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The 16 biggest plays in Cardinals history

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Which plays improved the odds of a Cardinals title more than any other?

2011 World Series Game 6 - Texas Rangers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

I might as well admit it in the first sentence: this post is a total ripoff of a seminal Rany Jazayerli Grantland post. If you haven’t read it, please read it, not because reading it is necessary to understand this post (though it can’t hurt), but because it is extremely good and entertaining if you’re a playoff baseball adrenaline junkie such as myself.

But in case you aren’t familiar with Jazayerli’s post and didn’t click on the link (which, again, shame on you!), the following is a list of the sixteen biggest plays in St. Louis Cardinals history by Championship Probability Added—a statistic similar to Win Probability Added (the percentage increase that a play has on a team’s chances of winning a game) but which measures an increase in that team’s chances to win the World Series. And the following ranks the plays which most increased the odds of a Cardinals World Series championship—they are not necessarily plays which led to a Cardinals World Series championship, but why punish them for the faults of others?

In the event of a World Series Game 7, the CPA is identical to the WPA. In the event of a World Series Game 6, a World Series Game 5 in which the teams are tied at two games apiece, or a League Championship Series Game 7, the CPA is half of the moment’s WPA. Other games have lower CPA potential, which is why moments such as Albert Pujols hitting the train track off Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS isn’t on this list—it meant a huge change in the game’s WPA (73%), but the Cardinals still faced one-in-four odds in the NLCS, not to mention there was still another series left to play. It would be mathematically impossible for a CPA high enough to crack this list in any playoff game before Game 5 of the League Division Series. Regular season plays before expanded playoffs were considered but only once, in 1964, were the standings close enough that a meaningful enough play could have happened, and it didn’t.

The Jazayerli list runs fifteen deep, though I decided to make this list sixteen because there was a tie for 15th. There were three ties using Baseball Reference’s WPA measurements, so in the event of a tie, I decided to opt for the game which created the biggest shift in in-game WPA (my original solution, that the tie would go to whichever play won that year’s All-Star Game, tested poorly with audiences). So without further adieu, here’s the list.

16. Tommy Thevenow’s double—14%

In Game 7 of the 1926 World Series, Cardinals shortstop Tommy Thevenow came to the plate in a tied game in the top of the fourth inning, with the bases loaded and one out. Facing Hall of Famer Waite Hoyt, Thevenow hit a single into right which scored Les Bell and Chick Hafey and increased the Cardinals’ chances of winning their first championship from 61% to 75%.

15. Tim McCarver’s home run—14%

With the World Series tied at two games apiece, Game 5 was not a must-win for either the Cardinals or the New York Yankees, but a win would certainly help (and as the series went seven, it ultimately did matter). With runners at the corners and one out in a 2-2 game in the top of the 10th inning, the Cardinals stood at 69% to win the game, but with a three-run jack courtesy of their catcher, the odds shot up to 97%.

14. Lou Brock’s home run—14.5%

Although the Cardinals would go on to lose Game 6 of the 1967 World Series before bouncing back in Game 7 to take the title, Lou Brock’s 7th inning home run against the Boston Red Sox was nearly pivotal to winning the series in six. With Bobby Tolan on first, one out, and the odds of a Cardinals victory at 17% thanks to a two-run deficit, Brock went yard off John Wyatt to silence the Fenway Park crowd and bring the game to essentially a statistical dead heat (the Cardinals jumped to 46% to win). Side note: while history now seems to remember Harry Caray solely as the goofy Cubs guy, in his prime, he was an excellent, straightforward radio announcer.

13. Tony Lazzeri strikes out—15%

It is much harder to crack this list from the mound than from the batter’s box, but Grover Cleveland Alexander (also called Pete Alexander, but why bother having a nickname that sounds way less cool than your actual name?) managed this in the bottom of the 7th inning of Game 7 of the 1926 World Series. There were two outs and the Cardinals had the lead, but with the bases loaded, the Yankees had a 41% chance of winning the game. But after striking out the Yankees second baseman, their odds fell to 26%. No game footage exists (I assume the cameramen were busy doing the Charleston or something) but Ronald Reagan portrayed Alexander in a movie which included a dramatization of the at-bat, where for some reason the Yankee Stadium crowd gives him a standing ovation?

12. Ken Boyer’s home run—15%

It takes a pretty special play to make this list from Game 4 of a World Series, but Boyer managed it in 1964. Facing a 2-1 series deficit, the Cardinals trailed 3-0 in the game entering the top of the 6th inning at Yankee Stadium when with one out, the Cardinals’ third baseman hit a grand slam which improved his team’s odds of winning that game from 24% to 65%.

