You may have heard of a statistic called “championship win probability added” (cWPA), which measures the extent to which any given baseball play contributes to a team’s chances of winning a championship. It’s a neat little statistic that can be used to write articles like this one, which identified Hal Smith’s three-run home run for Pittsburgh in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series as the biggest baseball play of all time. Joe Carter, Kirk Gibson, and Sid Bream also made it onto that list. cWPA is the type of statistic that conjures up, merely by its reference, vivid images of confetti-filled ballparks, raucous crowds, and men made high by glorious deeds. This article is about whatever the opposite of that is. Today, I’d like to take you on a journey to find the least consequential pitch of 2018.
How would someone even go about identifying the least consequential pitch of 2018? I’m sure there are a lot of answers to that question, some of which you will no doubt point out in the comments, but here’s mine: The least consequential pitch of 2018 is the pitch that least affected the outcome of the least important game of the season. A pitch that swung a late-season game between two eliminated clubs, however inconsequential that game might be to you, me, and Bobby McGee, cannot be the least consequential pitch of 2018 because, well, players on eliminated teams are players too, and a tree that falls amidst a Royals-Orioles game still falls for those players and for those fans. No, this pitch should be so inconsequential that even players with nothing left to play for decline to grasp at it for a taste of something once lost.
The first step is to find all the games played late in the season between teams that had by that point been eliminated from playoff contention. But this by itself is not enough of a standard, because teams like the Diamondbacks, while out of contention on the final day of the season, had as recently as September 1 had playoff odds of 37.4% (and higher before that). The sheen of consequence for Arizona was too bright to include the Diamondbacks. No, the game we are searching for should have been between teams that had been out of contention for a long time, ideally effectively since the beginning of the season. It should have been played between teams that had so long ago last tasted the sweet elixir of a playoff race that all the little things players do to keep themselves motivated during a long season had fallen aside. I present to you the playoff odds of the White Sox, Royals, Tigers, Marlins, Reds, and Padres, plotted over the course of the season, with the Red Sox’s odds thrown in there just for comparison’s sake:
I suspect some of you will note at this point that there’s a reasonable case to be made that a game between two teams who have locked up a playoff spot for most of the season (like, say, the Red Sox) deserves to be considered alongside games between bad ones as the least consequential game of 2018, as it is equally irrelevant to the outcome of the season. But any game between two contending teams is consequential insofar as it can be used to glean information about the nature of the playoffs to come, and brings with each pitch an injury risk to players who might determine the course of a seasons’ future. No game featuring the 2018 Red Sox could be considered the least consequential of 2018. The champions were playing. No, the game we want is one played, as late in the season as possible, between the six teams who never really sniffed contention at all in 2018.
Unfortunately for us, none of the final series of the 2018 campaign featured any of these six teams playing against each other. But the second-to-last series did. September 25-26 witnessed a two game set between the Reds (who entered 66-92) and Royals (54-102), in Cincinnati. The first game was a relatively taut affair won by the Royals 4-3 with a ninth-inning run; that game was too tense to work for our purposes. The second game, however, saw the Royals win 6-1. This game, I think, is a strong contender for the least consequential of 2018. You may disagree. But I’d argue that it was. All that was at stake — and it was a relatively low stake at that — was the Reds’ position in the 2019 draft order, and the 2018 Reds were not sufficiently bad that a win or a loss was the difference between the first, second, or third picks, where order really matters. I think, after some consideration, we have found our game:
But what of the least consequential pitch of that least consequential game? This one’s easier. The Royals scored in the first, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh innings; the Reds scored in the first. That means the top of the ninth inning, in which the Royals had a chance to add on a seventh run before the Reds got one last chance at a comeback, was clearly the least consequential of the game. Winning by six isn’t that much different than winning by seven; I hope we can agree on that. So the pitch we’re looking for is in the top of the ninth. And the least consequential pitch of the top of the ninth inning was the one that ended it — a sinker from Jared Hughes to Adalberto Mondesi that changed the outcome of a meaningless game not at all; after all, with two outs, the chances of adding on a meaningless run in a meaningless inning in a meaningless game were very small, and even if such a run had been added, the chances of it then mattering later, when the Reds had said their piece, were smaller still. Here it is:
What I love about this pitch, and why I wanted to write about it today, is how much everyone involved seems to care about it. There is, of course, a good case to be made that it is the least consequential pitch of a season of tens of thousands of pitches. The pitch didn’t matter. The game didn’t matter. The season didn’t matter. And yet there was Adalberto Mondesi, sprinting down to first, trying just as hard as he could to make it to first base in time, and there was Joey Votto, stretching his legs out to beat him. The pitch didn’t matter, when you think about it. But when you don’t think too hard about it, it’s just another opportunity to do well however you can. And that’s something. Life, too, doesn’t really matter one little bit, when held up to even the slightest scrutiny. But of course, it still does.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.