As soon as New York Yankees reliever Bob Wickman heard the ball leave Larry Walker’s bat, he knew it was trouble. Walker, the Montreal Expos’ 27-year-old right fielder, had been hitting well enough in the World Series before the bottom of the 11th inning in Game 7. But he’d also been held homerless until coming up in this crucial spot, with two runners on base in the bottom of the 11th inning of Game 7. As the championship hung in the balance, one swing changed everything. A year after Joe Carter won the 1993 World Series for another Canadian team with a walk-off home run, Walker crushed Wickman’s pitch over the wall in right for a title-clinching blast of his own. As he circled the bases at Stade Olympique, confetti raining down, Walker relished in knowing he had created one of the most indelible feel-good moments in the history of the game.
The Expos were 1994 World Champions.
None of that actually happened, of course. When the team formerly known as the Expos — now called the Washington Nationals, after moving from Canada to D.C. back in 2005 — took the field in Tuesday’s World Series Game 1, it was the very first Fall Classic appearance in franchise history, regardless of home city. But fans of the club’s earlier incarnation, Les Expos, will always wonder about the one that got away 25 years ago. The 1994 baseball season ended with a players’ strike on Aug. 12, and with that, countless what-ifs were launched. So let’s talk about them. What if the season hadn’t ended? What if, instead, ’94 had been allowed to play out as scheduled? Would Roger Maris’s home run record have been broken early? Would Tony Gwynn have hit .400? Would the Expos, owners of an MLB-best 74-40 record when play ceased, have actually won the World Series?
To help find the answers, we reached out to the makers of Out Of The Park (OOTP), a baseball simulation game we’ve partnered with before on such topics as Bryce Harper’s free agency and designated hitters in the National League. This time, we asked them to run a bunch of simulations of the 1994 season, from the moment of the strike through the end of the World Series, and track how often various significant individual and team accomplishments happened. (For example, the Walker home run from above came from Simulation No. 55 of the World Series matchup between the Expos and their most common World Series simulation opponent, the Yankees.)
If the 1994 season couldn’t exist in reality, at least many versions of it can play out on the virtual diamond. What follows is a rundown of what OOTP thinks was most likely to have happened in an alternate universe where the season could be played to completion.
Let’s start with the regular season. Here is what OOTP’s simulations think the standings — which newly included a wild-card playoff slot for teams that didn’t win their divisions — would have looked like if the season was allowed to play out normally:
|American League||Record At Strike||Simulated Seasons|
|New York Yankees||70||43||100.0||62.0||98.9%|
|Toronto Blue Jays||55||60||76.2||85.8||<0.1|
|Boston Red Sox||54||61||74.4||87.6||<0.1|
|Record At Strike||Simulated Seasons|
|Chicago White Sox||67||46||96.3||65.7||92.6%|
|Kansas City Royals||64||51||87.1||74.9||4.6|
|Record At Strike||Simulated Seasons|
In the American League, the playoff field would very likely have included the Yankees out of the East — thus snapping a 12-season drought for the Bronx Bombers — plus the White Sox (who had lost the League Championship Series the previous year) and the Indians from the brand-new Central division. And somebody had to win the abysmal four-team AL West, although OOTP thinks the winner — whether it was Oakland or Texas, or maybe even someone else — would very likely have carried a below-.500 record, probably joining the 1981 Royals as the only team in baseball history to make the postseason with a losing regular-season mark.
|National League||Record At Strike||Simulated Seasons|
|NL East||W||L||W||L||Playoff Odds|
|New York Mets||55||58||76.3||85.7||<0.1|
|Record At Strike||Simulated Seasons|
|NL Central||W||L||W||L||Playoff Odds|
|St. Louis Cardinals||53||61||75.4||86.6||<0.1|
|Record At Strike||Simulated Seasons|
|NL West||W||L||W||L||Playoff Odds|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||58||56||84.8||77.2||92.0%|
|San Francisco Giants||55||60||78.2||83.8||8.0|
|San Diego Padres||47||70||70.1||91.9||<0.1|
As for the NL, the Expos would almost certainly have made the playoffs, probably as East champs over the defending West champion Braves, who’d been realigned into a more proper geographic bucket when the third division was added. (Incidentally, this would probably have interrupted Atlanta’s real-life streak of consecutive division titles, which reached 14 only on the technicality that play was suspended in 1994.) But the Braves were very likely to have won the wild card, joining the West champion Dodgers and either the Reds or Astros out of the Central to round out the playoff field in ’94.
