Daniel Murphy and the Costliest Errors in World Series History

I know this isn’t going to help, Mets fans. And I know this might seem like I’m picking on Daniel Murphy which isn’t fair because Daniel Murphy, by himself, has never lost the Mets a game and Daniel Murphy, by himself, has never lost the Mets a World Series. Players don’t lose games, teams do, and the World Series isn’t over yet.

But Daniel Murphy is a human being, and human beings are prone to mistakes. Some mistakes carry greater consequence than others, and on Saturday night, Daniel Murphy made a very costly mistake. Murphy’s mistake is the one that will be remembered, but it was just one of several made by the Mets in the late innings of Game Four that led to them blow a 3-2 lead in the eighth inning.

I feel the need to point out that, if not for all the things Daniel Murphy had done up until this moment, the Mets might not be playing in the World Series in the first place. Remember that, entering the World Series, no player set to play in the Fall Classic had done more in the postseason to get his team there than Murphy.

Murphy’s played plenty of fantastic baseball for New York lately and, when this is all said and done, regardless of the final outcome, his postseason should be remembered as a good one.

Yet, that can’t erase this mistake. Nothing ever will. On this one play, Murphy messed up, and he messed up bad. He’ll be the first to admit it. With one out and the tying run on second base, Eric Hosmer hit a weak chopper off the bat at 78 miles per hour. Murphy didn’t have a shot at the double play, but he had an out at first. He charged, and he came up empty. The ball looked like it had some nasty top spin. He had to worry about the lip of the grass. Lorenzo Cain yelled at him as he ran past. These aren’t excuses, they’re circumstances. Murphy needed to catch the ball, and he didn’t. At the very least, he needed to put a glove or a body on it, and knock it down. Instead, there was a whiff. Instead, the ball rolled into shallow right field and Ben Zobrist scored from second. The game was tied. One batter later, it was worse than tied. Thirteen batters later, the Mets found themselves on the brink of elimination.

They were five outs away from tying the World Series at two games apiece. Before Jeurys Familia threw the 0-1 pitch to Hosmer that led to Murphy’s miscue, the Mets had a win expectancy of 69%. After the ball rolled into right and Zobrist raced from second, that number dropped to 34%. The Mets’ odds of winning the game were cut in half and shifted in favor of the Royals in a matter of seconds. Had Murphy recorded the out at first, the Mets’ win expectancy would have boosted to 75%, so you could argue that the play’s win probability was more like -41%. Regardless, -35% is what will go down in the box score.

In an instant, memories of 1986 flashed before Mets fans everywhere. Only this time, they were on the wrong end of things:

Murphy’s error, in terms of single-game win expectancy, was the most costly fielding mistake by any player in World Series history, save for Boston’s Bill Buckner.

But the World Series isn’t about winning one game, it’s about winning four, so we can take this a step further. Using Baseball-Reference’s Play Index to find WPA and combining that with Championship Leverage Index, we can calculate what’s known as Championship Probability Added. That’s just a fancy way of saying win expectancy, except instead of it being the win expectancy of a single game, like you’re used to, it’s the win expectancy of an entire series.

So, in Murphy’s case, his error had a single-game WPA of -35%. The Championship Leverage Index for a 2-1 series is .38 — in other words, the outcome of a 2-1 game will shift the series odds 38%, one way or the other. Multiply those two figures together, and you get your Championship Probability Added or, more appropriately, Subtracted. In the blink of an eye, Murphy’s error reduced the Mets’ odds of winning the World Series by 13%.

For a single play, that’s a gigantic figure. But it’s not the biggest, and it gives Murphy some room between he and Buckner. This post wouldn’t be complete without a leaderboard or a countdown of sorts, so let’s run through the six most costly errors in World Series history, by Championship Probability Subtracted.

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#6. -13% Daniel Murphy, NYM, 2015 Game Four

You know all about this play, because it literally just happened last night and you’ve just read some 800-odd words on it. It needs no further explaining, for now.

#5. -15% George Moriarty, DET, 1909 Game Six

The Ty Cobb-led Tigers carried a 5-3 lead over Honus Wagner’s Pirates into the top of the ninth inning. The Pirates led off the inning with singles by Dots Miller and Bill Abstein, bringing the go-ahead run to the plate in the form of right fielder Chief Wilson. Wilson squared for a sac bunt, and what happened next couldn’t be more 1909.

As Tigers first baseman Tom Jones charged in to field the bunt, he collided with Wilson, the baserunner, and was knocked unconscious. George Moriarty, the third baseman, and catcher Boss Schmidt were “both spiked while attempting to tag Pirates baserunners,” and Abstein scored from second on Wilson’s bunt. I don’t know, man. It was 1909. Anyway, the end result following that apparent series of assaults was: runners on first and third, no outs, one-run game. The Pirates, despite still trailing 5-4, had actually become 54% favorites in the game, following a 29% shift in win expectancy on the previous play. However, because it was still 1909, there was an out at home on the very next play, and then a strike ’em out, throw ’em out double play at third to end the game. The Tigers, somehow, hung on to a 5-4 victory to force a Game Seven.

