Esoteric Boxscore of the Day

October 19, 2005

Probability, Shmobability!

As many others, I'm sure, after watching Game 5 of the NLCS, I flashed back to another LCS Game 5 with a team one strike away from their first World Series. As unlikely as this year's outcome was, I think the following one was even more so.

October 12, 1986
ALCS Game 5
Boston 7, California 6, 11 innings
BOS   0  2  0    0  0  0    0  0  4    0  1  -   7 12  0
CAL 0 0 1 0 0 2 2 0 1 0 0 - 6 13 0
Today's Boxscore

The Angels were sitting pretty. Just the day before, they'd overcome a three-run ninth-inning deficit to win Game 4 and take a commanding three-games-to-one lead in the 1986 ALCS. And here they were, with their own ninth-inning, three-run lead, thanks in part to Boston center fielder Dave Henderson turning an out into a two-run homer. Now is when you start thinking, what are the chances that they could actually blow this?

According to the awesome Win Expectancy Finder, which uses game data from 1979-1990, the chances were small. Reeeallly small. The Angels had a 97.9% chance of winning, meaning that if they replayed the ninth inning 48 times, they would win the game, on average, 47 times. But California was no "average" team. Going back seven seasons, to 1980, California had been 288-1 when leading by three or more runs after eight, including 72-0 with exactly a three-run lead!! (Ironically, the only ninth-inning, multi-run comeback the '86 Angels allowed was in the first week of the season against (of course) Dave Henderson’s Mariners.)

And the Red Sox weren't exactly experienced at this, either, The '86 crew entered the ninth inning at least three runs down 53 times and never won. In fact, Boston had lost 113 of these games in a row, dating back to their last such win in August of 1984. And in 1986, in the late innings (seventh through ninth), the Sox generated only 23 three-plus run rallies in 436 turns at bat.

So when California relievers surrendered two runs to make it a one-run game, you get nervous. But with two outs and nobody on, they should still have a 97.5% (39 in 40) chance to win. No sweat.

Um, yes sweat. Rich Gedman--the guy with a .323 on-base percentage, including only 11 HBP in over 2200 plate appearances--gets hit by a pitch. Then Dave Henderson--the guy who'd hit only one home run in 51 at-bats after his August 19 trade to the Sox, and none with a runner on in 102 at-bats since July 22--hits it out of the park...with two strikes. So the Sox have overcome some impressive odds to take the lead. But wait, there's more!

In the bottom of the ninth, the Angels tied the game back up in short order, with a single, sacrifice, and another single. Then after yet another single and an intentional walk, they had another golden opportunity to win it. After missing out on two sure things, a hit, a fly ball, a slow grounder would still win the pennant! At this point, they again were exceedingly likely to win the game and the flag: the win probability was back up to 83.2% (5 in 6). Alas, no. Their cleanup hitter, Doug DeCinces, flew out to shallow right and Bobby Grich hit a soft liner that pitcher Joe Sambito managed to snag.

Now, it's extreeeemely hard to blow a 47 in 48 chance followed by a 5 out of 6 chance. But after all that, they still, probabilistically speaking, had a 50/50 shot at winning this thing. Of course, they didn't.

But even after losing the game, they still only had to win one of the next two games. Again, probabilistically speaking, a 75% chance. Not to be.

So, as tormenting as Monday's loss was to Houston, it was not quite as excruciating as California's. While the Pujols homer was like ripping off a band-aid--painful but quick--California's loss was a tortuous roller coaster, like losing the lottery by one number three weeks in a row. And then getting fired. But I suppose Houston--ironically also seeking it's first World Series berth after years of close calls--still has a chance in these next two games to out-do the doomed Angels...

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