In terms of individual performances, Maris’s record of 61 home runs was broken 188 times in the 1,000 simulations OOTP ran — 145 by Giants third baseman Matt Williams (who had 43 homers when play ceased), 24 by Mariners center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. (who had 40) and 19 by others — and tied another 102 times. Because it’s possible that more than one of these performances could happen in the same season, there was about a 27 percent chance that somebody would have at least tied Maris’s record in 1994 and an 18 percent chance the record would have been outright broken.
|Chance To…||In OOTP sims. with ≥62 HRs|
|Player||Team||Break Record||Break/Tie Rec.||Avg. HRs||Max. HRs|
|Ken Griffey Jr.||SEA||2.4||4.2||63.7||68|
The record would eventually go down anyway thanks to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s home run chase in 1998, which itself had a tremendous ripple effect on baseball history through the subsequent steroids scandal. We don’t know how later seasons would have played out if the record had been broken in ’94, but we can say there was a not-insignificant chance that Maris’s mark would have been surpassed in a universe without the strike.
Meanwhile, the other big historical chase of note in 1994 was obviously Chuck Knoblauch’s pursuit of the all-time doubles record, 67, set by Earl Webb in 1931. Just kidding. (Although OOTP thinks there was a 3.1 percent chance Knoblauch would hit 68 or more doubles, and a 1.1 percent chance for Craig Biggio as well.) The actual marquee pursuit belonged to Gwynn, the legendary Padres outfielder who had his eye on becoming MLB’s first .400 hitter since Ted Williams did it in 1941. Gwynn was hitting .394 when the strike happened and had been at .400 as recently as May. (He was also heating up right before the strike, hitting .475 in the first 11 days of August.)
|In OOTP sims. ≥.400|
|Player||Team||Chance To Hit .400||Avg BA||Max BA|
According to OOTP’s simulations, there was about a 31 percent chance that Gwynn would finish the season with a batting average of at least .400 — including one incredible simulation that had Gwynn hitting .430, which would have been the highest average by an MLB hitter since 1894 (and the third-highest ever).
(There was even another stray simulation in which Yankees right fielder Paul O’Neill, who sported a .359 mark at the strike, ended the season with an average of exactly .400. That would truly be the .400 season nobody saw coming.)
But the biggest what-ifs around the 1994 campaign involve its lost postseason and whether a team like the Expos would have actually been able to win the World Series if it hadn’t been canceled. Here’s how OOTP’s simulations set the odds of each potential playoff team reaching each round of the 1994 postseason:
|Chance to Make…||Chance to Make…|
|American Lg||Playoffs||LCS||WS||National Lg||Playoffs||LCS||WS|
The Yankees were the most probable pennant winner in the AL, despite the rule at the time that would likely have pitted them against the formidable Indians (who would go on to play in two of the next three World Series) in the Division Series.1 Following somewhat further behind them in World Series odds were the star-studded White Sox (of Frank Thomas and Jack McDowell) and Indians (Kenny Lofton; Albert Belle) as well as the last vestiges of the Rickey Henderson-era Oakland A’s. There was about a 64 percent chance that either the Yankees or White Sox would have represented the AL in the 1994 World Series.
Over in the NL, it was a close race for the most likely pennant winner. Despite having the league’s best record, OOTP gave the Expos only the second-best probability of making the World Series (25 percent), trailing the division-rival Braves (27 percent). Why? Atlanta had a slightly higher-rated group of players — including a number of eventual Hall of Famers — after making two of the previous three World Series, while Montreal had taken a more recent quantum leap forward over the previous two seasons. And the Reds were in the NL pennant conversation, too, at 23 percent, not having been too far removed from winning the 1990 World Series. (Top players Barry Larkin and José Rijo were the cornerstones of that team as well.) Further, about 75 percent of OOTP’s sims had either Atlanta, Montreal or Cincinnati making the World Series out of the NL. Combining all of these numbers together, here’s a matrix of what the most probable World Series matchups would have been in 1994:
(Unfortunately, an Expos-Astros World Series that season would have been impossible — both were in the National League at the time. How things change!)
Based on these combinations, here’s what OOTP’s simulations would have seen in store for the four most likely 1994 World Series matchups:
- Yankees vs. Braves: We’d get to see a version of this one two seasons later, when the Yankees came back from a mere 14.2 percent chance of winning the World Series (at their low point) to capture the proud franchise’s first championship since 1978. This hypothetical World Series’s cast would have featured many of the same characters as in ’96, except with Buck Showalter managing New York, Don Mattingly still in pinstripes, and no Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera or Derek Jeter for the Yankees or Marquis Grissom for the Braves. OOTP thinks the Yankees would have the edge, tagging the vaunted Braves rotation for a .314 batting average and 5.7 runs per game.
