Two weeks ago, we looked at five pinch hits that had a significant impact on the 2011 Wild Card races. Maybe you saw those pinch hits when they happened. Maybe you didn't. Maybe you saw them and forgot about them. But it turns out they were pretty darn important pinch hits that contributed to critical wins for the Tampa Bay Rays and St. Louis Cardinals, and a critical loss for the Atlanta Braves.
We're back today with two performances you might not have noticed during the 2011 season. Or if you noticed, more than likely you forgot them. Performances that significantly affected the outcome of two games: one game the Boston Red Sox lost and one game the Cardinals won. And those games were the differences in the American and National League Wild Card race. These two performances came in high-leverage situations. By relief pitchers.
Sure, relief pitchers often pitch in high-leverage situations. The Leverage Index is highest for situations later in the game, with the score tied or close and runners on base. As I discussed last week, the average Leverage Index is 1 and is considered neutral. Ten percent of all real-game situations have a Leverage Index greater than 2, while sixty percent have a Leverage Index less than 1.
There were 13,894 reliever appearances in 2011 and 2,978 of them had a Leverage Index greater than 2, or 21 percent. That's more than the percentage for all real-game situations, but less than what you might expect. It certainly was less than I expected.
How about performing well in high-leverage situations? That's measured by Win Probability Added (WPA), which measures how a player affects his team's Win Expectancy on a play-by-play basis. Win Expectancy is the percent chance a team will win based on score, inning, outs, runners on base and the run environment. If the batter succeeds in any particular at-bat, his WPA for that play will be positive and the pitcher's will be negative by the same amount, and vice versa. A player's WPA for a game is cumulative of all of his WPAs for each play in that game.
Focusing again on the 13,894 relief appearances in 2011, only 430 resulted in the reliever's WPA for the game at greater than .200. That number shrinks even further when looking only at that those 2,978 relief appearances with a Leverage Index greater than 2. Only 324 relief appearances resulted in a Leverage Index greater than 2 and a WPA greater than .200.
We'll call those the clutch reliever performances of 2011. I want to focus on two. Both came in games played by the Kansas City Royals.
Kansas City Royals v. St. Louis Cardinals, June 19, 2011
Yes, this game was featured in the Five Most Important Pinch Hits of 2011. Skip Schumaker's pinch-hit single and his walk-off home run were Number 3 on that list. It turns out that game also featured a clutch relief performance for the Cardinals by Miguel Batista. Yes, that Miguel Batista.
To reset the stage: the Cardinals were looking to win the three-game series against their cross-state rivals in the Sunday afternoon game at Busch Stadium III. Saturday's win had snapped the Cardinals' seven-game losing streak.
Early runs for both teams led to a 3-3 tie after six innings. Schumaker's pinch-hit single in the bottom of the sixth put the Cardinals ahead by one.
Alex Gordon led off the seventh for the Royals and was hit by a 2-0 pitch from Cardinals reliever Brian Tallet. Melky Cabrera followed with a single, putting runners on first and second with no outs. Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa pulled Tallet and replaced him with Batista. A risky move, perhaps, given Batista's outing five days earlier, when he gave up 4 hits and 5 runs in two-thirds of an inning and took the loss in a game against the Washington Nationals.
On came Batista. On the first pitch, Billy Butler hit a long fly ball to deep center field. Gordon tagged and moved to third, putting runners on the corners with one out. The next batter was Jeff Francoeur. He knocked a 1-2 pitch for a line drive at who else? Skip Schumaker. This is what happened:
Six pitches. Three outs. Batista faced an average Leverage Index of 3.85 and contributed .273 WPA to the Cardinals' eventual victory.
Three days later, the Cardinals released Batista. He finished the season with the New York Mets.
Boston Red Sox v. Kansas City Royals, July 25, 2011
A Monday night game at Fenway Park. The Red Sox were firmly in first place in the American League East with a record of 62-38. The Royals were firmly in last place in the American League Central with a record of 43-59.
The Red Sox took an early 1-0 lead in the second with a walk, a stolen base and a two-out double by Josh Reddick off Royals starter Kyle Davies. The score remained that way until the sixth, when the Royals tied it on a Melky Cabrera single and a Billy Butler double off Red Sox starter Jon Lester.
And that was it for the scoring for a long while. Royals reliever Louis Coleman came on to pitch the bottom of the 12th. Who? Louis Coleman. A 24-year-old right-hander who'd struck out 10.1 batters and walked only 2.25 per nine innings in the minors in 2010. The Royals called him up in late April and he'd struggled, posting a 2.33 K/BB rate and a 5.04 FIP through the end of June.
Already in a high-leverage situation with the scored tied in the 12th, Coleman made matters worse for himself by giving up a leadoff single to Josh Reddick. A fly-out brought Marco Scutaro to the plate with a runner on first and one out. Coleman then had Reddick picked off first, but threw the ball away, Reddick moving to third on the throwing error. And what happened next?
With two outs, Scutaro singled to deep left field but was out going for a double, ending the inning. Two hits, two outs on the bases, and no runs.
On to the 13th. Coleman back on the mound in the bottom of the inning with the score still tied 1-1. Jacoby Ellsbury worked a leadoff walk on a 3-2 pitch and after a flyball out by Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez rapped a single to right, sending Ellsbury to third. Coleman retired the next two batters on four pitches -- a foul pop out by Yamaico Navarro and a ground out by David Ortiz. The Red Sox failed to score. Again.
The Royals knocked in two runs in the 14th off Randy Williams and the won the game 3-1. In two innings of work, Coleman faced an average Leverage Index of 3.30 and gave the Royals .285 WPA toward the victory. Somehow, some way, he kept the Red Sox from scoring when they had runners all over the bases. And it came back to haunt them.
Miguel Batista and Louis Coleman. Two unexpected but clutch relief appearances that altered the Wild Card races in 2011.