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Sunday, November 29, 2020

Computers vs. Gut: Rays Pulling Blake Snell Gifts Dodgers 2020 World Series

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Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Blake Snell celebrates after striking out the side during the fourth inning in Game 6 of the baseball World Series Los Angeles Dodgers Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

The Tampa Bay Rays made it to Game 6 of the 2020 World Series in part because they relied on analytics and used their pitching staff in unconventional ways.

On Tuesday night in Arlington, that strategy backfired, and Tampa Bay watched the Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate a long-awaited title.

For the Dodgers, it was sweet redemption as they hoisted a Commissioner’s Trophy for the first time since 1988. For the Rays, it was a frustrating near-miss that will precipitate an offseason of second-guessing.

Tampa Bay starter Blake Snell cruised through the first five innings, allowing one hit, no walks and no runs with nine strikeouts. With one out in the sixth and the Rays leading 1-0, he surrendered a single to Austin Barnes and was promptly pulled by manager Kevin Cash.

A Mookie Betts double, a wild pitch and a run-scoring ground ball later, Los Angeles had a 2-1 lead.

The Dodgers would add an insurance run on a Betts solo homer in the eighth before locking down the 3-1 win. Credit L.A. for capping a great, if truncated, campaign with a ring. But feel free to question Cash, the Rays and their computers-over-guts philosophy. 

Notable Players of the Game:

For Los Angeles:

  • RF Mookie Betts: 2-for-4, 2 R, 1 RBI, 1 2B, 1 HR. Betts capped a stellar inaugural season on the Dodgers with an outstanding Game 6 as he doubled the tying run to third base and scored the go-ahead run in the sixth before adding a solo homer in the eighth.
  • C Austin Barnes: 1-for-3, 1 R. Barnes’ single in the sixth chased Snell. The Dodgers catcher ended up scoring on a wild pitch, but it was his knock and the Rays’ subsequent decision that turned the tide.
  • LHP Julio Urias: 2.1 IP, 0 ER, 0 H, 0 BB, 4 K. Seven Dodgers pitchers combined for a five-hit, one-run effort with 16 strikeouts. Urias, the 24-year-old southpaw, sealed it with 2.1 dominant shutout innings.

For Tampa Bay:

  • LF Randy Arozarena: 2-for-4, 1 RBI, 1 HR. Arozarena punctuated his incredible October run by adding a 10th home run to his postseason-record total. The Cuban rookie finished the playoffs with a .377 average and 1.273 OPS.
  • SS Willy Adames: 0-for-4, 3 SO. A key offensive cog all season for Tampa Bay, Adames went hitless in Game 6 and finished the postseason 8-for-59 with 25 strikeouts. 
  • LHP Blake Snell: 5.1 IP, 1 ER, 2 H, 0 BB, 9 K. Snell was rolling through 5.1 frames and appeared to have plenty left in the tank after throwing just 73 pitches. What might have happened if he’d been left in? We’ll never know.

Analytics Over Instinct: The Regrettable Decision to Pull Snell

First, let’s not take anything away from the Dodgers. They are a deep and talented team, finished with the best record in baseball during the regular season and earned this title, shortened schedule aside.

But if Cash had stayed in the dugout and let Snell keep pitching, Game 6—and the series—might have gone differently. 

A couple of base hits notwithstanding, Snell kept L.A. hitters off balance all night with an arsenal of well-placed fastballs and knee-buckling breaking pitches. He looked every bit the guy who won the AL Cy Young Award in 2018 and finished the 2020 postseason with 37 strikeouts in 29.2 innings. 

Yet after Barnes singled, Cash gave him the unceremonious hook. It felt like a predetermined decision.

Snell was about to go through the Dodgers lineup for a third time. Right-hander Nick Anderson was ready in the bullpen. Cash jogged onto the field and made the call, looking less like a skipper wrestling with a tough choice and more like a guy pulling a lever he was required to pull.

That’s speculation, obviously. But it fits the pattern the Rays followed all season and throughout the playoffs. Admittedly, it won them an AL East crown and got them within two victories of the first championship in franchise history.

In Game 6, however, something else was needed. This was a moment for Cash and the Rays’ front-office brain trust to toss out the playbook, ignore the computer models and see what everyone else did: an ace on top of his game.

In two at-bats against Snell, Betts had struck out twice and appeared uncharacteristically overmatched in the process.

Thomas Boswell @ThomasBoswellWP

Did Rays WATCH previous Snell-Betts AB? Snell started & finished fanning Betts (in mild slump in WS), w 97-98 up-&-away on which he swung TWO FEET LATE. Completely over-powered. No match-up w Betts is good. But this is the 1 u WANT, not 1 u duck to hook a brilliant Snell. Karma.

Against Anderson, Betts laced a double that started the game-changing rally. Anderson was dominant during the regular season but had wobbled recently.

Katie Sharp @ktsharp

Nick Anderson has allowed at least 1 run in 7 straight postseason games, the longest streak by a reliever in MLB history.

Hindsight is 20/20. But even in the moment, this felt like a mistake. Snell certainly made his displeasure apparent as he headed off the hill.

FOX Sports: MLB @MLBONFOX

Blake Snell’s reaction to getting pulled with 1 on and 1 out in the 6th. https://t.co/AZyB94eoKE

“I did everything I could to stay in that game,” he told reporters. “… I know it’s third time through … but I believe in me.”

None of this is to say analytics don’t have their place or that the Rays’ envelope-pushing pitching strategies should be scrapped altogether. They pioneered the opener in 2018. They used their bullpen to great effect for most of 2020. 

The club with MLB‘s No. 28 payroll took on the game’s second-biggest spender and nearly prevailed. Tampa Bay should be proud of what it accomplished and the intelligent, forward-thinking moves that got it to this point.

But no philosophy is perfect, and baseball will always be about instinct as well as numbers. Maybe pulling Snell was Cash’s call. Perhaps it was mandated from above. Either way, it blew up in their faces.

“Personally, I felt Blake had done his job and then some,” Cash told reporters. “Mookie coming around for the third time through, I value that. I totally respect and understand the questions that come with it. Blake gave us every opportunity to win. He was outstanding. They’re not easy decisions.”

That’s true. But when you make the wrong decision, the questions inevitably come.

And when you make the wrong decision and lose the World Series, the questions linger for a long, long time.

All statistics courtesy of MLB.com.

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