Don't blame analytics for the Blake Snell decision, blame the Rays

You could hear the takes forming the instant Kevin Cash stepped out of the dugout. Through 5 1/3 innings, Tampa Bay Rays starter Blake Snell dominated the best lineup in baseball. Despite throwing just 73 pitches, striking out 9 batters, giving up just two hits and leading the contest 1-0, Snell was being removed from World Series Game 6.

Any one of the thousands who mashed the “tweet” button in that moment knew what was coming next. It took Nick Anderson six pitches to erase Snell’s dominant start. The Dodgers took a 2-1 lead in the sixth inning and never looked back, winning Game 6 by a score of 3-1, and taking home the franchise’s first World Series victory in 32 years.

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By securing that victory, the Dodgers gave Rays critics permission to fire off bigger and bolder — which, on the Internet, translates to dumber — opinions about Cash’s decision. They didn’t disappoint.

Suddenly, the entirety of the discourse reverted back to 2009. Cash’s decision to remove Snell became an excuse for the old guard to decry their favorite buzzwords: Sabermetrics and analytics.

Even Fox Sports analyst Alex Rodriguez couldn’t help but get in on the act. He called out Ivy League front offices and sabermetrics, saying they were “ruining our game.”

It’s a spicy take that immediately falls flat under scrutiny. In his attempt to call out baseball’s biggest boogeyman, Rodriguez seemingly forgot Andrew Friedman — the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations — previously ran the Rays and is known as one of the biggest proponents of analytics in baseball.

Blame the Rays for the Blake Snell decision

Rodriguez — and everyone else re-litigating arguments that are now old enough to drive — are misplacing their anger. It’s 2020, sabermetrics or analytics or whatever you want to call them won that war years ago. Every single MLB team relies on analytics in some fashion today. Managers routinely bat their best hitter second, pitchers aren’t allowed to exceed 120 pitches and the sacrifice bunt is mostly dead. The Dodgers, the Rays and even the 19-41 Pittsburgh Pirates adhere to these principles now. You can argue over whether some of those changes have benefitted the game, but you can’t rebuke the Rays in one breath and praise the Dodgers in another when both teams use similar methods.

Cash’s decision to pull Snell in Game 6 was not the result of analytics, it was a result of how the Rays operate. The franchise’s refusal to spend money to improve the team has created a situation where the Rays need to exploit every advantage they can find in order to gain an edge on their competition. The team didn’t want to spend $10+ millions on starters, so it created the opener. Instead of using free-agent money on a new bullpen, it cobbled together castoffs and journeymen. When the time comes to pay a player in arbitration, the Rays trade for the cheaper, younger model. Those methods have helped the Rays put together strong, but limited rosters.

There are reasons so many of the players the Rays acquire come cheap, they have flaws — like the inability to pitch deep into games or hit same-handed pitching. In order to succeed with those players, the Rays have to develop and implement the a nearly flawless process.

Every team engages in these strategies in some way, but the Rays take them to the extreme. It’s what a team with a $28.3 million payroll has to do to hang around with the big boys.

Oftentimes, it works out in their favor. The Rays have a .588 winning percentage over the last three seasons. But as Tuesday night proved, that strict adherence to that process can be a team’s downfall. That’s not to say Cash should have thrown analytics out the window in that moment, it’s to say managing a baseball team isn’t something that can be done in a paint-by-numbers way. Managing involves understanding and evaluating your players and putting them in the best position to succeed. Something that complex shouldn’t be boiled down to “if x happens, then do y.” The Rays — as a result of their monetary deficiencies — have become so reliant on that process that they refused to stray from it Tuesday night. That decision will haunt the franchise the entire offseason.

Blake Snell of the Tampa Bay Rays reacts after giving up a hit in the sixth inning of Game 6.
Blake Snell wasn't happy to be taken out of Game 6. (Photo by Cooper Neill/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Will the Rays change how they operate?

Whether the Snell decision has a lasting effect on how the Rays operate remains to be seen. But if Tuesday’s comments from Rays players are any indication, Cash’s decision won’t be quickly forgotten. Both Snell and Kevin Kiermaier questioned the move. Snell told reporters he “felt dominant,” and that it would “take a while to accept” his early departure. Kiermaier said forget the numbers, Game 6 was “Blake’s game to lose.”

Time may soften that frustration, but those old scars can be made new the instant Cash prematurely pulls Snell from a game in 2021. We have no way of knowing how Kiermaier and Snell will carry the Game 6 loss, we only know how they reacted Tuesday night, and how much it differed from what Zack Greinke said about Dusty Baker following the Houston Astros’ 4-3 win over the Rays in Game 4 of the ALCS.

Facing a similar situation — men on first and second with one out in the sixth inning — Baker decided to stick with Greinke. The move worked out, Greinke pitched out of the jam and led the Astros to a win. Following the game, Greinke praised Baker for showing confidence in him. He said Baker does a tremendous job reading people, and added, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him make a wrong decision when he trusts what he sees.”

You can apply hindsight to both situations. If Greinke failed, Baker would be blamed. If Anderson got the job done, Cash would look like a genius. But you can’t change how players feel in that moment. Had Greinke faltered, he would have known Baker believed in him. Had Anderson shut down the Dodgers, Snell still may have wondered why his manager didn’t think Snell was capable of getting out of the inning.

These are the questions the Rays have to grapple with over the next couple months. The team that has been at the forefront of baseball’s most inventive strategies over the past few years will have to prove it can adapt again.

The analytics can — and should — remain, but the Rays may have to leave some of their process behind.

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