Last night, Robinson Cano made a play on a hard hit grounder off the bat of Nick Markakis, diving toward first base on the outfield glass to keep the ball from rolling into right field. Cesar Izturis took off from second base representing the tying run, but he was forced to stop at third.
According to FanGraphs' Win Probability Added (WPA), that play increased the Orioles' chances of winning by 3.5%.
From an AB to AB approach this is true: the Orioles were more likely to win with runners on 1st and 3rd than with a runner on 2nd. But for all the crisp clarity of play-to-play, there are moments within the play that break down farther than WPA can calculate.
After getting ahead in the count 1-0, Markakis watched a curveball strike then fouled off a fastball. In a 1-2 count, he took an emergency hack at a curveball that Gameday shows as low. Sabathia has recorded swinging strikes on only 8.3% of his pitches, well below his 10.7% career average, and Markakis is one of the better contact hitters in the league. True to form, Markakis hit it well.
There was never a play on the ball for Cano. I've seen a few 2B who I think could have turned that grounder into an out: Orlando Hudson when he was with Toronto, Roberto Alomar in his prime, maybe a few others). But it would have been a great play for any second baseman, and I was prepared to watch that ball roll into right field.
When Cano dove, he could have missed it. The ball could have deflected off his glove and rolled away. When he popped up and threw to first, he could have airmailed it or Tex could have missed the throw. Sabathia could have given up a 3 run homer to the next batter and made the great play a moot point.
If the runner scores, the play increases the Orioles chances of winning at that point in the game by 22.2%. That's a bigger swing than the possibility of Cano's go ahead RBI single in the 6th (13.3%), bigger than Sabathia's subsequent K of Luke Scott with the bases loaded to get out of the jam (15.4%).
WPA is light years beyond the traditional boxscore- but there are some plays that are great plays that just don't show up in the spreadsheet.