The Season’s Biggest Upset

Before every game, we publish estimated game odds. The odds consider the identities of the starting pitchers, and as the first pitch draws closer, the odds update to factor in the actual starting lineups. I’m not saying it’s an infallible system or anything, but it’s a neat little feature we have, even if it doesn’t get all that much use. And though this is by no means a rigorous test, consider the top 100 most seemingly lopsided games from the season past. Based on the calculated odds, the favorites in those games should’ve won 70 times. The favorites actually won 71 times. So things check out.

The favorite won the game with the single most lopsided odds. Max Scherzer and the Nationals were projected to have 78% odds against Sean O’Sullivan and the Phillies. The favorite also won the next-most lopsided game, and the next-most lopsided game, and the next-most lopsided game, and the next-most lopsided game. The five games with the most imbalanced odds all went to the team expected to win. We find our first upset in sixth. Which would then qualify this as the season’s greatest upset, taking into consideration only pre-game odds. It was an upset when the Royals rallied past the Astros in the playoffs, but that wasn’t a lopsided game at the start. It only became that way later. The biggest upset, considering pre-game outlook? We rewind to June 17, and we go to Los Angeles.

Give this to the Rangers — they’d just played two home games against the Dodgers, and they won them both. Those games were on June 15 and 16. Come June 17, it was the Dodgers’ turn to play host, and they intended to be rude about it. The next day’s starter was to be Zack Greinke, opposite Anthony Ranaudo. But before that, there would be Clayton Kershaw. And he’d be going opposite Wandy Rodriguez.

Considering team identities and starting pitchers, the Dodgers were given 69% odds. Folding in starting lineups, that went up to 71%. Folding in approximate home-field advantage, we get to 75%. Play the game four times, and the Dodgers would be expected to win three times, based on this math. Doesn’t get much more lopsided than that. The game was played one time, like all games. The Rangers ultimately outscored the Dodgers 5-3.

Something funny and absolutely true at the time: as the game began, Wandy Rodriguez actually owned a lower ERA than Clayton Kershaw. And the Rangers hadn’t been bad; they had five more wins than losses, just a game and a half worse than the Dodgers. On paper then, in a certain sense of the word, it didn’t look like that much of a mismatch. But at that point, we had the Dodgers projected for the best rest-of-season winning percentage in the game. The Rangers projected second-worst in the American League (I know, I know). Kershaw was and is the best pitcher in the world, and he was throwing at home. Within a month and a half, Rodriguez would be released. The Rangers were playing without a DH. They were playing without Josh Hamilton. They were playing without Adrian Beltre. They were playing without Robinson Chirinos. They were playing without Delino DeShields. They were playing with Rougned Odor, but this was just Odor’s second game back from the minor leagues, having earlier been demoted for being atrocious. It was a mismatch. The Rangers won. I should also note the Rangers were playing without their closer. He was tired from having closed against the Dodgers too much.

An image from the Rangers’ pre-game show tried to hype up the audience without resorting to pinning their hopes on the enduring reality that baseball is helplessly random.

rodriguez-stat

Everything shown was technically true. Kershaw’s numbers, as displayed, were factual. Rodriguez’s numbers, as displayed, were factual. And those Rodriguez numbers look good! He had most recently pitched in Dodger Stadium in August 2011. He went against a lineup that included Jamey Carroll, Rod Barajas, Tony Gwynn (Jr.), Juan Rivera, and Justin Sellers. He still allowed five runs, only two of which were earned. He lost to Clayton Kershaw, who gave up one run over eight frames. That part didn’t come up.

I don’t need to set anything for you anymore. I already told you this would be an upset. I already told you the Rangers won. It’s clear that that probably shouldn’t have happened, but that’s the very magic of baseball, isn’t it? Nothing got started for the Rangers in the first. I guess it might’ve actually helped — the first ended scoreless, and Kershaw was that much closer to being removed. So the first inning went slightly to Texas. But their own hitters went down 1-2-3. The Dodgers wasted a leadoff double, that was followed by a walk.

The Rangers pulled ahead in the second, and they pulled ahead for good. Kershaw got to two strikes on Prince Fielder, and he threw a fastball up out of the zone, but Fielder went and got it, keeping his hands in and drilling a double to the right-center gap. Fielder moved up on a single, and scored on a fly ball. That would be all for the frame, but the Dodgers also went scoreless again. They wasted another leadoff double, and a walk.

