Earlier today we went back and looked at the five biggest hits of the Yankees’ season using WPA, so now we’re going to go back and look at the five biggest outs/defensive plays of the campaign. You’re not going to see the same kind of huge win probability swings just because it’s very difficult for one defensive play to increase a team’s chances of winning that much. Sometimes though, getting that one out can be a whole lot more stressful than getting that one big hit. I hate to ruin the surprise, but the greatest closer of all team will be featured prominently…
May 26th: Mo gets Denard Span to bang into a double play
Things weren’t going so well for the Yankees in late-May. Their inaugural trip to Target Field was coming on the heels of five losses in six games, and the team was struggling to score runs. Although this game started on the 25th, it was actually completed on the 26th because of a rain-induced suspension of play in the fifth inning. The Yankees were leading one-zip on a Derek Jeter solo homer when Mariano Rivera came to the mound in the ninth. He sat down J.J. Hardy to lead off the inning, but then walked pinch hitter Jim Thome, who was immediately replaced by pinch runner Alexi Casilla. Denard Span was at the plate as the winning run, but Casilla never attempted to steal second and get himself into scoring position. Mo got Span to ground the ball to second, resulting in a game ending 4-6-3 double play. The WPA of this play was 0.22.
August 11th: Mo gets Josh Hamilton (video)
The state of Texas was not kind to the Yankees in 2010, and in fact this game took place after David Murphy’s walk-off single the night before. With the Yankees up by a run to start the ninth, Elvis Andrus gave the Rangers some hope with a leadoff triple, putting the tying run 90 feet away with the heart of the order coming up. Michael Young popped up the first pitch of his at-bat to shallow right, too shallow for Andrus to score. Texas would have still been able to tie the game by making an out at this point, and they had the eventual MVP coming to the plate. To make matters worse, Rivera fell behind Hamilton 2-0. Mo gave him his trademark cutter, but Hamilton tapped the ball back to the pitcher, again keeping Andrus anchored to third. Because it took the opportunity to score a run on an out away, the WPA swing of Hamilton’s at-bat was 0.25. Vlad Guerrero grounded out to end the game two pitches later, but Hamilton’s out was key.
May 26th: Andy gets Joe Mauer to bounce into a twin killing (video)
A few hours after Span grounded into his twin killing, Andy Pettitte got the reigning MVP to do the same. The score was tied at two in the eighth inning, but Andy was still out there since his pitch count was barely over 80 (83 to be exact). Backup catcher Drew Butera led the inning off with a double, and he then moved over to third to when Alex Rodriguez botched a Span sacrifice bunt attempt. Runners were at the corners with no outs, and the meat of Minnesota’s lineup was coming to the dish. Orlando Hudson lined a pitch back to Andy for the first out, but like I said, it was just the first out. Pettitte fell behind in the count to Mauer, putting him one ball away from a bases loaded situation. Instead, Mauer made weak contact on a slider away, resulting in a garden variety 6-4-3 double and one amazing fist pump from the old man. Mauer’s GIDP resulted in a WPA swing of 0.25.
June 23rd: Mariano’s Mona Lisa (video)
Okay, I confess, this isn’t just one out, it’s three consecutive outs. But they all happened in the same inning, and they each resulted in one of the highest individual defensive WPA swings of the season. I figured it was only right to lump them together, since together they represent the mastery of Mariano Rivera.
The Yankees were in Arizona and up a run in the tenth inning after Curtis Granderson‘s solo homer, but things started to get tenuous rather quickly. Stephen Drew led off the inning with a single, then ended up at third after The Justin Upton doubled. With the winning run at second and a base open, Mo intentionally walked Miguel Montero (2-for-3 in the game and 13-for-33 with five doubles and two homers in his previous eight games) to create the force at any base with still no outs. This is when the master went to work.
The first out of the inning was completely harmless as Chris Young popped up a 1-1 pitch behind the plate, with Frankie Cervelli making the catch. Adam LaRoche followed Young, and after another 1-1 count, the first baseman popped the pitch up to third base, invoking the infield fly rule. Two men down, but the bases were still loaded. Mark Reynolds ended 54.7% of his plate appearances with a walk, a homer, or a strikeout in 2010, but only two of those would have been helped him in this spot. Instead, he went with door number three. Rivera got Reynolds swinging at a pitch off the plate, stranding all three runners and preserving the win. The WPA swings were rather remarkable: 0.20 (Young), 0.27 (LaRoche), and 0.28 (Reynolds). The last two were the third and second biggest outs of the season, respectively, and they came back-to-back. Oh, and that was Mo’s second inning of work on the night. Insanity.
Sept. 14th: Mo to Golson to A-Rod (video)
Despite all of his success, Mo needed a little help in making the biggest defensive play of the 2010 season. Jorge Posada had given the Yankees a one run lead with a long solo homer in the top of the tenth, but Carl Crawford led off the bottom half with a single. As expected, he stole second base but only after Evan Longoria flew out to deep center. The tying run was in scoring position, and a blown lead would have been rather demoralizing since the Yanks were coming off four straight losses and seven in their last eight games.
Matt Joyce had proven to be a thorn in New York’s side earlier in the season, and this time all he needed was a little bloop or a seeing eye single to knot things up. Rivera ran the count full, and on the sixth pitch of the encounter Joyce lifted a routine fly ball to Greg Golson in right. Crawford tagged up and once the ball settled into Golson’s glove, he took off for third. Unfortunately for him, the outfielder decided to give everyone a free look at the gun show. He threw Crawford out the third, ending the game in perhaps the most unexpected way possible. The combination of the fly out and throw out at third resulted in a WPA swing of 0.29. That throw still amazes me.