One of the pillars in the ages-old debate of stats vs. instincts in baseball is the argument over when it’s okay to take a starting pitcher out of a baseball games. In the old days, before the Oakland Athletics changed baseball by winning 103 games on a shoestring budget in 2002 and inspiring a best-selling book to be written about them, baseball managers used to allow their starting pitchers to stay on the mound as long as they kept the team in the game.
More recently, front offices and managers have put more and more stock into statistics that show how a pitcher’s usefulness decreases each time he passes through the lineup. Specifically, the third time through a batting order can be a danger area for many starting pitchers. Of course, baseball doesn’t always play out this way or we never would see a complete game, but there’s no denying that in general, a pitcher is more vulnerable on his third pass through a given lineup.
That’s the science that Kevin Cash was relying on when he pulled Blake Snell out of the sixth game of the World Series last night with one out in the sixth inning. The issue that I and most baseball fans had with that decision was that Snell looked very much like he was about to carry the Rays to a series-tying victory. His fastball was popping and his curveball was falling-off-the-table nasty. In his first five innings, Snell struck out nine Dodgers with zero walks and just one hit allowed on 69 pitches.
Either Cash didn’t think Snell was convincing enough to take a chance on him for a third trip through the order, or the skipper’s mind was changed when Austin Barnes hit a line-drive single with one out in the sixth. I’m not sure which explanation was worse. All we know is that Tampa Bay’s 1-0 lead disappeared as soon as Snell did. Mookie Betts hit a double off of new Rays pitcher Nick Anderson to put runners on second and third. Both runs scored during Corey Seager’s at-bat thanks to a wild pitch and Betts scoring from third on a ground ball to first base. Betts added a solo home run in the eighth and the Dodgers clinched their first World Series title since 1988.
The only thing I can say in Cash’s defense is that Snell had not finished the sixth inning in any start this season. However, he did so 10 times in 2019. Despite what Cash said after the game, it looks like there was a strict rule against Snell pitching to Los Angeles’s lineup for a third time. How else do you explain Cash taking him out after precisely two turns through the order while Snell was pitching the game of his life?
“Knowing how talented the Dodgers’ lineup is, to avoid any pitcher seeing them three times through makes a lot of sense”
That’s enough to drive all five Rays fans insane. But just in case, you should know that Anderson, after posting an incredible 0.55 ERA in the regular season, had allowed at least one run in his previous SIX appearances. Snell was in the middle of a classic performance! Anderson was giving up a run every time he hit the rubber! None of this falls in the “makes a lot of sense” category!
Alex Rodriguez had a great reaction during FOX’s postgame coverage.
It’s a good thing that the Rays don’t rely on free agents too much, because I can’t imagine any starting pitcher wanting to sign with them. A-Rod is spot on when he says that athletes don’t want to be chess pieces. How does a pitcher even get amped for a big game knowing that no matter how dominant he is, he’s only out there for five innings and change? Do all these math-heavy front offices really want a manager who is going to be an extension of their long-term strategic thinking or someone who can think independently and not make every decision by the book?
There are the questions that I think many baseball organization have to ask themselves after Cash took his dominant ace out of the most important game he’s ever pitched.