Pitch counts, innings limits, and analytics are all variables that pitchers playing in today’s game have to deal with. America’s pastime has evolved way past the simple concepts of baseball, when all a pitcher needed to think about was getting the batter out. Numbers are what dictates modern-day baseball, and anyone who refuses to acknowledge the statistics are seen as outcasts, unable to adjust to the growing game. Financial implications are another significant factor that plays into how pitchers are handled, with money occasionally being valued over winning. Taking an analytical approach to how a team is managed has become the new norm; however, sometimes making the risky moves are the right ones, even when they are not statistically favorable because baseball is unpredictable.
During Game 6 of this past World Series, Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash made one of the most questionable calls in postseason history. The move was made because of what the front office preaches and what analytics said, but it proved costly and controversial.
Down in the series and facing elimination, starting pitcher Blake Snell went on a mission. He was dealing through the first five innings, striking out nine batters for the second time in the series, allowing only one hit, and after getting the first out in the sixth, he gave up a base hit to center field. It is key to note that Snell had only thrown 73 pitches up to this point, but was starting his third round through the batting order with former MVP Mookie Betts looming in the batter’s box.
To the shock of fans, the anger of Snell, and the delight of Betts, Kevin Cash made the call to the bullpen to remove his Cy Young award-winning pitcher from the most important game of the season.
There was lots of evidence to support both sides of the decision, with Cash choosing to follow the formula that had led to his team’s success, though just based on the eye test, Snell did not look ready to leave the mound. Baseball has aspects in it that just cut through the analytical side of it. From adrenaline, to mentality, to atmosphere, there are so many other attributes to pitching that cannot be seen within the stat sheet.
A few facets to pitcher/batter matchups that are often taken into consideration are lefty/righty splits and tendencies. When analyzing the Snell situation off the bat, there is some basic reasoning behind removing him early. First off, is that he is a left-handed pitcher, about to face a heavy right-handed lineup for the third time. His regular season ERA versus righties was 3.47 compared to his 2.63 ERA against lefties. Snell was also in the sixth inning, a landmark that he rarely reached during the season, often getting pulled after five or earlier. However, despite these facts holding true, there were also many analytics supporting keeping Snell in.
Cash’s biggest defense for pulling his pitcher was his belief in the third time through the order. Surprisingly though, Snell has pitched at the same level during the second time through the order as he has the third. This season, opposing hitters had a .977 OPS the second time, and a .913 OPS the third time. Looking at a larger sample, in 2019, Snell’s opponent had a .730 OPS during their second plate appearance and a .716 OPS their third time around. There is really no evidence supporting a drop-off in production as Snell gets deeper into games, with him actually improving slightly.
Viewing the other variables, specifically lefty/righty and the pitching matchups, they show that Betts has struggled mightily versus left-handed pitching this season, hitting .200 against southpaws compared to .323 versus right-handed pitchers. During the World Series, Betts had been 0-4 versus Snell with three strikeouts and a walk, including two of those strikeouts being that same night. The Dodgers one through four hitters, consisting of Betts, Corey Seager, Justin Turner, and Max Muncy were hitless in eight at bats against Snell with seven strikeouts. Even from an analytical perspective, removing Snell from the game at that point was debatable, but because the Tampa Bay front office preaches certain philosophies and Cash abides by them, the final decision is theirs to make.
This past World Series is not the first time a pitcher has been pulled early or straight up denied the right to pitch. Over the past decade, there have been numerous pitchers pulled during no-hit bids because of pitch counts and innings restrictions. In 2016, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Ross Stripling was making his major league debut and he had thrown 7⅓ hitless innings, but because he had hit the 100-pitch mark, manager Dave Roberts decided to pull him.
Throwing a no-hitter is one of the most impressive accomplishments a pitcher can achieve, with only 304 of them being thrown throughout history. They can help a player earn a contract and Roberts stripped his pitcher of that opportunity because he was being overprotective, and it was the analytically correct move to make. Los Angeles would lose the no-hitter and the game because of the bullpen, but the bottom-line is that Stripling was prevented from potentially making history because of the current era of baseball he plays in.
Financial incentives are incredibly influential in teams making decisions for pitchers. Back in 2012, Washington Nationals Stephen Strasburg was playing in his third MLB season and was the ace of their pitching staff. To protect their star from hurting his arm, as he did not have a great injury history, Washington gave him a limit of 160 innings. What was not calculated was how valiant that Nationals teams would become, winning 98 games, best in all of baseball.
However, since there was an innings cap, Strasburg was unable to pitch for them in October. This is back when making the playoffs was significantly more difficult than today, with only five teams in each league earning a postseason spot, and only three teams guaranteed to make the division series. Making the playoffs was rare and taking that chance away from a competitor like Strasburg is crushing. Washington did it because they wanted to protect their top asset and his agent Scott Boras defended the shutdown because he knew Strasburg had a massive contract coming in the future if he stayed healthy.
From the Nationals point of view, they wanted to protect him for the future so he can pitch for them in the postseason down the line, but why not let him pitch then. Washington was eliminated in a close five-game series with the St. Louis Cardinals, one where Strasburg would definitely have made his impact known had he played.
In 2012, he pitched to a 15-6 record with a 3.16 ERA. When the opportunity to win now is upon itself, it would only seem logical that a team takes it. Fortunately for Strasburg, he got his postseason due in 2014, 2017, and 2019. In 2019, he was able to redeem the decision made for him seven years prior by leading Washington to their first title and winning World Series MVP. Though who knows, if the Nationals had a complete roster in 2012, what could have been. Nobody will ever know because the innings cap was strict, and Strasburg could not pitch.
The MLB postseason is usually a different animal than the regular season, with managers making much bolder moves because they are in it to win it all. This was never more valid than in 2014, when Madison Bumgarner put the San Francisco Giants on his back and carried them to a World Series victory. Giants manager Bruce Bochy threw all precautions out of the window during the 2014 postseason because he was determined to win, and he knew the only way that could happen was by putting his horse on the mound as much as possible.
Bumgarner is arguably the greatest postseason pitcher of all-time, with a 2.11 career ERA in 100+ innings of postseason baseball. During that 2014 run, he pitched to a shockingly low 1.03 ERA in 52⅔ innings. In fact, he kept improving the deeper San Francisco went, pitching to a 0.43 ERA in the World Series over three outings, which included pitching the final five innings of Game 7 on three days’ rest after throwing a complete game shutout. No coach, player, or doctor would ever recommend doing such a demanding task, but sports are about winning and sometimes pitchers need to pitch.
Analytics are where the game is at today. They calculate for almost everything statistically available, but sabermetrics can only get a roster so far. It is making the risky decisions that go against the book that creates champions. Baseball instinct should override any numbers, because winning does not happen with a computer, it happens in real life. Players will always get hurt and the numbers will not always hold true.
Anything can happen in this sport and that is the beauty of baseball. There is no need to have a leash on a pitcher at the big-league level. The MLB is the apex league, if pitchers are not going all out, they do not belong. If winning is the true goal, then organizations need to learn to let go of their fears and let their players reach their full potential.