Wearing the Golden Sombrero with Pride

Last night, Ryan Howard achieved what I always thought was one of the best-named milestones in baseball history, if not the most exciting: the Golden Sombrero. It’s one of those things in sports that I only take notice of because it has a cool name, like the Century Club in soccer or the Triple Gold Club in hockey.  The Golden Sombrero is hardly as august as those: in order to earn one, a player only needs to strike out four times in a single game. That is hardly a rare occurrence: since the start of the 2010 season, 118 Golden Sombreros have been distributed, four of them to Howard.

Ordinarily, a golden sombrero is a disastrous event, particularly because the people who tend to strike out a lot tend to hit for extra bases a lot and so often end up in the middle of the lineup. Sometimes, a player gets a Golden Sombrero and the team wins in spite of him, as was the case last night with Howard and the Phillies. But other times, the Sombrero is but a small bump in the road to game-winning heroics. After the jump, the three best (and three worst) performances since 1919 by a player who struck out four times in a game.

We’ll be judging “best” and “worst” by WPA, which measures how much a player helps his team win in a given game. A full explanation can be found here, but if you don’t care to read, all you really need to know is that 0.000 is neutral, positive is good, and negative is bad.

So, the three best performances since 1919 by a player wearing a Golden Sombrero, in reverse order:

3) Hank Blalock, .533, May 16, 2003

Hank Blalock of the Texas Rangers bookended a 12-inning, four-strikeout game with three-RBI hits in the second and twelfth innings. Blalock tagged Roger Clemens for a bases-clearing double in the top of the second to make it 4-1 Rangers, but the Yankees eventually tied it at 5 in the eighth. The game remained tied until the top of the 12th when Blalock once more came to the plate with the bases loaded, the score tied, and two outs. Once more he hit a three-run double, this one off Juan Acevedo, to stake Texas to an 8-5 lead that held up for the final.

2) Evan Longoria, .535, August 4, 2009

This game, unlike the other two positive performances on the list, went 13 innings. Longoria struck out in the first, third, and sixth innings, then, with his team down 2-1 at home to the Red Sox, led off the eighth with a home run off Daniel Bard to tie the game. Longoria was walked intentionally in the ninth, struck out again in the 11th to earn his sombrero, and with two out and a runner on third in the bottom of the 13th, homered to left off Takashi Saito to earn a walk-off win for the defending AL Champions. Longoria became the  first (and so far, only) player to strike out four times and hit two home runs in the same game.

1) Devon White, .640, August 20, 1998

This was about as good a game as one can have with four strikeouts. White’s Golden Sombrero came in his first four at-bats, when the Diamondbacks were either tied or losing, so none of those Ks reduced the team’s win expectancy much. However, the game went to 12 innings, and White came to the plate seven times, producing a hit in his last three trips to the plate: a two-run single off Wayne Gomes in the top of the 8th as the D-Backs erased a five-run deficit; then, a double to lead off the 10th, which put the potential winning run on second with no outs, though White didn’t score. Finally, White produced a two-out, three-run home run off Ricky Bottalico in the top of the 12th that moved the Diamondbacks’ win expectancy from 47% to 96%. Final score, Airzona 12, Philadelphia 9, and no one remembered Devon White’s Golden Sombrero.

Now, in reverse order, the kind of performances one would expect from a Golden Sombrero wearer: the worst.

3) Peter Bergeron, -.579, April 24, 2002

Poor Peter Bergeron, as the leadoff hitter in a 15-inning game, came to the plate eight times for Montreal in this game and failed to reach base even once. Bergeron struck out to lead off the first, grounded out to lead off the third, grounded out with one out in the fifth, flied out to end the seventh, struck out with the winning run on third to end the bottom of the ninth, struck out with one out and the winning run on second in the 11th, grounded out to the pitcher to lead off the 13th, and struck out with runners on second and third with one out in the 15th. All in all, it was a run of staggering incompetence that evokes no other reaction than pity. Reading that line makes me want to pat his head and tell him everything will work out fine, the way one might with a frightened kitten in a thunderstorm.

Of course, after Bergeron struck out with the winning run on third with one out in the bottom of the 15th, Jose Vidro hit a line drive to center that would have been the third out, but Brewers center fielder Alex Sanchez (who himself went 1-for-7) booted the ball, allowing Mike Mordecai to score, and the Expos won, 5-4. So maybe we shouldn’t feel bad for Peter Bergeron.

2) Wayne Garrett, -.583, September 11, 1974

The four strikeouts are really incidental in Garrett’s case–this was a truly bizarre game. The Mets’ 4-3 loss to the Cardinals on September 11, 1974 was a 25-inning affair that would make even last year’s 20-inning debacle look like a girls’ softball game. Not one, not two, but three pitchers threw eight innings or more, two of them in relief. Twelve players batted 10 or more times. Garrett, who started at third base and hit fifth for the Mets, batted eleven times, walked once, and struck out four times, never once scoring or driving in a run. But before you feel bad for him, consider that this game went seven hours and four minutes, and God only knows how many of the 13,460 brave souls who showed up that day stayed until the end.

It really is unfair to blame Garrett in particular; he was really just the worst player in what was, at the time, the longest game ever played to a decision–a 1-1 tie between the Braves and Dodgers in 1920 that was called on account of darkness went to 26 innings.

1) Ed Sprague, -.742, May 28, 1995

With win probability, each team starts with a 50 percent chance of winning, which makes sense. Until you see a line like Sprague’s, -.742 WPA. What that means, in layman’s terms, is that in nine innings, the Blue Jays’ third baseman did enough damage to lose one and a half games. Sprague struck out in the second, struck out with runners at the corners with two outs in the fourth, struck out with a runner on second and one out in the sixth, struck out with two men on in the eighth, and then came the big one. Toronto had trailed Charles Nagy and the Indians the whole way, but they scratched out a run in the seventh, one in the eighth, and entered the ninth needing two runs.

Jose Mesa entered the game for a ninth inning filled with familiar characters to Phillies fans. Devon White, who overcame that Golden Sombrero against the Phillies in 1998, went 2-for-3 with a walk in this game. But back to the ninth inning: Robbie Alomar singled to lead off, then advanced to second on a wild pitch. Then Joe Carter singled in Alomar to cut the lead to one. John Olerud singled to left, and Alex Gonzalez bunted Carter to third and Olerud to second. Pinch hitter Candy Maldonado worked a walk out of Mesa, bringing up Sprague, who had, remember, struck out each of the four previous times he’d batted.

Sprague, with the bases loaded, one out, down one in the bottom of the ninth, had a chance to redeem himself. Instead, he hit the first pitch he saw to short to start a game-ending double play. Thanks for playing, and you can pick up your sombrero on the way out.

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