On a recent episode of Effectively Wild, ESPN’s Sam Miller reintroduced the game ball as something that could be awarded to big league ball players. The game ball hasn’t made the leap from little league where it’s given to the player who (A) helped their team win the most that day and (B) hadn’t yet received a game ball that season. For major leaguers, we have an easy way of determining who helped the win the most, and that’s win probability added. The person with the most win probability added in a game gets the ball that day. With the help of Baseball Reference’s Play Index, I went and found which hitter got the ball for all 77 of their wins. I didn’t include pitchers because they have more opportunities to rack up WPA, and because it’s outside of my querying skills.
The leader in game balls might surprise you because it wasn’t Kevin Pillar or Mike Yastrzemski. No, it was the other guy that hit 20 homers. Evan Longoria led the Giants with 11 game balls while Pillar and Pablo Sandoval tied for second at nine. Altogether, there were 19 players who earned a game ball this season from Longoria all the way down to Jaylin Davis. Here’s the full list.
Longoria’s leading the team shouldn’t be all that shocking really. He led the Giants hitters in WPA added by a nearly a full win. Only Donovan Solano at 1.44 came close to Longoria at 2.33. By FanGraphs’ clutch metric, which measures a player’s performance in high leverage situations against his normal contributions, Longoria blew the rest of the Giants away. On the season, Longoria was a league average hitter, but he got a fair share of his hits when the game was on the line. In high leverage moments, Longoria hit like Mike Trout in a down year. He slashed .372/.481/.558 for a 173 wRC+. He also came up with at least one huge hit in a game the Giants were going to lose anyway. If it weren’t for Longoria, German Márquez might have no-hit the Giants back in April.
That high leverage split is only looking at 54 plate appearances, so it’s not like this is predictive or indicative of Longoria’s clutch gene. It’s just that Longoria happened to hit like an MVP in big moments this year. “Clutch” probably doesn’t exist in any repeatable form. It makes sense that the pressures of a situation could cause a hitter to either crumble or ride a superhuman rush of adrenaline, but individuals will react differently moment to moment. Players are humans and even the most even-keeled among us are subject to changes in mood and mental fortitude.
Failure is inherent to the game as well. Even if a player gets spidey sense when it matters most, they’re going to fail over half the time because baseball is difficult. The inverse of that is also true, however. Even if a player turns in a nervous wreck when the fate of the rests in their hands, they can still come through with a well-placed ground ball or a looping liner hit just inches over a first baseman. There’s room for even struggling players to be a hero for a day.
Take Joe Panik for example. My sweet, summer child. Panik only got one game ball in a season that ended with him being designated for assignment, but he made that one count. Joe Panik had the best game by WPA for the Giants this season at 0.796. The next closest was Pablo Sandoval at 0.584. On May 21, Panik went 2-for-3 with two walks in an eventual 4-3 win over the Braves, and one of those hits was a walk-off two-run single against Luke Jackson. Jackson had been unhittable up until that point, but the Giants managed to stage a ninth-inning rally down by two runs.
When Panik stepped into the box, the Giants had just a 24 percent chance of winning the game. Because win expectancy only updates when a plate appearance ends and not in individual count states, the chances were likely much, much lower than that. Panik got down into a 0-2 hole and had to lay off a tough breaking ball that snapped below the knees. He had to foul off another, better slider and take two pitches to get the count full. Punching a grounder through the right side was one thing but battling through the at-bat was the real victory there.
The rest of the season didn’t work out, but for one glorious night, Panik was an unstoppable force. I may have forgotten about that game if I hadn’t had the idea to copy Sam Miller’s idea. The game ball is yet another reminder that any player who takes the field is 16 standard deviations better than the normal person is at baseball, and that on any given day, they can be a hero.