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The Yankees’ final baserunning blunder turned out to be their worst

It’s impossible not to think about what would have happened if Phil Nevin had just held Aaron Judge at third in that infamous sixth-inning play.

MLB: Wildcard-New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees lost Tuesday night’s Wild Card Game mainly because their offense floundered, much as it had all year. The hitters couldn’t figure out Nathan Eovaldi, didn’t work a single walk on the night, and mustered only six hits. It didn’t help that Gerrit Cole couldn’t get out of the third inning, sure, or that their vaunted bullpen allowed three runs, but the primary culprits are the hitters.

There was, however, a brief period in the game, during the sixth inning, in which the Yankees’ bats appeared to wake up. After Rougned Odor was called out on strikes, Anthony Rizzo finally belted one to deep right field and put the Yankees on the board, 3-1. An infield single by Aaron Judge signaled the end of the game for Eovaldi, and Ryan Brasier took the mound.

Before Judge’s single, the Red Sox’s win probability was 82 percent, and it went down to 78 percent when he reached base safely. It was 90 percent when Odor struck out and 82 percent when Rizzo homered.

Stanton proceeded to rip a 114.9-mph laser to the Green Monster. Thanks to the ball being hit with such strength, Judge’s merely slightly-above-average sprint speed, and Boston’s expertise at playing the ball off the wall in its home park, it made all the sense in the world to hold Judge at third. But third=base coach Phil Nevin sent Judge home in a controversial decision, and the slugger was out by a mile after Xander Bogaerts caught Kiké Hernández’s throw from center field and threw a perfectly-placed bullet to home plate.

Let’s analyze the play. First, the way Hernández came from center field, anticipated the bounce of the ball, caught it and threw it to the cutoff man was masterful. He was perhaps the hero behind the defensive gem of the night.

Bogaerts also deserves a ton of credit for the relay. He made the perfect throw: quick, hard, low, and right to the tag. Catcher Kevin Plawecki didn’t have to do much except hold his ground and tag a desperate Judge as he tried to avoid the ball.

Kudos to Christian Arroyo and Bogaerts for calling the throw from Hernández to go to second, and to Rafael Devers for alerting the middle infielders they had a play at home plate. It was, really, perfect teamwork.

Everything could have been different if Nevin would have just held Judge at third. According to Sporting News:

The math also doesn’t support being aggressive in that type of situation. According to Baseball Prospectus’ 2019 run expectancy matrix (the most recent year with data), teams could expect to gain 1.22 runs with one out and runners on first and third, which assumes Stanton stays at first and doesn’t advance on Bogaerts’ throw to the plate. Conversely, the run expectancy of a runner on second and two outs is 0.34.

Let’s just forget about what could have happened if Judge was safe. Let’s pretend, instead, that he was just stopped at third base. The Yankees went from having men on the corners with one out down 3-1, to having a man at second and two outs, down 3-1. Joey Gallo popped out to end the inning.

Of course, it’s impossible to know if the Bombers could have started a rally with one out and men on the corners. But it’s hard not to wonder what could have been. If they wanted to be aggressive to tie the game, perhaps the play would be easier to digest, but it wasn’t going to level the score — it was going to cut their deficit to one. Preserving the chances of a rally seems like the logical choice there.

And yes, Gallo has been slumping for a while now, but if the Yankees are trusting him enough to bat him cleanup, then why aren’t they trusting him to get that run in? It’s unlikely that Nevin had the time to think, “I’ll probably hold him because Gallo is going to bat now,” but he at least should have thought something like, “I’ll probably hold him because the cleanup hitter is going to bat now.”

Additionally, there is the sense that Nevin took a lot of time to decide and send Judge home. Here is the play seen from above:

Nevin sends him home when he is about to touch third base! You can even see Judge subtly altering his march/speed for a bit as he waited for the instruction.

After Stanton’s “single” and the out at home, the Red Sox’s win probability went back up to 81 percent. Yes, after a ball hit the Green Monster, the Yankees’ odds of winning the game decreased because of the decision to send Judge home that resulted in an out. It went back up to 85 percent after Gallo’s at-bat.

The Red Sox applied a quick hook to Eovaldi. Brasier, the new pitcher, had just allowed a ball hit 115 mph. Perhaps the situation rattles him and the Yankees can tie or go ahead in the score. Again, it’s impossible to know, but it’s not the same to face a two-out situation with a man on second than a one-out scenario with men on the corners.

The Yankees’ baserunners made 22 outs at home, tied for the most in the majors. Once again, they sent a player into no-man’s land with little hope of seeing the other side. It affected them in the regular season, and it cost them dearly in the playoffs.