The Highest-Leverage Moments in Baseball History

We’ve probably talked about this before, but Leverage Index is a pretty perfect statistic. It’s of absolutely zero use when it comes to predicting the future, but in terms of describing the stakes of a situation, it’s a godsend. Also, there’s no arguing with it. You can and probably do sometimes argue about WAR. You can’t always “feel” a high or low WAR. But Leverage Index essentially mirrors one’s heart rate. You can always tell when the leverage is high, so it’s awesome that we are able to put numbers to those feelings.

We examine Leverage Index during individual games, but you can apply the same principles to whole seasons and postseasons. The point, always, is to win the World Series, so the closer you get to such a conclusion, the higher the leverage goes. So it makes sense that never is the season leverage higher than it is in a World Series Game 7. Much like what we have in a few hours! It quite literally doesn’t get bigger than this. It can’t. There’s nowhere else for baseball to go.

World Series finales have the highest leverage, so the highest-leverage plays from World Series finales should be the true highest-leverage plays ever. In honor of Game 7s everywhere, I felt like identifying the five highest-leverage moments in baseball history, according to the above thought process. Remember than an average Leverage Index is 1.00. The high-leverage cutoff is somewhere around 1.50 or 2.00. The numbers below blow those out of the water. Data has been recovered from Baseball-Reference, after using the Play Index.

No. 5

  • What: 2001 World Series, Game 7
  • When: November 4
  • Batter: Tony Womack
  • Pitcher: Mariano Rivera
  • Inning: Bottom 9
  • Leverage Index: 7.16

This isn’t the most #YCPB moment ever, but this is perhaps the most visible and memorable one. You know how people are talking about how dominant Madison Bumgarner is? You know how people are talking about how unhittable the Royals’ bullpen is? Facts, all of them. Non-predictive, all of them, at least as far as today is concerned. For all we know Wade Davis could cough up a lead-changing grand slam to Gregor Blanco. You remember what happened here. The Diamondbacks trailed the Yankees 2-1 going into the bottom of the ninth. Rivera had already pitched the eighth, and he wasn’t a guy who allowed runs. Mark Grace singled, and Damian Miller reached on an error. Jay Bell bunted into a force at third, meaning Womack faced Rivera with one down and runners on first and second.

Rivera was Rivera. Womack? He was worth 1 WAR on the year, but that was almost all defense. Of the 156 qualified hitters in the season, Womack finished with the fourth-worst wRC+, at 66. As a hitter, he sucked. As a hitter, he got ahead 2-and-0, then the count ran to 2-and-2. Then Rivera threw exactly the pitch he wanted to throw.

WomackRivera

Here’s video, if you want it. Womack’s double lifted Arizona’s win expectancy from 35% to 85%. Rivera didn’t do anything wrong, but sometimes good pitches get treated like bad pitches, because life can be unfair even on the atomic level. Rivera habitually turned great hitters into Tony Womack, so he should’ve turned Tony Womack into a bowl of dry oatmeal. Two batters later, the Diamondbacks walked off. Rivera got beat there by a floater beyond a drawn-in infield.

No. 4

  • What: 1912 World Series, Game 8 (there was a tie!)
  • When: October 16
  • Batter: Tris Speaker
  • Pitcher: Christy Mathewson
  • Inning: Bottom 10
  • Leverage Index: 7.21

Everything was wacky in 1912, by today’s standards. This series was no exception. A tie game had to be called on account of darkness, which meant that Game 8 would be the decider. The Giants took the lead on the Red Sox in the top of the 10th, and in the bottom, the leadoff hitter reached when a routine fly ball was dropped in center field. A fly out and a walk later meant that there was one out with runners on the corners, in a 2-1 game. Up came Speaker, and I’m just going to leave this with Wikipedia:

Tris Speaker, who hit an even .300 in the 1912 World Series, lifted a foul popup on the first base side, but first baseman Merkle, pitcher Mathewson, and catcher Meyers allowed the ball to fall untouched in foul territory. Snodgrass later claimed that the Red Sox bench jockeys had disrupted the players’ timing. Strangely, Mathewson called for catcher Meyers to take it even though Merkle was closer. Meyers couldn’t reach it and it fell to the ground. Speaker then shouted, “Well, you just called for the wrong man and it’s gonna cost you the ball game!” Given new life, he singled home Engle to tie the game 2–2, Yerkes advancing to third.

I don’t know. People were weird then. People are weird now, but we don’t recognize it as much because we’re also weird. People back then were weird, differently. It’s no wonder they were always warring. Whole lot of attitude.

No. 3

  • What: 1997 World Series, Game 7
  • When: October 26
  • Batter: Craig Counsell
  • Pitcher: Jose Mesa
  • Inning: Bottom 9
  • Leverage Index: 7.33

Playing over the PA when Counsell came to bat: Journey. Attendance was listed at 67,204.

