After falling behind 6-0 to the Oakland Athletics in last night’s game, the Yankees mounted a furious comeback attempt that literally just fell short when Nick Swisher’s bid for a walk-off grand slam landed in Coco Crisp’s glove, just inches from the center field wall.
As is often the case when losing by a slim margin, there are several at bats, plays, and managerial decisions (bunting with one of the games’ hottest hitters, for example) that can be second guessed, but perhaps no one will be kicking themselves more than Swisher and Mark Teixeira. Not only did the two Yankees’ switch hitters fail to deliver with the bases loaded in the ninth inning, but the duo combined to leave 11 runners stranded.
If Swisher’s fly ball had traveled a couple of more feet, he would have been hailed as a hero. Instead, he wound up producing the lowest WPA by a Yankee batter this season. At least Swisher hit the ball hard (although the wisdom of swinging 2-0 against a wild pitcher could be questioned). After popping up to third base, Teixeira had no such consolation. Thanks to his ninth inning out, which capped an 0-5 night, the Yankees’ first baseman also cracked the top-10 lowest WPA games by a member of the offense.
The mention of WPA is not intended to denigrate Swisher or Teixeira, nor to provocatively suggest they are not clutch players. Rather, it illustrates just how thin the line is between hero and goat in major league baseball, particularly as illustrated by the outcome of Swisher’s final at bat. Although most studies seem to suggest that, over large enough samples, player performance does not change dramatically based on the leverage of individual situations, the existence of big hits and big outs are undeniable, regardless of how random they might be. That’s why, sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good.
Even though Swisher wound up having an especially unproductive game, his evening of futility doesn’t even register on the franchise’s all-time list. Instead, the honor for largest single game contribution to defeat belongs to Juan Rivera, who went 0-6 with three double plays in a 10-9 loss to the Detroit Tigers.
On the flip side, Alex Rodriguez’s WPA of 0.936 against the Baltimore Orioles on April 7, 2007 is the highest total every compiled by a Yankees’ hitter in one game. In that contest, Rodriguez kicked off his 2007 MVP season with a walk=off grand slam that helped the Yankees erase a 7-3 deficit entering the eighth inning.
Despite being maligned for years as an “unclutch” player, Arod not only sits atop the Yankees’ regular season single game WPA list, but he also has three post season games in the top-10 (no one else has more than one). At the bottom of the list, however, is Johnny Damon, whose 0-4 in game 2 of the 2009 ALDS rated a -0.354. In that game, Damon had a chance to author a walk-off, but instead lined into a double play when Brett Gardner was caught off third by the short stop. Once again, a player went from hero to goat (at least in terms of WPA) despite hitting the ball hard
Although Arod has the most “big games” in the post season, the highest WPA by a Yankee in October belongs to Charlie Keller, who went 4-5 with three RBIs in game four of the 1941 World Series, including a two-run ninth inning double that gave the Yankees a 5-4 lead. Unfortunately for Dodgers’ catcher Mickey Owen, Keller wouldn’t have been the game’s hero if he hadn’t become its goat. With two outs in the ninth, right hander Hugh Casey struck out Tommy Henrich for what seemed like the final out of the game. However, the ball squirted past Owen, and Henrich reached safely. Joe DiMaggio then followed with a single, setting up Keller for his historic moment. Although the left fielder known as King Kong still had to get a big hit, he would never had the chance if Owen was able to squeeze the final strike.
Baseball truly is a game of inches. Last night, Nick Swisher found that out the hard way. Considering the Yankees domination of the Athletics over the last few seasons, a break was bound to go their way, so you really can’t complain too much. However, about that bunt…