On Tuesday night in Cleveland, oft-lampooned Tampa Bay Rays closer Kyle Farnsworth(notes) committed the unthinkable crime of walking in the winning run. That got us around to thinking: Who's responsible for issuing the most free passes with the game literally on the line? And exactly how rare of a feat is a walkoff walk?
A walkoff walk can only happen with the bases loaded and, like any other "walkoff" play, it has to happen in the home team's final at-bat, either in the ninth inning or any extra inning. It also helps to have a pitcher on the mound with poor control and a patient hitter at the dish. Four balls, after all, don't come easy when someone wants to play hero with a bat.
Walkoff walks, while more frequent than a pitcher throwing a no-hitter or a batter hitting for the cycle, are still more rare an occurrence than walkoff home runs or any other walkoff hit. In fact, over the past 39 seasons for which the good people at Baseball-Reference.com have complete data, a walkoff walk has only occurred 297 times, or about seven to eight times a year. Compare that to walkoff homers, which have ended a game 2,110 times over the same time period. (A walkoff walk, however, has still been more frequent than the 73 walkoff triples or the 32 walkoff HBPs.)
Using the play index at Baseball-Reference, we can analyze every instance where a game ended on a bases-loaded walk since 1973 and see which players, places and events led to the humbling walkoff walk.
• Two pitchers have issued a whopping four career walkoff walks since 1973: Gary Lavelle, who spent most of his career as a closer for the San Francisco Giants in the 1970s, and Gene Garber, who is second on the Atlanta Braves all-time saves list behind John Smoltz(notes). Both Garber and Lavelle were born in Pennsylvania in the late 1940s. Coincidence?
• At least one Hall of Fame pitcher has been on the losing side of a walkoff walk multiple times. Rich "Goose" Gossage did it once for three different teams over a span of 15 years, the last coming to Darryl Strawberry at Shea Stadium in 1989. Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley did it once each.
• Vic Darensbourg is the only pitcher to ever issue a walkoff walk while wearing a Florida Marlins uniform. Among teams not born from recent expansion, the team with the fewest walkoff walks in the past 39 seasons is the Minnesota Twins, with three.
• The team that has been on the receiving end of the walkoff walk most frequently is the OBP-minded Oakland Athletics. They've drawn it 20 times. Pity the miserable Kansas City Royals fans who have only seen a walkoff walk happen four times in nearly 40 years at Kauffman Stadium.
• The walkoff-walkiest year in recent memory was 1997, when 18 games ended on the crazy happening. The leanest year was 1973: just three walkoff walks.
• About half of games that end on a walkoff walk feature extra innings. Of the 297 games in the data set, 147 went past the ninth inning. Nearly 60 percent of the time, a walkoff walk happens with two outs. And it will usually happen on a full count (45 percent).
• Besides pinch hitters, the most frequent position to collect a walkoff walk is right field (34 times) while the stingiest position is DH (12). A walkoff walk is most likely to come from the No. 6 batter (47 times) and least likely to happen from the No. 3 hitter (22 times).
• The most runs scored in a game that ended on a walkoff walk is 25, as the Braves defeated the Padres 13-12 when Ken Oberkfell drew the game-winning walk in June of 1987.
• The most frequent month for a walkoff walk to happen is May, by a longshot. Nearly 23 percent of all walkoff walks happen in May.
• The notorious reliever Jose Mesa gave up two walkoff walks in a three-game series against the Mets in August 1998. While a member of the visiting Giants, Mesa dished out a walkoff walk to both Lenny Harris and Luis Lopez.
• Cincinnati Reds outfielder Tracy Jones drew two walkoff walks in a three-day series back in June 1988, both against the San Diego Padres. His first came off Lance McCullers and his second off Mark Davis.
• There has been only one walkoff walk in the playoffs and, naturally, it happened to the Mets:
In the fateful bottom of the 11th, Mets manager Bobby Valentine went deep into his bullpen to use veteran starter Kenny Rogers, who gave up a leadoff double to Gerald Williams. After Bret Boone sacrificed Williams to third, Valentine ordered intentional walks to the next two big hitters, Chipper Jones(notes) and Brian Jordan, to set up a force at home and/or an inning ending double play.
That would never come. Andruw Jones(notes) stepped to the plate, worked the count full, and then showed what would be the most patience of his career in drawing the walkoff walk, only swinging once in the at-bat.
That walkoff walk decided not only the game but the entire National League Championship Series, sending the Braves to the World Series where they would get swept by the Yankees.
• The only pitcher to step up to the plate, leave his bat on his shoulder, and draw a walkoff walk as a hitter and collect a win as the pitcher of record is Kent Mercker. Mercker came on in relief for the Braves in their win against the Dodgers in a June 1991 game that ended up having huge meaning: The Braves edged the Dodgers for the NL West title by one measly game that season.
• In my previous stint as a co-founder of the baseball blog called, you guessed it, "Walkoff Walk," we had a peculiar way of celebrating each time a walkoff walk happened in the bigs. After then-Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth(notes) drew one in April 2008, my co-blogger Kris Liakos spontaneously posted a video of a shrimp running on a treadmill accompanied by "Yakety Sax," the Benny Hill theme song.
It was a tradition that continued for the next two seasons. Even since we have shuttered the blog, the shrimp video has taken to Twitter. Any time a team gets close to winning a game on a bases-loaded walk, the hashtag #shrimpalert starts appearing in the Twittersphere to alert fellow shrimp devotees that a walkoff walk is nigh somewhere in baseball and the treadmill video could get posted any second.
Odd, I know.
So treasure your walkoff walks when they happen, people! You might be tempted to consider it a dull way to end a game when the bases are loaded. But when factoring in the anxious buildup that comes with each ball thrown just outside the strike zone, they can be quite exciting. Savor the shrimp.