This past Saturday afternoon, the Yankees trailed Cleveland 1-0 with the visitors batting in the top of the fifth inning. Cleveland left fielder Oscar Mercado stood in the batter’s box facing the Yankees’ Luis Gil with a 2-1 count, nobody out, and no one on base. At that point in the game, the Yankees’ win probability was 39 percent.
Mercado popped up a middle-in, cement mixer of a breaking ball from Gil behind home plate in foul territory. In frustration, Mercado slammed his bat on the ground and headed back toward the Cleveland dugout. However, before Mercado got very far, Yankees catcher Gary Sánchez misplayed the popup and the ball landed safely in foul territory, resulting in strike two to Mercado instead of the expected out. When Mercado got back in the box, the Yankee’s win probability was still 39 percent.
September 18, 2021
On the next pitch, Gil hit Mercado — he of the 88 OPS+ and .384 SLG — in the arm with a fastball, sending Mercado to first base. Gil followed the HBP with a four-pitch walk to José Ramírez, which was the end of the afternoon for Gil. Manager Aaron Boone came to the mound to remove Gil and replaced him with Albert Abreu.
Abreu immediately fell behind Cleveland slugger Franmil Reyes, then surrendered a 103 mph line-drive double down the left-field line. Abreu followed that up with an HBP of his own, plunking Harold Ramírez, he of the 91 OPS+. Yu Chang (77 OPS+) followed with a double and Owen Miller (46 OPS+) followed with a single. After Austin Hedges fouled out behind home plate, which elicited a sarcastic cheer from the crowd, Cleveland’s Andrés Giménez (57 OPS+, .306 SLG) drove an Abreu hanging slider deep into the right-field seats for a home run.
When the ball settled into the hands of a fan, the Yankees’ win probability was one percent.
Later in the day, two local television newscasts started their game reports by saying that Sánchez had “opened the floodgates.” Two prominent tabloid publications also posted headlines that boldly proclaimed Sánchez’s alleged opening of “floodgates” as well. I stayed off of social media Saturday evening, but I’d bet the word “floodgates” was used numerous times.
Poor choice of metaphor aside, singling out Gary Sánchez for that debacle on Saturday afternoon is misguided and misdirected blame at best. I would argue putting the blame on Sánchez is missing the most important parallel facts about the situation — facts that had a much larger impact on the whole.
Those of you who were lucky enough to remember Tom Seaver as the color commentator for the Yankees some three decades ago probably remember him saying some version of the following quite often after a Yankee fielder would make an error: There will be plenty of times when the pitcher fails to do his job, and his teammates will “pick him up” by making great plays in the field to keep the team in the game. When a fielder makes an error, the pitcher has to understand it works both ways — in order for a team to be successful, the pitcher is going to have to “pick up” his fielders from time to time — it’s what winning teams do. (If you’re joining us late, Tom Seaver knew a few things about winning baseball games on a major league level.)
The Yankees’ pitching staff did not pick Gary Sánchez up. Sánchez was merely a crack in the floodgates and given a chance to repair the crack, Yankees’ pitchers tore the floodgates down instead. If your position is that the entire nightmare of an inning was based on Sánchez putting the pitchers in a bad position, I have news for you: baseball is very hard and can be very challenging. There’s an entire orchestra of tiny stringed instruments ready to play for players and teams that can’t overcome challenges. The win probability was 39 percent before the error and it was 39 percent after the error. Had Sánchez caught the ball the win probability would’ve likely jumped to a whopping 41 or 42 percent. The Yankees’ horrid pitching is what got the win probability to one percent, not Gary Sánchez.
Before you start typing mean things in the comment section, let me be clear about a few things: this is not a personal criticism of Gil and Abreu. Again, baseball is very, very hard and they care exponentially more about the Yankees’ winning than you and I do. The problems with the Yankees’ pitching run much deeper than two young pitchers having a bad game and have been covered extensively already, so there’s no need to re-hash it here.
Secondly, this is not a defense of Gary Sánchez. On a micro-level, the ball in question was far from an easy play, but it was certainly one a major league catcher should make. On a macro-level (which is a discussion too long for today) as a long-time fan and defender of Sánchez, I assure you I’m not blind. There are certainly aspects of his game that need improvement and can be frustrating to watch sometimes.
All that being said, grabbing the pitchforks and torches and heading to social media to demand Sánchez’s ouster is misguided, misplaced frustration. There are far larger things about this team with which we should be concerned.