Blake Snell took the mound in Game 6 of the World Series and dominated the Dodgers’ bats until Kevin Cash’s numbers dictated the ace could do so no longer.
He was magnificent across his five and a third innings of work during which he struck out nine, walked none, allowed two hits and was eventually credited with one run — which was surrendered after he left he game.
The Blake Snell that took the mound last night was the Blake Snell that Rays fans had longed for since the end of the 2018 season. Featuring a devastating four pitch mix, Snell reminded the baseball world why he won the Cy Young award in 2018, and that he has some of the purest, filthiest “stuff” of any starting pitcher in baseball.
But, it wasn't enough.
It wasn't enough to persuade Kevin Cash to overlook the numbers, just once. It wasn't enough to earn Snell a chance to face Mookie Betts a third time, despite striking him out four times and walking him once across five meetings this series. It wasn't enough for the manager to believe what he was doing that night was something special.
This is all because, over the past two years, the numbers have been more than enough.
The Rays, as an analytically driven club, have thrived over the course of the past three years despite rock bottom revenue totals and minimal payroll flexibility. In 2018, they won 90 games and failed to make the playoffs, a devastating blow for fans who long for the team to spend. In 2019, they won 96 and fell to the Astros in game five of the ALDS. After going 40-20 this year, they were eleven outs away from a winner-take-all Game 7 of the World Series. The numbers work and you don't have to look very hard to reassure yourself of such.
Trusting the process provides a security blanket of probable outcomes and success for a franchise that depends on them to navigate the beasts of the American League East and their daunting payrolls. The formula worked all year: lest we forget that it worked against the Blue Jays, Yankees, and Astros in the playoffs, and it nearly worked against the mighty Dodgers in the World Series.
Blake Snell’s performance last night was an outlier. It was a performance Rays fans and Kevin Cash alike hadn't seen in well over a year. He attacked with his fastball, had command of his changeup and made hitters look foolish with his slider and curveball. He was precise, artful, and dominant. He was CyZilla once again.
And given that context, I can’t help but wonder if the numbers failed to account for the fact that outlier performances such as the one we saw from Snell last night can occur, and when they do, what happens if you let them play out. If Snell was wasn't as dominant as he was thought the first five and a third innings, this isn't even a discussion. If he was working out of jams and giving up loud contact left and right, we aren't having this conversation. But, he didn't do any of those things, so here we are.
I can’t help but ask: At what point does Kevin Cash, the analytics staff, and whoever else is involved in the decision making processes prior to the game prepare for an outlier performance such as Snell’s?
The context matters. Look no further than Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger, two of the Dodger’s best hitters, to get a sense of just how good Blake was.
Betts, speaking for the entirety of the Dodgers lineup after the game, stated that, “Once he came out it was like everyone could breathe again and put some at bats together.”
Bellinger, smirking though his response about Blake getting pulled in the sixth, said “I was shocked.” and continued, “We rallied from there. Snell had his stuff today, he was gross.”
The reactions of Betts and Bellinger speak volumes for just how good Blake was. Are their reactions aren't accounted for in the numbers? Is the mental state of the Dodgers best hitters, who’d watched the Rays bullpen — and particularly Nick Anderson — prove to be mortal again and again, part of the consideration?
It’s understandable if the intangibles get lost in the numbers, but in my experience — as a collegiate pitcher — it is the intangibles that can win or lose ball close baseball games.
Sometimes a pitcher just has “it” and that isn't accounted for in the analytics. That “it” factor is something that leaves batters shaking their head at-bat after at-bat. Blake Snell had “it” in Game 6, but if there is a statistic for that, I’m not aware of “it.”
As with the Dodgers hitters, Snell’s mental state likewise isn't quantifiable. There is no metric for being “in the zone”. There is no metric for feeling it. But I’d offer that strikeouts are quantifiable. Of the sixteen outs he recorded, nine came via the punch out. Walks are also quantifiable; he walked nobody. So are hits and scoreless frames. He surrendered a pair of hits and tossed five scoreless frames prior to Nick Anderson surrendering the Rays lead.
And yet, all of the quantifiable metrics — and there are plenty — could not overcome the daunting consideration of the third trip through the order and the threat it poses to starting pitchers.
Kevin Kiermaier, putting it plainly as he always does, said after the game, “I don’t care what the numbers say, that was Blake’s game. That might’ve been the best I’ve seen him. That was incredible.”
Blake Snell, for his part, was confident in his ability to get through he lineup a third time.
In a postgame interview he made it clear he was prepared, “I get that it is the third time though the lineup, but I think I’m going to make the adjustments I need to make as I see them.” He continued, “I believe in me. I believe in my stuff.”
"I just want the ball. I felt good. ... I just believe in me. I believe in my stuff."— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 28, 2020
Blake Snell talked postgame about getting pulled in the 6th inning. pic.twitter.com/DHkunjV9GQ
But belief isn’t quantifiable.
Confidence isn't quantifiable either, hence Kevin Cash’s journey to mound the with one on and one out in the bottom of the sixth to remove Blake Snell. Cash’s confidence resided in the data population rather than his ace.
Can you blame Cash? No. The numbers — or better put, the odds — have worked in his favor all year, just not this time.
I don't disagree with the motive, nor the concept, but I do take issue with the idea that, no matter the situation, the numbers will win out. There is still room for feel in baseball, or at least I hope there is. It is what makes the game of baseball great. It is why you get historic performances that live on forever. Blake Snell was on the verge of one of those performances until the numbers dictated otherwise.
Now we have an offseason to consider whether regret is quantifiable.