What Is a Walk-Off in Baseball?

In Major League Baseball, there’s nothing more dazzling than a walk-off grand slam. With bases loaded, the visiting team is practically shaking as the ninth inning comes to a close and the walk-off looms above them. 

The team at bat hits the ball out of the field, and the players take their game-winning run to close the game in a legendary walk-off play. 

The scene has a certain glory to it, even for people who aren’t ardent baseball fans. The walk-off is often the most stunning play from the sport that has captivated America for more than a century. 

What Is a Walk-Off?

A walk-off occurs when the home team takes the lead in the bottom of the ninth inning or the bottom of one of the extra innings. When this happens, the game immediately ends, the offensive team wins, and the losing team does their walk-off walk off the field.

The home players are always the winners in a walk-off game because the visiting team will not be up to bat again, so there is no chance of them scoring any more points. The home team is the only team that can get a walk-off win in a baseball game because a home team always bats last. 

A walk-off win can occur from any of the following

  • A hit. A hit is when a batter hits the ball. An example is when a batter accomplishes a home run walk-off. 
  • An error. In the scorer’s judgment, a fielder misplays a ball in a way that allows a batter or baserunner to advance. 
  • A walk with the bases loaded. A walk-off walk occurs when a pitcher throws four balls outside the strike zone, and none of them are swung at by the batter.
  • A hit by a pitch with the bases loaded. A game-winning hit by a pitch walk-off is when a pitcher hits the batter, his or her clothing, or his or her equipment. The hit batsman gets to advance to first. 
  • A sacrifice fly. A sacrifice fly walk-off is when a batter hits a fly ball into the outfield or foul territory, allowing a runner to score. 
  • A wild pitch. This walk-off point happens when a pitcher throws a pitch so badly that the catcher cannot reasonably catch it.
  • A passed ball. This walk-off point is when a catcher cannot hold onto a ball even though he or she reasonably could have.
  • A balk. This is an illegal move made by a pitcher that causes all runners to walk to the next base.
  • An out. When there are less than two outs in the bottom of the ninth.

A play is a walk-off as long as it results in enough points to win a game due to that play. The offensive team will then do their winning run. 

Defense To Prevent a Walk-Off Win

At the bottom of the ninth or the bottom of an extra-inning, the away team will do everything they can to prevent the batting team from scoring so that the game goes into another inning. No team wants to perform the walk-off walk of shame. 

If a runner gets on third during this time, the fielding team will do everything to strengthen their defense and prevent a single or double play. Usually, this means bringing the infield closer in so that their chances of throwing home a ground ball and preventing the other team from scoring increase. 

What Happens After a Walk-Off Win?

Once a walk-off win occurs, the game is immediately over, and the home team wins. Usually, when the match ends, the winning team mobs the player who made the walk-off play. 

This dashing onto the field is considered more exciting than the usual high fives at the end of a game. As the batting team does its winning run, the losers walk off the field in the dreaded walk-off loss. 

Sometimes, walk-offs don’t go as expected. For instance, in 1908, New York Giants player Fred Merkle walked off the field before running from first to second base, which would complete the final play since there were already two outs. 

Cubs player Johnny Evers noticed this and scored him out. The game ended with the score tied since Giants fans had already stormed the field, which was common in those days. 

There was also the blunder in the 1999 NLCS where Mets player Robin Ventura hit the first grand slam in an extra-inning in postseason history, but his teammates mobbed him before he got to first, which changed the final score. 

Most Common Walk-Off Plays

Most walk-off wins have ended with a walk-off hit. Once the batting team scores, with a player making it to home plate, the game ends immediately. 

When the match ends, the batting team has won, and the final score is definitive. The team then performs their winning run to show off their victory. 

When a match ends in a walk-off, it’s usually a walk-off single or because a batter hits a home run. Sometimes, a double or triple occurs in the last play, but it’s not as common. 

Enthusiasts typically consider home run walk-offs the most exciting games, and fans cheer as the winners do the winning run. 

In a walk-off single, the runner who is on third base is the person who scores. Typically, if there are other players on base, the only player that can score is the one on third base who wins the match in a game-ending walk-off single play. 

In the 2019 season, 79 walk-off plays were singles and 77 were walk-off home runs, three of which were grand slams. 

Famous Walk-Offs and Records

Probably the most famous walk-off in MLB history is when the Los Angeles Dodgers were down by one point at the bottom half of the final inning of the 1988 World Series against the Oakland Athletics. Kirk Gibson was called to bat for them, despite multiple injuries, and scored a walk-off home run that won the match for the Dodgers. 

The so-called “shot heard round the world” is also considered one of the most incredible walk-offs of all time. This play occurred when New York Yankees player Bobby Thomson hit the home run that won the playoff match against the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951. 

The Yankees also won the American League pennant in a walk-off home run in 2003. 

Another famous walk-off was in 2018 when Max Muncy’s home run ended the longest World Series game. The hit finished the 18 extra innings played in the seven-hour and twenty-minute game, making it almost the longest game ever played in MLB. 

There was also Mickey Mantle’s 1964 walk-off home run in game three of the World Series. In that match, the Yankees won over the St. Louis Cardinals. 

Finally, the 1975 home run walk-off, which Carlton Fisk hit in game six of the World Series, won the match for the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. The left-field foul pole where the ball hit is now named for Fisk. 

Jim Thome is the person who holds the walk-off home run record with 13. The team with the most walk-offs in one season is the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1959, when they won 18 games this way. 

Origin of the Term

The term was coined by Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley in 1988 when he used it to refer to a pitcher walking off the pitcher’s mound after the opposing team hit a game-winning home run. 

Final Thoughts

A walk-off loss can be just as devastating for the losing team as an ultimate grand slam during the final at-bat is exciting for the winning team. Yet, the enthusiasm that comes from a home run is electrifying. 

The fans jump up and down in excitement as their team performs their winning run making up some of the greatest plays in sport’s history. Truly, a walk-off grand slam is a sight to behold.