The Most Impactful Plays of the Postseason, Part 1

The 2011 postseason was one of the best we have ever seen. It is right up there with 1997 and 2003 as the best of the Wild Card era, and has to be mentioned alongside 1972, 1973, 1985, 1986 and 1991 in the discussion of greatest postseasons of the LCS era. As such, I thought it would be fitting to take a look at the ten most impactful plays of the postseason. This is really boiling it down to the best of the best, as the log for postseason games tops out at more than 3,000 plays. We’re looking at them through the prism of WPA. WPA/LI does a better job for telling us who did better in a completely context-neutral sense, which is handy when looking at multiple games or even multiple at-bats in one game, but that’s not the goal here. The goal is to see which plays swung the balance of a game more than the rest, so WPA is the stat of choice. I looked at them from an absolute value standpoint, so some negative plays found their way onto the list. We’ll count them down backwards, but first let’s glance at those that just missed the cut:

Rank Play WPA
20 WS Gm 1: Napoli homers off Carpenter .228
19 ALCS Gm 4: Inge homers off Ogando .233
18 NLDS Gm 1: Berkman homers off Halladay .239
17 NLDS Gm 2: Upton homers off Greinke .241
16 ALCS Gm 4: Young flies to right, Cabrera out at home -.250
15 WS Gm 2: Andrus singles off Motte .253
14 ALCS Gm 4: Napoli singles off Valverde .274
13 ALDS Gm 3: Gardner doubles off Verlander .288
12 NLDS Gm 3: Craig GIDP (Madson) -.294
11 NLCS Gm 1: Freese homers off Greinke .298

One notable item is that not only are many of the plays here from earlier series, they are from earlier games in those series. What’s also interesting is that only half of the ten plays that just missed the cut are home runs, and even more interesting that all five of them came in losing efforts, proving that impactful plays aren’t just for winners anymore.

10 NLDS Gm 5: Morgan singles off Putz .305

Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan combined to form a pretty formidable duo this season — the Brewers’ center field WAR ranked sixth in baseball — and they teamed up on the play that Brewers fans will most likely look back on the fondest — Morgan’s walk-off single that sent the Crew to the NLCS. J.J. Putz first failed to keep Gomez glued to first base, and then was not reflexive enough to make a kick save on Morgan’s shot.

9 NLDS Gm 4: Roberts homers off Wolf .311

Na na na na na na na na, Tatman! The D-backs had hit grand slams in each of the first three games of the National League Division Series — surely that streak would end in Game 4, right? Wrong. Ryan Robertsslam erased the quick lead the Brewers built in the top of the first. It’s hard for a play in the first inning to stand up as one of the game’s most crucial, but it’s certainly not impossible. In this game, it stood up because the D-backs kept pouring on the offense, never letting Milwaukee get closer than two runs.

8 ALDS Gm 3: Napoli homers off Price .316

David Price had thrown six shutout innings in this one, but he had hardly been dominating. While he had retired eight in a row at one point, he had allowed base runners in every inning except the fourth and fifth, and narrowly escaped damage in the sixth, stranding runners at second and third. The Rangers kept attacking when the seventh started, and wrestled control of the game — and the series — with a four-run seventh. No hit was bigger than the two-run blast by Mike Napoli, who seemed to specialize in big hits all postseason.

7 ALCS Gm 2: Moreland GIDP (Valverde) -.343

After Jose Valverde loaded the bases with nobody out, the Rangers seemed to have the game well in hand. But Papa Grande wiggled out of the jam with such ease that it almost seemed like he had planned it that way. After David Murphy flew out to shallow left, Mitch Moreland hit his fateful grounder to first. Much of the credit for the play should go to Miguel Cabrera, who was able to get into position to apply the tag on Moreland after he threw home for the force.

6 WS Gm 6: Freese homers off Lowe .368

Given what David Freese had done in the ninth inning (more on that tomorrow) and that the homer-prone, as well as rusty Mark Lowe was on the hill, it was hardly a shock that Freese homered here, but I will admit to being a trifle surprised at just how hard he hit the ball. There was never any doubt about the blast, which capped one of the most memorable — if not best — games in postseason history.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the top five.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times and a writer and editor for FanGraphs. He has written for the Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

13 Responses to “The Most Impactful Plays of the Postseason, Part 1”

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  1. LTG says:

    “The D-backs had hit grand slams in each of the first three games of the National League Division Series — surely that streak would end in Game 4, right? Wrong”

    When I read this sentence, I thought to myself, “Wait, did I miss something?” So, I checked the boxscores and did not find it to be true. Now, I’m wondering whether I am misreading what you wrote. Are you really claiming that the Arizona Diamondbacks hit a grad slam in each game of the NLDS except the 5th? They didn’t even score 4 runs in each game. Did you mean that they hit a home run in each game?

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    • Paul Swydan says:

      Apologies. That should have read that they had hit grand slams in each of their last three home games before Game 4. I misheard the audio on the video, and forgot to go back and double check before posting. Completely my fault.

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  2. Rogers Hornsby says:

    Wow, Napoli has already appeared in four of the plays; it was the year of the Napoli!

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    • steve-o says:

      Thank you!

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    • JG says:

      It could be argued that if a word is so widely used that it appears in a list of “common errors in English usage”, then it most certainly is a word, whether it is a “well thought of” word or not. Constantly evolving language, you know?

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      • steex says:

        Yeah, but adding words like “impactful” to the lexicon is just a “preventative” action against lazy people’s mistakes.

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    • Judy says:

      You wouldn’t think it would be so easy to win the nerd-off on a baseball statistics site.

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  3. Jon L. says:

    “Tomorrow, we’ll look at the top five.”


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  4. Jon L. says:

    It might also be interesting to look at a Series-long version of WPA. Series WPA for the final game of a tied series (like #10 above) should be just the same as listed here, but how many plays from earlier games would make it as well?

    For instance, David Freese’s home run in game #6 might be considered worth only half as much, since the game 6 win only gave the Cardinals a 50% chance of winning the series, meaning .368 * .5 = .184. This method might eliminate everything but series-clinching heroics, but I’d still be interested in seeing someone develop a method to weight post-season WPA by its impact on the whole series.

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    • Jon L. says:

      I’m seeing “series probability added” on another article posted today, and Freese’s shot gets a .2685. Guess I’ll have to read up.

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  5. Negative plays are lacking. I think the biggest play of the series was G3, top of 4th, 1 out. No, not the non-call by umpire at 1st. Bases loaded grounder to Napoli, who made bad throw to Torrealba’s right. Torrealba was not in position to get the important 2nd out, weighting his right foot on the plate awaiting the throw, and unable to move to his right for the throw. I think he was anticipating making the return throw to 1st for the DP. Had they gotten the force, 2 outs. Two runs don’t score. Might have gotten 3rd out on the next pitch, if so the third run doesn’t score. Do Cards score 10 more anyway? Doubt it. Different ball game. Maybe Pujols doesn’t get the same pitches to hit 3 HR. Maybe games 6 and 7 never happen! How does this methodolgy take such plays into consideration?

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    • JG says:

      I think the burden of proof is on the Chaotic Butterfly of Hypotheticals to say for sure that it would have changed the game and that Pujols would not have hit those home runs, that Rangers win the Series in 5, etc.

      It’s fun to think about what might have happened if Napoli made a perfect throw (or maybe it isn’t much fun if you were pulling for the Rangers), but it’s pretty tough to quantify chaos theory in terms of WPA when you’re depending on the results of the subsequent 4.5 innings being different somehow.

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