. Bream, though, would redeem himself in his next post-season series, scoring the winning run in the following year’s NLCS, with a walk-off slide on a close play at home.

    Interesting, also, that Aaron Boone shows up in the goat list above, right after becoming a legendary Yankees hero with his game 7, walk-off HR in the preceding ALCS.

    • It’s hard to call anyone a goat in that great ’91 World Series.

      It’s also difficult to goatify someone who hits a screaming line drive and the runner on gets doubled up or to someone who happens to come up with 2 outs three times in a game without getting a hit. That just doesn’t seem particularly goat-worthy to me. But thus are the limitations of WPA.

      • And sometimes goathood is just hard to quantify, because if I were to pick a goat in that Game 7 in 1991 it would be Lonnie Smith. Yet his play cannot really be defined by WPA, since the fact that he didn’t score from first on Pendleton’s double in that fateful 8th inning (because he was deked at 2B by Knoublach or was it Gagne?) doesn’t really show up.

  3. Great piece, birtelcom! Makes me feel badly for young Cliff Bolton — especially as that Series marked the end of Washington’s lone decade of prosperity, with three pennants and six years at .597 or better from 1924-33.

    Sort of ironic that Bolton hailed from High Point, N.C.

    P.S. Minor corrections: Millan went 0 for 6 in his WPA “goat game”. (The more famous goat of that game was Oakland’s Mike Andrews, whom Finley tried to “fire” afterwards.) And Millan’s error in the previous game was at his usual position of 2B, not short.

  4. There are but thirteen 1-PA World Series games rated -0.200 WPA or worse. Two of those belong to another reserve catcher, Roy Partee of the 1946 Red Sox. In bookend fashion, his lone time up came in the same situation in games 1 and 7 — top of the 9th, tie game, men on the corners with one out. He whiffed in game 1, but the BoSox won it in the 10th on Rudy York’s HR. In game 7, Partee fouled out to 1B, and then pinch-hitter Tom McBride grounded out to end the Series.

  5. Bolton’s -0.548 WPA is almost twice the next-worst value in a 1-PA World Series appearance: -0.286 by Sibby Sisti, PH-ing for Warren Spahn in the 1948 finale, popping into a DP on a bunt, with pinch-runner Connie Ryan getting doubled off 1st.

  6. I would think that most of this board would know that Moe Berg’s supposed “spy career” was mostly a fraud. He did work for the agency for a bit but was waved off eventually in a sort of eye-rolling way by the leadership.

    The outrageous legend of him providing critical intelligence for the war effort by filming home movies of Tokyo from the top of hospital has done much to fuel the continued fire of his myth. In retrospect, it was highly likely that the man was mentally ill.

    • There is no question that Berg worked for the OSS, the CIA’s predecessor My limimted point about Berg was that he is far more famous for his unique biographical status as having been both a major league baseball player and an OSS agent (as well as being eccentrically bookish) than for his generally limited accomplishments as a ballplayer alone was the only point of my passing reference. The reference in my post was more generally intended to fill in some color on Bolton’s role with the team: not too many guys can say they were behind Moe Berg on a major league depth chart. Your clarifications — Berg was no James Bond, his actual role as a spy has probably been vastly exaggerated, and he was a deeply eccentric personality who expressed what seem to be symptoms of mental illness — are important clarifications regarding Berg’s life. Thanks.

      • It is a fact that when Berg went to Japan after the 1934 season he did film the Tokyo skyline from the roof of a hospital.

        Even if the war department did use this film to help plan a raid
        during WW2, it was a film from eight years earlier.

        Also, it is impossible that Berg could have known at the time he was filming, that we would end up in a war with Japan.

        If you read what people who knew him said about him, and if
        you consider that his brother actually had eviction papers
        drawn up to get rid of him, yes he probably was mentally ill.

  7. Nicely written, birtelcom, and entirely new to me – I’d never heard of Cliff Bolton. Thanks for a great post.

    My sense of what a goat is resembles Doug’s, I think. Its not the guy who happens to hit into an ordinary play at an extraordinary time, which is what negative WPA often measures. It’s the guy who chooses an extraordinarily bad time to make an unusually bonehead or inept play. Merkle (obviously, tough it wasn’t a Series mistake), Snodgrass, Zimmerman, Lombardi were a few of the famous examples that defined “goat” as the term was initially used. (I assume it’s short for “scapegoat,” and those guys were all cast in that role very unfairly, especially Zimmerman. Peckinpaugh in ’25 would be a fairer example, but somehow by making so many miscues, his failings seem less memorable.)