11. Tom McBride grounds out—16%

Game 7 of the 1946 World Series was the greatest game seven the Cardinals ever played in the Fall Classic (MLB.com agrees) and the Boston Red Sox had a reasonable chance to win it until the very last batter. With the World Series-tying run at third base and the World Series-winning run at first with two outs, pinch-hitter Tom McBride grounded out, forcing the runner at second base and taking the Red Sox from puncher’s chance, at 16% to win, to 0%.

10. David Freese’s home run—18.5%

Rogers Hornsby, Bob Gibson, Albert Pujols, and Ozzie Smith are not on this list. David Freese is on this list for three separate plays over a less than twenty-four hour period.

9. Jack Clark goes yard—18.75%

While Ozzie Smith’s home run in Game 5 of the 1985 NLCS has the iconic Jack Buck call, the roar of the home crowd, and the sheer statistical improbability of a light-hitting shortstop going yard in a huge situation, it was Jack the Ripper’s Game 6 dinger against the Los Angeles Dodgers which cracks this list. The Cardinals had runners on second and third, so while they trailed by one run with two outs in the top of the ninth, they did have some chance. But Clark, by crushing the first pitch he saw over the left field fence, destroyed the Dodgers’ hopes of coming back in the series, taking the game odds from 19% for the Cardinals to 93%. Sure, they’d have another chance the next day, but why take the risk?

8. Frankie Frisch’s double—19%

The 1934 World Series is generally considered to have the most lackluster Game 7 in World Series history, and this is a fair assessment in retrospect—the Cardinals destroyed the Detroit Tigers 11-0. But before the game got out of hand, second baseman Frankie Frisch had a bases-clearing, one-out double in the top of the third which gave the Cardinals their first three runs of the game. The threat got the Cardinals up to 60% in win probability, but Frisch made it 79%. By the end of the seven-run half-frame, it was at 94%. Joe Medwick was later ejected from this game for his own protection because Detroit fans were throwing things at him. Imagine this happening today.

7. David Freese’s double—20%

Although overshadowed by his heroics in the previous game, David Freese’s game-tying two-run double in the bottom of the first inning of Game 7 of the 2011 World Series was easily the most important play of that game.

6. Yadier Molina’s home run--20.5%

Remember back when Yadier Molina was a bad hitter? Like, not “league average-ish hitter who should probably be moved down from fifth in the batting order”, but bad? This was 2006 Molina, an all-glove no-bat catcher if ever there were one. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Molina hitting the go-ahead home run in the top of the 9th against the New York Mets in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS, bringing the team’s probability of making the World Series from 50% to 91%, felt weirder than if Adam Wainwright did it in 2017.

5. Roy Partee’s foul pop fly—21%

The batter before the aforementioned Tom McBride, Roy Partee came to the plate with much better odds to extend Game 7 of the 1946 World Series—a long fly ball or a fortunately placed ground ball could mean a tied ball game, as there was only one out. The Red Sox had a 37% chance to win the game when the catcher came to the plate, but after a weak popup in foul territory caught by first baseman Stan Musial, the Red Sox were down to 16%.

4. Lance Berkman’s single—23.5%

WPA, and CPA by extension, do not consider the batter’s count at the time, but with a 2-2 count, Cardinals right fielder Lance Berkman had even longer odds of extending (or winning) Game 6 of the 2011 World Series than the 16% that Baseball Reference gives him. But after a single to center field which scored Jon Jay from second base, the Cardinals went from one strike away from elimination to a 63% chance of winning the game.

3. Keith Hernandez’s single—27%

Before he began his career stalking Just for Men users in their homes alongside a Basketball Hall of Famer, Keith Hernandez was a terrific Cardinals first baseman, and he had no more meaningful play in St. Louis than in Game 7 of the 1982 World Series, when Hernandez, with one out and his team trailing by two runs in the bottom of the 6th inning, drove home Ozzie and Lonnie Smith and turned the Cardinals’ odds of winning the game, and in turn the World Series, from 40% to 68% (you may have noticed some rounding errors, such as this apparent 28% jump on a play listed at 27%). He did this on his 29th birthday.

2. David Freese’s triple—27%

In this at-bat, David Freese made this list. In his next at-bat, he made the list again. In his next at-bat after that, he made it a third time.

1. Harry Walker’s double—32%

Have you ever heard of Harry Walker? It’s okay if you haven’t. I have, though admittedly I’m not versed in his work. But you’ve probably heard of Enos Slaughter, and you’ve probably heard of his “Mad Dash Home”. Well, it was on a hit from Harry Walker, who deserves more credit for his pivotal role in this moment in Cardinals history. With Slaughter on first base and two outs in the 8th inning with Game 7 of the 1946 World Series tied at three, Walker hit a liner to center field. Slaughter’s aggressive running paid off and the odds of a World Series win went from 55% to 87%.