It’s always easy, in the moment and its immediate aftermath, to hyperbolize a sports event’s historical standing. Just about every Super Bowl these days enters the “best ever” discussion, and after the Cubs won last year’s championship, there was a rush to proclaim that Game 7 the greatest baseball game ever. That enthusiasm is often misguided. But this year’s World Series, which somehow escalated from a Game 2 that provided three bonkers innings to a Game 5 that provided five-plus bonkers hours, is firmly in the discussion, no hyperbole necessary.
That thinking extends beyond mere emotional reactions to the thrills that transpired in Houston on Sunday night. By the numbers, too, this series is shaping up as one of the best ever. To determine how exciting a given series is, we can examine the cumulative total of its championship win probability added (cWPA), which measures how much a particular play affects a team’s chances to win the World Series.
Here’s how it works in action. When Alex Bregman stepped to the plate with two on and two outs in the 10th inning of Game 5, the Astros had a 53.4 percent chance to win the title; after his walk-off single gave Houston a 3-2 series lead, those odds rose to 71.4 percent. The difference between those before-and-after numbers—in this case, 18 percentage points—represents that play’s cWPA, and the sum of the cWPA from every play in a series gives a reasonable approximation of that series’ drama.
By that measure, the most exciting World Series came in 1924, when the Washington Senators beat the New York Giants in the longest Game 7 in playoff history (12 innings), which itself included reams of wackiness, from a starting pitcher who recorded just one out as part of a managerial scheme to game-tying and -winning hits that both ricocheted off pebbles past Giants third baseman Freddie Lindstrom. A close second place is the 1975 Reds–Red Sox series, which featured five one-run games, Carlton Fisk’s homer, and a series-winning Joe Morgan single with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 7.
Because the 2017 World Series isn’t yet over, it doesn’t rate well in cumulative cWPA, but on a per-play basis, it’s already in the top 10, just ahead of 2001 Diamondbacks-Yankees, which produced three ninth-inning comebacks and walk-off wins. Game 5 was the sixth-most-exciting World Series game on record and Game 2 the 16th-most; 1924 Senators-Giants is the only other series to place two games in the top 20. So what will it take for 2017 to surpass 1924, to move from the outer circle of the “best ever” discussion to the center? Here are five prerequisites for what the rest of the series needs to include.
An Instant-Classic Game 6 Dodgers Win
The two most exhilarating games of this series have concluded with Astros celebrations. Let’s even out that drama. Some of the most memorable games in World Series history have sprung from this exact setup: the team down 3-2 returning home for Game 6. The Carlton Fisk and Bill Buckner Games are two notable examples, and of the past three times a home team faced that desperate scenario, it produced a legendary comeback twice, via the 2011 David Freese Game and a late-inning Angels rally in 2002.
Game 6 is where an already phenomenal series can take the next step into dramatic absurdity—complete, like in the Fisk Game, with now-famous stage directions. Across all sports, the playoff series with the most game-to-game excitement that I remember watching was the 2009 first-round duel between the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls. Even before Game 6, that series featured three overtime games and another won with a Ray Allen 3-pointer with two seconds left in regulation. And then Game 6 somehow managed to reach ludicrous speed, with a three-overtime affair in which Allen scored 51 points, the teams traded seemingly half a dozen potential game winners, and the Bulls—playing at home, down 3-2 in the series—emerged with a one-point win.
It would seem impossible for anything in Tuesday’s Game 6 to top the emotional seesaw that constituted Game 5. But we thought the same thing after Game 2, and the teams took less than a week to prove that notion wrong.
A Seventh Game That Goes to Extra Innings
Of course, a series can’t rate as the best ever unless it goes the full seven games; such is the maximal way to heighten the drama. To wit, the top 25 World Series by cWPA went seven games.
And the only way to heighten the drama even further is for that seventh game to filter into extra innings. To date, five sudden-death World Series games have gone past the ninth, and with one exception, the series they concluded rank among the most exciting title series ever. The 1924 series places first in cumulative cWPA; 1912 Red Sox–Giants third; 1997 Marlins-Indians fifth; 1991 Twins-Braves seventh; and 2016 Cubs-Indians 17th, because for as much fun as Game 7 was last year, its six predecessors were only minimally dramatic. (The dueling-drought narrative surrounding last year’s series added something intangible to its lagging mathematical ranking.)
In sum, an extra-innings Game 7 would just about guarantee that Dodgers-Astros becomes a top-10 series, and given that it’s already starting from such a strong base through the first five contests, it might jump to the top of the cWPA list if this wish materializes Wednesday night.
An Immediately Recognizable “[Player Name] Game”
The only criticism of games 2 and 5 is that neither produced a singular hero. It’s more likely that they’ll be remembered as “the games with all the home runs” than “the games that X players did X great things.” That distinction compares unfavorably with recent World Series classics that immediately adopted simple identifiers in common parlance, like the Freese Game and the Madison Bumgarner–in-Relief Game.
