October in March

This time of year, my addiction to baseball reaches overwhelming proportions, and I wind up watching practically every baseball game I own — or at least the good parts. This means a lot of postseason baseball, as I own the 2004 and 2007 box sets, as well as the Fenway Park Classics set, which includes key postseason games from 1975 and 1999, and the 2008 ALCS Game 5, which I bought off iTunes.

So all that preseason postseason baseball had me thinking, "What are the Sox' biggest postseason plays of the Wild Card era?" Here are all the plays that changed the game in the Sox' favor by at least 20 percent, according to WPA, which gauges the likelihood each team has of winning a game at any point and how much that changes as a result of the at-bat in question.

  • 58% — Derek Lowe, 2 strikeouts, 9th inning, Game 5, 2003 ALDS
  • 52% — David Ortiz, double, 8th inning, Game 4, 2003 ALDS
  • 43% — David Ortiz, home run, 10th inning, Game 5, 2003 ALDS
  • 39% — Jed Lowrie, single, 9th inning, Game 4, 2008 ALDS
  • 38% — Todd Walker, home run, 7th inning, Game 1, 2003 ALDS
  • 38% — David Ortiz, single, 14th inning, Game 5, 2004 ALCS
  • 38% — Manny Ramirez, home run, 9th inning, Game 2, 2007 ALDS
  • 38% — J.D. Drew, single, 9th inning, Game 5, 2008 ALCS
  • 36% — Keith Foulke, 2 strikeouts, 9th inning, Game 3, 2004 ALDS
  • 35% — J.D. Drew, home run, 9th inning, Game 2, 2008 ALDS
  • 35% — Trot Nixon, home run, 11th inning, Game 3, 2003 ALDS
  • 31% — Mark Bellhorn, home run, 8th inning, Game 1, 2004 World Series
  • 30% — Troy O'Leary, home run, 7th inning, Game 5, 1999 ALDS
  • 30% — Jason Bay, home run, 4th inning, Game 1, 2008 ALDS
  • 29% — Manny Ramirez, home run, 6th inning, Game 5, 2003 ALDS
  • 27% — David Ortiz, home run, 12th inning, Game 4, 2004 ALCS
  • 26% — John Valentin, double, 7th inning, Game 3, 1999 ALDS
  • 26% — Troy O'Leary, grand slam, 3rd inning, Game 5, 1999 ALDS
  • 26% — J.D. Drew, grand slam, 1st inning, Game 6, 2007 ALCS
  • 25% — Jason Varitek, home run, 6th inning, Game 1, 2004 ALDS
  • 25% — Bill Mueller, single, 9th inning, Game 4, 2004 ALCS
  • 24% — Nomar Garciaparra, home run, 5th inning, Game 2 1999 ALCS
  • 24% — Mark Bellhorn, home run, 4th inning, Game 6, 2004 ALCS
  • 24% — Jacoby Ellsbury, single, 2nd inning, Game 3, 2008 ALDS
  • 23% — David Ortiz, single, 5th inning, Game 4, 2004 ALCS
  • 23% — Manny Ramirez, home run, 5th inning, Game 3, 2007 ALCS
  • 23% — Justin Masterson, double play, 9th inning, Game 5, 2008 ALCS
  • 22% — Trot Nixon, single, 8th inning, Game 5, 2004 ALCS
  • 22% — Hideki Okajima, double play, 8th inning, Game 7, 2007 ALCS
  • 22% — Coco Crisp, single, 8th inning, Game 5, 2008 ALCS
  • 20% — Tim Naehring, home run, 11th inning, Game 1, 1995 ALDS
  • 20% — Jason Bay, home run, 1st inning, Game 2, 2008 ALDS

Ortiz shows up an incredible five times — but you'll note some are for hits we might struggle to remember, and the biggest single play since '95 was not Ortiz's Game 4 walkoff homer (ranks pretty low, actually), but his eighth-inning go-ahead double in Game 4 of the 2003 ALDS — not even the Game 5 walkoff. The reason is there were two outs, and the go-ahead run was at first, so WPA saw the game as still pretty much a tossup. But with Ortiz delivering the lead in the home team's last at bat, it swung the game quite a bit.

