The most clutch plays in playoff history

Baseball's biggest October moments of the past 50 seasons

November 2nd, 2020

In the seventh inning of Game 7 of the 2019 World Series, a pretty good reliever (Will Harris) threw a pretty good hitter (Howie Kendrick) a pretty good pitch. Kendrick managed to slice it down the right-field line off the foul pole, turning a 2-1 Astros lead into a 3-2 Nationals advantage that they’d never relinquish.

You’ve watched baseball, so you know that’s a really big deal. It’s a go-ahead homer in the late innings of a Game 7, and that rarely happens. In fact, it almost never happens, since it had only happened once before in baseball history, in 1960.

But how big of a deal was it? Was it the biggest hit in baseball history? How would we even know that?

Well, there’s always a way. In order to quantify postseason moments, we'll turn to we'll turn to Baseball-Reference's "Pivotal Play Finder," which helps us sort plays out by "Championship Win Probability Added." (Or cWPA, for short.) What this does is to take traditional Win Probability Added for a particular play and and adds in a multiplier based on postseason importance.

That is, a go-ahead two-run homer in Game 7 of the World Series is quite a bit more important than a game-tying homer in Game 2 of the Division Series, for example. (This is why you won’t see Kirk Gibson’s famous Game 1 home run in the 1988 World Series rank as highly as you’d expect. It was huge, but the A’s still had several games left to try to overcome it.)

So with a tip of the cap to The Wall Street Journal and Grantland, who have done similar breakdowns for the NBA and MLB, respectively, let's take a trip through postseason history, beginning with the advent of the modern playoffs in 1969, and find the six most important plays in the past five decades based on Championship Win Probability Added.

Is Kendrick’s blast high on the list? You better believe it. He belongs to history now.

1) Tony Womack, 2001 World Series Game 7 -- 50 percent cWPA added
This is a good reminder that not every huge postseason moment has to be a home run, and Womack’s big hit was a double, not a dinger. This was the infamous ninth inning where Mariano Rivera attempted to nail down a 2-1 lead and the title for the Yankees, then proceeded to allow a single, get charged with an error and induce a fielder’s choice, placing men on first and second with one out.

Womack’s double scored pinch-runner Midre Cummings to tie the game; Rivera would then hit Craig Counsell with a pitch and allow Luis Gonzalez to walk it off with a single. Why, you might be asking, did a hit that didn’t give his team the run rank so highly? Because this wasn’t just Game 7. It wasn’t just Game 7 in the bottom of the ninth. It was Game 7 in the bottom of the ninth with one out. Womack didn’t give his team the lead, but he did keep the game alive for his teammates to finish it off.

2) Rajai Davis, 2016 World Series Game 7 -- 39 percent cWPA added
Despite the Cubs finally breaking their curse in 2016, this moment didn't come for them. It came against them. Davis' eighth-inning homer off Aroldis Chapman not only tied the game -- and, likely, made every Cubs fan on Earth wonder if they'd manage to blow their best chance in decades -- but it ended up being the second-most valuable homer in postseason history, behind only Hal Smith’s 1960 shot for the Pirates.

But the truth is, we're never going to remember this home run the way we ought to because Cleveland didn't win. If the Indians had broken their own title drought in 2016, they'd be building statues of Davis outside Progressive Field. Maybe they ought to consider it anyway.

3) Francisco Cabrera, 1992 National League Championship Series Game 7 -- 36 percent cWPA added
You’re probably wondering how a non-homer in a non-World Series game could rate this highly. In order to get to this lofty ranking, you’re pretty much going to do two things: Turn a loss into a win, and walk off the entire series.

That’s what Cabrera did for the Braves back in 1992, when Atlanta entered the ninth inning of Game 7 down 2-0 to Pittsburgh. Pirates starter Doug Drabek loaded the bases with no outs, then reliever Stan Belinda let one runner in while collecting two outs and reloading the bases. Cabrera pinch-hit for the pitcher, with two outs, and his team down one. His single to left field scored David Justice and a sliding Sid Bream and sent the Braves to the World Series.

4-T) Edgar Renteria, 1997 World Series Game 7 -- 34 percent cWPA added

"An extra-inning hit in Game 7 to literally walk off the World Series" is about as cool as it gets, and the only reason this doesn't rank even higher is that the score was tied at 2-2, meaning that even if the Marlins failed to score here, it wouldn't have meant the end of their season. They didn't fail, of course. After Craig Counsell tied it in the bottom of the 9th, neither team scored in the 10th, and Florida's Jay Powell held Cleveland scoreless in the top of the 11th. In the bottom of the 11th, Cleveland turned to starter Charles Nagy to keep the game going, and he simultaneously "didn't do a bad job" and "lost the World Series."

First, Bobby Bonilla singled up the middle, then Gregg Zaun's attempt to sacrifice failed, leaving one on with one out. Counsell's weak grounder to the right side might have been an inning-ending double play, or at the very least the second out of the inning, except Tony Fernandez did, well, this:

Now with runners on the corners, Cleveland intentionally walked Jim Eisenreich to load the bases for Devon White, who grounded to Fernandez. This time, he made the play, forcing Bonilla at home, leaving Nagy with two outs, runners on second and third, and Renteria coming to the plate. He didn't hit it hard, really, but it was perfectly placed, scoring Counsell with the Series-winning run. We probably don't talk about Fernandez's error as much as we ought to.

4-T) Joe Morgan, 1975 World Series Game 7 -- 34 percent cWPA added
When you think of the 1975 World Series, you think of Carlton Fisk willing the ball to stay fair. But that was in Game 6, so there was still a Game 7 to worry about. In that one, the Reds and Red Sox entered the ninth inning tied at 3 apiece, where Cincinnati put men at the corners with two outs. Morgan singled to center field, scoring Ken Griffey Sr. with the go-ahead -- and ultimately series-winning, after a 1-2-3 ninth inning -- run.

6) Howie Kendrick, 2019 World Series Game 7 -- 33 percent cWPA added
Here’s Kendrick, who we can reasonably say, “had the fifth-biggest hit in the last five decades” and the “10th-biggest hit in Major League history.” It was that big. It was bigger than Joe Carter’s walk-off homer in 1993 -- that was a Game 6, and the Blue Jays were up 3-2 in the series. It was bigger than Gibson in '88, or David Freese’s triple in 2011, or Ben Zobrist’s double in '16, or Bill Mazeroski's homer in 1960.

Earlier in the inning, the Nationals had a series win probability of just 14%, before Anthony Rendon’s solo homer cut the Astros' 2-0 lead in half. That pushed it up to 25%, then 30% after Juan Soto walked. It was still unlikely, with Houston being the home team and holding the lead. But Kendrick’s blast didn’t just turn the game around, or push the series to Washington for good. It was one of the biggest plays in the history of baseball.

After 6,321 regular-season plate appearances, plus another 174 in the postseason entering that night, this was the one that made Kendrick a baseball legend.