5 biggest game-turning plays in WS history

October 25th, 2020

How monumental was the bizarre play that ended Game 4 of the 2020 World Series on Saturday night? We’re not exaggerating when we say it was literally one of the most pivotal game-turning plays in the history of the Fall Classic.

We can say that by looking at Win Probability Added, which looks at the context of each moment in a game -- score, inning, outs, runners on base, etc. -- and allows you to see how likely it is that a team in that situation goes on to win, by looking back at similar situations throughout baseball history.

When Brett Phillips stepped to the plate, down by one run with runners on first and second base and two outs, the Rays had a 19% chance to win. That’s based on the history of comebacks in that situation -- which is to say, it happens slightly less than once in five times. (If you’d like to adjust lower for the fact that Phillips is not an accomplished hitter, feel free to, but WPA is looking back to tell us what’s happened in that situation across many years and teams, not trying to account for the specific players in that moment.)

Obviously, after Randy Arozarena scored the winning run, the win expectancy was up to 100%, which is a sizable leap of more than 80 percentage points.

Here are the top five biggest game-turning plays in World Series history. Of note: The top three on this list are the only games in the history of the Fall Classic in which a team went from trailing to winning on a walk-off with two outs in the ninth inning … and the Dodgers were involved in all three of them, as well as four of the five plays on this list.

1. Kirk Gibson, 1988 Game 1, walk-off HR (+87% Win Probability Added)
Final score: Dodgers 5, A’s 4 (box score)
Series result: Dodgers in five

This is one of the most famous plays in baseball history, and for good reason. A hobbled Gibson came off the bench to pinch-hit for the Dodgers in the bottom of the ninth, with two outs and a runner on second. That’s a combination that ends in a win only 13% of the time, and it may have actually been even less because Gibson was injured and Dennis Eckersley was dominant that season.

As every baseball fan knows without even having to look it up, Gibson launched a 3-2 backdoor slider into the right-field bleachers, boosting the Dodgers to a Game 1 win and eventually a World Series title. And as every baseball fan also knows: that’s still their most recent ring.

2. Cookie Lavagetto, 1947 Game 4, walk-off 2B (+82.3% Win Probability Added)
Final score: Dodgers 3, Yankees 2 (box score)
Series result: Yankees in seven

Down, 2-1, in both Game 4 and the 1947 World Series, the Dodgers managed to put runners on first and second with two outs. While what we’re about to say doesn’t really factor into the WPA number, it’s still a fact worth noting: At this point, they were being no-hit by Yankees starter Bill Bevens. (He’d walked 10. We’re not sure which fact is more impressive.)

One out away from immortality, Bevens found his second pitch flying off the right-field wall, losing both the no-hitter and the game. Neither Bevens nor Lavagetto appeared in the Majors again after the Series. It remains one of the most memorable moments in history.

3. Brett Phillips, 2020 Game 4, walk-off … whatever that was (+81% Win Probability Added)
Final score: Rays 8, Dodgers 7 (box score)
Series result: TBD

As we noted above, being down by a run with runners on first and second and two outs isn’t a guaranteed loss. It’s just a very likely loss. Still, sometimes you get that big hit or walk-off home run or … have your opponent make two fielding mistakes on the same play. A 19% chance isn’t zero, after all.

4. Terry Pendleton, 1985 Game 2, go-ahead 2B (+68.9% Win Probability Added)
Final score: Cardinals 4, Royals 2 (box score)
Series result: Royals in seven

The first play on our list that’s not a walk-off, Pendleton’s Cardinals were down, 2-0, to start the top of the ninth inning, and they were down, 2-1, with the bases loaded and two outs when Pendleton stepped to the plate. With ace closer Dan Quisenberry warming, Royals starter Charlie Leibrandt stayed in to face Pendleton. And despite three runners on base, St. Louis still had a mere 23% win expectancy, given the situation.

Pendleton’s double to left cleared the bases and put the Cardinals ahead, 4-2, an edge that comes with a 92% win expectancy. Hard to come up with a bigger hit than that. (However, the Royals got the last laugh by winning the Series in seven games.)

5. Charlie Keller, 1941 Game 4, go-ahead 2B (+68.8% Win Probability Added)
Final score: Yankees 7, Dodgers 4 (box score)
Series result: Yankees in five

Keller’s Yankees were down, 4-3, heading into the top of the ninth inning, and they got off to a bad start in the frame when Dodgers pitcher Hugh Casey induced two quick groundouts. The next play is still one of the most infamous in Major League history: Casey got Tommy Henrich to strike out, ending the game ... except he didn’t.

Catcher Mickey Owen couldn’t handle the pitch, and Henrich reached first base because of the dropped third strike. Then, Joe DiMaggio singled to put runners on first and second, but the odds were still in Brooklyn’s favor. The next hitter, Keller, doubled home both runners, giving the Yankees a 5-4 advantage, and New York tacked on two more runs to win, 7-4.