Chance of happening: 10 percent
Favorite: Yankees (55 percent)
Most Likely Outcome: Yankees in six (21 percent)
Most Likely MVPs:2 Atlanta 1B Fred McGriff (15 percent); New York RF O’Neill (13 percent)
- Yankees vs. Expos: Although I chose to dramatize the Expos’ win in Simulation 55 for the lede of this story, OOTP has the Yankees beating Montreal in more simulations than not. The Expos did have the superior pitching staff (either by WAR or OOTP’s player ratings) in 1994, and they hit more home runs and stole more bases than the Yankees in the head-to-head simulations. But New York played better defense and ultimately scratched out more runs per game on average, led as they were by a deeper group of position-player talent. Then again, this just makes the Expos underdogs — and what better way for Montreal’s storybook season to end than in an upset victory over the Yankees?
Chance of happening: 9 percent
Favorite: Yankees (57 percent)
Most Likely Outcome: Yankees in six (24 percent)
Most Likely MVPs: New York CF Bernie Williams (15 percent); Montreal RF Walker (15 percent)
- Reds vs. Yankees: The Reds haven’t been the most successful of teams recently, having won only five postseason games since 1990. But if the strike hadn’t happened, there’s a chance Cincinnati could have added a second title of the 1990s to its trophy cabinet. In this head-to-head matchup with the Yankees, the Reds muscled past New York more often than not, thanks to the superior power of left fielder Kevin Mitchell — and the superior power pitching of starter Rijo and the rest of the Cincy rotation. Outhomering the Yankees by an average of 6.9 to 4.9 per series, Cincinnati victimized N.Y. starters Jimmy Key and Jim Abbott alone for 2.3 of them on average.
Chance of happening: 8 percent
Favorite: Reds (55 percent)
Most Likely Outcome: Reds in six (18 percent)
Most Likely MVPs: Cincinnati LF Mitchell (20 percent); New York RF O’Neill (19 percent)
- Braves vs. White Sox: The most interesting potential 1994 matchup could be the one nobody ever talks about: the Bravos versus the Pale Hose. In OOTP’s simulations of the matchup, it was a perfectly even split in terms of who would win — the Braves swept more often, the ChiSox won in six more often, and the teams were dead-even in terms of winning in either five or seven games. The star power in this one goes unappreciated, between the Braves’ staff of aces, actual 1994 AL MVP Frank Thomas and a bunch of other supporting talent (McGriff, Robin Ventura, etc). The showdown of starters would also have ranked among the best in World Series history, with each rotation ranking among the Top 4 in both WAR and OOTP’s rankings. Cumulatively, the Braves won more total games across all of the simulated series, so you could call that an edge for Atlanta. But if it had happened, this World Series would probably have been a closely matched thriller.
Chance of happening: 7 percent
Favorite: PUSH! (50-50 split)
Most Likely Outcome: White Sox in 6 (16 percent)
Most Likely MVPs: Atlanta SP Greg Maddux (24 percent); Chicago 1B Thomas (20 percent)
All told, here’s who OOTP’s reconstructions of the 1994 stretch run and playoffs think the most likely World Series winners that year would have been:
|Team||League||chance of winning the world series|
|New York Yankees||American||23.7%||
|Chicago White Sox||American||14.7||
|Los Angeles Dodgers||National||6.2||
|Kansas City Royals||American||0.2||
|San Francisco Giants||National||0.1||
Perhaps surprisingly, many fans’ default belief — that the strike cost the Expos a certain title, and maybe even their future in Montreal — isn’t fully supported by OOTP’s simulations. Instead, it thinks the bigger victims were three teams who would each win titles within 11 years of the lost ’94 postseason. And in that sense, maybe it’s better that we don’t know who would have won. The romance of Montreal’s missing championship will exist forever in fans’ minds, even if it wasn’t actually as likely as it seems in hindsight. And hey — it also existed in 12 percent of the computer’s simulations, including Walker’s heroics in OOTP alternate universe No. 55.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.
CORRECTION (Oct. 25, 2019, 4:30 p.m.): A previous version of the final table in this story incorrectly listed the Houston Astros as being in the American League in 1994. Although Houston is in the AL today, it was a member of the National League in 1994.
CORRECTION (Oct. 29, 2019, 3 p.m.): A previous version of this article gave the incorrect number of postseason wins by the Cincinnati Reds since 1990. The team has won five postseason games since then, not two.