With the MLB postseason in full swing, the Blue Jays find themselves on the outside looking in for the first time since 2014. While playoff baseball in Toronto is dearly and sorely missed, watching the postseason without a vesting interest in the outcome allows for rooting for close games rather than a blowout for your favourite team. Baseball is at its best when every pitch has significance, when the outcome of the game is in question at all times and the opportunity to be the hero is presented to everyone on all the remaining squads.
These qualifiers exist perpetually in October, where reputations are earned or tarnished based on one month (at most) of a seven-month slate of games. In the regular season, however, these games are much more sparse. A team may find their night ending in a 6-5 walk-off win, just to be blown out 12-1 the next day. While we can tell that these games have different levels of excitement inherent within them, it’s a difficult concept to quantify.
This is especially true when we consider that people have different qualifiers for what makes an “exciting” baseball game. While most neutral observers of a game can agree that close games are more fun to watch than blowouts, the crowd is more divided when it comes to preferring high-scoring games as opposed to pitcher’s duels. Because of the subjectivity associated with what people would rather see in games, no measure of excitement will ever be truly objective.
With that said, it still would be nice to point to a definitive measurement of excitement in baseball. So today, we’re going to try and establish some of the more fun games of the year. While everyone will (and should) have their own favourite games for totally different reasons, this exercise will try and prove which games were the most situationally exciting with cold, hard data.
The key word there is situationally. A very large part of the fun and excitement that comes with baseball is the plays and storylines involved. While systems such as Statcast may be able to provide us with data points such as the number of highlight plays in a game, it would be difficult to extract this data to compare levels of excitement. As for situational excitement, data in the form of win probabilities is much easier to access and can be fairly easily manipulated once collected to help us measure the excitement found in baseball on a game-to-game basis.
To help measure some of the different elements of baseball excitement, we’re going to look at two different methods. The first method we will use has been explored in other sports such as basketball and football – the Excitement Index (EI). The EI is calculated by summing the absolute values of all of the win probability changes throughout the game. By doing this, we are able to see how often each team’s odds of winning change, so that games where there is a push and pull in the probabilities grade out higher.
The second method that we will look at is called the Offensive Excitement Factor (OEF). For this method, we will take the total runs scored by both teams in a game and multiply it by the average Leverage Index. For those unfamiliar, the Leverage Index (LI) is a measure of how high the stakes are at any point in a game, where events that could change the complexion of a game having a high LI and events that won’t likely change the outcome having a low LI. By using the LI as a multiplier, this method rewards games which were tense throughout while also taking into account the amount of total runs scored in the game.
Both of these methods have their advantages and disadvantages. The Excitement Index is probably the most well-rounded, as it is literally able to capture the ups and downs of a tightly contested ballgame. However, one major fault of the Index is its tendency to rate extra inning games a tad highly. While extra innings games can be good, a 19-inning contest with no runs scored from innings 10-18 would not likely come to mind as the second most exciting game of the year as this index would suggest.
The Offensive Excitement Factor tries to combat this, as it rewards barn burners over low-scoring pitchers’ duels. It likely wouldn’t be able to stand on its own as a catch-all measure of exciting games, however, as it underrates low-scoring games more than it probably should. But when using this method in combination with the Excitement Index, we seem to be able to find some sort of balance between roller-coaster baseball coupled with high-scoring games.
The goal of this is to boil the “excitement” in a game down to one number. To do this, I’ve calculated the EI and OEF of every Blue Jays game this season. Once this was done, I calculated the z-scores for each game and added them together, scaling the score up so that an average game has a score of 5. The result is a definitive (or not, depending on your preference) measure of every Jays game’s excitement level in 2017.
To verify that the games at the top of the list were, in fact, actually exciting, let’s go through them individually. The nature of these games is that the result was up in the air until the end. And since it would be no fun to recap some of the ones that got away for Toronto this year, we are going to recap the five most exciting Blue Jays wins of the season.
5. July 27 – Blue Jays vs. Athletics, W 8-4, Game Score 8.3
Coming off of a dramatic 9th inning walk-off win the previous night, Marcus Stroman and the Blue Jays stumbled out of the gate early on this Thursday afternoon, giving up three runs in the 1st. After Josh Donaldson trimmed the lead with one of his oft-occurring first-inning home runs, things were fairly quiet until the 5th. Tensions boiled over in the inning, as John Gibbons, Russell Martin, and Stroman found themselves tossed from the game within a matter of minutes by (so-called) umpire Will Little. This seemed to spark the Jays, as Wednesday night’s hero Kendrys Morales proceeded to deliver a solo shot in the bottom half of the 5th, followed by a game tying RBI single to center by Justin Smoak in the 6th.
Nonetheless, Toronto once again found themselves trailing in the 9th before, once again, Kendrys Morales sent another solo shot to center to give him three home runs in five plate appearances, sending the game to extra innings. After a clean inning from Roberto Osuna, former Blue Jay Liam Hendriks not only walked the bases loaded, but came a pitch away from a Shrimp before serving up a much grander ending to Steve Pearce.
4. June 19 – Blue Jays @ Rangers, W 7-6, Game Score 8.8
Entering Globe Life Park in Arlington for the first time since taking two games from the Rangers in the 2016 playoffs, Marco Estrada looked to bring the Blue Jays within one game of .500 and bounce back from a rough three start stretch in which he gave up 17 runs in 12.2 innings. The teams traded punches from the get go, with Nomar Mazara and Justin Smoak belting matching solo shots in the 1st. After Jose Bautista muscled his 12th home run of the season in the 2nd, Steve Pearce roped a double to left to clear the since-loaded bases and give the Jays an early 5-1 lead. This seemingly comfortable lead would soon slip away, as Estrada exited the game in the 4th inning with the Blue Jays down 6-5, his slump lasting another start.
