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Orioles play of the game: Seth Smith delivers go-ahead home run

When you get a dramatic go-ahead home run in later innings, as the Orioles did on Friday, it’s not much surprise which play moved the needle the most.

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles
The first Orioles home run for Seth Smith, but surely not the last.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The last time that any Orioles fans had much occasion to think of Tyler Clippard, before last night, was during the World Baseball Classic. Clippard happened to be the pitcher who threw the pitch to Manny Machado that would have been blasted over the center field fence were it not for the amazing effort of Adam Jones as he crashed into a sea of expressive American fans.

Clippard’s fortunes have not improved, if Friday night is any indication. He was on the mound for the Yankees when Seth Smith delivered the clutch go-ahead home run in the seventh inning, a towering shot that just managed to fall into the front part of the flag court above the out-of-town scoreboard at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

No outfielder could save that one - or at least, not at this stadium. And so the Orioles went from heading towards their first loss of the season to being six outs away from remaining undefeated.

The Play

When Smith stepped into the batters box with one out in the bottom of the seventh, following a J.J. Hardy sacrifice bunt that moved Jonathan Schoop to third base, the Orioles had a 47.2% chance of winning the game, according to the Fangraphs win probability.

That might seem higher than you’d think, given that the Orioles were losing, but then again, the tying run was on third base with one out, and the O’s were the home team. Run expectancy data expects that often, the team will score the tying run and then hold the advantage of getting to bat last.

When Smith hit his home run on the fourth pitch of the at-bat, the Orioles win chance soared to 76.7% - an increase of 29.5%, obviously a very dramatic swing. Although every inning counts the same on the scoreboard, swings in the later innings are worth more because there are fewer chances to make up for whatever bad thing may happen.

By the way, these win expectancy numbers are not weighted for team quality. You would obviously expect the Orioles to win more than 80% of games where they hand things over to Brad Brach and Zach Britton for the last two innings.

The next-best play as far as improving the Orioles chances to win was also, go figure, a home run. Manny Machado’s three-run shot in the fifth inning kicked up their win chances from 12% to 35.9% - an increase of 23.9%. Before Machado hit that homer, the Orioles were headed nowhere. His home run was worth a lot because it got them back in the game.

The At-Bat

Elevated pitches that weren’t supposed to be elevated are the cause of much baseball mischief. It worked out for the Orioles in this case.

The strike zone map from Brooks Baseball for the at-bat shows... elevated pitches. They can work if that’s what you’re trying to throw, if you have high heat to throw right after you threw a good slider, so you can, as Jim Palmer loves to talk about, change the eye level.

A problem for Clippard is that he did not throw good sliders before switching to fastballs that weren’t very fast, about 90mph. That’s a recipe for even a not-super-powerful guy like Smith, whose career high in home runs for a season was 17 back when he played for the Rockies, to hit a home run.

You can barely even see pitch #1 on the strike zone map because it bounced in the dirt so far in front of Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez. For the pitch, Sanchez was set up low, even touching the ground with his glove before setting up low.

They try the same move on the second pitch. Sanchez almost lays his glove down in the dirt before setting up around Smith’s shins. That’s the theory. Then Clippard throws his slider here:

How not to throw a good slider.

Smith fouls off this tasty morsel, so despite the mistake, the count is even. Sanchez comes out for a little mound visit to make sure they are on the same page going forward.

For the third pitch, Sanchez sets up inside, above Smith’s knees. This goes back to another one of those baseball pitching aphorisms - you don’t want the hitter to be able to fully extend on a pitch, which they can’t do if it’s inside. Not many home runs are hit by a guy like Smith when the ball comes in here:

Hey, back off, buddy.

They might even be trying to get Smith to back off the plate a bit. At least from this camera angle, his hands and the knob of his bat are practically hanging out over the plate. Clippard misses high by a lot. Smith has to lean his head back, although it doesn’t get that close to him. Closer than I would want to be to a 90mph baseball, to be sure.

For the fourth and last pitch of the at-bat, Sanchez sets up just about the same place. Smith doesn’t seem to have backed off any. On MASN, Palmer notes that Smith is just looking to get any ball in the air - after all, the tying run is on third. And Clippard throws this meatball:

Boom goes the dynamite.

Note the ball going right towards Sanchez’s mask, if it went by Smith and Sanchez didn’t catch it. But it doesn’t get by Smith. He is ready to make Gary Thorne say, “Good bye, home run!” And so he does. The Orioles had the lead with six outs left to get and a great bullpen. The rest was easy.

Although the ball didn’t clear the fence by much, ESPN’s Home Run Tracker says that a ball hit like Smith’s - 96.3mph off the bat, 31.5 degree elevation, 350 feet of total distance in that direction - would be a home run in 22 out of 30 MLB stadiums. So if anyone tries to tell you that was because of a short porch at Camden Yards, they’re full of it.

The Season Tally (wins)

  • Mark Trumbo - 1
  • Zach Britton - 1
  • Seth Smith - 1