What if Eduardo Nunez had been playing back one more foot ...

BySam Miller ESPN logo
Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Here's one way it could have gone differently: Eduardo Nunez was playing 115 feet from home plate. The average third baseman this year, with two strikes on Gleyber Torres, played 117 feet deep.

What if Eduardo Nunez was playing 117 feet from home plate? What if he'd been playing even 116 feet away, as he had on the 1-1 pitch to Torres (but not the 0-0, 0-1 or 1-2 pitches)? The play at first would have been close. Nunez, if he didn't barehand it, if he didn't eat it, if he didn't grip it poorly and throw it down the right field line, most likely would have made a throw to first that Torres would have narrowly beaten out. The umpire might still have called Torres out, and the Red Sox might still have celebrated cautiously around the mound, but in the 116-feet-deep scenario, the Yankees would have won the challenge and the call would have been overturned. The game would have gone on.

"Believe me," Xander Bogaerts said after Tuesday night's 4-3 Division Series-clinching victory for the Red Sox, "I've played third base, and I know that play could have gone either way and it could have been a different ballgame."

Would it have been a better ballgame? With sincere and hearty congratulations to Red Sox fans -- you may be excused from this article now -- heck, yes, it would have been better, regardless of who eventually won. Forever and ever it would have been better because it would have forestalled the outcome. The outcome is always the worst part.

The one thing we can say with certainty is that Andrew McCutchen vs. Craig Kimbrel -- the at-bat that would have followed Torres' -- would have been an all-time moment. At The Baseball Gauge, Dan Hirsch has calculated the importance of every play in postseason history, using what is called the championship leverage index, which is a way of saying The Uncertainty. A game that particularly hangs in the balance -- and a World Series path that particularly hangs in the balance -- has a high cLI.

Had McCutchen batted with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth inning Tuesday night, it would have been -- by cLI -- the 14th-most consequential plate appearance in LDS history. It would have been the eighth biggest Red Sox-Yankees moment in postseason history. It would have been 215 times more significant than the average play on Opening Day.

Such calculations can't include the specifics of each situation. They can't include, for example, that Craig Kimbrel -- arguably the second-best closer in history, the second-closest thing to automatic in the game's history -- was on the mound. In theory, Craig Kimbrel makes things conclude. He exists in the sport to bring about an outcome.

But the calculations also don't include Kimbrel's sweat-drenched forearms, or the three mound visits the Red Sox had already used that inning, or his erratic fastball and the fact that he was throwing twice as many curveballs as he usually does. Joe Kelly warming in the bullpen -- a six-word novel in itself -- isn't part of that calculation. The situation itself had become one of the least certain moments of Craig Kimbrel's career.

Kimbrel already had thrown 28 pitches. (And, really, he had thrown 29, since one full-effort curveball had been waived off after his catcher's last-second call for time.) He certainly would have stayed in the game to face McCutchen because Kelly's monthly ERAs in June, July and September were all over 8, and the point where Kimbrel's protection and preservation require the relief of Joe Kelly is probably north of 40 or 45 pitches.

Kimbrel has thrown more pitches than he did Tuesday in plenty of appearances in his career, but he's rarely had to throw more pitches in an inning. Indeed, in his career he has walked a third of the 21 batters he has faced after pitch 28 in an inning, which is not conclusive of anything but certainly consistent with the anxiety such a pitch count begins to induce.

A walk to McCutchen would have tied the game, but it wasn't just the walk that the Red Sox had to fear. Kimbrel throws more wild pitches than almost anybody in the game -- just nine pitchers threw more, adjusted for how often men were on base against them, this year. The Kimbrel pitch that had hit Neil Walker earlier in the inning -- a first-pitch curveball -- almost certainly would have been a wild pitch had it not struck Walker's foot.

In the most basic math, the Red Sox still would have been clear favorites in the game even if Torres had reached base. (By win-expectancy models, the visiting team up one run with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth is a 76 percent favorite.) They probably still would have won, and Red Sox fans probably would have gone to bed just as happy. Or Boston probably would have won Game 5 at home behind Chris Sale on Thursday, and Red Sox fans would have gone to bed that night just as happy.

But for those extra moments, we all would have lived with incredible uncertainty. After eight years of watching Craig Kimbrel dominate -- he has the lowest career ERA in live-ball history -- we would see him at his most vulnerable, and in the highest stakes, and for those moments we would have had no idea whether he was good or bad, or whether the Red Sox or Yankees were a better team.

It is not a stretch to say that whether Craig Kimbrel someday makes the Hall of Fame would have depended on what Andrew McCutchen did on pitch No. 29, or some pitch shortly thereafter. It's not a stretch to say that, in a different outcome, heroic Boston manager Alex Cora might well have been savaged -- for not pulling Kimbrel, for not somehow willing one more quality reliever onto his team's roster, for pulling Sale after an 11-pitch eighth, or, if the Red Sox went on to lose Game 5, for using Sale in relief in Game 4 at all. All this based on the unnoticed difference between Eduardo Nunez standing 115 feet deep and him standing 116 feet deep. Those possibilities all would have hung over us as Craig Kimbrel faced Andrew McCutchen. In those moments, we would have been prepared to believe almost anything.

Which is why, unless you're a Red Sox fan -- even if you hate the Yankees -- you probably wanted to see Torres called safe, and you probably wanted to see the Yankees come back and win Game 4, just so that we could live with the uncertainty a little bit longer. Or, at the very least, so we could have a baseball game Thursday night.

Nunez playing 116 feet back is just one way it could have gone differently. The truth is that there are infinite ways, starting with Nunez' correct decision not to attempt to field the ball barehanded. No, starting with the Red Sox' decision not to hit for Nunez with Rafael Devers in the eighth. No, starting with the Knickerbockers' decision in the 1850s to set bases 90 feet apart. No, starting with whatever evolutionary force caused society's "foot" to be 12 inches. All those "what ifs" leading to Gleyber Torres planting his heel on the ground but not quite landing his toe on the base before Nunez' throw hit the back of Steve Pearce's glove and ended the American League Division Series. The truth is, it's all so ambiguous, and it's only in the conclusion that we're forced to treat just the one possible outcome as real.

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