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Not All Walk-Off Home Runs are Created Equal

 

The game’s most exciting play has thrilled us in a variety of ways over the decades. We’re taking a historical look at most of them, and discovering which walk-off kings have a shot at the all-time record, which hold the single-season mark, which have done it most when trailing, and more. 

By: Taylor Bechtold

Many fans desperate to quench a thirst for baseball have no doubt found some comfort in the return of the Korean Baseball Organization.

The KBO already introduced us to the drive-off home run when Kia Tigers outfielder and former Houston Astros prospect Preston Tucker’s game-winning blast landed in the Kia Home Run Zone, winning him a new car.

Still, something’s missing.

It’s not quite the same as seeing your favorite MLB team knock one out and the dugout empty onto the field in celebration. The walk-off hit is one of the most unforgettable, moving moments in baseball. And the walk-off homer just might be No. 1 on that list.

Bill Mazeroski comes home on his Game 7-ending home run in the ninth inning to win the 1960 World Series.

Some of history’s greatest walk-offs are likely coming to mind, like Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” in Game 3 of the 1951 NL playoffs, Bill Mazeroski’s homer in Game 7 of the ’60 World Series, Carlton Fisk waving on his shot in Game 6 of the ’75 Series, Kirk Gibson limping around after his improbable homer in Game 1 of the ’88 Series and Joe Carter leaping after his walk-off in Game 6 of the ’93 Series – just to name a few.

So as the players and owners try to agree on a plan to bring baseball back to the U.S., we’re helping you prepare for some of the excitement sure to come by unveiling MLB’s all-time walk-off kings in various scenarios. And tell you that a .400 batting average isn’t the only historic mark that could be at least equaled during this abbreviated season.

To do this, Stats Perform’s award-winning research team has mined its historical database, which has the ability to dissect every such home run in the game’s history.

First, let’s start by taking a look at the players who have come through when the tension has been at its peak. Some call these ultimate grand slams, others refer to them as super slams. It could be argued these are the most dramatic walk-offs of all:

David Bote has the most recent one, crushing a two-strike, two-out pitch in the bottom of the ninth of a 4-3 win over the Washington Nationals on a Sunday night broadcast. Three players lead the way with three career walk-off grand slams of any kind: Alex Rodriguez (1994-2016), Vern Stephens (1941-1955) and Cy Williams (1912-1930).

Since 1988, Dante Bichette, Brian Jordan and David Ortiz are the only players with multiple two-strike, two-out, walk-off home runs with their teams trailing.

Maybe the situation isn’t quite as tenuous as being down three runs in the final inning, but here are the players who have supplied the most walk-offs with their team simply behind:

Still active, Zimmerman – known as Mr. Walk-Off or Mr. National – has an opportunity to not only top this list, but also to claim all-time walk-off king honors. He’s joined some Hall of Fame company with Ruth and Robinson, who is also tied for most extra-inning walk-off home runs of all time. Some believe McGriff could still get into the Hall via the Veterans Committee given his resume.

Stats Pass tells us that seven of McGriff’s 493 career homers came in extra innings. In an extra-inning affair when one swing can end it, these are the guys that teammates have wanted at the plate – and the ones the opposition has feared:

We’ll see more of Robinson and Thome later. Perhaps Pujols’ most famous homer was a three-run rocket off Brad Lidge with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS. But it came in the top of the inning and Jason Isringhausen still had to close out a 5-4 win at Houston.

Pujols has made a couple of our leaderboards, including a place among the latest walk-off home runs ever hit. His came in the bottom of the 19th against the Red Sox on Aug. 9, 2014.

Pujols also pulled off a rare feat in June 2011 when he walked off the rival Chicago Cubs on consecutive days – both in extra innings:

Pujols’ back-to-back walk-off performances against the Cubs nine years ago was the most recent. Both of Belle’s winners against the Toronto Blue Jays 16 years earlier came in extra innings and were part of Cleveland’s magical run to its first World Series appearance since 1954. Note that this is walk-offs on consecutive days, not in consecutive games as there are others who did so with an off day in between. This also includes players who played another game in between as part of a doubleheader.

