For 200 players on active postseason rosters, Thursday and Friday could hardly be any more exciting. The four division series begin, and eight teams on more or less equal footing begin racing to 11 wins. Every one of those 200 players has a chance to be the hero in the biggest moment and on the biggest stage of his life.
But something depressing and permanent is coming for one of these players. With his team trailing and down to its final hope, one of these players will more than likely make the final out of the World Series. This still-unknown victim has been targeted by fate to fail, forever, on another team's highlight reel. He'll be the streetlamp that the catcher has to veer around to embrace the pitcher. "You gotta be ready," Miguel Cabrera said, one year after he took the final strike of the 2012 World Series. "Somebody's gonna lose."
So who will it be? We did the math. Lots of it. Here's what we considered:
Each team's chances of making it to the World Series and losing once there, according to FiveThirtyEight's latest postseason odds.
The likelihood that each player on each postseason roster would start a generic World Series game.
The likelihood that each player would be removed from a game (to be pinch run for, pinch hit for or replaced on defense) and the likelihood that he'd replace another position player (for any of the same reasons) and the likelihood that he'd be the guy pinch hitting for the pitcher's spot in the ninth inning (if the game is played in an NL park). All of these are rough estimates.
The player's on-base percentage. In most cases, we simply took his 2017 OBP, but for players with few plate appearances, we used multiyear, career or minor league OBPs to come up with estimates.
Because teams trailing in the ninth inning often face the other team's closer, we adjusted those expected OBPs downward, proportionate to the leaguewide OBP when trailing in the ninth inning.
The player's most likely spot in the batting order. Different spots in the lineup are, year-in and year-out, more likely to come up with two outs in the ninth inning.
Mashing all that together, we estimated the chances that a player would bat in the ninth inning with two outs while trailing in the potential final game of the World Series and the chance that he would make an out in that situation. We ignored double plays -- too complicated. And we adjusted each player's chances down, uniformly, for the possibility -- around 9 percent -- that a game ends with a baserunning out or on a walk-off. Oh, and LDS rosters -- let alone World Series rosters -- haven't been finalized, so we made some guesses. We did not try to account for unexpected injuries.
Here's who is going to do it.
That would be 1 in 2,500. Probably no position player in our pool is less likely to end a losing World Series than Kemp, a speedy utility player who isn't on Houston's ALDS roster but could still be added later in October. Kemp might get into some games as a pinch runner or defensive replacement, but Houston's bench is sturdy enough that, in a big spot, there will be better hitters to replace Kemp. He batted just 39 times with Houston this year, hitting .216 with a .256 on-base percentage. Imagine a World Series coming down to him. It's unthinkable.
But then again, last year's World Series came down to the unthinkable. Michael Martinez batted only three times for Cleveland in the entire postseason before digging in as the possible winning run in the 10th inning of Game 7. "Maybe the worst hitter in the majors," I wrote of that moment, but he was the last man available, so there he was, one deep fly ball from joining Bill Mazeroski and Joe Carter in World Series history. Instead, he joined Honus Wagner (who made the final out of the 1903 World Series) and Tony Gwynn (1984).
Davis had one of the biggest World Series homers in history last year! But a man's fate is his fate, and he can't bribe it with prior heroics. Edgar Renteria walked off a World Series victory with a Game 7 single in 1997. Seven years later, he made the final out of a World Series loss when he grounded out to the pitcher. Although the camera framed Keith Foulke in exuberant leaps, Renteria, in the fuzzy background, slowly and gratuitously touched first base.
0.6 percent: Mookie Betts, Red Sox
Of all this postseason's offensive stars -- of all the players we assigned 100 percent likelihood of starting each game and 0 percent chance of being removed -- Betts has the lowest chances of ending the season.
It's a combination of three things. He bats fourth, the spot in the lineup that has been least likely to come up in a last-out situation. He has a healthy OBP, so even if it does reach him, he has a 35 percent chance of passing the burden to the man behind him. And, unfortunately for him, he plays for a team that isn't all that likely to lose the World Series. That sounds like a good thing, but of course chances of losing a World Series are highly correlated to chances of winning it, and the Red Sox, according to FiveThirtyEight, are the playoff team least likely to win (or lose) the Series. Being low on this is not exactly good.
If it's him, where would he rank among history's last outers? Twelve Hall of Famers have made the last out -- 11 if we exclude Babe Ruth, who ran into his Series-ending out by getting caught stealing to end the 1926 World Series. Judge is not yet a Hall of Famer, and it's far too soon to say whether he'll be one. But there's no doubt that Judge, right now, is better than Carl Yastrzemski was in 1975, when Yaz was 35 and showing it. In fact, over the course of more than a century's World Series, I don't think there are a half-dozen players who made the ultimate out who were less likely to fail than Judge is right now:
Probably better at the time than Judge is: Miguel Cabrera, Tony Gwynn, Wagner
Maybe better: Pete Rose, Vada Pinson, Goose Goslin, Mike Piazza
Not better but compelling: Nelson Cruz, Jorge Posada, Gorman Thomas, Willie Wilson, Yaz, McCovey, Frankie Frisch
It might be worth noting that not one of these players -- not even the three I concluded were probably better -- had a higher OPS+ the year of his Series-ender than Judge had this year. Of course, it's unlikely that Judge will join these names, as he has the best OBP on any playoff roster. By our math, he's only the 73rd-most likely hitter to do it this year.