The biggest tandem of plays was Derek Lowe's pair of strikeouts in the top of the ninth after loading the bases against the A's in 2003. Further down the list, Keith Foulke's pair of strikeouts with the bases juiced and no outs were also big, but Vlad Guerrero's grand slam made them moot.

The other oft-recurring name here is J.D. Drew. He's here three times, and a fourth just missed the cut. He has the two-out walkoff hit in the eight-run rally in 2008 against the Rays, the winning homer in the ninth off K-Rod in that year's divisional series, and the grand slam to basically end Game 6 in the first against Cleveland in 2007.

Manny Ramirez also shows up three times — the epic walkoff against K-Rod in 2007, a three-run shot to put the Sox ahead in the sixth in the final game of the 2003 ALDS, and a two-run shot to tie the score in the fifth inning of 2007 ALCS Game 2, which the Sox ultimately lost in 11.

A lot of these plays occurred in losses (Walker's homer in an eventual Game 1 loss in 2003), and others were overshadowed by events that came immediately afterward, so I'll eliminate all losses and a few subjective cases (such as the before mentioned Foulke strikeouts), and get a list like this:

  1. 58% — Derek Lowe, 2 strikeouts, 9th inning, Game 5, 2003 ALDS
  2. 52% — David Ortiz, double, 8th inning, Game 4, 2003 ALDS
  3. 43% — David Ortiz, home run, 10th inning, Game 5, 2003 ALDS
  4. 39% — Jed Lowrie, single, 9th inning, Game 4, 2008 ALDS
  5. 38% — David Ortiz, single, 14th inning, Game 5, 2004 ALCS
  6. 38% — Manny Ramirez, home run, 9th inning, Game 2, 2007 ALDS
  7. 38% — J.D. Drew, single, 9th inning, Game 5, 2008 ALCS
  8. 35% — J.D. Drew, home run, 9th inning, Game 2, 2008 ALDS
  9. 35% — Trot Nixon, home run, 11th inning, Game 3, 2003 ALDS
  10. 31% — Mark Bellhorn, home run, 8th inning, Game 1, 2004 World Series
  11. 30% — Troy O'Leary, home run, 7th inning, Game 5, 1999 ALDS
  12. 30% — Jason Bay, home run, 4th inning, Game 1, 2008 ALDS
  13. 29% — Manny Ramirez, home run, 6th inning, Game 5, 2003 ALDS
  14. 27% — David Ortiz, home run, 12th inning, Game 4, 2004 ALCS
  15. 26% — John Valentin, double, 7th inning, Game 3, 1999 ALDS
  16. 26% — Troy O'Leary, grand slam, 3rd inning, Game 5, 1999 ALDS
  17. 26% — J.D. Drew, grand slam, 1st inning, Game 6, 2007 ALCS
  18. 25% — Jason Varitek, home run, 6th inning, Game 1, 2004 ALDS
  19. 25% — Bill Mueller, single, 9th inning, Game 4, 2004 ALCS
  20. 24% — Mark Bellhorn, home run, 4th inning, Game 6, 2004 ALCS
  21. 23% — David Ortiz, single, 5th inning, Game 4, 2004 ALCS
  22. 23% — Justin Masterson, double play, 9th inning, Game 5, 2008 ALCS
  23. 22% — Trot Nixon, single, 8th inning, Game 5, 2004 ALCS
  24. 22% — Hideki Okajima, double play, 8th inning, Game 7, 2007 ALCS
  25. 22% — Coco Crisp, single, 8th inning, Game 5, 2008 ALCS

