The Rays stuck to their process. It might've cost them a World Series
Throughout October, the Tampa Bay Rays consistently championed their "process," a blanket term for the data-oriented, convention-eschewing approach that permeates every facet of the organization, from scouting to player development to, most germanely, in-game decision-making.
Their process engenders plenty of eye-rolling from traditionalists and progressives alike, and it's not always conducive to the most entertaining baseball, but it was nevertheless instrumental in propelling a team with a (prorated) $28-million payroll to the second-most wins in the majors and an American League pennant in 2020.
"We value our process," Rays manager Kevin Cash explained after Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, in which he removed starter Charlie Morton after only 66 pitches and 5 2/3 scoreless innings. "It's just, that's what we do. We believe in our process, and we're gonna keep doing that."
Evidently, their process stipulates that Morton ought not face a lineup for a third time in a game, and allows for no improvisation, no adjusting for the circumstances. On that occasion, it worked out. On Tuesday, with their season on the line in Game 6 of the World Series, the Rays' unwavering fealty to their process - that unwillingness to read the game and deviate from their data-driven scripts - arguably cost them a shot at forcing Game 7 and precipitated what will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the most egregious tactical decisions in World Series history in an eventual 3-1 loss.
Through five-plus innings, Blake Snell was nearly perfect, squelching the Dodgers' mighty lineup with a brilliant four-pitch mix and ably preserving the 1-0 lead Randy Arozarena staked him to in the first with solo shot. Snell allowed only two hits without walking a batter, and was missing both bats and barrels with ease: the Dodgers struck out nine times, whiffing on almost half (47%) of their swings, while their average exit velocity was 78.4 mph, per Baseball Savant. Yet, as soon as Dodgers leadoff hitter Mookie Betts began striding to the plate for his third at-bat in the bottom of the sixth following a one-out single from Austin Barnes, Cash burst out of the dugout to relieve Snell, much to the left-hander's demonstrable chagrin and Los Angeles' delight.
"Oh, man, it was kind of a sigh of relief," Betts quipped afterward. "If he had stayed in the game, he might have pitched a complete-game (shutout)."
To that point, Snell had thrown only 73 pitches. He looked functionally unhittable. And Betts struggled mightily against left-handers (.531 OPS) in 2020, albeit over a small sample, and looked particularly hapless in his first two at-bats against Snell in Game 6, going down swinging both times. Still, the Rays - beholden to their process - were unmoved by those data points or Snell's plainly observable dominance. Like most every other pitcher, Snell isn't immune to the third-time-through-the-order penalty, and Cash was never going to entertain allowing him to face the top of the Dodgers' lineup for a third time.
"I didn't want Mookie or (Corey) Seager seeing Blake a third time," Cash explained. "... I thought the thought process was right."
Almost immediately, the Rays' season slipped away. Nick Anderson, who surrendered at least one run in each of his previous six outings, promptly served up a double to Betts, which he followed up with a wild pitch that allowed Barnes to score the tying run. Moments later, the Dodgers grabbed the lead thanks to some outstanding baserunning from Betts, who managed to score on a grounder to first from Seager.
By the end of the night, the Dodgers had snapped their 32-year championship drought. And the decision that sparked that game-changing rally typified the tension between the so-called eye test and analytics, and will likely come to be viewed as a watershed moment in the evolution of the game.
"I don't care what the numbers say," Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said. "That was Blake's game. That might've been the best I've seen him. That was incredible."
To be sure, the Rays didn't lose the World Series simply because of their tactical inflexibility in Game 6. The Dodgers were the better team, and looked like it throughout the series. Their offense beat up on Tampa Bay's vaunted staff, bashing a dozen homers with an .819 OPS in six games, while the Rays' highly fluid, platoon-heavy lineup had no answer for Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, or Julio Urias, who combined to throw almost half of Los Angeles' innings for the series. It's also entirely possible the Dodgers - who have the league's most prolific offense - would've gotten to Snell had Cash left him in. (And, it should be noted, it's unfair to pin this decision - and the Rays' loss - entirely on Cash, who is but a cog in a machine that has long been resolved to subvert and revolutionize baseball's practices.)
For now, though, it's hard to not view the decision to remove Snell as a grievous failure of flexibility, a head-shaking result of an insular process that, as sensible as it may be, still isn't perfect. Analytics are eminently valuable, and data should always be taken into consideration, but the Rays' slavish adherence to their numbers-driven process results in an inattentional blindness that yields moves like this one, which are painfully disconnected from what's actually happening in the game.
Had they been a bit more pliable, maybe their season wouldn't be over.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.
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