Later on, this became the Edgar Renteria game. But before the Marlins won, they had to tie, and when Mesa came on to close, he allowed a leadoff single. He then struck out Bobby Bonilla after almost walking him, but a Charles Johnson single moved runners to the corners. So that brought up Counsell, the rookie, and at the time he looked probably half his age, as he always has and always will. Needing just a decent out to tie the game 2-2, Counsell checked his swing on the first pitch, and then fouled off the next. So the count was an even 1-and-1, and here’s a screenshot:

counsellmesa

Counsell’s stance. Also, Mesa’s pants. Look at Mesa’s pants and Counsell’s stance. The famous stance wouldn’t come until later:

counsell2

Here’s your video link. Counsell flew out to right field, deep enough to score the tying run. But, really, he lined out, and had he hit his liner a little higher, or a little more toward the line, Counsell would’ve had the Marlins walk off right there. He annihilated the pitch, so in a sense, Mesa got lucky. But the Indians were unlucky, in the situation, and in having Jose Mesa on the team.

No. 2

  • What: 1979 World Series, Game 7
  • When: October 17
  • Batter: Eddie Murray
  • Pitcher: Kent Tekulve
  • Inning: Bottom 8
  • Leverage Index: 7.84

It was 2-1 Pirates in the bottom of the eighth, but after a leadoff pop-out, consecutive Orioles walked. In came Kent Tekulve, and he induced a groundout that moved both the runners up into scoring position. So, the Pirates were ahead, but a hit would probably put the Orioles ahead, and for some inexplicable reason, Tekulve intentionally walked the left-handed Ken Singleton to face the left-handed Eddie Murray. Singleton was good. Murray was also good — he made the Hall of Fame! — and Tekulve had a huge platoon split, being a side-arming righty. But he loaded the bases on purpose anyway, even though lefties against him on the year had a .398 OBP.

Murray fouled off the first two pitches. He took the next two pitches for balls. The fifth pitch was over the plate, and Murray sent it to the right-center warning track. It was deep, but not deep enough. Murray came that close to basically clinching the World Series for Baltimore, but he got out, the Pirates tacked on two more runs, and in the ninth Tekulve set the Orioles down 1-2-3.

No. 1

  • What: 1962 World Series, Game 7
  • When: October 16
  • Batter: Willie McCovey
  • Pitcher: Ralph Terry
  • Inning: Bottom 9
  • Leverage Index: 8.27

The single highest-leverage moment in the history of baseball. And it’s the highest by such a gap that it’s not even arguable. It’s higher than the No. 2 moment by more than five percent.

You’ll remember that, in the 1960 World Series, in Game 7, Terry came out of the Yankee bullpen and allowed the winning home run to Bill Mazeroski. In this Game 7, Terry started, and he didn’t allow a runner until there were two down in the sixth. The Yankees had taken a 1-0 lead on a bases-loaded double play, and Terry made that lead hold up going into the ninth. The Yankees had missed a chance to add on in the eighth, when they loaded the bases with nobody out. The ninth saw a leadoff bunt single, followed by consecutive strikeouts. But then Willie Mays drilled a double to right, putting the tying and winning runs in scoring position. Matty Alou held up at third, despite pretty good speed, because Roger Maris made a good play to cut Mays’ double off.

So up came the left-handed McCovey, who was just 24 but already an outstanding hitter. Terry was right-handed, but Ralph Houk left him in. Okay! After a few pitches, McCovey hit the ever-loving crap out of the ball. Right at second-baseman Bobby Richardson. Reads the play-by-play:

b9 0-1 2 -23 W. McCovey R. Terry Lineout: 2B

Noted Richardson, after the fact:

Richardson said he moved to his left just before McCovey’s line drive. McCovey had pulled a long foul ball, and Richardson said he expected Terry to throw a curveball, which McCovey would pull again.

“I moved over just a little bit, and he hit the ball right to me,” Richardson said.

From the other side:

“It was an instant thing, a bam-bam type of play,” recalled Tom Haller, who caught that game for the Giants. “A bunch of us jumped up like, ‘There it is,’ then sat down because it was over.

“It was one of those split-second things. ‘Yeah! No!’ “

Here’s video, kind of. Mariano Rivera did what he wanted to Tony Womack, and he yielded a crippling double. Willie McCovey did what he wanted to Ralph Terry, and for his efforts he got a crippling, devastating, season-ending line-out. Baseball games can really suck, for half of the people invested.

We hoped you liked reading The Highest-Leverage Moments in Baseball History by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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miles
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miles

or did Bobby Richardson do what he wanted to Willie McCovey?