In an earlier generation, Cubs radio voice Bert Wilson refused to concede what appeared to be lost causes. From 1941 to 1955, he’d tell fans, ‘‘The game is never over until the last man is out.’’
Wilson would have loved the Cubs’ 14-10 victory Saturday against the Braves, weather-challenged as it was. It was as close to lost as a cause can be.
Using Fangraphs.com metrics that weren’t available in Wilson’s day, the Cubs’ win expectancy (WE) bottomed out at 0.6 percent. That didn’t come at their maximum deficit of 10-2; it came when they trailed 10-3 and the Braves had the bases loaded and one out in the seventh inning. An inning-ending double play brought the WE up to 1.1 percent.
Win expectancy draws on data from baseball history to tell us how often teams win given the score, inning, number of outs and men on base. Each plate appearance raises or lowers the WE and factors into a player stat called win probability added (WPA).
The first time Baseball by the Numbers walked through this exercise was for the Cubs’ four-run, ninth-inning rally in their National League Division Series-clinching 6-5 victory against the Giants in 2016. The Cubs had a 2.5 percent WE entering the ninth, and the low point was a 1.7 percent WE in the bottom of the eighth.
The stakes were nowhere near as high Saturday, but the comeback was even more improbable.
By the time Jason Heyward led off the bottom of the eighth, the Cubs trailed 10-5 and the WE stood at 2.3 percent. After Heyward was hit by a pitch, Kyle Schwarber struck out, Tommy La Stella singled and Efren Navarro struck out, the WE had dipped to 2 percent.
Let’s pick up the WE and WPA from there.
• Kris Bryant was hit by a pitch. WE, 3.7; WPA, .018
• Willson Contreras had an infield single, Heyward scored, bases stay loaded. WE, 7.6; WPA, .039.
• Ben Zobrist walked, La Stella scored. WE, 13.8; WPA, .062.
• Javy Baez doubled, Bryant, Contreras and Zobrist scored to tie the score. WE, 58.1; WPA, .443.
• Addison Russell was walked intentionally. WE, 59.0; WPA, .009.
• Heyward walked. WE, 63.5; WPA, .045.
• Schwarber walked, Baez scored. Cubs ahead 11-10. WE, 87.5; WPA, .240.
• La Stella walked, Russell scored. WE, 94.2; WPA, 0.68.
• With Navarro at bat, Heyward scored on a wild pitch and Schwarber scored on an error. WE, 98.7.
• Navarro struck out. WE, 98.4; WPA, -.003.
As soon as Baez’s double tied the score, the Cubs jumped from a 13.8 percent chance of winning to become favorites at 58.1 percent. They had the lead run on base and more outs remaining than the Braves.
As the inning progressed, impacts of each event grew. Heyward’s leadoff hit-by-pitch had a WPA of only .016, but Zobrist’s walk six batters later added .062. That’s because the leverage of each plate appearance increased as the game tightened.
The chances of winning can be extremely low, but they never quite reach zero until the last man is out, as Bert Wilson could have told you.