Last night, I came across a rather thought-provoking take on ESPN.com regrding the final out of Tuesday night’s series finale. Written by Sam Miller, the article titled “What if Eduardo Nunez had been playing back one more foot …” unwraps his theory as to how the outcome of Game 4 could have been different based on the events of that wild 9th inning. The basic premise is this: “Eduardo Nunez was playing 115 feet from home plate. The average third baseman this year, with two strikes on Gleyber Torres, played 117 feet deep.” Simple enough, right? Had Nunez been playing the analytics, he would have had to cover those extra 24 inches on his way to the ball, and that just might have made all the difference in the world. How about if he had been playing just one foot farther back, as he had been on the previous pitch to Torres? Did Nunez know something that the numbers can’t tell us, or was this a case of him being in the wrong place at the right time? All I know is that when the Boston third baseman had to make the biggest play of the season, he made it. He may not have made it look easy, but an out is an out and the Red Sox survived. Miller goes on to talk about the matchup that he believes would have taken place had Torres been safe — Craig Kimbrel vs. Andrew McCutchen with bases loaded and two outs.
If anything, Kimbrel was erratic in that 9th inning. He was throwing his curveball in the dirt left and right, allowing the Yankees to make it a one-run game. Joe Kelly finally started warming in the bullpen shortly after the lead was cut to one, and it is my belief that he would have faced McCutchen if the game had reached that point. Kelly worked 2.1 innings in relief of David Price in Game 2, yielding just one hit in that outing. But he was pulled from that game, in favor of Ryan Brasier, with McCutchen coming to bat. Brasier got Cutch to strike out swiging in that particular instance. Of course, we will never know what would have happened if Andrew McCutchen had come to the plate vs. Joe Kelly in Game 4. Perhaps a 2003 Aaron Boone moment? But Cora’s seemingly harmless decision to not let Kelly face him in Game 2 could have played a big role in deciding the outcome of that would-be matchup with everything on the line. Despite all this speculation on my behalf and the behalf of Mr. Sam Miller, the most basic math still reveals an uphill climb for the Yankees. Even if Torres had reached, creating bases loaded and two outs in the 9th for the home team, win-expectancy models tell us that the Red Sox would have still been 76 percent favorites. In other words, New York would have only had a 24% chance of winning in this hypothetically favorable scenario (if you believe the analytics, of course). No disrespect to math, but as baseball fans we know that statistics like this don’t tell the whole story. “Win expectancy” does not account for Cutch’s clutchness or Kelly’s wild fastball. It does not account for the 40,000+ fans at Yankees Stadium who did not forget that Joe Kelly is Public Enemy #1 for throwing at Tyler Austin earlier this season and starting a fight.
Sam Miller’s conclusion in all of this is, “Nunez playing 116 feet back is just one way it could have gone differently. The truth is that there are infinite ways…” I will let you read what he has to say in the rest of that concluding paragraph, but allow me to interject my own “What Ifs,” if you will. What if Miguel Andujar had started against Rick Porcello in Game 4? Let me explain. Neil Walker got the start and singled off Porcello in the 2nd inning. Not bad, right? But consider this: On August 3rd at Fenway, Porcello tossed a complete game one-hitter against the Yankees. The only hit that night for New York? A Miguel Andujar home run into the Green Monster. In Aaron Boone’s position, I would have started Andujar in hopes that he could have squared up another Porcello offering. Now, let’s take a big step back and keep an open mind when considering this: What if the Yankees had signed Eduardo Nunez in the offseason instead of Brandon Drury? I realize this might be a bit dramatic and that hindsight is 20/20, but Nunez proved to be a solid option at both second and third base for the Red Sox this season. Meanwhile, Drury, who was billed as a viable platoon option for a developing Andujar, missed most of the seasoson with injuries and was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays around the Deadline. Like the Yankees, the Red Sox have a young third baseman in Rafael Devers. But for Game 4, Alex Cora elected to play the more sure-handed glove with the postseason experience (and he bats right-handed) against the lefty C.C. Sabathia. In January, I wrote a “From The Enemy’s Camp” feature about the benefits of the Yankees signing free agent Eduardo Nunez (article linked below), and I recieved a lot of pushback from Yankees fans who remembered his defensive shortcomings from his time in New York. I’m not suggesting that Eduardo Nunez was the big difference over the course of 162, but the way this whole thing played out is a reminder that baseball has a funny way of making heroes out of the most unlikely of candidates. Last season, Nunez got injured on the very first play of the Red Sox postseason as he was running to beat out a throw to first base. He had to be carried off the field and was sidelined for the remainder of the season. And now, a year later, it was his web gem play on the Torres ground ball that sealed it for the Red Sox. Baseball never fails to amuse me. In this great game of ours, anyone (even Eduardo Nunez) can be a hero on any given day.
Sam Miller’s ESPN article: http://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/24952131/mlb-eduardo-nunez-had-playing-back-one-more-foot