A baseball game can end in a variety of different ways. Most games end with the winning team in the field, recording the third out of the final inning, then converging near the pitcher’s mound to give each other congratulatory handshakes and high-fives
Some games, though, have a very different scene at the end of the day. Instead of the defense celebrating a victory, it’s the offensive team streaming out of the dugout to mob one of their teammates somewhere on the field, with the defense slowly trudging off towards the showers in defeat. This brings up one of the more literal terms in the baseball lexicon: the walk-off.
What is a walk-off?
A walk-off is a situation where a baseball game ends in the bottom of the ninth inning (or extra innings) when the home team scores the go-ahead run. Singles and home runs account for the most walk-off hits but sacrifice flies, walks, errors, and batters hit by pitches can also result in a walk-off.
Of course, the rules for over 100 years have stipulated that home teams always hit last (more on that later), so it’s only possible for them to win in walk-off fashion.
So, if the home team is batting in the bottom of the ninth inning or in extra innings, a walk-off situation is in play. Once a game goes into extra innings, home teams can only win in walk-off fashion.
How Does a Walk-Off Happen?
A walk-off can happen virtually any way that a run can score in baseball, as long as it gives the home team the lead in the bottom of the ninth or in extra innings. The vast majority of walk-offs are the result of a hit. Most of these game-winning hits come in the form of a walk-off home run or single. Walk-off doubles are rarer and game-ending triples are exceptionally rare (there were none in 2019).
Any walk-off hit that isn’t a walk-off home run needs a runner on base to score the winning run. On a walk-off home run, a runner doesn’t necessarily need to be on base.
In more specific situations, other less-common walk-offs are possible.
If the bases are loaded, a pitcher’s wildness alone could result in a walk-off walk or a hit-by-pitch. Additionally, if there is a runner on third base in any situation, a passed ball or wild pitch could very well end a game.
Or, in that same situation, a pitcher could balk home the game-winning run.
On some occasions, the game could end on a play where at least one out is recorded. The common case is a walk-off sacrifice fly, where a fly ball with less than two outs scores a runner from third base to end the game.
Less commonly, it’s possible to attempt to turn a double play with multiple runners on base and either commit an error or fail to record the out that would end the inning.
In other unconventional walk-off methods, a steal of home could end a game, though it hasn’t happened since 1997.
A walk-off fielder’s choice is possible, as well.
This usually happens with a runner on third and less than two outs. The batter hits a ground ball and the infield tries to throw the runner out at the plate, but the runner beats the throw and scores.
Because it would likely be a routine out in normal circumstances, it is scored a fielder’s choice and the batter is not credited with a hit.
To give you a full idea, stathead has the breakdown of all 198 walk-off hits in Major League Baseball in 2019:
- 79 singles
- 77 home runs (three were a walk-off grand slam)
- 16 doubles
- 10 walks
- 8 sacrifice flies
- 4 errors
- 3 fielder’s choice
- 1 hit-by-pitch
So Walk-Offs Just End Games Suddenly?
Yes, when a walk-off is recorded, the game is over immediately regardless of how many outs, baserunners, etc. there are.
The official rules of baseball give some guidance on what exactly defines a game-ending run. Side note: the rulebook does not explicitly say “walk-off”, only “game-ending.”
In a nutshell, the rule book states that “The game ends immediately when the winning run is scored”. Runners may not overlap one another or risk being called out. If there are two outs and this happens, the inning ends at that moment, even if the game-winning run hasn’t scored.
When a walk-off happens, any subsequent runs that score won’t count, so any game that ends on a walk-off will be a one-run game, except when a batter hits a home run, when all runners and the batter may score, though they are not necessarily required to.
The most notable situation where this happened was in a crucial game in the National League pennant race on September 23, 1908.
With the New York Giants and Chicago Cubs tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Giants’ Al Bridwell singled to center, bringing home Moose McCormick for the game-winning run—or so it seemed.
At the same time, Fred Merkle, the runner at first base, saw McCormick score while halfway to second base, so he immediately turned around and began running to the clubhouse as Giants fans swarmed the field (which was common in those days).
However, there were two outs in the inning, so with the force on Merkle still in effect, the play was not yet complete and the game still was technically not over.
Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers, aware of the situation, managed to get ahold of the baseball (or at least a baseball), got the umpire’s attention, and tagged second base.
The umpire ruled Merkle out, nullifying the winning run, and ending the inning. Since the field was overrun by fans and many players were already off the field, the game was declared a tie, and replayed at the end of the season. The Cubs won the game, and with it, the National League pennant.
The incident, immortalized as “Merkle’s Boner,” emphasizes the technicality that with two outs, all runners must legally touch the next base for a walk-off to be official.
Why Is it Called a Walk-Off?
There are many terms in baseball’s unofficial glossary that are so old and intertwined that their origins are unknown, or murky at best. However, as common as the term is now, its origin is not only clear, but it’s also rather recent.
The term first appeared in print in 1988, in a newspaper article quoting Oakland A’s reliever Dennis Eckersley, who referred to each walk-off home run as “walkoff piece.”
In his own words, Eckersley said a walk-off piece was a “home run that wins the game and the pitcher walks off the mound”. Eventually, the term was shortened to “walk-off” and became popular in subsequent years, as the term spread to cover any sort of situation where the home team scored to win a game.
Even though a walk-off is a relatively new term, it is nonetheless already as ingrained as any in the sport.
Kirk Gibson’s Walk-Off Home Run
The most famous walk-off home run in baseball history belongs to Kirk Gibson. With two outs and down 4-3 against the Oakland Athletics in game one of the 1988 World Series, Gibson was called in to pinch-hit for the Los Angeles Dodgers – despite nursing multiple injuries. I’m sure you can guess what happened next…
Walk-Offs: Odds and Ends
- In the 2019 season, the Los Angeles Dodgers led MLB with 12 walk-off wins (seven came via a home run). The Oakland Athletics had the second-most, leading the American League with 10 (four came via a home run).
- The 1959 Pittsburgh Pirates own the record for most walk-off wins in one season, scoring the winning run 18 times in walk-off fashion. That record played a large role in setting an MLB record with 19 extra-inning wins in one season.
- Jim Thome holds the record for walk-off home runs, launching 13 game-winning homers in his career. David Ortiz holds the postseason record for walk-off home runs, being the only player to hit a walk-off home run twice.
- Home teams are required to hit last, but until 1950, they had the option to hit first. This did not happen after 1913 but occurred enough that four visiting teams have recorded walk-off wins since 1901. The last time was On May 21, 1906, when the Philadelphia Phillies walked off against the St. Louis Cardinals—in St. Louis!
- Similar to Merkle’s Boner, another famous case of runs being erased on a walk-off occurred in the 1999 NLCS. With the bases loaded and the score tied in the 15th inning against the Atlanta Braves, Robin Ventura of the New York Mets hit what appeared to be the first walk-off grand slam in postseason history (and the first grand slam in extra innings in the postseason). However, his teammates mobbed him shortly after he rounded first, meaning that only one run counted on his grand slam, making the final score 4-3 when the final score should have been 7-3 because of his home run. While the Mets still won, I’m sure some bettors in Vegas weren’t too happy with the final score!