That gives us a Top 25. How boring have the Sox' World Series wins been? Only one play of 20% or greater, and that in the first of the eight games played since 1995. (This isn't quite true; there have been others, such as Matt Holliday's three-run homer against Okajima in Game 6 of the '07 Series, but they all went against the Red Sox.) The 2003 ALDS against the Athletics, on the other hand, was exciting indeed, with the Sox rallying from 0-2 to win in five. Break it down by series, and you get this:

1999 ALDS (vs. Indians)

  • 30% — Troy O'Leary, home run, 7th inning, Game 5, 1999 ALDS
  • 26% — John Valentin, double, 7th inning, Game 3, 1999 ALDS
  • 26% — Troy O'Leary, grand slam, 3rd inning, Game 5, 1999 ALDS

2003 ALDS (vs. A's)

  • 58% — Derek Lowe, 2 strikeouts, 9th inning, Game 5, 2003 ALDS
  • 52% — David Ortiz, double, 8th inning, Game 4, 2003 ALDS
  • 43% — David Ortiz, home run, 10th inning, Game 5, 2003 ALDS
  • 35% — Trot Nixon, home run, 11th inning, Game 3, 2003 ALDS
  • 29% — Manny Ramirez, home run, 6th inning, Game 5, 2003 ALDS

2004 ALDS (vs. Angels)

  • 25% — Jason Varitek, home run, 6th inning, Game 1, 2004 ALDS

2004 ALCS (vs. Yankees)

  • 38% — David Ortiz, single, 14th inning, Game 5, 2004 ALCS
  • 27% — David Ortiz, home run, 12th inning, Game 4, 2004 ALCS
  • 25% — Bill Mueller, single, 9th inning, Game 4, 2004 ALCS
  • 24% — Mark Bellhorn, home run, 4th inning, Game 6, 2004 ALCS
  • 23% — David Ortiz, single, 5th inning, Game 4, 2004 ALCS
  • 22% — Trot Nixon, single, 8th inning, Game 5, 2004 ALCS

2004 World Series (vs. Cardinals)

  • 31% — Mark Bellhorn, home run, 8th inning, Game 1, 2004 World Series

2007 ALDS (vs. Angels)

  • 38% — Manny Ramirez, home run, 9th inning, Game 2, 2007 ALDS

2007 ALCS (vs. Indians)

  • 26% — J.D. Drew, grand slam, 1st inning, Game 6, 2007 ALCS
  • 22% — Hideki Okajima, double play, 8th inning, Game 7, 2007 ALCS

2008 ALDS (vs. Angels)

  • 39% — Jed Lowrie, single, 9th inning, Game 4, 2008 ALDS
  • 35% — J.D. Drew, home run, 9th inning, Game 2, 2008 ALDS
  • 30% — Jason Bay, home run, 4th inning, Game 1, 2008 ALDS

2008 ALCS (vs. Rays)

  • 38% — J.D. Drew, single, 9th inning, Game 5, 2008 ALCS
  • 23% — Justin Masterson, double play, 9th inning, Game 5, 2008 ALCS
  • 22% — Coco Crisp, single, 8th inning, Game 5, 2008 ALCS

That 1999 ALDS against the Indians was one of the best you'll find. On top of the craziness of Games 3 (sox score six in the seventh to win) and 4 (final score: 23-7), you have that insane Game 5, in which Cleveland intentionally walks Nomar Garciaparra (who had hit a home run in the first) twice with men on base to face Troy O'Leary, and both times O'Leary hits monster home runs. On top of that, you have Pedro Martinez coming in from the pen with a hurt back, throwing six no-hit innings to win the game. 

So we can conclusively say that if you must own for posterity recordings of any Sox postseason games (other than the Series-winning games, of course), then you must own:

  • Game 5 of the 1999 ALDS
  • Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS
  • Game 5 of the 2008 ALCS

Each of these games featured three huge single moments, and they also feature big moments on a more macro level: 1999 with the Pedro performance, 2004 being the first of the four consecutive wins to make baseball history, and 2008 with the eight-run rally, largest in LCS history. 

