Backed into a corner with no room for error, the Tampa Bay Rays thankfully had an ace up their sleeve in the form of an ace on the field: Blake Snell. The 2018 American League Cy Young Award winner was dealing against the best team in Major League Baseball. Snell was suffocating, having struck out nine Los Angeles Dodgers over five innings to the tune of zero runs allowed. But in the sixth inning, Rays manager Kevin Cash yanked Snell in favor of his bullpen. With less than 80 pitches, it was a curious move to say the least. It did not work out. Nick Anderson blew the lead, and subsequently, the game.
If this feels like a bit of deja vu to you, you would not be alone. In the deciding game of last year’s World Series, an extremely similar thing happened. Future Hall of Famer Zack Greinke was cruising with a slim lead, and had allowed two baserunners through 6.1 innings. Greinke gave up a solo home run to Anthony Rendon, and then walked Juan Soto. Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch yanked Greinke in favor for Will Harris who, wouldn’t you know, promptly coughed up the lead.
In both cases—but especially this year—criticisms of the managers’ decision to pull the ace abounded, and not simply because it didn’t end well. No; criticisms have been centered around that poisonous word analytics. See, Cash and Hinch didn’t pull their pitchers for no reason. Both understood that the rather severe third time through the order penalty was waiting around the corner, and both knew that even great pitchers were not immune. And as Connor Kurcon pointed out on Twitter, even pitchers who were dealing like Snell was have been historically much worse in the sixth inning.
In the 202 Snells, the ERA was 0.62 thru 5 IP— Connor Kurcon (@ckurcon) October 28, 2020
181 of these pitchers came back out for the 6th. In a large number of these starts, the pitcher was beginning to face the top of the lineup for the 3rd time
In the 6th inning, the 181 pitchers allowed 72 runs* in 167.2 IP (3.86 ERA)
Personally, I think Cash made the wrong choice. The numbers certainly back him up in aggregate, but managing a specific game is a different animal. Furthermore, Cash made the wrong choice in going to Anderson, who had been very bad in the previous few games, which—shocker—continued in his last appearance of his and the Rays’ season.
But Cash was in a no-win situation. Just imagine what the narrative would have been had Cash left Snell in to face the likes of Mookie Betts for the third time and Snell had given up the lead. You, dear reader, and I both know the narrative that would have caught fire: Cash looked the analytics in the face—the ones that say that a pitcher is much worse the third time through the batting order—and decided to ignore them, thus dooming his team. The only way Cash comes out of that game with minimal criticism is if the Dodgers don’t score in the sixth inning, regardless of the pitcher on the mound.
Analytics isn’t something game-breaking or complicated. Decisions based on analytics are simply process-based decisions that are informed by data, nothing more and nothing less. The numbers aren’t evil. They are simply there. Analytics is the theory that correctly using those numbers can help inform better processes.
It is important to keep in mind that analytics is not the boogeyman. Analytics is a tool available to managers to use and misuse at will. Criticism of analytics is silly. It is like criticizing a hammer. The hammer exists to help you do certain tasks in certain ways, and there are even different types of hammers. The only realistic criticism that exists is the criticism of which hammer to use and in which situations and when to use it in the first place.
There are a lot of numbers out there. There are an equally large amount of ways that one can misuse, either intentionally or through incompetence, said numbers. Analytics are just another way to help teams play better baseball, and if that leads to things that we don’t like about baseball, it isn’t analytics’ fault. Rather, it’s up to the league to shape the game into a product that people want to see.