A few weeks ago, Chris Jaffe wrote a nice piece over at the Hardball Times about the best games since 1950 by Hall of Fame players. (It was actually a two-part piece as part two focused on the worst performances in a single regular season game by an HOFer.) I enjoyed the articles greatly and thought, "hey, wouldn't that make for a fun article idea I could totally steal and think about taking sole credit for!" Fortunately, Chris and the Hardball Times website are both so great, that I decided to give credit where credit is due.
The stat that Jaffe decided to use was the ever-glorious Win Probability Added (WPA). In the Sabermetric circles, a large, large chunk of what is done is trying to neutralize or take the context out of the game to isolate what a player's true talent may be. This is valuable work (and a bevy of it I find highly enjoyable) as it helps to give guesses as to what a player could do in the future. For instance, using a statistic like Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) is to properly weight each outcome of a plate appearance for a hitter to, it treats ninth-inning, game-winning long balls the same as a first-pitch homer to kick star a ball game. On a season-long level, this is the proper thing to do. However, we know that the late-inning home run is more valuable given the timing. That is where WPA steps in.
What WPA does is credits or debits a player for their positive or negative contribution in a game depending on the situation. Theoretically, you can move the needle so-to-speak anywhere from .02 to .95% in a game. Those are rare, however, and most plays wind up in the middle. WPA is calculated using Win Expectancy which, upon studying thousands of games results in baseball history, we can see, on average, how often a team won the game from a particular situation. For instance, you can consult the Win Expectancy chart and see that if a home team is up to bat in the bottom of the 7th inning and trailing by a run, the home team has rallied to win the game 35.3% of the time. Win Probability Added uses these values to attribute credit or blame to a pitcher or hitter.
Let's run through an example using numbers just for illustrations purposes. Miguel Cabrera is leading off the bottom of the 7th and the Tigers are losing by a run. Currently, the Tigers possess a 35.3% chance of winning. Let's say Cabrera clubs a homer to tie the game. If you scroll down the WE chart linked above until you find a box for the 7th inning with the score set as "0" and no one out, the win expectancy for the home team -- the Tigers in this case -- is at .58.6% Cabrera's home run added 23.3% to the Tigers WE. Cabrera's WPA for the game would currently sit at +.233 (WPA is always expressed in decimal form). You get the difference between the team's WE at the start and the end of the players plate appearance and that belongs to him.
With that out of the way, I wanted to look back as far as possible -- in this case, 1950 is the earliest we have WPA data available -- to see who has had the best single game in Tigers hitting history for the last 60+ years.
10. June 15th, 1974, Kansas City @ Detroit: Aurelio Rodriguez, 0.877 WPA
The 1974 Detroit Tigers finished sixth in the American League East and based off runs scored and allowed, probably should've finished around the 65-win mark rather than their 72-win total. This particular game was the middle of a three-game set against the Royals who were second in the AL West at 44-43 at the time. Aurelio Rodriguez spent nine years in the Motor City and wasn't much of a hitter. He was as slick as they come in the field at third base (among players not named Brooks Robinson, of course) which made up for his paltry offense (career 75 OPS+). But, on this mid-June day against the Royals, Rodriguez wasn't an all-glove, no-bat player. Ralph Houk penned Rodriguez into the eighth slot of the batting order against Royals right-hander Al Fitzmorris. Rodriguez had a career day.
Rodriguez started his by leading off the bottom of the third with a sharp single to left field, netting him 0.05 WPA. Al Kaline later hit a bases-loaded double to score Rodriguez and shortstop Ed Brinkman. The Tigers had a four-run third inning which erased the early 3-0 hole they found themselves in.
Rodriguez picked up another 0.05 WPA with another single to left field to lead off the bottom of the eighth with Detroit trailing 9-6. This set up the dramatic 9th inning comeback.
The rally started with Gary Sutherland singling to left field. Al Kaline hit a double to left field which scored Sutherland and cut the lead to 9-7. After Jim Northrup grounded out and Bill Freehan took a called third strike, the Tigers hopes looked dashed, with just one out remaining. Pinch-hitter Marvin Lane stroked a single to left field to score Kaline and cut the lead down to a single run. Gene Lamont -- yes, that Gene Lamont -- singled to right field, Auerlio Rodriguez had his chance to shine. The Tigers had just a 16% chance to win this game based on history, and yet Rodriguez cracked a home run -- just five he would hit all year -- to give the Tigers a wild 11-9 victory at Tiger Stadium. The +0.84 WPA for the bomb pushed his total to +0.877 WPA for the game -- his two outs accounted for -0.063 -- which is the tenth best in the last 60 years for the Tigers.
