HOUSTON — It’s Monday morning, a few hours after a ridiculous Game 5 in the World Series — a 13-12, extra-innings victory for the Houston Astros that pushes the Los Angeles Dodgers to the brink of elimination.
Things are much calmer in downtown Houston. The regular rhythms of the workday week are present, though you see a lot more Astros merchandise than I suspect you’d normally see. But people are driving to work or walking the sidewalks in business casual, carrying their paper cups of mass-produced coffee.
Inside my hotel, a few blocks from Minute Maid Park, there are a few people dining around me in the restaurant. Most of the weekend revelers have checked out, and the lobby is empty. Residual signs of the tumult that just happened are present, nevertheless. Three of the conversations I can overhear are about the game. Two tables over, a man is trying to explain to his wife the concept of win probability. (No, really.)
A little later, I’m in a car headed for the airport. The driver is decked out in Astros gear, and we talk baseball on the way to Hobby Airport. Suffice to say, he is very excited. But he asked me a straightforward question that I could not begin to answer: Who do I think will win World Series MVP?
All I could tell him was that player is not yet known, and it would be mostly likely be based on events that have not yet happened. After I started thinking about it, I realized that the identity of the MVP front-runner in this series has basically bounced around like a pinball. The answer depends entirely on when the question is asked.
The fluid nature of this topic also serves as a reminder of just how amazing and topsy-turvy this thrill ride of a Fall Classic has been. So let’s trace the shifting nature of the MVP question in an objective way.
According to the win probability data at FanGraphs.com, there have been 15 win-expectancy swings of at least 20 percent during the first five games of the series. These are the game-flipping, stomach-turning moments that will live on in highlight recaps of this series forever.
Let’s revisit each of these moments in chronological order, and using win-probability added (WPA) as our metric, we’ll identify who the series MVP was at that moment.
Turner’s blast was the first big moment of the series, though in comparison to what came after, it now seems almost quaint. It made a Game 1 winner of Clayton Kershaw, who up to that point in the contest was going toe-to-toe with Dallas Keuchel for the WPA lead in the game.
Exact same situation as Game 1, only this time it was Seager going deep to put L.A. ahead. Of course, whereas Turner’s Game 1 blast completed the scoring, Seager’s Game 2 bomb was a mere precursor of things to come. As for MVP, Kershaw had overtaken Turner as the series WPA leader by the end of his Game 1 start and maintained that perch up to the moment of Seager’s home run. But his lead would not last much longer.
Gonzalez’s ball just made it over the fence at Dodger Stadium, but it was enough. It was that homer that established that the Dodgers weren’t going roll through the World Series the way they did the National League bracket this October. The math of that one swing was enough to temporarily vault Gonzalez into the WPA lead. If you had asked me at that moment, he’s my MVP.
Altuve was the man of the moment, but his extra-innings homer wasn’t enough to supplant Gonzalez as the MVP of the moment. That would happen in the bottom half of the inning.
From a probability standpoint, what made Hernandez’s tying single more impactful than Gonzalez’s tying homer were the outs on the board. Gonzalez’s blast led off the inning, while Hernandez came through with two outs. His WPA on that play is the single biggest probability shift of any play in the series. That, and some other clutch hitting by L.A.’s super-utility player, put him on top of the WPA leaderboard all the way into Game 5, when it started changing again with each passing inning.
A signature moment: Springer finally gives the Astros a lead they don’t relinquish, though the Dodgers got a solo homer from Charlie Culberson in the bottom of the inning to keep us all on tenterhooks. However, it wasn’t enough to get the previously struggling Springer into the WPA led for the series. He would get his turn later.
7. Game 4: Cody Bellinger doubled in Corey Seager in the ninth, giving the Dodgers a 2-1 lead.
WPA of play: .235
MVP at that moment: Enrique Hernandez (.528 WPA)
After we made it through Game 3 without any game-flipping moments like we had seen throughout the series, Bellinger’s RBI in Game 4 opened the floodgates for the Dodgers, who knotted the series at two games apiece. Like Springer, Bellinger didn’t ascend to the WPA throne, but he would later. For the time being, Hernandez had actually increased his advantage.
