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Did you hear the one about the pitcher being pulled in the World Series?

John Romano | One year after Rays manager Kevin Cash was pilloried for pulling Blake Snell, the Braves pulled Ian Anderson after five no-hit innings. And won!
Blake Snell's last appearance in a Rays uniform was Game 6 of the 2020 World Series when he was removed with a 1-0 in the sixth inning of a game Tampa Bay ultimately lost. Critics blasted manager Kevin Cash for the decision, but the 2021 postseason proves that a lot of baseball people agree with the strategy of removing a pitcher too soon rather than too late.
Blake Snell's last appearance in a Rays uniform was Game 6 of the 2020 World Series when he was removed with a 1-0 in the sixth inning of a game Tampa Bay ultimately lost. Critics blasted manager Kevin Cash for the decision, but the 2021 postseason proves that a lot of baseball people agree with the strategy of removing a pitcher too soon rather than too late. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Nov. 1, 2021

Funny thing happened in the World Series the other night.

An Atlanta pitcher was more than halfway through a no-hitter when his manager pulled him from the game. Heads did not explode. The ghost of Don Larsen did not appear.

Heck, the Braves even won the game, 2-0.

That moment demonstrated just how far the game has evolved — and just how much of an impact Tampa Bay has had on Major League Baseball today.

Not sure if you remember this (clears throat) but there was a similar situation in the World Series last year. The Rays had a 1-0 lead and Blake Snell had thrown 5-1/3 innings of two-hit, shutout ball in Game 6 when manager Kevin Cash pulled him before facing the top of the Dodgers lineup for a third time.

The Rays lost the lead, the game, and the World Series. Zealots called for Cash’s firing and critics deemed analytics-based managing to be the ruination of baseball.

And yet, a year later, taking a starting pitcher out too soon rather than too late is an accepted strategy. A widely imitated strategy.

You think I’m exaggerating?

There have been 36 postseason games in 2021, which means 72 starting pitchers. Of those starters, only 12 have gone six or more innings. That works out to 16.6 percent, or one out of every six starts. It’s also just about half the percentage (32.9 percent) of the previous five postseasons combined.

Now, baseball has been trending in this direction for a long time. The last complete game in the postseason was so long ago — Oct. 14, 2017 by Justin Verlander — that Carlos Beltran was in the lineup.

But never has there been a drop-off this dramatic. Never have we seen an extended postseason when at least one-quarter of the starters weren’t going six innings or more. Never have we seen a World Series pitcher pulled after five no-hit innings.

And it’s not hard to see the path between Tampa Bay’s run of success and all these other postseason teams tracing those exact same steps.

So, were the Rays right? In retrospect, does this justify the decision to pull Snell?

Yes and no. Baseball is changing, and starting pitchers approach the game differently than they did in the 1960s. They are going max effort from the first inning, throwing the ball as hard as they can and spinning it as much as possible. And rosters are constructed with extended bullpen appearances in mind.

A pitcher’s waning effectiveness when facing batters a third time in a game is also an indisputable phenomenon.

So, yes, the Rays were at the forefront of a trend that is now considered a smart method of navigating an opponent’s lineup.

But there are still a ton of factors that need to be considered in every scenario and — I’ve said this before — the problem in the 2020 World Series was not the lack of faith in Snell but the overabundance of faith in reliever Nick Anderson, whose numbers were obviously, and dramatically, dipping compared to previous months.

In the Atlanta situation, manager Brian Snitker acknowledged he was going on a gut instinct as much as analytics. While starter Ian Anderson had not given up a hit, he had walked three batters and hit another. With 76 pitches through five innings, he was never going to make it through nine innings, so Snitker decided not to wait an extra inning just for sentimental purposes.

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“It could have backfired, I guess,” Snitker told reporters after the game. “I just thought at that point in time, in a game of this magnitude, he had done his job.”

Snitker did not specifically reference Tampa Bay, but he admitted he has only recently come to believe in the advantages of getting a starting pitcher out before he gets into trouble.

“The me of old, probably a couple of years ago, would be: How the hell am I doing this, quite honestly,” Snitker said. “But the pitch count was such that he wasn’t going nine innings. So it wasn’t about that.”

Kevin Cash does not need vindication. He was the American League Manager of the Year in 2020 and is a strong candidate to snag the award again in 2021. He has won more games with far less resources than any manager in the game, and it’s not even close.

That doesn’t mean you have to agree with the Snell decision. It doesn’t even mean the Snell decision was the correct choice at that particular moment.

But, after what we’ve seen in this postseason and World Series, it’s safe to say Tampa Bay’s methods are not simply radical or unconventional. They’re also envied and effective.

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

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