When Pablo Sandoval launched his third homer on Wednesday night, I selfishly rooted for the ball to hit the wall. I didn’t like seeing Reggie’s signature moment so easily matched. It used to be just Reggie and Babe and that properly placed the feat on hallowed ground. And fine, if they had to make room for someone, then living-legend Albert Pujols was the right guy. But in the instant Sandoval’s shot soared towards center field, I decided the guy named after a cartoon Panda wasn’t welcome.
As many decisions hastily reached and selfishly born, this one does not stand up to scrutiny. First of all, two of Sandoval’s homers were off Justin Verlander, the best pitcher in the game right now. Second of all, those first two homers occurred in a very tight game with an unreliable pitcher on the mound for the Giants. And he did it in his own home park – a notoriously hard place to dinger.
I remembered Pujols’ homers did not seem critical in their Game 3 blow out of the Rangers lat year. I know Reggie’s homers like I hit them myself, but I didn’t know much about Ruth’s.
Babe Ruth 1926 – Game 4
The Yankees were down two games to one against the Cardinals. The Redbirds threw a pitcher named Flint Rhem. Rhem is not a household name, but he pitched over 1700 innings in the big leagues, and in 1926 he led the National League in wins while posting an ERA of 3.21, 22% better than the league. It would be wrong to call him the ace of a staff that included two Hall of Famers (Jesse Haines and Pete Alexander), but he did have the best numbers and the most innings pitched that year.
The Babe did not have the advantage of hitting in a ballpark built to his specs for this game, but Sportsman’s Park was, by the standards of the day, one of the easiest places to hit homers. The Cardinals and Browns both played their home games there, and though the two teams didn’t have much else in common, their pitching staffs finished one-two in homers allowed in 1926 (and 3-4 in 1928).
In the top of the first, Babe Ruth hit a solo homer with two down to draw first blood. St. Louis countered with a run off of Waite Hoyt in the bottom of the first, so it was all tied-up again when Ruth batted with two down in the third. He hit another solo homer, giving the Yankees the lead for a second time.
The Yankees tacked on another run in the top of the fourth inning and the Cardinals put up three of their own in the bottom half. Babe Ruth walked in the decisive Yankee rally in the fifth, which left the score 7-4 in favor of New York. When he hit his third homer, it was a two run blast in the sixth off a relief pitcher named Hi Bell and it put the game out of reach, 9-4. The final score was 10-5.
Looking back over the game, Ruth gave the Yankees two early leads and sealed the victory. His homers accounted for only 40% of Yankee runs however. His cumulative WPA for the homers (hWPA) was 0.31, but then again, two Yankee doubles in the fourth had bigger impacts on the result (by WPA) than any of the homers.
The Yankees needed this game to even the series. They ended up losing in seven games, but this outcome was vital to the extension of the season. Ruth added two walks to his three jacks, scored four and drove in four. His total WPA for the game was 0.35 and his third homer still had impact on the outcome, at 0.09 WPA, something none of the other guys can say.
Babe Ruth 1928 – Game 4
In a revenge series, the Yankees stood on the precipice of a sweep of the Cardinals in Game 4 in St Louis. The Yankees again turned to Waite Hoyt as the Cardinals pitched Bill Sherdel. Sherdel, like Rhem in 1926, was the best pitcher in the St. Louis rotation that year, leading the team in innings, wins and ERA. But he was one of four interchangeable parts and probably not at the top of the pecking order.
The Cardinals broke a scoreless tie in the third on a sac fly by Frankie Frisch. Ruth knotted the score one batter into the fourth with a solo homer. The Cardinals struck back with a run in the bottom half. Sherdel and Hoyt kept it there until the seventh. Ruth again homered to tie the score. This time Gehrig backed him up and took the lead for good.
It was 6-2 when Ruth took his final hack in the eighth and plopped another solo bonk to finish the Yankees scoring. A few outs and one meaningless Cardinal run later, the Yankees were World Champs, four games to none.
The Babe’s impact on this game was muted slightly because he hit into a double play in the first and grounded out with two on in the fifth. The hWPA was 0.33, higher than in 1926, but for overall WPA he landed at 0.24 since he helped kill two rallies as well. Gehrig’s homer which finally gave them the lead was the biggest play of the game, but Ruth homers occupied the next two places in line.
Of course this was Game 4 of a sweep, so there was more margin for error than during his previous three-pronged attack. But the fact that he clinched the Series is pretty cool too.
Reggie Jackson 1977 - Game 6
Moving to more familiar territory, there’s Reggie Jackson eliminating the Dodgers in 1977. Reggie did it in Yankee Stadium, making good use of the short right field porch for his first two homers. He could have used the Grand Canyon for the third one.
Burt Hooton got the ball for Game 6 and tried to get the Dodgers to Game 7. Like the Cardinals above, these Dodgers featured a deep staff of which Hooton was just one of several good pitchers. He didn’t age as well as Don Sutton or Tommy John, but at the time, he was as good as any of them, leading the 1977 Dodgers in ERA. He pitched 59.7 Postseason innings and went 6-3 with a 3.17 ERA (3-3 against the Yankees from 1977-1981).
Reggie had hit a meaningless homer in the ninth inning of Game 5 in Los Angeles. The Dodgers routed the Yanks 10-4 to force Game 6 and they kept the pressure on when Steve Garvey tripled home two runs in the top of the first. Reggie led off the second inning with a four pitch walk and Chris Chambliss homered to tie the game.
