Breaking Down Michael Young’s Blast

Chants of “Replay!” rained down on Tropicana Field in the fifth inning of the second American League Division Series game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Texas Rangers on Thursday afternoon.

Although we all know that home crowds can exaggerate at times, the controversy here was real. Michael Young was seemingly out on a half swing with runners on first and second and one out in the fifth. Instead, the umpires ruled that Young checked his swing, and on the next pitch, Young took Chad Qualls deep to center field to increase the Rangers’ lead from 2-0 to 5-0.

Top five plays (all percentages from Rangers’ standpoint):

Top 5th, 1 out, 2 on: Michael Young HR, +15.3 percent win probability (77.2 percent to 92.5 percent)
Top 4th, 2 out, 0 on: Ian Kinsler HR, +11.2 percent win probability (57.7 percent to 68.9 percent )
Top 3rd, 1 out, 1 on: Elvis Andrus single, Matt Treanor to third, +5.2 percent win probability (51.9 percent to 57.1 percent)
Top 2nd, 1 out, 0 on: Nelson Cruz double, +4.2 percent win probability (47.6% to 51.8%)
Top 3rd, 0 out, 0 on: Matt Treanor hit by pitch, +3.9 percent win probability (50% to 53.9%)

(No play in the Rays’ favor had a WPA > 0.038)

It’s hard to call this a turning point in the game, as the Rangers already held the lead and were threatening. Instead, this was more of the breaking point for the Rays. The Rays’ win expectancy entering the play was already low at 22.8 percent. The home run lowered the Rays’ win probability to 7.5 percent, putting the Rangers in cruise control both in the game and in the series, with two of the three remaining games coming at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

The play comes out to a total WPA of +15.7 percent. However, part of what makes this play so big and so important in the scope of this game is that, by some accounts, Young should have been out before it even happened. According to the WPA inquirer at The Hardball Times, the situation if Young is called out — two outs, runners on first and second, and a two-run Rangers lead in the top of the fifth — comes out to a 26.6 percent win expectancy for the Rays. That still wouldn’t put optimism into many Tampa denizens, but at least it gives the Rays a fighting shot with players such as Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford yet to receive two or three at-bats. This adds about 4 percent to the win probability difference of the play, as the combination of the check swing called for a ball followed by the home run cost the Rays about a fifth of a win.

It’s easy to say that the call and the play don’t matter at all, as the Rays didn’t even manage to muster a run against C.J. Wilson and then the Rangers’ bullpen. However, that’s a basic case of the fallacy of the predetermined outcome. C.J. Wilson may have been forced to pitch more carefully or under more pressure in the later innings, and perhaps the Rays could have pushed a couple of runs home. By that same token, it’s possible that Josh Hamilton, hitting after Michael Young, would’ve hit a three-run home run instead. We simply don’t know what would have happened, and the home run certainly changed the landscape of the game.

Young’s home run gave the Rangers an insurmountable lead and has pushed the Rays to the brink of elimination. That play certainly wasn’t the only reason the Rays lost — an anemic offense and constant pressure from Rangers hitters deserve blame and credit respectively. When it comes down to one moment in Game 2, though, the Young home run was the biggest moment of the game and of the season to date for these two teams.

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