The third is when it became clear the game just wasn’t going to go the way the game should’ve gone. I’m not going to say Wandy Rodriguez is the worst hitter that’s ever played the game, because that would be a lie, but it wouldn’t be a lie to say he’s bad, ever so terribly bad, and that’s one reason why it’s a good thing he knew how to pitch. With his pitching ability, Rodriguez has made his money as a pitcher. Without his pitching ability, he would’ve made his money as a doctor, maybe, or as a farmer, maybe. Maybe he wouldn’t have made his money at all. But Rodriguez could pitch. Got him noticed. Got him paid. In this game, in this inning, he led off against Clayton Kershaw at the plate and came through with his first base hit in more than a year.

No, it wasn’t a sexy hit. There’s no need to be greedy. You’re not going to beat Clayton Kershaw with Wandy Rodriguez in a sexy way. Rodriguez didn’t mind the adjectives; all he minded was the noun.

There are two reasons to celebrate a hit like that. One, you just won the game. There’s one reason to celebrate a hit like that in the third inning. That reason is, you know you suck, and you know everyone knows you suck, and you suck so bad they’ll let you showboat without retaliation because the retaliation would just be a reminder of the fact that you suck and you still hit a single.

Kershaw did get the next guy, and then he got the next guy, but he still wasn’t out of the inning, because of Wandy Rodriguez. And that forced Kershaw to face Joey Gallo, and there are two things Joey Gallo does, and within moments he did one of them, and he did it in everyone’s face.

On the one hand, yeah, not the best slider. But then, not the worst slider, and these were Gallo’s swings in the game before the home-run swing: whiff whiff foul whiff whiff. Gallo batted against Kershaw in the sixth. He swung three times: whiff whiff whiff. Joey Gallo had an extremely Joey Gallo game. His entire future will come down to one swing per day. If that one swing is a home run often enough, Gallo will make his millions. If not, he’ll do something else before his mid-30s. In this game, one swing was the difference between the worst of Joey Gallo and the best of Joey Gallo. That’s how he is; that’s how he’s built.

3-0, and the Dodgers didn’t score. So the game moved to the fourth, and Kershaw struck out the leadoff batter on three pitches. A couple minutes later, that leadoff batter scored the Rangers’ fourth run. Adam Rosales struck out and reached on a passed ball that literally didn’t go anywhere.

Shortly thereafter, Kershaw had Rosales picked off, but he got called for a balk. Odor singled Rosales home with a weak chopper through the hole. In the inning, Kershaw struck out three Rangers, and A.J. Ellis threw a runner out stealing. The Rangers still added to their lead, thanks to a dropped third strike that remained right where it was.

The Dodgers didn’t score. They wasted another double, and a hit from Kershaw with a runner in scoring position. Nothing happened in the fifth. The sixth was Kershaw’s last inning — this time, he successfully picked Rosales off without getting called for a balk. Scott Van Slyke then cut the deficit in half with a homer. Then Enrique Hernandez doubled, and the Dodgers had momentum, and A.J. Ellis hit a 1-and-0 line drive.

The inning ended with the score 4-3 Texas, and two runners left on. Nothing happened in the seventh. Nothing happened in the eighth. Fielder led off the ninth with his most extreme opposite-field home run since September 2007. Four Dodgers batted; none of them scored. The game stands as Keone Kela’s lone big-league save. The Rangers improved to 36-30, while the Dodgers dropped to 37-29. The Rangers wouldn’t get above six games over .500 until the last weekend of August.

Said Clayton Kershaw after the loss:

“This was probably the most frustrating game I’ve ever pitched.”

He might not have needed to say that.

The next day, Greinke and the Dodgers were given better than 73% odds to beat Ranaudo and the Rangers. It was the 11th-most lopsided game of the year. And win, the Dodgers did. They won 1-0, on a two-out, walk-off balk.

We hoped you liked reading The Season’s Biggest Upset by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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matt w
Guest
matt w

In fairness, though I haven’t seen that particular pickoff move, Kershaw balks all the time. I’ve seen him take a full step to the plate and then throw to first.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip

He is not nearly the only pitcher who balks every time he attempts a pickoff. It’s a very weird blind spot in umpiring.

Carter Capps
Guest
Carter Capps

Why limit your balks to every pickoff throw? Last I checked, the average pitcher threw a lot more pitches than pickoff throws.