No matter how you measure it, the New York Yankees have one of the best defenses in baseball this season. Their 14 Outs Above Average rank seventh in baseball, and their 4.6 UZR/150 is behind only the St. Louis Cardinals and Cleveland Guardians. For those who prefer more traditional metrics, their .988 fielding percentage also ranks third, behind the Cardinals and Mariners. Most impressively of all, their 71 Defensive Runs Saved lead the second-place Dodgers by a full 12 runs.
Sometimes, a great defensive play is the difference in a game, such as when DJ LeMahieu and Anthony Rizzo teamed up back on April 15th to help Michael King escape Aroldis Chapman’s bases loaded, nobody out jam unscathed. Most of the time, quality defense prevents the game from even reaching this point, suppressing runs by turning hits into outs so that a high-leverage situation never occurs in the first place.
Jose Trevino’s and Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s play in the ninth inning on Saturday night falls somewhere between these two categories. While a great play, it did not end the game, as the Red Sox still had the tying run on third and the winning run at first with the ever-dangerous Xander Bogaerts at the plate. Yet, in many ways, it completely changed the tone of the ninth inning. And so, inspired by Esteban’s At-Bat of the Week series, I want to dive through this play, bit-by-bit, to highlight what makes it so special.
To recap the situation: having secured a 3-2 lead in the top of the ninth, the Yankees brought in Scott Effross to get the save. After quickly retiring Jarren Duran, he allowed back-to-back singles to Reese McGuire and Jaylin Davis to put runners on first and second with the most potent hitter on the Red Sox roster, Rafael Devers, at the plate. As Yankees fans everywhere had visions of a second-straight walk-off loss dancing in their heads, the side-armer got the left-handed hitter to weakly bounce the ball in front of the plate.
Although it’s not exactly a daily occurrence, a small dribbler in front of home plate like this isn’t exactly uncommon: according to Statcast, Yankees pitchers have induced 16 different “groundballs to the catcher” so far this season. Before Saturday night, the catcher went to first every time.
In fact, catchers throughout baseball have gone to second on a bouncer in front of home plate just three times all season.
As you can see, Trevino was the only catcher of these four to actually complete the throw and get the out. So how did he get himself into a position to make what is clearly such a difficult play? To begin, the speed that he gets out of the box is nothing short of impeccable.
Now, Devers is no speedster — his 25.8 ft/sec sprint speed is in the 18th percentile — but that doesn’t diminish the fact that Trevino is already out in front of the plate, mask off, before he’s two steps out of the box. It is this first step that allows everything that follows to play out the way it did.
Just as important, however, was a recognition of the game environment. It’s clear to me that, prior to the play, Trevino made the conscious decision that he would first attempt to get the runner at second if Devers hit a bouncing ball in front of the plate, in order to prevent the winning run from reaching scoring position and to attempt a game-ending double play. Due to Devers’ slow speed on the basepaths, he knew that he would have plenty of time to stop, reorient himself, and throw him out at first if there was no play on the speedy Jaylin Davis. And so, as he approached the ball, he got his body into position to fire down to second.
The final thing that Trevino does here is that, once he commits to throwing the ball to second, he lets his momentum carry him forward on the throw. If you look back at the other three catchers who attempt this play, all of them stop as they pick up the ball in order to line themselves up to make the throw, even if only for a fraction of a second. Trevino, however, keeps his feet moving the entire way, allowing him to pick up the ball and throw it in one fluid motion — complete with a crow hop that you normally see from an outfielder charging a ground ball that has snuck its way through the infield.
Of course, the throw is only half the play here. Unfortunately, due to both MLB Film Room and Baseball Savant using just one feed of the play that lacks any replays, the clearest screenshot I could get of the play was this shot from a distance, which I think undersells the difficulty.
There are two things that IKF has to do here. His first — and most important job — is to make sure the ball does not wind up in center field, which would likely tie the game and put the winning run on third. His other responsibility is to receive the ball much like a first baseman would and record the out.
Fortunately for IKF, Trevino simplified his job by throwing the ball short, rather than airmailing it (which the other catchers who attempted this play did), thereby allowing him to stretch forward to keep his foot on the bag in order to make the play. That being said, that does not exactly make it an easy play for the shortstop, especially since he has just four professional innings at first base (all in one game in 2016, when he was in Double-A). Stretching for a throw is not something that IKF has to do often, and this wasn’t a straightforward one to stretch for. If you notice, Kiner-Falefa is falling forward and to his right, in order to open up his body to receive a throw that landed pretty much at the bag. It’s an awkward way to make the play, but it gets the job done.
Even had the throw been perfect, Devers was already too far down the line at this point to make a game-ending double play possible, so the Yankees were far from out of the woods at this point. But even so, by cutting down the middle runner, Trevino and IKF were able to keep the winning run out of scoring position, something that I’m sure rookie Scott Effross appreciated while attempting to secure just his second career save (not to mention, first one in pinstripes). It’s not a play that will likely find itself on too many highlight reels — it didn’t even get included in MLB’s game summary on its YouTube channel. Nonetheless, this rather unusual play gives us a bit of insight into how much the Yankees’ improved defense this season has been such a boon to the pitching staff, even by doing something as simple as changing out one runner for another.