The better team, the Dodgers, won the World Series last night, but they got more than a little help from the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays and his adherence to a pet peeve of mine, “analytics.” This is the trend that has swept the Major Leagues the last half-dozen years, although it was introduced 20 years ago by the Oakland Athletics, as glorified in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball. The old-time scout who relied on his eyes and his gut was replaced by the office nerd who crunched numbers; the skipper who had a feel for the game from decades in the trenches was replaced by the manager who was good with a computer. The prototypical general manager was now a young Ivy League grad who had only been in ballparks as a paying customer. Slightly late to the game, the Twins eschewed Ron Gardenhire, a baseball lifer, and Paul Molitor, a baseball legend, with Rocco Baldelli, not because of his fleeting and undistinguished playing career, but for his background working with the analytics-driven Rays. Similarly, baseball operations were given over to wunderkinds Derek Falvey and Chad Levine. Before going any further, I should point out that this administration has so far produced remarkable results in Minnesota.
Now, back to last night’s game. Blake Snell, Tampa Bay’s best pitcher, had totally mastered the Dodgers through five innings, allowing but one hit and striking out nine, while nursing a 1-0 lead thanks to Randy Arozarena’s first-inning home run. LA’s number nine hitter led off the 6th with a soft single to center, bringing up the top of the Dodger lineup for their third times at bat. What had these next three hitters done previously? Nothing! Nevertheless, Tampa manager Kevin Cash removed Snell, over his disbelief, and brought in Nick Anderson, who had given up runs in each of his last six postseason appearances. I was not the only one who echoed Snell’s disbelief and sensed imminent calamity, which was immediate. Mookie Betts, who had been quiet offensively in the Series, smoked a double. Anderson unleashed a wild pitch, allowing the runner on third to tie the score. Betts then streaked home on a grounder to first by Cory Seager, giving the Dodgers a lead and all the momentum they would need to cruise to the wire. With seven of their nine regulars hitting under .200 during the Series–all but one under .130, in fact–the Rays just didn’t have the firepower to come back against the LA bullpen.
Why did Cash remove Snell? Had he thrown too many pitches? (73) Did he seem to be tiring? (No) The only reason was that he would be facing the Dodger lineup for a third time, and analytics showed that a team’s batting average rose considerably the third time they faced the same pitcher–and I assume this analysis applied specifically to Snell. There was no consideration of how Snell had been pitching (two hits and no walks over five innings), how the upcoming batters had fared against him (six-up, six strikeouts), nor any allowance for the fact that this was a tremendously important World Series game and the last time Snell would pitch all year. “Analytics” dictated, take the pitcher out after 18 batters, so he was gone.
I’m sorry to come down so hard on Anderson, a Minnesota native, but he was such an obviously poor choice–obvious to everyone but Cash, apparently. Given that he was first out of the Rays’ bullpen, I’m guessing that he would not have to have been used if Snell had gone another inning. The strategy generally is to save your best relievers for later in the game, and Cash could have navigated the last three innings with pitchers who had been more successful, and would be more confident, including Aaron Loup and Pete Fairbanks, who finished up, and Diego Castillo and John Curtis, who both had more success. Looking at the Internet account of Twitter comments by other Major Leaguers, I find my view to be shared by just about everybody.
John Smoltz, the best TV color man around, let drop hints about his view of analytics baseball throughout the game–the first I’ve heard on a broadcast. His comments before the Snell maneuver were addressed to the defensive shifts that both teams employed. Yes, he said, over the course of a 162-game season the statistical averages will work out, but a World Series game is a single unique event, and the impact of a single ball hit the opposite way against the shift would be devastating. It didn’t happen in Game 6, and I’m not sure Smoltz articulated the position as more than a gut feeling (I’ve written about my feelings at length elsewhere on this blog), but I know what he meant. Gone are the days of the 1991 Twins, when Jack Morris pitched into the 10th inning, refusing to be relieved, rising to the magnitude of the moment. Not incidentally, Smoltz was pitching for the Atlanta Braves that night.