Adjectives like “impossible” and “improbable” and “unbelievable” are used quite liberally in sports broadcasting and writing — perhaps misused, even.
A walk-off win is not unbelievable; it happens semi-regularly. Likewise, winning a championship is not technically impossible for most teams (even if 11 clubs have a 0% chance of winning the World Series according to FanGraphs’ playoff odds). Nevertheless, people respond to narratives, and the overcoming-all-odds story is a popular one.
While we should employ such descriptors more sparingly, what Edwin Encarnacion did Monday night truly bordered on the improbable and impossible without sliding into hyperbole.
You’re probably aware that he hit an inside-the-park home run. While three 34-year-olds have hit inside-the-park homers since 2012 — David DeJesus, Jimmy Rollins, and Jason Bourgeois — Encarnacion is the oldest to do so in at least the past six seasons.
Here’s the video evidence:
Encarnacion is not exactly fleet of foot. He’s a DH who was born in 1983. Encarnacion (25.6 feet per second) ranked 420th out of 465 MLB players in Sprint Speed last season, according to Baseball Savant’s leaderboard.
MLB.com looked at the most unlikely inside-the-park home runs in recent memory on Tuesday morning and Encarnacion was on the list.
Let’s look at the actual events that required this to happen.
For starters, Angel Stadium’s short left-field wall and porch was required for an awkward defensive opportunity and ricochet. Also needed was the ball to contact close enough to foul territory for Angels left fielder Justin Upton to believe the ball had landed either in foul territory or over the wall for a home run. Also required was Upton to take six-plus seconds to locate and retrieve the ball. (He obliged.)
I employed QuickTime Player’s time-stamping tool to break it down scientifically.
It took Encarnacion 17.7 seconds to reach home plate after departing from the right-handed batter’s box.
It took Upton 6.3 seconds upon contacting the wall to grasp the ball. Assuming Encarnacion was near his top sprint speed, that 6.3-second interlude allowed Encarnacion to cover 158 feet at 25 feet per second.
Here’s how Upton recounted his experience of the play to MLB.com: “I had no clue the ball was fair,” Upton said. “I couldn’t hear anything.”
And here’s how Encarnacion himself reacted to the situation: “I said, ‘Oh man, I’ve got to make it to the plate.'”
Some powerful still images:
[More urgency required]
[Please be foul]
Indians third-base coach Mike Sarbaugh was thrust into making a decision he probably thought he would never encounter. Third-base coaches tend to be conservative, what Russell Carleton describes as the “Trolley Problem” in his new book, The Shift.
Wrote Meg Rowley in a review of the book:
Why are they too conservative? Carleton theorizes the risk attendant with one of a third base coach’s most important responsibilities (that of a sent runner being thrown out) “feels icky”; humans recoil from proactively causing harm, whether it is giving up a needed run, or flipping a trolley signal and killing one person to save five.
While it turned out not be a close play at the plate — there was no throw — Sarbaugh still had to make a decision to hold up a 35-year-old DH or predict whether he had enough fuel to complete the trip.
Encarnacion was approaching third base when the ball left the right hand of Upton.
Upton’s subsequent off-line throw, which missed the cut-off man, allowed Encarnacion to score without a play the plate.
It’s usually not great news for the third-base coach when the reporters ask to speak with him following an on-field event, but this was different:
“I felt he was in a good spot,” Sarbaugh said, “because he was giving it a good effort at that point. So I knew he felt like he had a chance. Once I saw when Upton picked the ball up, I just felt good about being able to send him, just the way he had to pick it up and throw it in. I knew it was going to be a tough play.”
There was also a precedent! Encarnacion had hit an inside-the-park homer 11 years ago while with the Reds. He could do it, in theory. It was perhaps not an impossible event, but it was one of the more unlikely plays we’ll see this season.
Baseball is back. Baseball is weird. Baseball is wonderful.