9. August 8th, 1970, Detroit @ Boston: Dick McAuliffe, +0.883 WPA.
This early-August tilt saw the third-place Tigers (10 games back) and the fourth-place Red Sox (14½ games back) clash in a three-game series. The only game the Tigers would win was this opener to the series as Detroit would lose five of their next six contests.
Dick McAuliffe was a 30-year-old second baseman for the 1970 Tigers and he hit .234/.356/.345 which came out to a .704 OPS and 95 OPS+ -- so he was a bit below average with the bat that year. He was actually a really productive hitter posting a 111 OPS+ in his Tigers career and 109 overall. 1970 and 1971 were two down years before he rebounded with good years in 1972 and '73, which were his final two in Motown.
However, on this Saturday in front of 32,551 in Fenway Park, McAuliffe -- who was leading off -- had a fantastic 3-for-4 afternoon.
His first hit came in the top of the third after striking out to lead off the game. In the third, he roped a double to right-center that scored teammate Don Wert. The Tigers were down 3-0 at the time and this double was good for 0.08 WPA and increased Detroit's win expectancy from 19% to 27%.
McAuliffe walked in the top of the fifth inning, improving the Tigers chances by another 1% and he would rope another double in the top of the 7th inning. The Tigers had battled back from a 4-1 deficit to make it 4-3 at the time of McAuliffe's double which moved Gates Brown -- who walked -- to third base. Mickey Stanley grounded out to short and scored Brown and tied the game.
In the top of the ninth, with the Red Sox leading 5-4, pinch-hitter Dalton Jones walked to start the inning. Russ Nagelson struck out looking to drop the win expectancy for Detroit from 28% to just 17%. McAuliffe to the rescue! After roping doubles to right-center and to right field, the Tigers second-baseman crushed a one-out, two-run home run to give the Tigers a 6-5 lead. Detroit couldn't add on any more runs but Tom Timmerman came into the game in the bottom half of the ninth and closed the door with a ground out and two strike outs to give the Tigers the W.
The home run, two doubles, walk and strikeout for Dick McAuliffe accumulated him 0.883 WPA and places him ninth on our list.
T-7. September 28th, 1991, Baltimore @ Detroit: Lou Whitaker, +0.892 WPA
Surely one-half of one of the greatest middle infields -- both of whom absolutely, 100%, no-doubt-about-it should be in the Hall of Fame -- needs no introduction. So let's get right to his career day.
The Tigers were four games over .500 at 79-75 but just third in the division, 6½ games out. The Orioles came to Motown on this Saturday at 65-89 which was 6th in the division and 20½ games out. Whitaker was hitting second and, of course, playing second in front of the 22,541 in attendance.
Sweet Lou grounded out to second in his first plate appearance against Orioles starter Mike Mussina, which was -0.02 WPA. He then struck out looking in the bottom of the third to end the inning which dropped the win expectancy another 3%. Rough start to what would be a fantastic day.
Whitaker wouldn't get back to the dish until the bottom of the 6th when he lined out to right fielder Joe Orsulak. The line out was a sacrifice fly and scored third baseman Scott Livingstone, who reached on an error to start the inning, to give Detroit a 1-0 lead. This improved the Tigers chances just 4%, putting Whitaker at +0.001 WPA for the day.
Lou came back up to lead off the 9th inning and he walked. This improved the Tigers chances of winning to 71% in the 2-2 affair, netting Whitaker another 0.07 WPA in the process. Unfortunately, Detroit couldn't cash in their chances.
The game moved to extra innings, in which Whitaker got back to the plate in the bottom of the 10th after Baltimore took a 4-2 lead. Greg Olson came in to pitch for the Orioles and he was facing Alan Trammell to start. Trammell grounded out, but the rally started with a Travis Fryman walk. After that, both Milt Cuyler and Skeeter Barnes singled and gave the Tigers a 33% chance to claim victory. Those odds were nearly cut in half after Tony Phillips hit weak grounder to first base that Skeeter Barnes couldn't avoid. Barnes is out due to making contact with the ball, Phillips is safe and everyone else remains at their bases.
Okay, so it wasn't the mammoth grand slam we all played out in our backyards, but Whitaker still placed a shallow line drive into short left-center. Fryman scored, Cuyler followed him up and Phillips sped around third and scored the game winning run as Whitaker strolled into second base with a walk-off double. The hit, coming with the Tigers having an 18% chance to win the game, netted Whitaker 0.82 WPA for the hit, and combined with the 0.072 from the rest of the game, capped off his 0.892 WPA day -- tied for the seventh highest mark with. . .
T-7. May 26th, 1995, Chicago White Sox @ Detroit: Kirk Gibson, +0.892
Kirk Gibson. Gibson's has a bevy of memorable moments -- I'm sure you know this one, but this one is much more near-and-dear to Tigers fans' hearts -- but no regular season game in Gibby's career was quite as good as this one.
