Kramer: Quit attacking Kevin Cash
David Kramer | Monday, November 2, 2020
People love to complain about anything and everything, anytime and everywhere. The rise of sports statistics’ influence on management decisions is certainly no exception.
Anti-analytical sentiment reached its apex on Tuesday night when Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash took the ball out of elite pitcher Blake Snell’s hand in the sixth inning. Amid a performance nothing short of dominant, Snell exited the game with nine strikeouts in five-and-a-third scoreless innings. Kevin Cash’s logic revolved around the fact, well-established in baseball analytics, that starting pitchers’ success significantly declines when facing the opposing batting order for the third time. Undoubtedly, the statistics-intensive Rays organization supported Cash’s choice to enter the bullpen, although his choice in relievers seemed questionable: right-hander Nick Anderson.
During a stretch only characterized as abysmal, Anderson allowed at least one run in each of his previous seven appearances against the lethal Yankees and Astros offenses. Atop the Dodgers lineup stood Mookie Betts, who not only punishes baseballs against right-handed pitching but also showed signs of frustration against Snell, striking out twice in his first two at-bats in Game 6. Further, Cash’s heavy use of Anderson in the postseason left the reliever with noticeable fatigue in the bullpen. In spite of these suggestions to either continue with Snell or bring in a lefty, Cash placed his trust in Anderson.
This trust, grounded in statistics, is certainly no stranger to the Rays organization. For years, its management staff has governed a small-market team with small-market decisions, choices that agitate and perturb traditional organizations lagging behind the curve. Through their relentless — and sometimes even reckless — allegiance to analytics, innovative player development and progressive team strategy, they have gradually acquired an edge on the competition with a reliable formula: trusting the numbers. The decision to pull Blake Snell squares with the very team philosophy that lifted the Rays from a laughable program with an unfaithful fanbase and a meager payroll to a dominant system of analytical pioneers at the top of the American League.
Critics on social media have attacked Kevin Cash for acting “on a script,” or blindly applying statistical methods without any consideration of Snell’s evident success in Game 6. In the course of a week, fans and players alike have utterly dismembered the same modus operandi that brought the Rays to the World Series in the first place.
The accusations present the Rays’ decision-making process as cold and regimented. But is that really the case?
Take second baseman Brandon Lowe, for example. Normally a consistent threat at the plate, Lowe hit a measly .118 in the postseason. The generic offensive metrics — batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage — might have suggested to Cash and his coaching staff to start a substitute for Lowe in the World Series lineup. Moving into Game 2, however, Cash maintained his trust and batted him in the cleanup spot. What appeared to be a completely irrational decision paid off as Lowe cracked two home runs and drove in three runs, including the game-winning RBI. Coincidentally, Nick Anderson walked away from his relief outing with a win.
In numerous cases, as with Lowe, the Rays staff strays from analytics and places unwavering faith in its players. Not only did proven metrics suggest that a move to the bullpen would present the greatest likelihood of success in the Game 6 situation, but Kevin Cash trusted that Anderson would escape his downward spiral of postseason woes. With the margin for error incredibly small against the most dangerous offense in baseball, Cash took to a statistically sound relief stint, however imperfect Anderson may be.
And in spite of our temptations, it is completely unfair for us to criticize Cash on account of the outcome. Analytics provide suggestions, not surefire indications of what will happen under the circumstances inside the chalk. These suggestions undoubtedly fail at times–as they did all season for the Rays–and yes, the numbers do not always speak for themselves. But as staffs incorporate every available ounce of mathematical insight and human intuition into their decisions, let us not accuse baseball’s brilliant minds of neglecting what mere fans deem “logic” or “common sense.”
Even with analytics, baseball is still human, and so is Cash. They deserve to be treated as such.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.