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The Rays are in the World Series because they are not afraid to fail

John Romano | They are smart, but they are also fearless and never worry about what the second-guessers say.
Rays manager Kevin Cash takes the ball from starting pitcher Blake Snell to relieve him during the fifth inning of Game 6 of the American League Championship Series.
Rays manager Kevin Cash takes the ball from starting pitcher Blake Snell to relieve him during the fifth inning of Game 6 of the American League Championship Series. [ JAE C. HONG | AP ]
Published Oct. 20, 2020|Updated Oct. 20, 2020

They are not nerds, and they are not robots. The data processing guy is not telling Kevin Cash how to fill out his lineup, and the bookkeeper is not hounding Erik Neander about spending too much money on a designated hitter.

Their philosophies might be a little different, their methods a little more innovative, but at the end of the day the Tampa Bay Rays are pretty much like any other low-revenue, high-turnover, largely anonymous baseball team.

Except for the part about being in the World Series.

Okay, so the Rays are unique. And they do have less reverence for some archaic conventions than most other teams. But this narrative of spreadsheets and geeks is not fair to the people and players responsible for winning more games than any team in the American League.

It’s not sleight of hand, and it’s not Strat-O-Matic baseball. It’s the same game everyone else plays with the same hopes, egos, fears and mistakes.

So why are the Rays more successful?

Maybe it’s because they play the margins better than anyone else. They find skills that are underutilized elsewhere, and then figure out how to mix and match them with a bunch of other pieces to make a more complete roster.

And maybe it’s because their owner encourages them to be fearless and think outside the box. And if that means pulling pitchers sooner than other teams, so be it. If it means trading away the most popular player in the clubhouse, then that’s what they’ll do.

If it means being the odd guys in the division, well, they’re still playing on Oct. 20.

“We think what we’re doing is maximizing our roster and doing everything we can to make the best decisions to put players in the right spots to succeed and ultimately win as many games as possible,” Cash said Monday. “There’s not much odd about that.”

You want to know why the Rays value pitching so highly? Because it costs too much money to outslug the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East. You want to know why they value defense so highly? Because defense isn’t as sexy as home runs or strikeouts, so it costs a lot less.

You want to know why they have so many innovative strategies? Because owner Stu Sternberg is not constantly looking over their shoulders, tallying up every success and failure.

“Stu doesn’t ride the peaks and valleys. He’s pretty stable, and the trust he has in us and the confidence he has in us to do what we think is best without fear of the outcome in any individual case really opens us up to a lot of the success we have,” Neander said. "He deserves a lot of the credit for giving us the room and the patience to follow through on what we think is best.

“Obviously, at some point, we need to win some games, too.”

That’s it, in a nutshell. That’s why Cash can take Blake Snell out in the fifth inning of Game 6, have it blow up in his face, and then come right back and pull Charlie Morton in the sixth inning of Game 7, and celebrate the pennant an hour later.

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It’s not just a pre-ordained process. A few games earlier, Cash left Snell in when he was struggling in the fifth and was rewarded with a shutout inning. It’s about understanding every conceivable option at the moment, and then having the conviction to follow through on your decision.

“It’s not trying to outsmart anybody. It’s not trying to do anything other than the best we can,” Neander said. “If we’re second-guessed, that’s okay.”

It’s the same philosophy Neander brings to the front office, which explains trades that are roundly booed by fans in December and then praised for years to come.

Long before Neander took over the baseball operations department, Sternberg’s front office operated with the philosophy that it was okay to occasionally break a window as long as you didn’t burn down the building.

So, for example, signing David Price to a long-term deal would have been burning down the building. Not because he wasn’t worth the money, and not because they didn’t like him. It’s just that the Rays cannot afford to tie up too much payroll in any one player.

So Price was traded and the Rays got a teenager named Willy Adames and other pieces that were later flipped to bring Ryan Yarbrough and Mike Zunino to Tampa Bay.

A few years later, Evan Longoria was traded. Not because he did anything wrong, but because his production and contract no longer fit the team’s payroll structure. And if the Rays had not taken Longoria’s contract off the books, they likely could not have been able to afford Charlie Morton.

These are not reckless decisions. They carry risk, yes, but they are also vetted from every possible vantage point. Sometimes, the Rays miss. The early returns say they missed on Yoshi Tsutsugo, Jose Martinez and Hunter Renfroe this year. But that doesn’t mean they won’t keep pressing the envelope when they think the odds are in their favor.

“Our brand of baseball is not the same as the Astros or Yankees, to use two examples of teams we’ve played. But that’s okay,” Neander said. "To show there are different ways to do this? Sure, I think that’s great for baseball. But by no means is this the only way. Whatever way this is.

“We’re just a good team right now.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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