WPA, of course, ignores context. It doesn't know that in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, the Sox were fighting for their playoff lives, or that in 2008 ALCS Game 5, home runs by Ortiz and Drew, which didn't affect all that much the likelihood on paper that the Rays would win the game, created this aura of inevitability that carried far more weight than the box score would attest. It doesn't know about Dave Roberts' steal; it just knows a runner on second base with one out is worth X points over a runner on first. It doesn't know that Ortiz' two-run homer in the first inning of Game 7 of that series meant more than just the 17 percent or whatever swing it gave to the Sox at the time — not after a runner had just been cut down at the plate and the Yankee Stadium fans were smelling blood in the water.

So, there are four plays missing that I would rank highly: the two homers in 2008, Roberts' steal and Ortiz's homer from 2004. What else is missing, Sox fans (or Yank fans, if you're so inclined)? the World-Series-opening dingers from Ortiz (2004) and Pedroia (2007)? Papelbon's pickoff of Holliday in the '07 Series? Nominate your favorites here!

14 comments… add one

  • The biggest tandem of plays was Derek Lowe’s pair of strikeouts in the top of the ninth after loading the bases against the A’s in 2003.
    Ooh, this night is so memorable. I watched the game at home while my sister, who was in town with her husband as guests of REM (my BIL is childhood friends with Pete Buck), waited for me to show up at the bar she and some of the band were at. I think the game finally ended around 1130 (this was pre-kids), I scampered down to Soho and drank for a good while with my sis, her husband, and REM’s lead guitarist.
    Those were the days!

    SF March 16, 2010, 11:38 am
  • Awesome work as usual Paul.
    I’ve said it before, and I don’t want to start a big thing, but Roberts’ steal was never that huge, to me, in terms of actual baseball value. Ten times more important (and ten times more difficult) was Millar’s walk off Rivera, and Mueller’s hit off Rivera.
    It has contextual and symbolic value, and it was certainly an exciting play in the midst of exciting plays, but (to use that infamous phrase) a turning point? The exact moment that the ‘curse was reversed’? Nah.
    Anyway…mind doing this for the Yankees? Or does that disgust you a little too much (or, alternatively, would it be depressingly long)?

    AndrewYF March 16, 2010, 12:12 pm
  • The thing I remember about the Lowe strikeouts was his celebration: the double crotch cross to the sky. I made it into a dance step for NYC clubs the following winter.

    Nick-YF March 16, 2010, 1:01 pm
  • This is just flat out crazy fucking brilliant.
    all hail paul, the beautiful mind of yfsf.
    bra-fucking-vo.

    YF March 16, 2010, 2:42 pm
  • the double crotch cross to the sky.
    That really needs to be a separate entry on the list of great playoff moments.
    Anyway…mind doing this for the Yankees?
    I thought about doing that, Andrew, but as it was, I cut this short. I had planned on doing a Top 10 and a little description of each moment, but then I basically took the slacker’s route and asked the public what they thought. :-) At least the Sox had some gaps from 1995-2009. The Yankees have, what? One year off? That’s a lot of link clicking.
    Anyone interested in doing a Yankee counterpart can start here. Each game’s box score has a “Top 5 plays” chart, which is where I got this info.
    As for the steal, I look at it this way: In an alternate universe where Roberts doesn’t steal the base (doesn’t try for whatever reason), but Millar and Mueller both do their thing, the Sox lose the game and the series, and we have another who-knows-how-many winters of teeth-gnashing in New England. The steal obviously cannot happen without Millar reaching base, and Roberts obviously cannot score without Mueller getting that hit. But Millar and Mueller could have done that a million times and it never would amount to a run without Roberts stealing second.
    I dunno. I can see both sides, but I place a little more importance on the steal. I certainly don’t discount the contributions of either Millar or Mueller though. That whole inning is just wonderful baseball.

