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MVP: Most Valuable Plays

In Baseball on October 23, 2013 at 12:29 am

Are the most important plays in a baseball game the ones we see on the highlight reel? The answer might surprise you. Today, CDH’s Ian Brickey looks at Win Expectancy and the top five plays from the 2013 NLCS and ALCS.

When we think of important baseball plays, we usually think of the highlight reel. The important plays are the ones that dazzle us, that sing the “momentum” of the game the other way, that beg to be accompanied by the theme from The Natural. Both of the 2013 League Championship Series had their share of Roy Hobbes-ian moments. David Ortiz demonstrated again why he’s one of the most clutch hitters in baseball history with his grand slam in Game 1 of the ALCS, while St. Louis’s Carlos Beltran single-handedly won Game 1 of the NLCS with his bat and his glove. Those plays were important, no doubt. But the highlight reel plays aren’t always the most significant events in the game. In fact, a seemingly unremarkable strikeout or base hit can actually have more of an influence over the outcome of a game than towering home run or diving catch in the outfield. This was fully on display in 2013.

When the MLB Films releases the DVD of the 2013 World Series Champion Cardinals/Red Sox, it will likely include a few key events in Boston/St. Louis’s playoff run. The St. Louis DVD would have to include Beltran’s exploits in Game 1 of the NLCS, Nick Punto’s base running blunder in Game 4 and the “Mickey Mouse” antics of Adrian Gonzalez and Yasiel Puig in Game 3. The Red Sox version would just be a loop of the grand slams by David Ortiz and Shane Victorino with the Dropkick Murphys’s “Tessie” playing in the background. Perhaps surprisingly, those highlights weren’t always the most significant plays in the outcome of the games.

So, what were the true “top plays” of the 2013 NLCS and ALCS? To answer that, we turn to a statistic called “Win Expectancy.” You can read a full breakdown of WE at the incomparable FanGraphs, but the basic explanation is, to quote David Appelman, “the percent chance a particular team will win based on the score, inning, outs, runners on base, and the run environment.” Using historical data, the metric estimates a team’s likelihood of winning the game based on the current game situation. Each play can affect a team’s WE positively or negatively. For example, a home run might increase a team’s WE by 20 percent, while a double play could decrease it by 12 percent. That net change in WE is referred to as “Win Probability Added” (WPA). Taking for granted that the games won by the eventual pennant-winning team were the most important, and using the absolute value of WPA, here are the five most important plays of the 2013 LCS.


  1. Carlos Beltran’s outfield assist (Game 1) After Carl Crawford flew out to begin the top of the 10th inning, Dodgers second baseman Mark Ellis hit a line drive to deep center field for a triple. Cardinals reliever Trevor Rosenthal intentionally walked Hanley Ramirez to face pinch hitter Michael Young. On a 1-0 count, Young knocked a ball to right center field that was handled by St. Louis right fielder Carlos Beltran. Ellis broke for home, and Beltran fired a strike to catcher Yadier Molina, who tagged Ellis out at the plate. The double play decreased Los Angeles’s Win Expectancy by 31.8 percent.
  2. Beltran’s walk-off hit (Game 1) Beltran also showed off his hitting skills in Game 1. In the bottom of the 13th inning, Daniel Descalso looped a single into center field. Following a walk to St. Louis second baseman Matt Carpenter, Beltran laced a 3-1 pitch from Dodgers reliever Chris Withrow into right field that scored Descalso from second. The run boosted their Win Expectancy 30 percent — up to 100 — and the Cardinals walked off with a 3-2 victory.
  3. Beltran’s double (Game 1) Game 1 could easily be called the Carlos Beltran show. With two men on in the bottom of the third inning, Beltran hit a 3-1 pitch from Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke into center field for a double to even the score at two a piece. That one hit boosted the Cardinals’ Win Expectancy by 23.5 percent.
  4. Matt Holliday’s home run (Game 4) Not to be left out, Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday made a significant contribution in Game 4. With Carpenter on third, Holliday ripped a home run deep into the left field stands to make the score 3-0. The Cardinals’ Win Expectancy increased by 18.7 percent, and St. Louis never looked back.
  5. Yasiel Puig’s GIDP (Game 4) The Dodgers also helped out St. Louis’s chances in the series. After a leadoff single by Andre Either to open the bottom of the ninth inning, Los Angeles right fielder Yasiel Puig stepped up to the plate representing the tying run. However, on a 2-0 pitch, St. Louis’s Trevor Rosenthal got Puig to hit into a double play. The play killed a potential Dodgers rally, decreased their Win Expectancy by 14.1 percent and essentially sealed Los Angeles’s fate in Game 4.


  1. David Ortiz’s grand slam (Game 2) It’s routine by now for David Ortiz to come through in clutch situations. Game 2 of the ALCS was one of those situations. With Boston down 5-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning and the bases loaded, Ortiz drove the first pitch into the right field bullpen for a grand slam. Ortiz’s slam tied the game and increased the Red Sox’s Win Expectancy by a whopping 45.2 percent, who went on to win on a walk off single by Jarrod Saltalamacchia in the bottom of the ninth inning.
  2. Shane Victorino’s grand slam (Game 6) Boston’s second most valuable play was another grand slam, but this one came from an unlikely source. With the Red Sox trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the seventh inning, right fielder Shane Victorino smashed an 0-2 pitch off Tigers reliever Drew Smyly over the Green Monster for a grand slam to put Boston up 5-2. The play boosted Boston’s Win expectancy by 37.3 percent and provided the Red Sox’s ultimate margin of victory.
  3. Jhonny Peralta’s GIDP (Game 3) The rest of the top five plays occurred in Game 3. Down 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth inning, Tigers left fielder Jhonny Peralta came to bat with Victor Martinez on base. On a 1-2 pitch from Koji Uehara, Peralta hit into a 6-4-3 double play that snuffed out a potential Detroit rally and shrank the Tigers’ Win Expectancy by 29.6 percent. The next batter, Detroit catcher Alex Avila, struck out to seal the game for Boston.
  4. Mike Napoli’s home run (Game 3) Interestingly, the play that accounted for the only run in Game 3 was only the second most valuable play in the game. With the bases empty in the top of the seventh inning, Boston DH Mike Napoli hit a 3-2 pitch into deep left center field for a home run to give the Red Sox a 1-0 lead. The Boston bullpen was essentially unhittable a secured the narrow win.
  5. Miguel Cabrera’s strikeout (Game 3) This is perhaps the least obvious entry in the ALCS top five plays. With two men on and one out in the bottom of the eighth inning, Detroit third baseman Miguel Cabrera steeped into the box to face Boston reliever Junichi Tazawa. On a 1-2 count, Cabrera swung threw a pitch from Tazawa for strike three. Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder ultimately struck out on three pitches from Koji Uehara, but Cabrera’s single strikeout decreased Detroit’s Win Expectancy by 18.3 percent.

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