The Rays Just Gave Baseball a Demonstration of What Not to Do

I didn’t get in trouble much as a kid, but I remember what happened when I did. There were two main things.

First, I had a friend named Drew, and we used to fool around during gym class. When the gym teacher yelled at us to quiet down, that we were ruining the lesson, our retort was ready.

“We’re not ruining anything,” we’d say. “We’re just giving a demonstration of what not to do.”

The second would happen when a friend — Drew or anyone — convinced me to do something bad. I’d get caught by a teacher or a parent.

“He told me to do it!” I’d say.

“If he told you to jump off a bridge, would you?” they would respond. 

I thought back to demonstrations of what not to do, and early disciplinary lessons about not always following friends, as I watched the Rays play the Dodgers in the World Series. Let me start by saying this: there’s a role in baseball for analytics. That much is obvious. Teams willing to embrace logic and statistics will always have an edge over those who don’t. In the long run, for all the complaints anyone can make, every team that adopts an analytical mindset will find it enormously beneficial. To not adopt analytics is, more or less, to intentionally make yourself less smart.

But analytics have limits. The Tampa Bay Rays just proved it. The consensus seems to be that the way the Rays play the game is “ruining baseball” — but far from that, their failure should improve the game going forward.

In case you’re living under a rock, the Rays, down three games to two in the World Series against the Dodgers, needed a win to stay alive. Blake Snell, their ace, was on the mound in game six, and he was shutting the Dodgers down. Snell had nine strikeouts in the sixth inning; he’d allowed two hits and no walks, and had only thrown 73 pitches. He was on track to go seven scoreless innings, easily. The Dodgers couldn’t touch him. It was obvious.

But Rays manager Kevin Cash, famous for his quick hook, took the analytics into overdrive. With Snell facing the Dodgers’ lineup for the third time, and having just allowed a hit, Cash left his dugout and removed his starter. 

Blake Snell, who might not speak to his manager for a while.

Nick Anderson, largely unsuccessful this postseason, came in. A few pitches later, two runs had scored, and the Rays, whose lead Snell had effortlessly maintained all night, were losing.

It was a glaringly obvious blunder. That’s not hindsight: it was clear as it happened. Someone watching next to me asked why the Rays were doing what they’re doing.

“They do this stuff because they’re smart,” I said. “But now they’re being too smart.”

But have the Rays ruined baseball? I think not. In fact, in failing, they’ve proven that as useful as analytics are, there’s room for the old ways.

When your ace is dominant, untouchable on the mound, you leave him alone. If you don’t, it’ll come back to get you. It’s game six of the World Series, and Blake Snell doesn’t have to pitch again until February. The Dodgers couldn’t touch him. Regardless of what the charts say, you leave him in.   

I’m not one of those grouchy old legacy columnists grumbling about the old days: analytics are awesome. They’ve done all kinds of interesting things for the game. Repositioning fielders on defense based on statistics saves runs for teams that do it, even if it’s more noticeable and gives opponents of analytics an easy scapegoat when those same shifts fail. Pitch analytics resurrected Justin Verlander’s career, and seem to have turned Trevor Bauer into this season’s likely National League Cy Young Award winner. 

But there’s a limit. Sometimes, regardless of what the numbers say, an ace will pitch like an ace, and an okay middle reliever won’t. Sometimes a pitcher just has it — and when someone like Blake Snell has it, all the analytics in the world won’t make an ounce of difference, or give his opponents a fighting chance.

Analytics have proven friendly to teams like the Rays. After all, they’re in the World Series with a payroll that’s a small fraction of their opponent’s. But sometimes friends give bad advice. You’ve got to have a mind of your own; you can’t just listen to everything a friend tells you to do.

If analytics told you to lift your dominant, untouchable ace in the sixth inning of a 1-0 World Series game, would you? Obviously not. By doing it and completely failing, the Rays just proved as much. They haven’t ruined baseball. They’ve just given it a demonstration of what not to do.

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