    Paul SF March 16, 2010, 3:02 pm
  • The Sox definitively lose the game without the stolen base? I don’t think so. Even if you break the law of Michael Kay’s Fallacy of the Predetermined Outcome, the next play after Mueller’s single was a successful bunt. I think we can all assume the exact same thing would have happened had there been a man at both first and second. Now there’s a man on 2nd and 3rd with one out. Even ignoring the fact that the next play was an error (and the run would have scored anyway), you’re saying with full confidence the Sox definitely wouldn’t have scored? I don’t think so.
    Meanwhile, if Millar had instead made an out instead of walked, the Sox’s chance of winning that game instantly decrease by a very large amount. And even had he walked, and Mueller made an out instead of hit a single, well, same thing. The steal was the third-most important event of that inning. It was also at least the third-least difficult. In terms of excitement, yes, it was the most exciting play (how exciting is a bunt, really? And singles can be exciting, especially RBI singles, but once the ball gets out of the infield you know the guy on 2B is going to score), but in terms of true baseball importance, not so much.

    AndrewYF March 16, 2010, 3:35 pm
  • I mean, of course, third-MOST difficult. Stealing a base off the Rivera/Posada battery, even when everyone knows it’s coming, is really not all that hard. Much less difficult, at least, than drawing a walk or getting a hit.

    AndrewYF March 16, 2010, 3:37 pm
  • I think we should discuss whether WPA is a useful statistic! Seriously – if Roberts doesn’t steal then maybe Rivera pitches differently knowing that only an extra base hit scores Roberts from first, right? If Roberts is .25 seconds late to the bag then the game probably ends soon thereafter, and maybe this site no longer exists for us to talk about the WPA ramifications of a Bill Mueller flare.
    Which is more useful: a statistic that tells you the value of any given play or my own emotions telling me which are the absolutely life-changing plays? ;-)

    SF March 16, 2010, 3:57 pm
  • Haha, I’m actually not a fan of WPA, for the reasons I outlined in the main post, but it’s a good starting point, and I think it probably works better for regular-season games than the postseason, where emotions and momentum just seem to play much more of a role.
    I had forgotten about the bunt and error (what a terrible fan I am!). In my head, it skipped right from Mueller’s single to Cabrera’s strikeout, which was simply infuriating (three straight times swinging from his heels and missing. It was a major choke). Later events do indeed seem to render the steal unnecessary (as most steals are), but like SF notes, we just don’t know how the distraction/steal affected Rivera’s pitches to Mueller, nor how they affected Mueller’s approach at the plate. But, yes, based on what I was describing earlier, Roberts would have scored anyway, assuming the error is still committed at first.

    Paul SF March 16, 2010, 5:16 pm
  • I get a great deal of pleasure out of this site, but reliving in excruciating detail the events of October 2004 is about as much fun for me as a barium enema so I’ll sit this one out. Really great post though. If I had the time I’d jump on the Yankee equivalent (by coincidence I was just perusing the “5 greatest plays” links yesterday when I was quickly running through the 2009 post-season to see if my memory (which had Jeter getting a lead-off hit in practically every October game) was accurate (I forget the final tally now but he was actually something like 7 for 15 in 1st inning lead-off at-bats).

    IronHorse (YF) March 16, 2010, 9:30 pm
  • (Now) (that) (was) (a) (lot) (of) (parentheses) (in) (that)(last) (comment) (of) (mine).

    IronHorse (YF) March 16, 2010, 9:32 pm
  • I also remember exactly where I was in 1999, Game 5 against the Indians – watching at a bar called Flannery’s on 14th Street and throwing darts. I don’t remember any beer drinking for some reason…

    SF March 16, 2010, 9:37 pm
  • You are out of your mind Paul, this is awesome. Jesus.

    LocklandSF March 16, 2010, 11:15 pm
  • I also remember Game 5 of the ’99 series very distinctly. Sitting on the living room floor, watching it on TV. I remember feeling like the Sox were going to win once Pedro walked in from the bullpen.

    Paul SF March 17, 2010, 11:09 am

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