0.72 percent: Carlos Beltran, Houston Astros
Along with perhaps Chase Utley and Matt Holliday, Beltran is probably the best player this year who could end a World Series and a great career at the same time. Maybe not. Maybe he'll play five more years. But Beltran signed a one-year deal last winter and would need a new team to make him an offer coming off a season in which he was a DH who hit like the catcher you'd like to replace. Jackie Robinson's career ended with the final out of the 1956 World Series -- he struck out -- and it would be particularly unfitting if Beltran's likewise ended with postseason failure. He's a career .323/.432/.646 hitter in the postseason. He's probably among the half-dozen greatest October hitters ever.
One of the most heartbreaking final outs, in my opinion, is Tony Phillips' in 1988. Phillips was something very close to a star -- in fact, he was probably the best player of the past 80 years to never make an All-Star team. Whether or not he got that recognition, though, he was incredibly difficult to get out. In 1993, he had an OBP of .443. For his career, he had a higher OBP than, oh, Anthony Rizzo has.
But 1988 was a disaster for Phillips. He fought injuries, his speed was a nonfactor, and his batting average plummeted. He hit .203 and had the worst OPS of his career, excepting a short rookie season. It was this season, of all seasons, that thrust him into the most important plate appearance of his life. Put it this way: I've had one wedding in my life, and I've also had poison oak on my face so badly that I needed to be hospitalized once in my life. Those were separate days for me. For Tony Phillips, it was as though they were the same day.
Phillips struck out swinging. Anyway, I don't think it's fair to ask Jason Kipnis to be the potential final batter in a World Series this year. Maybe next year, when he'll probably be great again.
1.7 percent: Francisco Lindor, Indians
The second-most likely player to do it, our math says. Cleveland is the clear favorite in the American League, and the Indians would also be the favorites in the World Series. Lindor bats leadoff, which gets an above-average number of chances with two outs while trailing in the ninth. Lindor, a true superstar, will start every game and never get pulled, even in the biggest spot of the game. Yet his game's lone non-superstar quality -- a just fine on-base percentage -- makes it a bit more likely that he'll concede that final out.
Is there a player more beloved right now than Francisco Lindor? Is there a player whose smile you'd less want to see dissolve? Is there a player you'd rather see give a speech, sing a song, do a dance or otherwise take the stage in a victory rally? Well, tough.
The most likely player to do it. But everything about this "curse" speaks to what an incredible story Taylor has been this year. On the most expensive roster in baseball history, Taylor -- a virtual unknown acquired for a busted pitching prospect back in the summer of 2016 -- was shut out of the Opening Day roster and began the season in Triple-A. He didn't start back-to-back games for the Dodgers until the last two days of April, when he batted eighth and played third and then batted seventh and played second. By early May, the Dodgers were barely above .500, but Taylor was getting more and more playing time. The guy who was the club's second choice to make the roster, then its second choice to actually play, ended up playing five positions while matching Corey Seager's offense and topping Cody Bellinger's WAR. Taylor is a star now, and he's a big reason the Dodgers are great.
He'll bat first. He'll start every game. He'll stay in until the end. He's on a team so good that it's the easy favorite to win the NL pennant, according to FiveThirtyEight. For all of that, Taylor will be in position to bat with the entire Series on the line. If he's in that situation, he's a better bet than most to reach base. But baseball being baseball, he's an even better bet to make an out. Which gets to sort of the truth about these players' careers: The better they do, the more costly their outs. If Taylor had stayed in Triple-A, he could have made low-stakes outs forever and never had to worry about them. He didn't. He succeeded. The cost of that success is that his outs hurt a lot more.
About one game per year -- across the entire schedule, not just the postseason -- ends with a pitcher batting. Of course, that doesn't mean Kimbrel, Duensing, Kershaw and the rest are immune from the cruel monster of Series-ending failure. Indeed, if they fail -- if they allow the walk-off that occurs in about 8 percent of games -- the stain will attach itself more stubbornly to their story, and their failure will be more memorable.
I'd suspect that, before reading this article, you would have struggled to name more than a couple final-out batters from the non-recent past: Willie McCovey, and, uh, whichever final batters failed on your favorite team. On the other hand, I'd bet you would immediately recall the hits allowed by Ralph Terry, Mitch Williams and Mariano Rivera.
The pitchers who fail will be remembered forever. The hitters who fail will mostly be forgotten, but they'll remember forever.
Here's the entire list of 2017 postseason players, with their quasi-precise chances. Notably, Michael Martinez, Wilmer Flores, Salvador Perez, Matt Carpenter, Miguel Cabrera, David Murphy and Nelson Cruz all had 0.0 percent chances of recording the final out.
No player who has ever made the final out of a World Series is on a postseason roster this season. Somebody brand new is guaranteed to know the feeling.