For a team whose season will be defined by failures with runners in scoring position, the Yankees sure did seem to have a lot of enormous hits along the way. Especially late in the season too — September and October featured all sorts of memorable hits that injected new life into a team that was fighting tooth and nail for the division title down the stretch.
With some help from win probability added, or WPA, we’re going to take a look at New York’s five biggest hits of this season. If you’re not familiar with WPA, I highly recommend Joe’s primer. Long story short, it tells you how much an event — a hit, strikeout, walk, error, anything in baseball — increases or decreases a team’s chances of winning using historical data. For example, if the Yankees have a 50% chance of winning when I step to the plate and hit a walk-off homer (thus giving them a 100% chance of winning), I get credit for the +50% (0r +0.50 WPA) while the pitcher gets charged with +50% (-0.50 WPA). Simple enough, right?
Anyway, WPA isn’t a predictive stat and it doesn’t have a ton of analytical value. It lacks context like the quality of the pitcher and hitter, the impact of the game in the standings, stuff like that. It is useful for this kind of exercise though, a fun look back at some of the biggest hits of the season. You won’t be surprised to see that one player is featured prominently in this post.
April 11th: Nick Swisher vs. Kevin Gregg (WPA graph & box score) (video)
You wouldn’t know it from his playoff performance, but Swisher had a monster season with runners in scoring position. He hit .301/.406/.589 (164 wRC+) with eleven homers in 181 plate appearances in those situations, including a game-winning homer against the Orioles just six games into the season. The Yankees had tied the game at four on a Curtis Granderson single in the seventh, and score didn’t change until Swisher took Gregg’s full count hanging slider out to right-center. Eduardo Nunez had singled earlier in the inning but was picked off first, so his teammates — Mark Teixeira doubled ahead of the homer — picked him up. That was the last extra innings game Baltimore would lose in the regular season. WPA: +0.45
October 2nd: Raul Ibanez vs. Andrew Bailey (WPA graph & box score) (video)
The Yankees and Orioles were locked in a tight division race down the stretch, and a loss by New York in Game 161 would have had the two clubs tied atop the AL East heading into the final day of the regular season. The Red Sox took a two-run lead in the first inning off David Phelps and tacked on an insurance run with a solo homer in the ninth, so the Yankees had three outs to score two runs in the bottom of the inning. Andrew Bailey was on the mound to face Granderson, who only batted in the ninth inning because Brett Gardner got caught stealing to end the eighth. Curtis singled to right to lead things off, then Ibanez came off the bench to pinch-hit for Nunez. Bailey caught way too much of the plate with a 1-2 fastball, a pitch Raul hooked into the right field seats for a game-tying two-run homer. He went on to win the game with a walk-off ground ball single in the 12th inning — a hit that preserved the team’s one-game lead in the standings — but only the dinger cracks our list. WPA: +0.45
September 22nd: Ibanez vs. Pat Neshek (WPA graph & box score) (video)
A little less than two weeks prior to his heroics against the Red Sox, Ibanez came up huge in a big extra innings comeback against the Athletics. The two clubs were deadlocked at five after seven innings and stayed that way until the 13th, when Oakland unloaded on Freddy Garcia and Justin Thomas for three homers and four total runs. The Yankees were not going down without a fight though, as the first three hitters in the bottom of the inning singled to load the bases with no outs. The first run scored on a wild pitch and the second on a Nunez sacrifice fly, but it was Ibanez who did the honors of tying things up. Neshek, a right-handed submariner, left a 3-1 sinker right out over the plate, which Ibanez clubbed halfway up the second deck in right for another game-tying two-run homer, his second dinger of the game. The Yankees won the game on a walk-off error an inning later, which was all made possible by what was essentially the start of Raul turning into Mr. Big Hit down the stretch. It was the team’s biggest hit during the regular season. WPA: +0.46
October 10th: Ibanez vs. Jim Johnson (WPA graph & box score) (video)
Now we’re venturing into the postseason. The Yankees and Orioles couldn’t settle their differences during the regular season, so their season-long battle for AL East supremacy spilled over into the ALDS. The series was knotted at one and New York was on the verge of falling into a 2-1 hole in the ninth inning of Game Three. Baltimore had been nursing a 2-1 lead since the fifth inning and they had their All-Star closer on the mound with two outs to go, but Joe Girardi elected to remove Alex Rodriguez from the game to get the platoon matchup with Ibanez. Johnson left a 1-0 sinker up in the zone, right in Raul’s swing path, and he hammered it out to right-center for a game-tying solo blast. The pinch-hit worked to perfection, and a few innings later Ibanez won the game with a walk-solo homer into the second deck off lefty Brian Matusz. The first homer was the biggest though, bringing the Yankees from the brink of a loss to a tied ballgame. WPA: +0.47
October 13th: Ibanez vs. Jose Valverde (WPA graph & box score) (video)
Yeah, that’s right, Ibanez again. He really turned into Mr. Big Hit in the final few weeks of the season, and his most impactful hit of the year also happened to be one of his last. The Yankees had been stymied by the Tigers’ pitching staff in Game One of the ALCS, and they were down four runs heading into the ninth. Valverde had been very hittable in recent weeks, and he let New York get on the board with an Ichiro Suzuki two-run homer with one out in the bottom of the inning. Robinson Cano followed with a strikeout for the second out, but Teixeira worked a tough eight-pitch walk to bring the tying run to the plate. Ibanez wasted no time against Valverde, sabotaging a hanging 0-1 splitter for yet another game-tying two-run homer to right. There was nothing to be said at this point, Raul had rendered everyone speechless. He had been giving the Yankees new life time after time down the stretch, and he did so again in the ALCS opener. Just amazing. WPA: +0.49
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The Yankees had four other hits register at +.40 WPA or higher this season (links go to video): Derek Jeter’s solo homer off Casey Janssen in late-August (+0.44), Ibanez’s three-run homer off Felix Hernandez in early-May (+0.43), Jayson Nix’s three-run double off Shawn Kelley in late-July (+0.42), and Teixeira’s two-run homer off Vicente Padilla in late-July (+0.41). As you’ve probably noticed, the biggest WPA swings occur when a hit turns a deficit into a tie game (or a lead), which is why homers that break a tie — Russell Martin vs. Johnson in ALDS Game One or Ibanez vs. Matusz in ALDS Game Three — usually only register in the +.35-ish range. Swisher’s homer off Gregg scored higher because it gave the team a two-run lead, not just one like Martin’s off Johnson.
Subjectively speaking, I think the Ibanez homer off Johnson in Game Three of the ALDS was the biggest hit of the season. The homer off Valverde was crazy clutch, but the Yankees went on to lose the game and that took some of the shine off it. All Raul did was delay the inevitable. That game-tying homer against the Orioles was something to behold though, and it stands out even more because Ibanez ended the game with another homer a few innings later. That’s just my opinion though, you’re welcome to feel that another hit was the biggest of the season.