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Analytics didn’t cost the Rays the World Series

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When it mattered most, Kevin Cash trusted his gut over the numbers, and it burned him.

MLB: World Series-Tampa Bay Rays at Los Angeles Dodgers Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 season is in the books, and the Los Angeles Dodgers are the World Series champs after a fun, tense, and quite memorable Fall Classic. Ultimately, the Tampa Bay Rays offense just didn’t match up to the Dodgers firepower. However, an ill-fated decision to pull Rays’ starter Blake Snell out of the game in the sixth inning with Mookie Betts at the plate, doomed Rays’ manager Kevin Cash to the lion’s share of the blame.

There are really two parts to the decision. First is the decision to remove Snell. Second is the choice of Nick Anderson to enter the game to face Betts.

Removing Snell from the game is perfectly defensible. One way or the other, he wasn’t going to start the seventh inning with the firepower available in the bullpen and just a scant lead. After elbow surgery last year and blisters and other minor problems this season, it’s not as though he came into the postseason firing on all cylinders. Instead he battled home run troubles and bouts of wildness in only making six starts for the Rays this season.

Yes, Snell was pitching brilliantly to that point. At 73 pitches, with nine strikeouts and just two singles allowed, he was spinning a classic performance through five innings. But he’d also just allowed his second hit of the game, and was about to face Betts for the third time. He was also going to have to pitch out of the stretch for the first time since the third inning. Especially as a pitcher tires, that transition can be a jolt after cruising through the first five innings of the game in seemingly perfect rhythm.

There’s no guarantee it goes any better with Snell in there. The whole reason teams like the Rays focus so much on their bullpen construction and aggressive usage, is because starting pitchers don’t generally give you much in the way of signs that they’re about to fall apart. It usually happens quickly, and in the opposing dugout, there was a perfect example in Clayton Kershaw, future Hall of Famer and best pitcher of the century thus far.

How many times have we watched Kershaw pitch well twice through the order in the postseason and then spontaneously combust? The only real applicable number to the Snell scenario may be the fact that his velocity dipped a little to Austin Barnes in the previous at-bat. Even without that fact, taking him out was a completely defensible move.

This is Rays baseball. Frankly, it’s Dodgers baseball as well. By sticking to stricter plans they avoid becoming prisoners of the moment. By refusing to let their starters see a dangerous situation the third time through the order, and developing a bullpen to handle any type of matchup, the Rays, as an organization, try to mitigate familiarity. You don’t get more than two plate appearances against a starter, and they run a wide variety of arms at you in the late innings, all of them possessing filthy, high-powered stuff. All teams utilize the concept to one degree or another, but few implement it quite as aggressively and skillfully as Tampa Bay. In many ways, it’s the reason they were there in the first place.

This is why it’s tough to blame the manager for taking Snell out. That’s exactly what he’s there to do in that situation. Kevin Cash is the Rays’ manager specifically because he buys into the front office’s data and concepts and is great at getting his players to do the same. He’s there to implement their philosophy, share the credit when it works, and take most of the heat when it doesn’t. The club consistently outperforms their payroll so it’s generally hard to argue with the results. This season in particular, it was enough to earn the best record in the American League, and carry them to Game Six of the World Series.

The part of Cash’s decision that seems to fly in the face of the Rays overall philosophy is actually the move to Nick Anderson. Frankly, this is the decision where a lack of reliance on data was the problem rather than a lack of feel. The right-handed reliever was excellent in the short regular season, and has been absolute death to right-handed hitters in his career. This season he punched out 44 percent of right-handers he faced. So at first glance, and based on the way they’ve ordered their bullpen this year, the move to Anderson made perfect sense.

But here is where recent data, more than any conception of a manager’s “feel” may have told the true story. Anderson has obviously struggled of late, allowing runs in each of his last four appearances. He blew a save in Game Four, and allowed a run in Game Two as well. In the final game of the ALCS against the Houston Astros, he allowed two runs. In Game Five of that series he allowed a run as well.

More importantly, the numbers illustrate that Anderson’s stuff has been fading over the course of the season. His velocity and the vertical movement on his fastball had fallen to two year lows in the ALCS and in the World Series. These are warning signs of fatigue or an impending injury.

Those are probably the numbers that should’ve guided Kevin Cash’s decision. Under normal circumstances, Anderson to face Betts is a sound idea. Anderson is brilliant against right-handers, and is plenty used to entering games in tight situations facing the opposing team’s best hitter. But based on the numbers, and his recent results, you realize that Anderson was wearing down. Even a slightly faded version of him is still a fine reliever, but that is not the spot to call on a pitcher who isn’t quite right. The fact that they went to him smacks more of a feel decision than an analytical one.

Ultimately, they pulled Snell for Anderson, he fell behind 2-0, and Mookie Betts ripped a double down the left field line. Just like that the Rays slim lead hung by a thread. A wild pitch later, the game was tied, and the Dodgers proceeded to break through for two more runs to capture their first title since 1988.

So if there’s a pointed question for Kevin Cash, it’s why they chose to bring Anderson into the game at that point. Maybe it was some faith in Nick Anderson, or a hope that the intensity of the situation would squeeze the last drop of good stuff from his arm. Whether they thought a lot about the velocity and vertical movement declines specifically, Cash and the front office were clearly aware that Anderson was gassed and had struggled as the postseason progressed. Anderson himself acknowledged as much in post-game interviews. Maybe it was a failure to anticipate the possibilities and have Diego Castillo or someone else ready.

But whatever the reason, it wasn’t an “analytics” decision because there isn’t really a distinction at this point. All decisions in baseball are informed by data nowadays, but someone has to win out. It’s not so surprising when it’s Mookie Betts. When former players turned pundits crow over any example where new school thinking fails, they’re still missing the point. The trick isn’t some magical quality like feel or clutch, it’s seeing through the numbers in any one moment to know what to emphasize and base decisions on, and what to ignore. In this case, whether you think Snell should’ve stayed in the game or not, the flaw in the Rays’ decision making was more likely that they weren’t guided by Anderson’s recent numbers enough.