Bobby Murcer – WPA Hero

Searching for and creating all-time Yankee lists is one of the things I like to do in my spare time. As such, it seems that Baseball-reference.com’s Play Index was personally made just for me. I do not consider paying for that service an inconvenience. I consider it one of life’s necessary expenses. This time, I was trying to get a sense of which Yankee player has had the biggest hits. I decided to use WPA (Win Probability Added). I will try to define that statistic in a moment. But for the sake of getting this article off the ground, suffice it to say for now that WPA measures how a plate appearance affects the outcome of a game. I found fifteen games where the WPA score for a game was over .800 (roughly 80% of a win). Bobby Murcer had five of them. No other Yankee has ever had more than two such games.

alg_murcer-undatedTom Tango is mostly responsible for the win expectancy and game leverage type statistics. From his work comes WPA. Baseball-reference.com defines the statistic: “Given average teams, this is the change in probability caused by this batter during the game A change of +/- 1 would indicate one win added or lost.” It appears that the site has WPA going back in its statistics to 1945. Thus, there would be no Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig in there. But there would be Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle (and others). And yet Bobby Murcer has five of the top fifteen WPA games in Yankees history going back to 1945. Even if you lower the standards to a .700 WPA, Bobby Murcer still has the most of those games with six. Alex Rodriguez and Mickey Mantle had four each. All in all, I found 42 such games and Murcer accounted for 14.3% of them.

Lower the standard down again to .600 and Murcer still leads with nine. Mantle and A-Rod had seven each of the total of 75 instances. Without mentioning the dreaded word, “clutch,” was Bobby Murcer the most prolific Yankee of the last 68 years of getting the big hit at the biggest moment of a game? That appears to be the case.

Oh, and just in case you are asking, the highest single WPA games recorded for a Yankee batter starts with Alex Rodriguez with a score of 0.936 on April 7, 2007. That is followed by Jorge Posada with a 0.930 game on May 16, 2006. Next comes Willie Randalph (Sept. 17, 1980), Jason Giambi (June 5, 2008) and Thurman Munson (August 16, 1974). It is not until eighth place do you find Murcer. But then between eight and fifteen, you find him five times.

Here is an account of those five games:

August 5, 1969 – This was Bobby Murcer’s first full year after two years of military service. He was an emerging player, but not yet a star and would not be until 1971. And in this game, he did not start because the California Angels on this Tuesday night game at Yankee Stadium started Rudy May, a tough left-hander. Bill Robinson got the start in right and Ron Woods started in center. May held the Yankees in check for six and a third innings and was replaced by Ken Tatum in the seventh. Murcer pinch hit for Robinson in the seventh but flied out to left. Mel Stottlemyre pitched eight strong innings allowing one earned run and an unearned run on a Joe Pepitone error. Lindy McDaniel pitched a scoreless top of the ninth and the Yankees headed into the bottom of the ninth, down, 2-0.

Tatum had been untouched by the Yankees for an inning and two-thirds but began the ninth inning by walking Ron Woods. It did not look like the walk would matter because Roy White then flew out to center and Joe Pepitone grounded weakly to first. But then Tatum threw his second walk of he inning to Frank Fernandez, the Yankees’ catcher. That brought Bobby Murcer to the plate and Angels’ manager, Lefty Phillips, wanted a left-handed thrower for Murcer, so he brought in Clyde Wright. Wright was already 1-6 on the season, though he became a starter in 1970 and won 22 games. But Wright only needed to get Murcer to end the game. He did not. Murcer nailed Wright’s offering for a three-run homer to win the game.  WPA – 0.839.

June 24, 1970 – This was the second game of a Wednesday double-header at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees had already lost the first game, 7-2 to Jack McDowell and the Indians. Bobby Murcer did hit a solo homer in his last at bat of the game against McDowell. The second game featured Stan Bahnson against the Indians’ Mike Paul. Paul was a left-hander who pitched seven nondescript years in the majors. Murcer, batting second, hit a solo homer in the bottom of the first to give the Yankees a 1-0 lead. But the Yankees gave the run back in the top of the second on an error by Jerry Kenney. The Indians scored another run to go up by a run.

Murcer changed that in the bottom of the fifth. After a Kenney ground-rule double, Murcer hit another homer to put the Yankees up, 3-2. It was not three in a row for the double-header though as he had been walked in the third inning.

Bahnson, who had pitched a beautiful game with only the one unearned run, must have tired in the eighth as he started the top of the eighth by allowing a single and then Graig Nettles hit a tw0-run homer to give the Indians the lead. Bahnson hung in there and finished the eighth without further damage.