    Buckner really is as apt an example as I can think of (even if the context wasn’t as bad as Doug recalled). As an original Mets fan, you can imagine what transports of joy I felt when Mookie’s dribbler won that game, but Buckner’s misplay was so awful that even at that instant I felt sad for him, and have ever since. I was watching the replay just the other day (I don’t feel so bad for Buckner that I haven’t done this scores of times) and marveling again just how extraodinarily inept that error appears.

  8. As a Nats fan I hate to bring this up, but can any other pitcher challenge Drew Storen’s last inning against the Cards in the LDS? -.845 At one point, with 2 outs and one on they had a 96% chance of winning, at the end of the innimg it was about 9%. In the deciding game also. Deep sigh, it still hurts. Storen has been, and will be a fine closer.

    • Storen grabbed himself the record for worst pitcher WPA game in a sudden death post-season game. But the pitcher whose record he broke was one of the greatest pitchers, if not the very greatest, of all time — Walter Johnson, who allowed nine runs on 15 hits in Game 7 of the 1925 World Series, albeit under horrible playing conditions that made fielding treacherous and resulted in a bunch of unearned runs. WPA doesn’t accept excuses.

  9. Figured Valverde’s must have been awful for Game 1 of the ALCS, and it was: -0.517. I don’t know if that counts as extremely close to Millan’s -0.568, or if it’s just in the neighborhood.

    • Depends upon the umpire whether or not he gives you the neighborhood play. Not technically postseason, but Ralph Branca, giving up the pop-fly heard round the world, was -.711. Hard to beat for a pitcher who only faced the one batter. (I doubt it is the regular season record, even for one batter faced.)

      • Through 2006 there have been 23 walk-off grand slams with the winning team down by 3 runs. One such occasion was on 7-28-2001 when Billy Wagner of the Astros relieved in the bottom of the 9th with his team ahead by 8-5, runners on first and second and two out. He hit a batter and then gave up a grand slam to Brian Giles. For his effort he wound up with a WPA of -.955. When I have time I will check out all of the other games to see if anyone pitched to only one batter and gave up a grand slam.

        • I took the liberty of looking up the game of August 11, 1970, between the Cardinals and Padres at Busch Stadium. I’ve still got the scorecard. Ron Herbel gave up a grand slam to Carl Taylor, resulting in an 11-10 St. Louis win. Taylor was the third batter that Herbel faced. Scoring ahead of Taylor were Joe Torre, Mike Shannon, and Ed Crosby.

        • I think Billy Wags was just rounding into postseason form there. :)

          Great pitcher … but his postseason ERA of 10.03 is the worst of any reliever with 10+ innings.

          BTW, anyone care to guess who holds the record for most postseason relief innings without being charged with a run an earned run?

          • Dave V. @24 — The Beard was a good guess (no ER in 11.2 postseason IP), but I’m afraid he’s not The Man this time. Rather, it’s John (Off My) Rocker — 20.2 IP, no earned runs (2 unearned runs).

          • Do’h! I knew I had heard something about this record once, as I had a recollection that it was someone that people would never expect. And it had to be a reliever I figured. So the first two guys I looked up were Armando Benitez and Jose Mesa. I then went to the career saves leaders and quickly scanned the list…when I saw Brian Wilson, I thought I had it as I thought his 2010 was spotless (at least for earned runs). Sure enough it was, and I figured his 11.2 IP’s had to be good enough for the record. I wouldn’t have come around to guessing Rocker/looking up his stats in a million years!

          • Reference comment 22.
            For those who are interested the answer to that question can be found with the PI. Click on Streak Finders, Player Pitching. Then click on postseason and enter ER = 0. Click Get Report and up comes a spreadsheet with 100 names. Sort by IP in descending order and click on each name, one by one, starting from the top. Examine each pitchers Postseasons stats to see if he gave up any postseason ER. Rockers name is 4th on that list on the Results Page with 20.2 IP and examination of his stats page reveals that he gave up 0 postseason ER. So on that first page Rocker has the most IP without giving up any earned runs. Repeat the procedure for several more result pages and it will be found that Rocker is indeed the answer.

      • Branca had the second worst WPA in a one-batter appearance during the 1951 season. The worst, by Frank Smith (who was a pretty good relief pitcher in the first half of the 1950s) is here: Although August 9 is a slightly better time of year for that sort of nightmare than a sudden death playoff game.

        Keep in mind that in Branca’s case there was only one out — the Giants trailed by two but had men on second and third and only one out when Thomson came to the plate. One solid base hit by either Thomson or Willie Mays on deck would likely have tied the game. By no means was the game at that moment a “near-certain” victory for Brooklyn (although Wikipedia uses that phrase).

      • PI search shows that Allen Ripley of the Giants has the lowest WPA of any pitcher with just one batter faced. On 6-14-80 he gave up a three run homer to Steve Henderson of the Mets in the bottom of the 9th with two out. His WPA was -.919. WPA data only goes back to around 1948.

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