They were shut out, 8-0, two days later.

#4. -18% Mariano Rivera, NYY, 2001 Game Seven

The greatest postseason pitcher of all-time made a mistake that set in motion one of the most unlikely innings, and comebacks, in World Series history. After Mark Grace singled to lead off the inning, Damian Miller squared to bunt in an attempt to put the tying run on second base. The tying run got to second base, and the winning run went safely to first, when Mariano Rivera threw the ball into center field. The error caused an 18% shift in win expectancy and, since this was Game Seven and everything was on the line, an 18% shift in championship probability.

The next bunt attempt proved unsuccessful, the lead runner being thrown out at third, but then Tony Womack came through with one of the biggest moments in baseball history. Womack doubled in the lead runner to tie the score at 2-2, Rivera hit Craig Counsell and then Luis Gonzalez flared the memorable broken-bat single into center field that prevented the Yankees from winning their fourth consecutive World Series title.

#3. -19% Freddie Lindstrom, NYG, 1924 Game Seven

Frankie Frisch‘s Giants were tied, 3-3, with Goose Goslin’s Senators heading into the bottom of the ninth in Washington. After Goslin grounded out to lead off the frame, Joe Judge singled off Art Nehf, representing the winning run. The next batter, Ossie Bluege, tapped a ground ball to New York first baseman Bill Terry, who made a gutsy play by trying to cut down the lead runner, Judge, at third base. Freddie Lindstrom, however, couldn’t handle Terry’s throw from first and was charged with an error, putting runners on the corners with one out.

The error was a 19% shift in win expectancy, making the Senators 83% favorites to win the game, and series. However, the next batter, Ralph Miller, grounded into a double play, rendering Lindstrom’s error moot. Four innings later, the Senators won the World Series on a walkoff double by Earl McNeely.

#2. -19% Tony Fernandez, CLE, 1997 Game Seven

For the fanbases of 29 teams, Murphy’s error no doubt evoked instant thoughts of Bill Buckner. For fans of the Cleveland Indians, though, it was likely Tony Fernandez who first came to mind. The Indians had come within two outs of their first World Series since 1948 t until Jose Mesa blew the save by allowing two singles and a Counsell sac fly to tie the game in the ninth.

Two innings later, it was again Counsell that hit a weak tapper, much like Hosmer’s, to second base, skipping under the glove of Fernandez and rolling into right field, allowing Bobby Bonilla to go first-to-third. That 19% shift in win/series probability made way for an intentional walk, a force out at home, and the two-out single by Edgar Renteria that dashed Cleveland’s title hopes for the second time in three years.

#1. -20% Bill Buckner, BOS, 1986 Game Six

Of course, the most famous of all World Series blunders tops the list. Buckner’s “Behind the Bag” play is perhaps the most well-known error in baseball history, and needs little in the way of explaining. The routine out would* have ended the inning, sending the game into the eleventh. Instead, it rolled through his legs, the Mets won, and two days later they captured their second — and most recent — World Series in franchise history.

*Edit: It could have ended the inning. At the very least, if Buckner knocks it down, the run from second doesn’t score and the game goes on.

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Once you get past the irony, the similarity between Buckner and Murphy’s situations is illuminating. What Buckner is remembered for, of course, is the error. What people tend to forget, though, is that Buckner had a successful 22-year career that most players would have killed for. What people forget is that Calvin Schiraldi retired the first two batters he faced in that 10th inning before allowing three consecutive singles and being pulled from the game. What people forget is that when Bob Stanley came in to relieve Schiraldi, the first thing he did was throw a wild pitch that let the tying run come in to score. What people forget is that Boston’s win expectancy had dropped 45% in that inning before Bill Buckner even had a ball come his way.

Buckner should have fielded the ground ball, absolutely. It was a simple, routine play. One that he’d made thousands of times before, and hundreds of times after. Hell, even Mariano Rivera isn’t safe from the occasional routine lapse on the world’s biggest stage. Daniel Murphy should have fielded his ground ball, too, absolutely. But he didn’t. And, like Buckner, Murphy didn’t lose a game in the World Series for his team, because players don’t lose games. Teams do. The Mets didn’t lose because of Daniel Murphy. The Mets lost because the Royals beat them.

August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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8 years ago

While I hate to rehash a painful memory, aren’t you exaggerating the impact of Buckner’s error by assuming that he would have made the out at first had he fielded the ball cleanly? It doesn’t seem obvious to me that Buckner with his bad legs beats Mookie to the bag there, and Stanley almost certainly wasn’t in time to cover the bag.

Jack Strawb
8 years ago
Reply to  James

It was Red Sox manager McNamara’s error, really, as he effectively admitted later. He had an athletic sub on the bench that he failed to substitute for Buckner because, as he said, he want Billy to have the ‘glory’ of being on the field when the Sox won.