The Dodgers scored again, so when Reggie batted in the fourth with Munson on first, the Yankees trailed 3-2. Reggie hit the first pitch on a line into the right field seats. The Yankees led 5-3 when Reggie faced Elias Sosa in the fifth. Reggie again leaped on the first pitch he saw and ripped it into the stands in right and the Yankees took a 7-3 lead. It was probably a double in most other parks.
For his final at bat of the night, Reggie must have been very happy to see knuckle-baller Charlie Hough on the hill. Hough had pitched a scoreless seventh but Reggie was fortunate they left Hough in to face him. Reggie killed knuckle-ballers. Reggie sent the first pitch into orbit and if you squint at the replay you might see the scorch marks from re-entry as the ball settles way back into the black seats in center.
Mike Torrez gave the Dodgers one more run but he completed the game and the Yankees won 8-4. Reggie had homered on four consectutive swings if you go back to Game 5. His first homer, which gave the Yankees the lead, was the biggest play of the game. He amassed 0.35 hWPA and, overall, 0.39 WPA thanks to his walk, four runs scored and five RBI. His three homers accounted for five of eight total runs, the highest percentage on this list. The margin of victory was also the slimmest, along with Game 4 of 1928.
The Yankees won the Series and prevented a do-or-die Game 7 with a Dodger team that was unlikely to go quietly. It was a happy day at the zoo.
Albert Pujols 2011 - Game 3
The 2011 World Series will go down as one of the most dramatic ever, and very little of that memory will be devoted to Albert’s three homers. The Cardinals and the Rangers had split the first two games and 14 (!) runs were already on the board at the hitter’s paradise in Arlington when Pujols hit a three-run shot off of flame throwing reliever Alexi Ogando in the sixth. This was a critical blow in the game as it turned a two-run lead into a five run bulge and the Cardinals were not threatened again.
Pujols added a two-run shot in the seventh (off Mike Gonzalez) and a solo shot in the ninth (off Darren Oliver). The sum total of the WPA for those two homers was 0.02 as the outcome was pretty much decided when he hit his first bomb. The hWPA is the lowest of all the three-homer games, clocking in at 0.17. Pujols had himself a very good game overall, going 5-6 with two lead-off, rally-starting singles, but there were so many runs scored in the 16-7 drubbing, that his contribution to the victory was only 0.23 in terms of WPA.
Hey, all World Series wins are huge wins, but being tied at 1-1, this game did not have the pressure of an elimination game nor a clincher. The loser would not love his fate, but neither would he be on the brink of disaster. Fun to watch and an amazing performance, but the context puts Albert’s day at the bottom of this list.
Pablo Sandoval 2012 – Game 1
As you know, Pablo Sandoval cracked three homers on Wednesday night. McCarver said that AT&T Park had yielded the fewest homers in baseball this season. This is in a league which contains San Diego’s cavernous PetCo.
Sandoval caught up to a neck-high Justin Verlander heater to give the Giants a 1-0 lead in the first inning. It was the only home run Justin Verlander allowed on an 0-2 all season. With a 2-0 lead and two-outs in the fourth, Sandoval reached down and away and redirected a low fastball into the left field seats. It didn’t look like much off the bat, but it certainly did the trick. The two-run homer made the score 4-0 for the Giants.
Verlander missed by a lot on the high heater in the first. He got the elevation, but instead of forcing Sandoval to reach to the outside corner, he threw it right over the plate. This second homer was off a nastier pitch: down, hard and slicing away from the left handed batter.
The Tigers were trailing 5-0 and pinch hit for Verlander in the fifth. So Al Alberquerque got to give up the Panda’s third dong. He threw a decent breaking ball but Sandoval is gobbling up nasty pitches right now, so don’t bother with decent. His homer made the score 6-0. The two teams traded runs and the game ended 8-3.
Sandoval’s homers gave the Giants 0.26 hWPA, but his single in the seventh didn’t move the needle, so his total for the game was also 0.26. Obviously, that number does not take into account the fact that Barry Zito was facing the best pitcher in baseball and nobody had given the Giants much chance of winning this game.
If you rank the homers by hWPA, it goes Reggie, Ruth (28), Ruth (26), Sandoval and Pujols. If you consider the pitcher faced, the score of the series, park effects and anything else you want to throw in there (Bronx Zoo stuff, the spectre of Pujols leaving St. Louis etc), it gets cloudier. I think we can safely put Pujols at the bottom and then work from there.
Reggie’s homers depended on the cozy dimensions of right field in Yankee Stadium. Babe Ruth may have had similar help in Sportsman’s Park. I like that Ruth gave the Yanks two different leads in 1926 and two different ties in 1928. I like that Sandoval abused Verlander. I can’t forget the fact that the Yankees lost the 1926 Series. I also know that the first game of a Series is probably the least important – maybe even less important than Game 4 of a sweep given the scars we now wear from 2004.
The only real knock against Reggie’s game is that one of the homers was a true Yankee-Stadium Special. He did it in a clincher deep in the Series with a charging opponent. He turned a deficit into a lead and then he turned a narrow lead into a safe one. And I’ll admit bias; it’s the foundation stone for my interest in baseball. Reggie’s got the top spot for me and I’ll call it a tie between Sandoval and the two Ruths.
So make room for the Panda, he deserves to roll around and hock bamboo chunks on this hallowed ground.