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What If... Matt Holliday Caught That Flyball in the 2009 NLDS?

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How much would the 2009 Cardinals playoff odds have changed?

Cardinals Matt Holiday drops a ball on a hit by Dodgers James Loney in the 9th inning in Game 2 of Photo by Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A few weeks back, we took a look at an alternate universe in which the Cardinals signed Max Scherzer. It was... not pretty. Today I’m going to look at a game-specific event rather than a front office choice. You may recall a fateful game in the 2009 playoffs. In game 2 of the NLDS, the Cardinals held a 2-1 lead entering the bottom of the 9th inning. The Dodgers had a series edge, 1-0. The Cardinals summoned Ryan Franklin to close out the game. Franklin retired Andre Ethier on a pop-up and Manny Ramirez on a flyball. They were one out away from sending the series back to St. Louis tied at one game apiece. James Loney stepped into the batter’s box and lofted a flyball to left fielder Matt Holliday. For a brief moment, it looked over... except Holliday misplayed the flyball. It boinked off of his taters, sending Loney to second base. Four batters later, Franklin had yielded the lead and the game. What if... Matt Holliday had caught that flyball?

Let’s start with some assumptions. We can assume the series would head back to St. Louis, turning it into a three game series and the Cardinals holding home field advantage. Now the assumptions get a little trickier. The Dodgers that year were a 95 win team with a pythagorean record of 99-63. The Cardinals were a 91 win team, both actual and pythagorean. We can use this tool over at the SABR website to estimate that the Cardinals would have about a 44.9% chance of winning any one game against the Dodgers.

We also need to account for homefield advantage. Teams have approximately a 4.5% edge when playing at home. That means the Cardinals would have had a 49.4% chance of winning either game 3 or 4, and a 40.4% chance to win game 5 on the road.

When we put this all together, the Cardinals had about a 44.6% chance of winning the series had it gone back to St. Louis tied 1-1. You’ll note that I haven’t adjusted for starting pitching matchups. It’s hard to tell what the Dodgers would have done with their rotation, so I’m going to punt on the idea of adjusting odds.

After losing that game, the Cardinals had a 9.8% chance of winning the series. Blowing game 2 cost them 34.8% of their odds at winning the series.

“Aha!”, you may say, “The Cardinals were a better team that year with Holliday, a trade deadline pickup.” Let’s adjust it by assuming that the Cardinals with Holliday all year would have been more like a 95 pythagorean win team. That bumps up their odds of winning the series, but only to 47.6%. They would have had a better chance, but still wouldn’t have been the favorite.

There’s more here. Had they beaten the Dodgers, they would have had to play the Phillies (92 pythagorean wins) in the NLCS, then the 95 pythagorean win Yankees in the World Series without homefield advantage against either. Beating Philly in a single game would have been about 49.5% odds. The Hardball Times ran a fun calculator a few years back that will show us how likely the Cardinals would have been to win that series- about a 48.7% chance to win. Against the Yankees, their single game odds would have been about 48% and the series win odds would have been 44.2%.

Knowing this, then, we know that winning game 2 against the Dodgers would have left them with about a 9.6% chance of winning the 2009 World Series. If we assume they were actually a 95 win team with Holliday, it increases to 11.7%. In other words, losing that game hurt, but it was still pretty insignificant. Even had they won game 2, there was about a 90% chance that the season would have ended in disappointment.

St. Louis Cardinals v Los Angeles Dodgers, Game 2 Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Holliday was Framed

Because of the ignominy of the flyball hitting him in the junk, Holliday has become the totem for that meltdown. However, his error was just one part- and a small one at that- of the loss. The Cardinals had a 96% chance of winning before the at-bat. Even after the flyball, they had an 86% chance of winning. Holliday cost them 10% of the loss with that one play. For perspective, using the Baseball Gauge’s Championship Win Probability Added (cWPA), that one play was tied for the 296th(!) most impactful on a team’s championship odds... in 2009 alone. It wasn’t even the most impactful play in that inning.

Moreover, we can look at that game and say that the loss cost them 34.8% of their chance to win the series, but only a small part of that is on Holliday. After that play:

-Franklin walked Casey Blake (-3% win probability)

-Ronnie Belliard hit a game-tying single (-44%)

-A passed ball moved Belliard and Blake to second and third base (-2%)

-Russell Martin walked (-2%)

-and finally, Mark Loretta completed the mercy killing with a single to center field.

Game 3 was a total dud, with the Dodgers jumping on Piñeiro early and coasting to the series sweep.

Some of that’s on Franklin, some is probably on Tony LaRussa for sticking with him, some is owed to the Baseball Gods. It’s not like Belliard smoked a gapper off of Franklin. He just kind of slapped a slider that didn’t slide enough through a hole in the infield.

To answer the question posed in the headline, Holliday catching that flyball almost certainly just delayed the inevitable.