The Indians brought in Fred Lasher to pitch to the Yankees in the eighth. Lasher got the first out, but then Bobby Murcer hit a solo shot to tie the game. It was Murcer’s third homer of the game and fourth on the day. The first two homers of the game gave the Yankees a lead and the last one tied the game. Danny Cater won the game later in the eighth with a single. WPA – 0.803

July 7, 1971 – Bobby Murcer became a star in 1971 and he was among the American League’s best players in 71 and 72. On this Wednesday in Tigers Stadium, it was the Yankees managed by Ralph Houk against the Tigers managed by Billy Martin.  The pitching match-up was Fritz Peterson against Mike Kilkenny. Kilkenny did not get through the first inning. After a deep fly caught in deep center off the bat of Horace Clarke, Kilkenny could not get anyone out. Thurman Munson singled, then Murcer doubled him home. After a walk and another single, Martin came and got Kilkenny. Dean Chance allowed two more runs but none of his own and the Yankees had a quick three-run lead.

Peterson gave up a solo homer to Bill Freehan and Dean Chance shut the door on the Yankees. Murcer singled and walked in his next two plate appearances, but the score held up at, 3-1, until the bottom of the seventh when after a lead-off walk, Peterson again served up a homer to Bill Freehan. This one tied the game and ended Peterson’s outing. Houk exchanged Peterson with Mike Kekich who were used to exchanging things and Kekich finished out the inning and ended up pitching five scoreless innings as the game went into extra innings.

In the top of the eleventh, the Tigers’ Bill Denehy got the first two outs in the inning. But then Horace Clarke singled and Thurman Munson walked. Bobby Murcer then hit his third double of the game to score both Munson and Clarke. Kekich made the new lead hold up and the Yankees won the game. WPA – 0.803

August 14, 1979 – The Yankees were still reeling from the death of their captain and Murcer’s good friend, Thurman Munson, in that fateful plane crash just twelve days earlier. Murcer, now just a part-time player in his second stint with the Yankees, had already honored Munson on August 4, 1979 by driving in all five runs in a 5-2 win. That 0.400+ WPA game was just a prelude to this game. The Yankees were hosting a Texas Rangers team that boasted several ex-Yankees. Mickey Rivers was playing center and Doc Medich and Sparky Lyle both pitched in this game for the Rangers. Luis Tiant started for the Yankees and pitched eight tough innings.

The Yankees got behind, 1-0, early and tied it when Bobby Murcer bunted for a single in the fourth and scored on a Reggie Jackson single. The Yankees scored another run to take a 2-1 lead. The Rangers got to Tiant in the top of the seventh for two runs to take a 3-2 lead, but Murcer tied the game with a lead-off homer in the bottom of that same inning. The Rangers went ahead again in the top of the eighth on a homer by Buddy Bell. But in the bottom of that same inning, Roy White hit a single to tie the game off of Sparky Lyle. Jim Kern replaced Lyle and struck out Bobby Brown. Bobby Murcer then hit a two-run homer to score himself and White for the game winner as Gossage recorded the save in the ninth. WPA – 0.810.

June 14, 1980Rick Langford of the Oakland Athletics out-pitched a very good Ed Figueroa for eight innings and took a slim 1-0 lead into the top of the ninth. Langford sandwiched two fly outs around a single by Reggie Jackson and needed just one more out to record the shutout. He did not get it. Bobby Murcer came up and hit a two-run homer that decided the game. Oh, one more thing. Billy Martin was the A’s manager. WPA – 0.808

Murcer had another 0.800+ WPA game in his career while a member of the Cubs. On June 20, 1977, Murcer drove in six runs with two doubles and a homer to record the highest game WPA of his career at 0.838.

Perhaps Murcer was just the right guy at the right time in all of these circumstances. Perhaps it was just chance that he had so many high WPA games. But without using that “C” word, there is some truth to the fact that Murcer was a very good late game hitter. Murcer had a career .891 OPS in the ninth inning, his highest for any inning. He also had an .851 OPS in extra innings. Murcer also had a career .856 in late and close situations. Whether Murcer had a lot of stardust moments with the Yankees or whether he was…ahem…clutch, the Yankee fan favorite had more big moments than any other Yankee of the post-WWII era.

William Tasker grew up in Bergenfield, New Jersey but has lived in New England since 1975 and in the far reaches of northern Maine since 1990. Tasker is the author of nine (non-baseball related) books and, besides writing here for three years, has written for his own site at www.passion4baseball.blogspot.com since 2003.