Brett Gardner congratulates Curtis Granderson of the New York Yankees after making a catch to end the first inning in Game Four of the American League Division Series against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park on October 4, 2011 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Tuesday night, the Yankees beat the Tigers by nine. But the entire game might've turned on Granderson's leaping catch in the bottom of the first.
In Game 4 of their ALDS, the New York Yankees beat the Detroit Tigers 10-1. The Yankees scored ten runs, and the Tigers scored one run. Any time a team scores ten times as many runs as its opponent, it feels a little weird to suggest that everything turned on one single play; after all, the difference was a lot more than one play.
But I dunno you guys - Tuesday night, Curtis Granderson made a pair of spectacular catches in center field, and I can't shake the feeling that the first of them changed the course of the game completely.
This isn't an original thought of mine. Granderson's defense last night is all a lot of people want to talk about today. But I want to explore it in a little more depth, because I think it was hugely significant, and more significant than the final score would imply.
The setting: in the bottom of the first, there was no score, and the Tigers had the bases loaded with two outs. A.J. Burnett was struggling on the mound, and the Yankees bullpen was already active. At the plate, Don Kelly took a first-pitch ball, then swung at a fastball in the low-away corner and ripped a line drive to straightaway center.
Curtis Granderson did this. That's the video. These are the stills:
Granderson hesitated, backtracked, leaped, and caught the ball at full extension before falling down. In that way, the inning ended, scoreless, and the Yankees went on to score ten runs the rest of the way, while the Tigers scored one.
But what if Granderson hadn't made that catch? What if the ball glanced off his glove, or missed his glove entirely? We can guess, or we can turn to win expectancy, which is like using math to guess better. The idea behind win expectancy is that, at any given moment, in any situation, both teams have a certain chance of winning. This is an example of a win expectancy chart.
An assumption with win expectancy is that everything is average. This isn't always true, like when, say, the Phillies are playing the Astros. But with the Yankees playing the Tigers in Detroit with A.J. Burnett facing Rick Porcello, things were probably pretty close to even. So then we can look to the numbers and trust them.
The Tigers' win expectancy when Kelly stepped up was about 57 percent. When Granderson came up with the catch, that dropped to 50 percent. You can quibble about a point or two here and there, but anyway.
What if Granderson misses the ball, though? At the very least, that's a three-run double, and the Tigers' win expectancy shoots up to 80 percent. If it's a three-run triple, it's 81 percent. If it goes for an inside-the-park grand slam - which many suspect, since Granderson was falling, and Kelly is fast, and the ball was hit to the deepest part of the yard - it's 85 percent.
That catch by Granderson was worth about 30 - 35 percentage points of win expectancy. Because he made the catch, everything went back to even. Had he come up short, the Yankees would've been way behind the 8-ball.
And who knows what happens from there? Maybe Burnett comes undone and gets himself into more trouble. After all:
"It was a little nerve-wracking," Burnett admitted.
Or maybe Burnett gets yanked before he gets the chance to do anything else. Again, the bullpen was stirring when Kelly hit his liner, and we all knew going in that Joe Girardi wouldn't exercise much patience with Burnett with the season on the line.
So many things would have been different. The Tigers would've gotten a big early lead. Articles like this and this wouldn't have been written. Maybe the Yankees storm back later on, but maybe they don't - we can't just assume they still would've scored ten runs, because baseball doesn't work that way. Every event is in some way related to all prior events.
Curtis Granderson's leaping catch of Kelly's liner might have saved the Yankees' season. It's not fair to say he did it singlehandedly - a lot of other things happened, too, and missing that catch wouldn't have guaranteed a loss - but it can't be overstated how important that catch really was. There's no more difficult play for a center fielder to make than a line drive directly over his head, and Granderson snagged the ball in an impossibly crucial situation.
It'll be interesting to see if the Yankees go on to win the World Series. I hope that they don't - most people hope that they don't - but if they do, Granderson's catch might play the role of Dave Roberts' stolen base. With a difference being that the catch was way more important.