8. Game 5: Yuli Gurriel hit a three-run homer off Clayton Kershaw in the fourth, tying the game at 4-4.
WPA of play: .233
MVP at that moment: Enrique Hernandez (.582 WPA)
This was the moment when we found out that Clayton Kershaw’s night, and likely MVP certainty, was not going to work out according to script. Gurriel’s homer was the first of eight extreme probability shifts in Game 5. Meanwhile, Hernandez’s reign atop the WPA board was down to its last couple of innings.
9. Game 5: Cody Bellinger hits a three-run homer off Collin McHugh in the fifth, giving the Dodgers a 7-4 lead.
WPA of play: .284
MVP at that moment: Enrique Hernandez (.513 WPA)
Ah, the “shush” moment. A little too soon, Mr. Bellinger, a little too soon.
10. Game 5: Jose Altuve hits a three-run homer off Kenta Maeda in the fifth, tying the game at 7-7.
WPA of play: .340
MVP at that moment: Enrique Hernandez (.513 WPA)
This is Altuve’s second homer of the series that carried a win probability of .340 or higher. So why hasn’t he taken over the top spot on the leaderboard? Patience, my friends. Patience.
11. Game 5: Cody Bellinger triples in Enrique Hernandez in the seventh, putting the Dodgers up 8-7.
WPA of play: .258
MVP at that moment: Cody Bellinger (.516 WPA)
If you’re going to shush 50,000 people, you better be able to back it up. Nothing seems to faze Bellinger though, not even strikeout-ridden games during the World Series. It seems as if he’s either striking out or turning a game around with a smash off his lightning-quick bat. And the moment Hernandez touched home plate to give the Dodgers a temporary lead, Bellinger was the MVP of the moment. Until the bottom of the inning.
12. Game 5: George Springer homered off Brandon Morrow in the seventh, tying the game at 8-8.
WPA of play: .234
MVP at that moment: George Springer (.669 WPA)
It was sweet redemption for Springer, who misplayed Bellinger’s sinking liner in the top of the inning into a run-scoring triple. It also made him MVP of the moment. He didn’t stay there long.
13. Game 5: Jose Altuve doubled in Alex Bregman in the seventh, giving the Astros a 9-8 lead.
WPA of play: .205
MVP at that moment: Jose Altuve (.682 WPA)
The “MVP! MVP!” chants the Minute Maid Park faithful were raining down on Altuve were mathematically sound: Altuve became the WPA leader with that blast. This is the thing that guy at my hotel was trying to express to his wife.
This #%$#! game is tied? Are you kidding me? (Sorry. Flashback.) Man, it was a long, glorious night at the old ballyard. Anyway, Altuve remained on top.
15. Game 5: Alex Bregman singles in Derek Fisher in the 10th, giving the Astros a 13-12 win.
WPA of play: .391
MVP at that moment: George Springer (.719 WPA)
And that’s where we stand. Springer actually took the lead over Altuve when the latter flied out in the ninth. That’s how close they were, and that’s where we stand.
We’ve looked at the MVPs only at the moments these huge plays occurred, but others took the lead in between these peak events. Bregman had it for a while in Game 1, and after his walk-off hit in Game 5, he is lurking with .439 WPA. Taylor also had it for a while in Game 1, as did Keuchel. Verlander had it briefly in Game 2 and is looming in Game 6. Springer’s current lead over Altuve is .719 to .658. Hernandez is at .406. Bellinger is at .481.
It turns out, what I told my driver was really true: We don’t know what who the MVP of the series is going to be. Right now, it’s a close call between Springer and Altuve. But the final answer will probably be based on something that has yet to happen. And, really, given this unbelievable Fall Classic, would we have it any other way?