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Trent Grisham and the history of the muff

Most of them are actually quite misunderstood.

MLB: NL Wild Card-Milwaukee Brewers at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

While recency bias would like to convince us—in all respects, not just baseball—that we are living in the most extraordinary times, in fact most of the memorable postseason moments were never viewed by a person living today. If one were to take the 50,000-foot view of the entire history of the postseason, the best game is not the 2016 World Series Game 7 or the 2014 AL Wild Card Game, it is likely Game Eight of the 1912 World Series.

This too featured historic franchises and match-ups, between the Red Sox and the Giants’ John McGraw and Christy Mathewson, just a few short years before his war-torn decline. The lead-up to this final, epic game was a Game Two that was called for darkness, and a Game Seven delayed because of fan demonstrations about seats being resold to new fans (the complaints about ownership have rarely changed).

The series ended on a blunder by Fred Snodgrass, who allowed the leadoff hitter Clyde Engle to advance to second, which set up a small two-run rally to win the game and the series.

Ultimately Snodgrass was only remembered for that play despite his competent career, and his obituary confirmed his legacy: “Fred Snodgrass, 86, Dead Ball Player Muffed 1912 Fly.” Yet when you look at the data, it’s a largely misunderstood affair. Mathewson got a flyout on the next at-bat, and then walked a batter and allowed the critical, .510 WPA single to Tris Speaker who tied the game, leading to an intentional walk and sac fly winner. A lot of events happened after a muffed ball that, in reality, cost them .240 WPA; both Speaker’s single and an Olaf Henriksen double in the seventh were more valuable.

That brings us to this year’s NL Wild Card game, a far cry from 1912 and its idiosyncrasies. With the Brewers up by two runs in the eighth, Josh Hader made it to two outs in the inning, but loaded the bases in the process via a hit-by-pitch, single, and walk, bringing up Juan Soto. The result was history, as right-fielder Trent Grisham literally muffed Soto’s supposed single, which allowed Soto to advance to second (before being thrown out in between) and it cleared the bases. The play had a WPA of .580.

In fact, I was quite surprised that this ranks as the most costly, at least by WPA, playoff muff of all time. I grabbed what I consider to be the biggest defensive muffs in playoff history:

  • Bill Buckner’s muff in Game Six of the 1986 World Series
  • Snodgrass’ muff
  • Mickey Owen’s dropped third strike in Game Four of the 1941 World Series
  • Leon Durham’s Buckner-esque play in Game Five of the 1984 NLCS
  • Matt Holliday’s dropped ball in Game Two of the 2009 NLDS

Historical Muffs by WPA

Incident Date WPA
Incident Date WPA
Trent Grisham 10/1/2019 -0.588
Bill Buckner 10/25/86 -0.4
Leon Durham 10/7/1984 -0.2
Fred Snodgrass 10/16/1912 -0.16
Matt Holliday 10/8/2009 -0.09
Mickey Owen 10/5/1941 -0.06

Buckner’s missed ball, for one, was not even the worst play of the game or even the inning, as a wild pitch in the same at-bat had a .410 WPA, .01 higher than Buckner. Durham’s error was not the most valuable play, either, as Tony Gwynn still had to double after the mistake for it to be capitalized on. As was the same with Owens, who dropped a ball that led to further catastrophe.

Which is why despite the caveats, which I’ll get to, this is still a more devastating muff for one, key reason: it did not lead to anything else. Buckner, in all fairness, did not create a chain of events; the game ended there. Snodgrass required further collapse, as did every other one shown. The one key caveat is that Hader had to collapse before the play happened, and we don’t know exactly what would have happened had he made the play. It’s very possible that Hader just would have received the blame, not particularly unfairly.

The fact is that, dear readers, the muff was in our hearts all along. It serves the purpose as not only a scapegoat—that’s for the spiteful—but also as a marker for an emotional inflection point. We as viewers can point to that as being the moment at which things turned south, even if it merely precipitated a series of slightly unrelated events. Grisham made a bad muff—there’s really no denying it or getting around it. Yet it shouldn’t define anything about him or his career, as cliched but true “it’s a team sport” really is.