One of the constant themes of the 2021 season for the Yankees was that there weren’t many constants. There were points in the season in which 80 something wins and a fourth-place finish in a five-team division looked like a distinct possibility. Other times, the team looked like not only were they going to reach the postseason, but that they could make a deep run once they got there.
Regardless, as much as the team was up and down, and as many players ran hot and cold individually, we can break it down even further and look at individual plays that pushed the Yankees either closer to or further away from a championship. To be clear, I’m not necessarily discussing the most memorable plays or the ones that we may “think” had the most impact, one way or the other. Let’s look at the plays that we can say statistically* added to, or decreased the Yankees’ odds of winning the World Series the most in 2021.
(*When I say “we” and “statistically”, I mean the smart folks over at Baseball-Reference have thankfully done the math for us. We’ll use Championship Win Probability Added, or cWPA, which is exactly what it sounds like — the extent to which each play contributed or detracted from the team’s chances of winning a championship, represented by a percentage.)
I’m of the mind that we need to rip off the Band-Aid to get started, so let’s begin with the three plays that held the Yankees back the most in their ultimately doomed quest for ring number 28.
September 15th, Austin Hays homers off Chad Green in Camden Yards:
The Yankees entered action that night nine games behind first-place Tampa Bay and in a three-way tie with Boston and Toronto for two Wild Card spots. In the bottom of the eighth inning, with the Yankees leading 2-1, Baltimore’s Austin Wynn singled and after a Cedric Mullins groundout, advanced to second base on a wild pitch. After striking out Ryan Mountcastle, and getting ahead of Hays 0-2, Green looked like he was navigating himself out of trouble. It didn’t quite end that way, as Hays hit Green’s next pitch over the centerfield wall to give the O’s a 3-2 lead. The -0.49% drop in cWPA for the Yankees represented the third biggest of the season for them. (Although Brett Gardner got some of that cWPA back with a two-run single in the top of the ninth in a game the Yankees would eventually win.)
May 15th, Robbie Grossman hits walk-off HR off Justin Wilson:
Although still early in the season, on that Friday night in Comerica Park the Yankees were in third place in the AL East and only one game ahead of Cleveland in the overall AL standings. After taking a lead on a passed ball — one of their more common success stories of the season — the Yankees went into the bottom of the 10th inning leading 2-1. With a ghost runner on second base to start the inning, Justin Wilson got two quick outs and was one strike away from closing the game out. Except the only thing that went out was the ball off Grossman’s bat, and Detroit went home with a 3-2 win. The -0.59% loss in wCPA was the second most damaging play of the season for the Yankees.
August 12th, Tim Anderson turns “Field of Dreams” into something far worse:
We’re going to rehash the context of how the Yankees entered the bottom of the ninth inning that evening in Iowa with an 8-7 lead in just a minute. On a larger scale, the Yankees were on the outside of the playoff picture looking in at the time and a win would have pulled them to within one game of Boston for the second Wild Card spot. Turns out the optimism was short-lived as Zack Britton issued a one-out walk to Chicago’s Seby Zavala (career .223 OBP, 52 OPS+) which Tim Anderson followed by lining the first pitch he saw over the right-field wall. The -0.61% drop in cWPA was the biggest single-play drop of the season for the Yankees.
Now that the Band-Aid is off, let’s turn to the three plays that pushed the Yankees the closest they’d be to another championship.
September 28th, Giancarlo Stanton “tacks on” against Toronto:
With the Yankees eliminated from first place contention and with only a one-game lead over Toronto in the Wild Card race, a 3-2, seventh inning lead over the Jays was a tension-filled situation. Walking into the box with two outs, and after a DJ LeMahieu single and a walk from Aaron Judge, Stanton gave us reason to breathe comfortably again by sending a line drive down the left-field line and over the wall in Toronto. The home run off Trevor Richards, Stanton’s 35th of the season, added 0.43% cWPA to the Yankees’ chances, the third biggest bump of the season from one hit.
August 12th, Stanton hits one into the corn:
Trailing Boston by two games and Oakland by three in the Wild Card standings, matters looked bleak when the Yankees trailed 7-4 heading into the ninth inning against White Sox closer Liam Hendricks. Even after an Aaron Judge two-run home run cut the lead to one and Joey Gallo drew a walk to get the tying run on base, the Yankees were still one out away from another tough loss. Fortunately for Yankees fans, Hendricks’ first pitch to Giancarlo Stanton was over the middle of the plate and the baseball paid dearly for Hendricks’ mistake. When the ball landed in the Iowa cornfield, the Yankees had an 8-7 lead in the game and had increased their cWPA by 0.56% - the second-biggest boost of the year.
September 25th, Stanton clears the bases in Fenway:
With only eight games remaining in the season, the Yankees, Boston, Seattle, and Toronto were all within two games of each other for the two Wild Card spots. In the top of the eighth inning, with runners on first and second and two outs, and the Yankees trailing 2-1, Boston manager Alex Cora called on lefty Darwinzon Hernandez to face Anthony Rizzo. Hernandez quickly plunked Rizzo, which loaded the bases and with Giancarlo Stanton due up, forced a strategy session on the pitcher’s mound for the Red Sox. We’ll never know what was discussed on the mound that night but whatever it was, it was rendered moot pretty quickly.
Stanton hit Hernandez’s first pitch 114.1 mph and 452 feet (both numbers drastically underestimated if you ask Yankees fans) over the Green Monster, over the monster seats, over the Draft Kings sign, and out of Fenway Park. Yankee fans everywhere went into a frenzy and the Yankees had a 5-2 lead in a game they’d win 5-3. The boost of 0.81 percent to the team’s cWPA added was the biggest of the season from a single swing.
Of course, none of the above turned out to amount to much more than a good offseason conversation about trivia. That said, the above can serve as reminders of a few things:
Games in May count just as much as games in September. All runs count the same, and more runs with a lead can be as impactful as runs that bring you from behind. We’re human and the plays that impact us the most emotionally may not be the most impactful to the team’s chances (Jose Altuve’s walk-off HR off of Chad Green in July and Gio Urshela starting a game-ending triple play sure “felt” like they were going to be on this list.)
Although I generally try to avoid providing scouting reports for the opposition, we can finish with this reminder: If you throw a ball over the middle of the plate when Giancarlo Stanton is up in a big spot, it’s probably not going to end well for you.