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Anatomy of an At Bat: Yankees at Rangers ALCS Game 1

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While this might wind up the play of the series, it's not the AB of the game.
While this might wind up the play of the series, it's not the AB of the game.

How do you identify the crucial at bat from last night's American League Championship Series between the New York Yankees and the Texas Rangers?

For a long time it looked like the key AB would be Michael Young's 2 RBI double- you know, the one that hammered nails in the coffin and locked up the game for the Rangers.  Not this time.

The big AB comes from the Yankees' half of the 8th inning, but it was a rally of bullets and bleeders and bases on balls, not bombs and blasts (hooray for the alliterative properties of the English language!).

Gardner singled, Jeter doubled, Swisher walked, Tex walked, Arod singled, Cano singled, Marcus singled. 6-5 Yankees. 

I think Brett Gardner's single sums up the game nicely; find out why after the jump.

Fangraphs believes that Cano's single to center to tie the game was the huge play of the game- statistically, it's true that the game tying hit increased our odds of winning by 26.6% (one of the larger non-walkoff swings the Yankees have seen this season).  But Cano's single came on the first pitch thrown by a new reliever, after Cano singled and homered his previous two ABs.  An incredible hitter in the midst of a hot streak saw the ball and hit the ball.  Not much interesting or compelling analysis there.

Next on the Fangraphs' list is Arod's single, but that has the same feel to me as Cano's: a great hitter seeing a hittable first pitch, pouncing and being lucky that it just got by the fielders and found a patch of grass.

Swisher and Tex's walks are hard for me to separate, and are as much their fight with home plate umpire Gerry Davis' strike zone as a battle with the Rangers' pitching staff and scouting reports.

So that leaves Thames' broken bat go-ahead RBI single, Jeter's double that probably should have been a single if pinch hitter turned left fielder Dave Murphy cuts the ball off cleanly and throws to second instead of to third, and the Gritty Gutty Brett Gardner ground out turned sliding single.

I think the Gardner AB best sums up the entire game because it was what this win was: victory snatched from the jaws of defeat by an uncanny combination of luck and talent.  The Rangers executed cleanly, the Yankees did not, but a couple lucky bounces and some frantic bullpen overmanagement later, the Yankees won anyways.

Let's start by looking at how Texas attacked GGBG during last night's game (remember, these are from the catcher's perspective):

Numlocation

via www.brooksbaseball.net

Cross checked with Gameday, that's all fastballs 89-91 mph.  Gerry Davis' strike zone was shifted down pretty consistently last night, so the first pitch ball is no surprise, especially against a little guy like GGBG.  His ins and outs are harder to judge- that second pitch looks like it was called a strike about half the time and a ball the other half.

Numlocation

via www.brooksbaseball.net

This time, GGBG sees some breaking stuff. Fastball, Slider, Fastball, Curveball, Fastball, Fastball.

Combined with his first AB, it looks like CJ Wilson is only showing inside off the plate; everything else away but near the strike zone.

Numlocation

via www.brooksbaseball.net

That's fastball, fastball, curveball, slider.

So GGBG steps to the plate in the 8th inning looking for pitches away.  As the 4th pitch of the AB, Wilson throws a low slider, breaking away from GGBG.  It wasn't Wilson's best slider of the night (9" break, 1" of depth compared to 10", 3" earlier in the game). It's an out pitch, but not a strikeout pitch; while Posada flailed at it in consecutive ABs earlier in the game, every other Yankee who swung at one made weak contact, either fouling it off or making an out.  And that's what it seemed like Gardner did, too, rolling over on the ball and pulling it weakly toward the first base hold.  But he got lucky.

Personally, I think it was the slide that made the play, not because (as GGBG said in his postgame interview) he got to first base faster- I think the idea of sliding into or through the bag has been shown to be slower because of the friction of hitting the ground.  The slide made the play because it made Gardner impossible to tag.  He'd already won the race to the bag- he couldn't give CJ Wilson the chance to lunge at him.

Wilson got back on the mound and threw two pitches to Derek Jeter, who had obviously been paying attention.  First pitch cutter, fouled away.  Second pitch, slider (CJ's worst of the evening, 8" of break and only 1" of depth) and to the same location on the plate as GGBG's single, breaking in on Jeter where it broke away from Gardner.

At 104 pitches, the pitcher was done, but the ball game wasn't.  And then the fun started.