Although this series has already set the Fall Classic record with 22 combined home runs, nobody has hit more than one in a game. That democratic distribution befits the current homer-happy climate, in which the middle class of power hitters has received the greatest benefits, but it doesn’t help in the “[Player Name] Game” regard. Was Game 5 the Bregman Game because he knocked the game-winning single? Or was it the José Altuve Game because the Astros second baseman supplied the biggest hit—a tying three-run homer in the fifth inning—by cWPA? Or was it the George Springer Game because the center fielder crushed a game-tying homer of his own?
If we have to ask, it’s none of the above; that heroic spread makes for great theater but a slightly lesser legacy. In hoping for such a game to emerge still in this series, the prerequisites on this list begin to overlap. Freese’s game came in an instant-classic Game 6 in which the home team tied the series, and a similar Dodgers effort on Tuesday could check two boxes with one mighty swing. And if it does happen, Yasiel Puig would be a prime—and the most fun—candidate. In this series, he already homered in the 10th inning in Game 2, cutting Houston’s lead to one, and the ninth inning of Game 5, again cutting Houston’s lead to one. The Dodgers ended up tying the score both times. Perhaps Game 6 will add the “the Puig Game” to baseball’s lexicon.
One More Outrageous “You Can’t Predict Baseball” Moment
While absurd en masse, no event in this series has been all that singularly surprising on a historical level. Springer, Altuve, and Carlos Correa have strung together clutch hits all season, and Cody Bellinger swatting extra-base hits is no anomaly.
The likeliest candidates for the series’s signature “you can’t predict baseball” moment have caveats that prevent them from ascending to all-time consideration in the category. However frustrating the narrative he inspires, Clayton Kershaw has blown playoff games before, and Yuli Gurriel’s Game 5 blast seems commonplace after light-hitting Jeff Mathis homered off Kershaw in this year’s NLDS. Even Marwin González’s tying homer off Kenley Jansen in Game 2 has become, in retrospect, less remarkable: Jansen had allowed runs in three of his first 25 career playoff games—and an earned run in only two of those—but the Dodgers’ estimable closer has now allowed an earned run in three consecutive appearances. And the two weirdest moments of the series, which both occurred in Game 2—a would-be extra-base hit off Bregman’s bat bouncing off Dodgers center fielder Chris Taylor’s hat brim, and an errant Chris Devenski pickoff throw nailing an umpire in lieu of zooming into the outfield—didn’t end up swinging that game, or the series at large.
This series is still waiting for its shining example of bizarre baseball, along the lines of Rajai Davis’s game-tying homer against Aroldis Chapman in last year’s Game 7, or a series-winning hit deflecting off an unfortunate infield rock. One possibility is a high-leverage pitcher home run, with the series back in the DH-less Dodger Stadium. (By cWPA, no pitcher homer ranks among the 400 most important plays in World Series history.) Or maybe a steal of home. (No steal of home ranks among the 1,500 most important plays.) Or perhaps an unassisted triple play. (In 1920, Cleveland second baseman Bill Wambsganss became the only person to accomplish this feat in the World Series.) Whatever it is, however that weirdness manifests, it would benefit the series to have a single play or image that comes to mind whenever someone remembers it.
A Memorable Pitching Performance From a Staff Ace
Managers Dave Roberts and A.J. Hinch long ago ran out of trustworthy relievers. Of the 23 pitchers who have appeared in this series, 21 have allowed either a runner of his own or an inherited runner to score; the two who haven’t are L.A.’s Ross Stripling, who nearly surrendered a grand slam in Game 3, and Houston’s Luke Gregerson, who’s faced one batter all week. So Game 6’s bullpen decisions will fascinate—Houston’s Lance McCullers is a good bet to relieve Justin Verlander, despite being on short rest after a Game 3 start—and Game 7 could be an even more urgent free-for-all if the managers exhaust their relievers aiming for a Game 6 win.
That scenario is more realistic than, say, an unassisted triple play, and it could yield the most dramatic moments yet of this World Series: Kershaw would likely appear in relief on two days’ rest, and even Verlander could throw an inning with no rest at all. Neither of the two aces of this generation have won a ring, and they haven’t battled yet in this series due to their staggered starting schedule.
Win probability doesn’t know the difference between Kershaw and Verlander recording outs versus the likes of Stripling and Gregerson doing the same. But it fits this exercise that the most exciting World Series to date finished with baseball legend Walter Johnson, on one day’s rest, throwing four shutout innings from the ninth through 12th to win his first title. It’s not too absurd to think that Kershaw or Verlander could do the same 93 years later. Either one would elevate this World Series to best ever, full stop.