Here’s a weird statistical rabbit hole story for you and bear with me, because it’s going to take a little bit to get to the subject.
Thursday night I was looking up something on new Tigers coach Jose Cruz Jr., which led me to looking at his father, Jose Sr.’s impressive career. I noticed that Jose Sr. had an amazing 1980 NLCS against the Phillies, which got me to thinking about the new Championship Probability Added stat on Baseball-Reference.com.
What else are you going to do during a global pandemic but find new ways to entertain yourself???
For those unfamiliar, Championship Probability Added, invented by Dan Hirsch, looks at every play in a season and ascertains how much it contributed to a player’s team winning a championship. This isn’t just about player’s coming through in the clutch. It’s about doing so at a time that is the difference in winning and losing a championship.
Baseball-Reference has the leaders in this stat both for career and single-season, the latter being the concern of the moment. The stat makes sense when you see the top of it.
|1||Carl Yastrzemski||1967 Red Sox|
|2||Bobby Thomson||1951 Giants|
|3||Willie Mays||1962 Giants|
Those intuitively makes sense given the big seasons Yaz and Mays had, and Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” home run.
Let’s focus on Mays for a second: The Giants came from well behind against the Dodgers to win the pennant, overcoming (among other things) a four-game deficit with seven games to play. Mays had 28 RBI in the last 28 games, including a game-winning home run in the eighth inning of the final scheduled game, which forced the three-game playoff against the Dodgers, in which Mays went 5-for-11 with 3 walks and 4 RBI.
I like to scan lists looking for the interesting and unusual. This is one with lots of stars – Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron all had seasons in the top 20. The first really interesting name hits me at No. 19. It’s one of Mays’ 1962 Giants teammates, Jim Davenport.
Jim Davenport played 13 seasons with the team from 1958 to 1970. Davenport was a Giants lifer. He spent 51 years in the organization,in just about every role you could think of, including one year as manager, 1985 (the only 100-loss season the Giants have had). He was beloved because, he treated everyone well and got along with everybody regardless of race or ethnicity (read this obit by Chris Haft). Despite sub-average offensive skills, Davenport was a well-regarded player who won a Gold Glove at third base. And he made one All-Star team. That was in 1962.
1962 was Davenport’s best season with a little room to spare. He had career highs in batting average (.297), home runs (14), and OPS (.813).
And though advanced stats weren’t tracked at that time, if you followed the Giants very, very carefully, you knew that Davenport had an unusual knack.
In addition to having a Championship Probability stat, Baseball-Reference also tracks leverage. It puts your plate appearances under a microscope to determine how impactful a moment was to a particular game. Baseball-Reference then divides your plate appearances into high leverage, medium leverage, and low leverage.
High leverage encompasses everything you think it does. That at-bat in the eighth inning of a tie game with a man on second and two outs? It’s there, as it should be. But sometimes pivotal moments in a game happen early. Like a tie score with the bases loaded and one out in the third inning. That one makes the list too.
In 1962, Davenport’s high-leverage numbers were among the most ridiculous you’ll ever see.
The King of Clutch – Davenport in High Leverage, 1962
Davenport was …
The guy who singled with one on and one out down a run in the eighth inning against the Reds on April 15.
The guy who tripled to lead off the ninth inning down a run against the Cubs on June 6.
The guy who singled to lead off the 10th inning of a tie game against the Phillies on July 14.
And so forth.
Davenport’s role was the setup man, not the star. He set up rallies on which the Giants hoped to cash in. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. Davenport’s moments like those three I mentioned were easily forgotten because the Giants didn’t win any of those games.
Davenport never played the role of late-game homer-hitting Superman and his late-season performance was blah (he hit .207 in September/October). But those plate appearance are still important. It’s essentially hidden value because our brains aren’t trained to process what Davenport did as highly important. We’re focused on the Mays, McCovey’s, and Cepeda’s. The guys who got the really big hits.
But Davenport finally had his moment.
On October 3, the Giants and Dodgers played one game to determine which team would win the NL pennant and go to the World Series (audio here). Davenport’s first high-leverage turn came in the sixth inning with men on first and second and nobody out the Giants leading 2-1. His bunt hit loaded the bases. Perhaps he should have been swinging away there, but what was done was done. Jose Pagan grounded into a force play and Juan Marichal hit into a double play. The Giants didn’t tack on.
They fell behind almost immediately on Tommy Davis’ two-run home run in the home sixth. Davis drove in 153 runs that season. In fact, his 1962 ranks fifth in Championship Win Probability Added. This was basically his all-timer moment, one that we’d still be writing about today if things had gone differently
The Dodgers extended that lead with another run in the seventh to make it 4-2. Davenport got another high-leverage chance in the eighth inning but hit into a double play. So much for that.
After the Dodgers stranded the bases loaded in the eighth, the Giants looked for another Bobby Thomson-like miracle in the ninth inning. It came, albeit in somewhat anti-climactic fashion. Mays’ produced the first run with a single off pitcher Ed Roebuck’s foot. Cepeda tied the game with a sacrifice fly. Then after a wild pitch and an intentional walk loaded the bases, Davenport came to bat.
I’d love to tell you that he hit a grand slam here and was carried off the field by Giants teammates, but this story doesn’t go that way. Davenport walked against Dodgers reliever Stan Williams (why Williams was in the game that determined the season is a whole other oddity that was in one of my childhood “Choose Your Own Adventure-Baseball Version” books).
The Giants added another run on an error and after three outs, my 16-year-old Giants-fan dad jumped up so high in his Bronx bedroom that he broke his bed, the Giants were headed to the Fall Classic with a 6-4 win.
That walk is worth 16.4% Championship Win Probability. That walk is basically why Davenport’s season ranks in the top 20. Such is how the numbers play out.
Thomson’s home run is the No. 1 Championship Win Probability play in Baseball-Reference’s database for the regular season. Davenport’s walk is No. 2. That makes sense given that the Giants went straight from the regular season to the World Series in both instances. You can’t go straight from the regular season to the World Series now so it’s likely impossible for Davenport to be dislodged.
If we look at it from the perspective of big moments that put a team into the World Series, plays like Francisco Cabrera’s walk-off hit in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS for the Braves against the Pirates and Rick Monday’s LCS-winning Blue Monday home run for the Dodgers against the Expos in game 5 of the 1981 NLCS surpass Davenport’s walk. And that’s fair. The way those situations played out puts them ahead of Davenport. But even moving down that list a bit he’s still in great company.
Sometimes baseball is unglamorous. Sometimes you’re a Cabrera or a Monday and you’re remembered forever. And sometimes you’re a Davenport and you need people to remind you of how kooky and wonderful your season was.
Davenport did what he had been doing all season long. He came through.
Sometimes you come through with a hit in the eighth inning to keep a rally going. Sometimes you come through by following manager’s orders to take pitches in the ninth inning with the season on the line (Alvin Dark gave Davenport a red light four times in five pitches).
It’s pretty cool that Davenport finally got rewarded for his coming through in important moments even if it took almost the entire season for that moment to come.