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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 12, No. 91
October 28, 2020
The three-batter sequence that flipped Game Six and helped send the Dodgers to victory was one of the most controversial ones of the entire postseason. It once again pitted subjectivity against data, tradition against new thinking, process against outcomes. I suspect you already know on which side of the fight I’ll land, but it’s worth working the problem, given the attention the decision drew.
We start with one out and one on in the bottom of the sixth, the Rays up 1-0, the Dodgers bringing the top of their order to the plate a third time. On the mound, Blake Snell is nursing a two-hit shutout and has retired 16 batters on just 73 pitches, striking out nine and walking none. He is, in the parlance, “dealing.”
Kevin Cash is, in the parlance, “walking to the mound.” Sticking to his season-long handling of Snell, and in fact his whole staff, Cash is removing the starter in favor of right-hander Nick Anderson, with Mookie Betts coming to the plate.
There are some ideas that, over the past decade, have taken hold in the baseball world. The importance of short-sequence offense to winning postseason games: Ball go far, team go far. The importance of funneling as many innings as possible to your best pitchers, to winning the game you’re playing even if it complicates the next one. The importance of the third-time around penalty, that pitchers get considerably worse when facing a lineup a third time, is increasingly accepted. It’s not about pitch counts so much as it is the repeated exposure. The penalty is more actionable than in eras prior because teams have many good relief pitchers, so the average reliever the first time around is better than most starters -- in broad strokes, #3s and worse -- the third time around.
What hasn’t penetrated the same way is that intragame performance isn’t predictive. A pitcher who has thrown five shutout innings isn’t any more likely to throw a sixth shutout inning, all things considered, than he would have been had he allowed a run or two runs or three runs. All pitchers are dealing until they’re not, and we have plenty of examples of this phenomenon. Still, every single time a pitcher is lifted while throwing a shutout, an uproar ensues. There’s no one reason. A general risk aversion among fans contributes to it. A desire to see baseball played the way it used to be played is part of it. A desire to see great individual performances is part of it. A resistance to the idea that the third-time-around penalty is as strong as it is is definitely a part of it.
Snell, to pick the example in play, has a 592 OPS allowed when facing batters the first time, 711 the second time, and 742 the third time. That understates his decline; Snell’s strikeout-to-walk ratio drops from 3.5 to 2.4 to 2.0 with each pass through the lineup. His strikeout rate drops from 34% to 26% to 22%. Letting Snell face a lineup a third time is a bad idea, and Kevin Cash knows this. In five postseason starts prior to last night, Cash had let Snell face 11 batters a third time. They were 3-for-10 with a homer, a double and a walk off him, roughly what Randy Arozarena is hitting. Just last Wednesday, Cash tried to get Snell through the bottom of the fifth facing the top of the Dodgers' order; a walk to Mookie Betts and a single by Corey Seager forced him to go to the pen.
In that start, as long as we’re talking about “dealing,” Snell had a no-hitter through 16 batters on 71 pitches. The next four batters: walk, homer, walk, single. Tonight, Cash went and got him after 18 batters and 73 pitches.
Every pitcher is dealing until he's not, and you literally need only go back to Blake Snell’s last start to see that.
A manager’s job isn’t to sit there and wait until his pitcher makes it plainly obvious he needs to be removed. His job, especially in Game Six of the World Series with a one-run lead, is to make sure it never gets to that point. Blake Snell isn’t handled like Jack Morris, and treating him that way is how you lose baseball games.
This was the big topic of the night, at least until events overtook it. Cash, though, made the right decision. He made the decision he’s been making with this team all year long, not letting the starters lose the game, getting them out before they deteriorate, knowing -- based on the numbers both general and specific -- that they will deteriorate, knowing that he has a deep and powerful bullpen for just this task. This is how they win games, how they won 51 of the 80 games they played, how they got to within two wins of a championship on a payroll that wouldn’t cover the Dodgers’ coffee budget. This is how the Rays have won all year, and dunking on it because it didn’t work in Game Six of the World Series may not be emphasizing the second part of that clause enough.
There was a strain of criticism that really grated at me, that amounted to TV scouts asserting that what they observed overrides Cash’s judgment. If we want to make this a subjective conversation, I’m fine with that, but then it’s about whose judgment we’re going to take more seriously after we throw out the data: Kyle Snyder and Kevin Cash, 50 feet away from a guy they’ve managed for five years, or @TBRays420_69 watching on television?