For all the early scoring, the bullpens kept the game under control afterwards. The Blue Jays threatened in the 6th with the bases loaded and one out, but squandered the opportunity after pop outs from Pearce and Ryan Goins. Matt Bush entered the game in the 9th to finish off the Blue Jays and complete the strong work by the Rangers bullpen, but instead gave up hits to Goins, Donaldson, and Morales to flip the game in the Blue Jays’ favour. Roberto Osuna had no such troubles in the bottom half of the inning, earning the Blue Jays the victory and securing the win for journeyman reliever Jeff Beliveau.
3. May 10 – Blue Jays vs. Indians, W 8-7, Game Score 8.8
Francisco Liriano toed the hill against Danny Salazar in this matchup as the Blue Jays looked to distance themselves from their brutal start with a series victory against the Indians. Neither starter managed find their footing in this one, with Jason Kipnis doubling home a pair of runs before Liriano could record an out. The Blue Jays would counter with three runs of their own, culminating with a frozen rope of a home run from Bautista in the bottom half.
Liriano and Salazar continued to work with impressive synchronization, each pitching a scoreless second before being chased in the 3rd. By the time the dust had settled, the Indians found themselves with a 7-5 lead. Darwin Barney then opened the bottom half of the 4th with a double, before being cashed in courtesy of a two-run shot from Ezequiel Carrera. Once again, the bullpens managed to suppress the scoring after having their starters got knocked out early, and neither team managed to get a runner to third base for four and a half innings. This stretch ended in the 9th, with none other than “Mr. RISP” himself delivering a bases-loaded, walk-off hit:
2. April 25 – Blue Jays @ Cardinals, W 6-5, Game Score 10.2
While this game will (deservedly) be remembered for a couple of jaw-dropping plays, it was an incredibly exciting game within itself. The opening game of this interleague series began with the Cardinals taking a 1-0 lead on a Jedd Gyorko single to center. The Blue Jays took the lead in the 4th after errant throw off of the head of Ezequiel Carrera and an RBI groundout from Morales, which was quickly erased in the bottom half with an RBI single from Yadier Molina. The score stayed even until, well, this happened:
The Jays would push their lead to 4-2 after (a clearly still flabbergasted) Gyorko committed an error on the next play, allowing Kevin Pillar to score. Jose Martinez would answer for the Cardinals in the bottom half, knocking an opposite-field two run home run to tie the game. The familiar bespectacled face of Brett Cecil made his first appearance against the Blue Jays in the 9th and Jose Bautista greeted him rather rudely by hitting a go-ahead RBI single to left. Continuing to match the Jays tit for tat, Dexter Fowler sent the game to extra innings in the bottom half with an RBI single. Running out of options in the 11th, John Gibbons turned to an unconventional pinch hitter – setting up for an astonishing at-bat for Marcus Stroman.
Stroman would score on an error by Aledmys Diaz, and Ryan Tepera finished off the second-most exciting Blue Jays win of 2017. You could forgive Blue Jays fans for being a little unimpressed, however, considering that the most exciting win came a mere four days prior.
1. April 21 – Blue Jays @ Angels, W 8-7, Game Score 12.4
The most exciting win (and game) of the year for Toronto started out in Anaheim with two scoreless innings each from Alex Meyer and Mat Latos. Just as expected.
The Blue Jays got to Meyer in the 3rd, as a combination of walks, sacrifices, and wild pitches manufactured a 2-0 lead. This was swiftly wiped out in the bottom half of the inning, as Albert Pujols cleared the bases with a three-run double down the line to give the Angels a one-run lead. In the 5th, Mike Trout extended the lead to 4-2 with his fifth home run of the season. The Jays made it 4-3 on a fielder’s choice in the bottom half, before things locked down for a couple innings on the behalf of Danny Barnes and Yusmeiro Petit. In the 8th, Justin Smoak gave the Blue Jays the lead with a two-run double, only to have it taken away by a Jefry Marte double in the bottom half.
The game proceeded into extra innings, at which point both teams seemed like they had forgotten how to score. Both sides threatened with runners on first and second in the 10th, then proceeded to put up little fight through the 12th. Jesse Chavez (who later started the last game of the four game series) quickly retired the first two Blue Jays hitters in the 13th, setting up for what was looking like another scoreless inning. Instead, two singles later, a Blue Jays icon was set up perfectly for his first home run of the season:
Aaron Loup was spotted a three-run lead for the bottom half, three runs that ended up being very desperately needed. Two errors, a passed ball, and a walk later, and Joe Biagini now found himself on the mound with the bases loaded and none out. After striking out Cliff Pennington, a Cole Kalhoun single and Mike Trout hit-by-pitch brought the game within one run with only one out and the bases still loaded. Luckily, Biagini had some magic saved up, strucking out Albert Pujols before getting CJ Cron to fly out to finish of the thriller.
So all told, the five most exciting Blue Jays wins of the year included four one-run games, two walk-off wins, and five games decided in the last inning of play. While this is likely not a perfect process for determining how exciting games can be, it is a start, one that may be able to be built on when we have more data from smarter minds than mine.
For all of the heartbreak and disappointment the 2017 Blue Jays faced, what this exercise has shown is that moments of euphoria still existed. The Steve Pearce grand slam(s), the Ryan Goins walk-off, the Marcus Stroman double (and later home run), and the Coghlan Leap all served as stand-out joyful moments in a season that seemed lost nearly from the outset. At its core, baseball presents itself as a distraction from the stressors of everyday life. And when the doom and gloom of losing season strikes, it somehow still manages to find a way to distract us from itself.
Because at the end of the day, we can always count on a two-out, three-run home run from Jose Bautista to take our mind off things for a while.
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