Unfortunately, the 1995 Detroit Tigers finished an awful 60-84 and this was Gibson's last season. He only accumulated 265 PA's in the 70 games he played (63 starts). On this particular day, he didn't even start. Sparky Anderson went with Juan Samuel at first base for this Friday tilt in front of 15,551 at Tiger Stadium. Interestingly enough, Gene Lamont was the opposing manager.
The Tigers would rally, scoring four in the third inning which chased White Sox starter Jim Abbot after just 2.2 innings pitched. Detroit would get down 6-4 and battled back to tie it at six in the sixth, where it stayed until Tim Raines hit what was a clutch solo home run in the top of the 8th inning off of Buddy Groom.
But, the Tigers had no plans of laying down in the 9th inning. White Sox closer Roberto Hernandez sandwiched two strike outs (Whitaker and Fryman) around a Cecil Fielder walk. With two outs, Chris Gomez on first base after pinch-running for Fielder, Kirk Gibson would crush a 1-2 pitch to deep right-center field to give the Tigers a walk-off win, 7-6. Gibson -- who was still an above-average hitter for the 1995 season, despite his limited number of games and impending retirement -- picked up all 0.892 WPA on that one swing, as the Tigers chances of winning had slipped to just 10.8% after the Fryman strike out.
6. May 14th, 1980, Oakland Athletics @ Detroit: Alan Trammell, +0.924 WPA
22-year-old shortstop Alan Trammell was coming off two below-average seasons with the bat in his first two full years in the bigs, posting 89 and 85 OPS+'s. But, that 1980 season saw Trammell's bat perk up and he posted a 113 OPS+. Still, Trammell's hallmark was always his defense, but this 8 o'clock game on Wednesday, May 14th, he came up clutch with the bat in front of a sparse 16,694.
Trammell started off his 4-four-4 day with a single to center field in the bottom of the first. This barely moved the needle given how early it was in the game, giving him just +0.02 WPA. He would then score the first run of the game on a Richie Hebner triple over the head of Oakland's Dwayne Murphy.
He came back up in the bottom of the third and beat out a grounder to short, which picked him up another 0.02 WPA. Steve Kemp would move Trammell to third with a single to center and Hebner's sac fly would drive Tram in and give the Tigers a 2-1 advantage.
The Tigers were down 4-3 when Trammell drew a walk in the bottom of the 5th inning. This was an additional 0.02 WPA for the Tigers. Kemp would double home Trammell to tie the game.
In a 4-4 game, Trammell doubled to left field off of A's pitcher Rick Langford, in the bottom of the 8th. This was crucial, moving the Tigers win expectancy to 74% -- a change of 0.13 -- giving Trammell 0.19 WPA for the contest. Unfortunately, Kemp, Hebner and Champ Summers would pop out, strike out and ground out to end the minimal threat.
The key to a great WPA day is to get a clutch hit late in a game when your team is losing. Oakland would oblige as Rickey Henderson would double home a run in the top half of the 9th inning.
Detroit would pinch-hit John Wockenfuss for first baseman Jeff Thompson and Oakland brought in Jeff Jones for the 9th. Wockenfuss and Larry Parish would walk back-to-back and drive the win expectancy up from 21% to 52%. That lowered after Kirk Gibson struck out. Sparky Anderson went to his bench to bring in Tim Corcoran to pinch-hit for Dave Stegman and get the platoon in his favor and then Billy Martin went to his bullpen for left-handed reliever Dave Hamilton. Sparky then took it a step farther and pinch-hit Tom Brookens for his pinch-hitter Corcoran. Brookens couldn't come through for Sparky as he struck out. Billy Martin then took out Hamilton (and you think managers use the bullpen too much these days?!) for Steve McCarthy -- just one of McCarthy's two relief outings that season -- to face Lou Whitaker. Sweet Lou drew a sweet walk and set the stage for Alan Trammell.
As Trammell strolled to the dish, the Tigers had just a 27% chance of victory. The bases are loaded, there are two outs, and the Tigers need two to win. Trammell came through with a single to right field which scored pinch-runner Rick Peters. Lance Parrish came chugging around third base and beat any throw from Tony Armas. The hit netted Trammell +0.730 WPA which, combined with his +0.19 WPA from earlier, gave him a +0.924 WPA day.
Hopefully this illustrates what I love about WPA; it helps bring all the box scores to life. You can almost hear Ernie Harwell's dulcet tones rise as Trammell ropes the pitch into right field and the base runners start motoring around the bases, the roar of the crowd -- albeit a small one -- as Parrish rounds third and the Tigers players storming the field once he crosses home plate safely. Surely, Ernie would've leaned away from the microphone at this point and just let the crowd's jubilation tell the story.
Who knew some silly number could help tease out a dramatic Tigers win and bring back those memories?
The top five on the list will be coming in an article soon.