As mentioned earlier, Pujols sent sleepy Angels fans home happy with a walk-off shot off Boston’s Brandon Workman in the 19th inning of a 5-4 win on Aug. 9, 2014. But it’s not nearly the latest walk-off in baseball history – that honor goes to Hall of Famer Harold Baines:

Baines’ blast mercifully ended the longest game in major league history as the Chicago White Sox outlasted the Milwaukee Brewers 7-6 in 25 innings and over eight hours, six minutes, on May 8, 1984.

In case you’re wondering, the latest walk-off homer in postseason history came in the 18th inning. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Max Muncy did it against the Boston Red Sox in Game 3 of the 2018 World Series and the Astros’ Chris Burke clinched a series win over the Atlanta Braves in Game 4 of the 2005 NLDS.

Speaking of Burke’s blast, here are the homers that sent a team through to the next round or won them a ring:

There are only two players in baseball history with multiple walk-off homers in the postseason: David Ortiz and Bernie Williams. And one of Ortiz’s shots took out the Anaheim Angels in the 2004 ALDS.

Carter’s iconic home run in 1993 remains the most recent to end a World Series. There have been 16 walk-off dingers in the Fall Classic, with the previously mentioned Muncy homer being the most recent. It was the only game the Dodgers won against the Red Sox in the series.

Texas Rangers slugger Nelson Cruz’s bomb against the Detroit Tigers in Game 2 of the 2011 ALCS was the only walk-off grand slam in postseason history.

Carlos Guillen, like Cruz a former Seattle Mariner, delivered a walk-off single that closed out a sweep of the Chicago White Sox in Game 3 of the 2000 ALDS and hit for the cycle six years later as a member of the Tigers. Some players have achieved the impressive individual feat by slugging a walk-off homer:

George Brett had a walk-off dinger and hit for the cycle against the Baltimore Orioles on May 28, 1979, but the walk-off was his second homer of the game and he had already reached the cycle earlier.

Hitting for the cycle certainly isn’t the only important personal feat that’s been achieved while walking an opponent off. Jim Thome’s shot in 2007 might be the best milestone homer reached on a walk-off:

There have been 105 occasions on which a player’s first career homer was a walk-off. Will Smith of the Dodgers, Anthony Alford of the Blue Jays and Jaylin Davis of the Giants each did this last season after none occurred in 2018. Three players have belted walk-off grand slams for their first career home runs: Rick Joseph of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1967, Danny Kravitz of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1956 and Al Unser of the  Tigers in 1944.

Those are some pretty remarkable career achievements, but who are the single-season walk-off kings? We have that covered too:

Foxx hit a total of 534 home runs during his Hall of Fame career and Sievers smashed 318. Ethier only hit 162 over his 12 seasons with the Dodgers, but he went deep a career-high 31 times in 2009 and joined a club that had only Foxx and Sievers for 52 years. His heroics earned him the nickname “Captain Clutch” from Dodgers fans. Ethier led the Major Leagues with six walk-off hits overall that year, including back-to-back winners against the Phillies in June.

Just so we have all the bases covered, here are the walk-off kings in singles, doubles and triples since 1974:

That leads us into the ultimate list, the who’s who of walk-off home runs in baseball history. These are the offensive closers, the ones pitchers have feared late in close games, and those who have made careers out of changing the outcomes.

As expected, there are plenty of the game’s biggest names. But there are also some surprises:

Thome’s record 13th walk-off homer was his only one as a pinch-hitter and came 18 years after his first one with the Indians in June 1994. He belted the first walk-off home run at Target Field in 2010, crushed a walk-off grand slam against the Tigers in 2002 and ended a win over the Angels with his 500th career home run in 2007.

Who has a chance to catch him? We’ve already mentioned Zimmerman, who sits just two away from tying the record. But Pujols, who may have another year or two in him, figures to have the best opportunity to get there first as he tops all active players with 12 career walk-off homers. After Zimmerman, Miguel Cabrera, Josh Donaldson, Matt Kemp and Andrew McCutchen have seven.

We’ve already taken a deep dive into analyzing how someone could hit .400 during a shortened season as we’ve never seen. It’s possible another historic mark could be matched along the way – and another walk-off king crowned.