If Cash made a mistake, it may have been in continuing to trust Nick Anderson. Anderson didn’t get rocked; he gave up a groundball double to the second-best player alive, then a wild pitch and another groundball that scored a run. Missing in that sequence, of course, are strikeouts, which had been Anderson’s stock-in-trade all year, and which he seemed to run out of in October. Anderson struck out 21% of the batters he faced in the playoffs, less than half his regular-season rate.
I heard a lot of “Anderson had given up runs in six straight appearances,” which is true. What I hadn’t heard before the game was the idea that Anderson should be buried, treated as a mop-up man, or for that matter slotted after Diego Castillo and Peter Fairbanks. The idea that he shouldn’t have been in the game at that point seems results-oriented. Cash had used him for just 23 pitches over the previous five days, all in Saturday’s Game Four.
Anderson entered that game with second and third and one out, the Rays holding a 5-4 lead. It was the third straight time Anderson had been brought into a game with two runners on, and the fifth time in nine postseason appearances. It was the sixth time he’d come into a game mid-inning. I mention all this to note that Nick Anderson may have faced a greater degree of difficulty than any postseason reliever in two generations. I also mention it to note that Kevin Cash had very clearly not changed his usage patterns; whatever Anderson’s output had been, Cash was seeing the same guy who had been a monster for him all year.
On Saturday, Anderson’s four-seamer ranged from 94 to 97, standard velocity for him. He struck out Will Smith on three pitches, then was ordered to walk Cody Bellinger intentionally to load the bases, a terrible choice. On 3-1, Anderson was brought in against Joc Pederson and allowed a single at 94 mph off the glove of Brandon Lowe, giving up the lead. In the eighth, Anderson allowed a double on a curve and a very soft two-out single to give the Dodgers the lead again.
Anderson has not been the pitcher he was in the regular season. He has been giving up more contact, not getting as many swings and misses. His velocity is unchanged but his curveball hasn’t been effective. Mookie Betts, having seen two fastballs to get to 1-1, could reasonably expect a third because Anderson’s curve wasn’t the threat it had been all year. That’s the pitch he hit for a double.
We have seen this before, of course, and very recently. The Indians’ Andrew Miller ran out of steam in 2016, the Dodgers’ Brandon Morrow did in 2017. It may be that in using Anderson in any inning from the third through the ninth, using him over and over again with runners on, Cash finally asked too much of him. I’m reluctant, looking at Anderson’s last couple of outings, to say for sure he was the wrong pitcher in the sixth last night. However, the argument that Cash shouldn’t have brought in Anderson -- and instead used Castillo or Fairbanks -- is much stronger than the argument that he should have left in Snell. If Cash made a mistake, it was in the reliever he chose, not in choosing one at all.
Then again, no reliever Cash chose was likely to fix the Rays’ biggest problem. From the game preview:
“Arozarena has absolutely carried the Rays’ offense. Eno Sarris had the breakdown: Arozarena is hitting .370/.439/.808 this postseason. His teammates are hitting .193/.266/.356.”
Last night, Arozarena went 2-for-4 with a home run, and everyone else went 3-for-29 with a double and two walks. That’s the ballgame, and the World Series. Arozarena, Kevin Kiermaier, and a part-time Yandy Diaz were the only Rays to hit for an 800 OPS or better this week. Brandon Lowe hit three big home runs...and went 0-for-21 with a walk outside of those swings. They just got beat.
It will sting today, but you’d take the Rays’ future above anyone's but the team that just beat them and maybe three others. Of the 28 players who appeared in the World Series for the Rays, 28 are under club control for 2021. The big question is Charlie Morton, who seems willing to delay retirement if the club picks up his $15 million option. The Rays can hope to integrate Brendan McKay (shoulder) and Shane Baz into next year’s rotation, as well as allow overall #1 prospect Wander Franco to take over at third base. It’s a bit callous to say, but few teams take less of a hit from lost attendance than do the Rays. How baseball’s new finances affect local revenue sharing is probably a larger factor in the short term. I doubt they’ll chase George Springer, but we’ll see if they move on from Choi at first to create some additional offense. Pending the health of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, the 2021 Rays could be AL East favorites.