There are many beautiful aspects to the sport of baseball. Watching rookies. Long dingers. The fact that it’s not football.
As I’ve chronicled many times, my favorite part of the game is its willingness to let the underdog win. Year in and year out, a team that was supposed to be bad sneaks into the playoffs against a group of Goliaths and we’ve seen numerous occasions of scrappy teams winning the World Series.
That extends past the team level, too. On any given day, you can see any given player play the role of MVP for his team and any real life MVP play the role of goat. Small samples don’t tell an accurate long term story, but it does tell a story and sometimes that story is an absolute page turner. It’s how Scooter Gennett hit four home runs in a game last year, it’s how a fan falls in love with a largely boring player, and it’s always fun.
The A’s had a lot of positive stories in 2017, and over the course of the long 162 game season, there were numerous sparkling offensive performances. The best? Was it Matt Olson and his dinger happy ways? A Khris Davis offensive explosion? Jed Lowried after a long night of sweet dreams?
Sure wasn’t. It was, I swear to you, Rajai Davis. Arguably the worst offensive player on the A’s last year (if you consider playing time and output) had the best performance in a single game last year.
Deciding “best” is always a struggle in baseball - look at any MVP race or Hall of Fame vote and know that no one will ever agree on who the top player is.
The ambiguity extends to single games too, and there were plenty of fantastic performances by hitters last season. For the sake of simplicity and cause I’m the dude behind the keyboard at this very moment, we’re going to go to stick with one stat to determine the best single game performance last season: Win Probability Added (WPA).
Here’s Baseball-Reference’s definition:
Sum of the differences in win expectancies for each play the player is credited with. Can be for a play, game, season, or career. This is denoted in wins and is of a similar scale to other wins-based statistics. It is highly dependent on the context in which a player played. Elite relievers (due to their high stress innings) may have as many WPA as starters which does not occur for stats like pitching linear weights. Note that it is relative to average, so a 0 WPA player is an average player.
As mentioned above, WPA is highly dependent on context. Ignore context and you can find a better performance, maybe Chad Pinder going 3-3 with two home runs as spring turned to summer.
But context matters to the story, so we’re going with context.
There’s no better night to put on a show than fireworks night, a series of randomly timed promotional games that draw a playoff-ish crowd.
This particular game took place on July 29th, just two games before the deadline. As an aside, I think it’d be best if the A’s stopped with the promotional nights in the days ahead of the trade deadline. Granted, fireworks are not specific to any given player but ...yeah.
The A’s opponent on that fine summer night was the Minnesota Twins who came into the night with a 50-52 record. They were in the process of selling after buying, giving up on a Cinderella season prior to having a Cinderella finish to a Cinderella season. This sport is awesome and stupid.
As you might guess, the A’s won the game in which their offensive player put up the highest WPA on the season. That win caused the Twins to go into sell mode, trading Jamie Garcia (after six days as a Twin) and Brandon Kintzler over the next few days. Somehow, someway things worked out for the Twins and in a way, you can thank Rajai Davis for their playoff berth. He butterfly affected the team into a strange playoff run.
At bat #1
In an 0-2 count against lefty Aldaberto Mejia, Rajai ripped a double over the leftfielder’s head for a leadoff double. He’d come around to score on a Ryon Healy double, giving the A’s a 1-0 first inning lead.
Total WPA: 6%
At bat #2
With two outs and runners on first and second, Davis did a Davis thing, legging out an infield single to a diving Joe Mauer at first. That hit would load the bases but the A’s, being first half of the year A’s, would squander that opportunity meekly. That second inning would end with the A’s down 2-1.
Total WPA: 9%
At bat #3
In the fourth inning, Davis singled to left to put runners on first and second. The A’s would yet again go down meekly, keeping the score at 2-1 Twins and setting the stage for Davis’s fourth at bat...
Total WPA: 12%
At bat #4
The fourth at bat! A groundout. A’s down 4-2 in the sixth.
Total WPA: 10%
The story of Davis’s game can’t be told without knowing the rest of the story, which you can read told flawlessly here.
The TLDR is that the A’s trailed for much of the game even with Rajai barely capable of making an out. Behind a Miguel Sano home run and a Zack Granite two run single, the Twins held a lead throughout the game. A Matt Champan home run brought it down to a single run lead in the eighth, the Twins up 4-3.
Going into the ninth, the A’s win probability stood at just 20%. That number would jump to 34% after an Adam Rosales walk, then up strode Rajai.
The final statline
In his game of the year, Davis went 4-5 with a double and the walkoff dinger. That was good for a whopping .768 WPA, giving Bob Melvin his 1000th win.