Baseball fans today are spoiled. If an amazing catch is made in Oakland, fans in Tallahassee can see the highlight mere seconds later on Twitter. Not only can they see the highlight, they can get details on how fast the fielder was running on the play, the percent chance the player had of making the play, and the efficiency of the route the fielder took to get to the ball. Today’s fans get all of this basically instantaneously.
Imagine if this type of information had been available throughout baseball history. That’s basically the premise of this article. Baseball history is stacked to the gills with incredible and jaw-dropping plays in the field, at the plate, and on the basepaths. What if Statcast could have told us the catch probability on Jim Edmonds’ incredible diving-backwards catch? Or how about the exit velocity of Kirk Gibson’s 1988 World Series Game 1 walkoff homer? Baseball history is so deep and vast that neither of those plays even made the cut for this subjective top five of what are the five best moments in baseball history to have hypothetical Statcast breakdowns.
Here are some quick honorable mentions before the top five: Ichiro’s absolute cannon of a throw to third base to nab Terrence Long; Derek Jeter’s “Flip” (As well as his probably-unnecessary dive into the third-base stands. Was it unnecessary? Tell us, Statcast!); the top speed of the 1970s bros who made the trip around the bases with Hank Aaron after his record-breaking home run no. 715; the spin rate of the pitch that left Randy Johnson’s hand before exploding a bird on its way to home plate; the total weight (in metric tons) of tears shed at Yankee Stadium during Lou Gehrig’s Farewell Speech.
On to the real ones:
5) Enos Slaughter’s Mad Dash
Legacy: After reaching on a leadoff single, Slaughter was still sitting on first base with two outs when teammate Harry Walker hit a liner into the left-center gap. It was a bit deeper than a typical single but certainly not the type of hit on which a runner typically scores all the way from first base. That’s what makes Slaughter’s dash so mad, though. He was running on the pitch, and as he has said, he wanted to put the pressure on the defense. It turned out just the way he and Cardinal fans were hoping, as he slid into home safely, scoring what ended up being the deciding run in the World Series, a moment that is now memorialized by a statue outside Busch Stadium.
Statcast goodies: What was Slaughter’s peak speed? How efficient was he when rounding those bases? Was Red Sox shortstop Johnny Pesky’s throw a little softer and a little less accurate than what the top cutoff man could have gunned home?
4) Mickey Mantle’s entire career
The scene: May 22, 1963 at Yankee Stadium; June 11, 1953 at Briggs Stadium in Detroit; September 10, 1960 at Tiger Stadium; April 17, 1953 at Griffith Stadium in Washington; and many, many more.
Legacy: The man for whom the term tape-measure home run was coined has a home run legacy steeped in lore. Tales of his home runs read like fables passed down from the time of the Greek gods. On themick.com, his longest home run is listed at 734 feet… And the site isn’t even making a joke. In fact, they use some fancy (read: not fancy) math to prove how they got that total of 734 feet, since the home run in question hit the facade in right field in Yankee Stadium.
While there is little to suggest that Statcast would have measured Mantle’s longest home run at 734 feet, it would be awesome to get some answers. There are seemingly unlimited debates over the length of some of Mantle’s biggest blasts, and while useless baseball debates was my major in college, it would be really cool to know just how far baseball’s most prodigious power hitter actually hit some of his home runs.
Statcast goodies: In addition to getting some true distances, fans would also be able to see the majestic arc of these towering drives better than ever thanks to the “chem trail” feature Statcast has for their home run highlights.
3) Willie McCovey’s World Series lineout
Legacy: One of the most underrated moments in baseball history, Dave Studeman famously called this play the “Most Critical At Bat of All Time” for the Hardball Times in 2012. McCovey had the fate of the World Series in his (extremely serviceable) hands, and he did his best to deliver the win to the Giants. McCovey ripped a liner, but it was right at Yankee second baseman Bobby Richardson who corralled the ball and won the World Series for the Yankees. The moment was immortalized by Charlie Brown in a famous Peanuts strip, and weighed heavy on McCovey throughout his Hall of Fame career.
Statcast goodies: This moment would be perfect for Statcast on a couple levels. First off, fans would be able to see just how hard McCovey hit the ball. Was it 100+ mph? Was it the launch angle that did him in? (Would three feet higher truly have been enough to cheer up Charlie Brown?) Or maybe it was some great defensive positioning from Richardson? How often does a ball hit that hard in that spot sneak through for a hit? McCovey might be able to finally get some peace if these questions were answered.
2) Dewayne Wise saves Mark Buehrle’s perfect game
The scene: Mark Buehrle sits just three outs away from the 18th perfect game in MLB history as Gabe Kapler connects on a rope towards the left-centerfield wall.
Legacy: The top play on this list is deservedly thought of as the most famous defensive play of all time. I have a hot take, however: no play in MLB history has combined difficulty and historical importance better than the play made by Dewayne Wise to save Buehrle’s perfect game (remember, this was before baseball got crazy and had six perfect games over the span of four seasons).
Simply watch the ground he covers in the video above. He is at a full sprint by the time he gets to the wall, he times his jump perfectly, and then to top it all off, he begins to bobble the ball on the way back down to earth but is able to hold on. Something tells me that it would have set a record (or darn near close to it) for lowest catch probability to be turned into an out. The route efficiency was through the roof. Wise (an extremely speedy player) was basically running as fast as he could to the wall. He not only made the play at the fence, he went over the wall to take the baseball back. It’s all so amazing. We simply need the Statcast data for this bad boy.
Statcast goodies: Just how hot is the hot take in the previous paragraph?
1) Willie Mays’ The Catch
The scene: Game One of the 1954 World Series between the New York Giants and the Cleveland Professional Baseball Team. The score is tied 2-2 in the top of the eighth inning. Vic Wertz just smashed a ball towards the interminably-deep centerfield wall at the Polo Grounds.
Legacy: This was the catch that prompted this list as a whole. It is almost certainly the most famous defensive play in MLB history, and with good reason. As noted above, it came at an extremely important moment. It combined extreme difficulty and impressive flair. To top it all off, it was made by one of the five best players in MLB history. The Giants went on the win the game, as well as the World Series, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Statcast goodies: We know some of the details on the catch, it was made over 400 feet away from home plate, but there are so many more questions to be answered. Was this play actually made a bit more aesthetically pleasing by a poor route? How was Mays’ first step? Was that the best throw made off of a back foot in MLB history? What was the launch angle of Mays’ hat off his head on the turn-and-throw? These are the questions we need answered.
As always, baseball (and parsing its history) is best enjoyed when in the form of a debate, so flood the comments with the plays which were (egregiously!) left off.
Jim Turvey is a new face to Beyond the Box Score. He also writes for DRays Bay, Call to the Pen, RotoBaller, and Insider Baseball. You can follow him on Twitter @FantasyBaseTurv.