Pitcher Interrupted: How Blake Snell, Devil Rays Fans, and Baseball Were Robbed

Written by Nancy Newell CSCS

Inspired by the video below

A NIGHT LIKE NO OTHER:

October 27th 2020 was a defining moment for the future of baseball. It’s where the game of the past collided with the game of technology. For me, it’s really interesting because I can see the opportunities and obstacles of both sides of thinking. Now, I believe there are times where technology can be a useful tool to provide insight and then there are times where it’s not. Like the BS incident that took place with Blake Snell in Game 6 of the World Series.

WE WERE WATCHING HISTORY IN THE MAKING…

Tampa Bay’s Southpaw Blake Snell was dealing during Game 6 of the World Series vs the Dodgers. The 2018 AL CY Young Award winner was carrying a no-hitter into the 5th. He became the FIRST pitcher in World Series history to strike out 9 while working fewer than 5 innings. To put this in perspective, he joined the ranks of Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson. In addition to being only the 3rd pitcher in World Series history to record at least 2 strikeouts in 4 consecutive innings. Had Snell been released from his short leash I have no doubt his name would have been etched in the history books alongside the games most respected pitchers of all time.

ALIVENESS: BLAKE SNELL WAS BORN TO PITCH

27 year old Blake Snell was born to pitch. He’s a high level caliber pitcher who was prepared for this moment. And his dream was stolen from him. I wonder how many times growing up he rehearsed that moment. Throwing a ball against a garage… living… and replaying that moment like every kid does. He was born with the ability to pitch under pressure on a big stage. It only took Snell 10 pitches to get through the first inning. In this interview with FOX, Snell gave the reporters a front row seat into his meticulous scouting report.

Snell said,
“I scouted myself”
“I knew what they were looking for”
” I watched their energy and body language”
“I knew when I was going to switch it up”
“I knew when I was going to adjust in a game”
“When it comes to understanding that team and what I needed to do succeed
I was really locked in.”

And not only was he prepared for this moment he wanted the ball and had no doubt in his ability to finish what he started. For the last 10 years, coaches have been complaining about kids not wanting the ball in the big moments. I am just imagining kids watching that game with the same dreams as Snell and all they are thinking is; even If I did want the ball, had the talent, I still wouldn’t get my shot to prove what I can do.

Can You Blame Kevin Cash?

You can not blame him….
And we cannot ignore what we witnessed. He made the call very quickly. He didn’t even talk to Snell nor did he ask Snell what he thought. Kevin is more of an old school coaching guy that didn’t want to be talked out of a decision. He made that call without talking to his trust board. As a leader, in any team or organization there is no such thing as too much communication when it comes to accomplishing a mission or winning a game. Your adjacent players and staff need to clearly understand your vision and goal. If you don’t talk with your people they will start to feel like they don’t belong, that you don’t trust them or their opinion, and know it looks like your questioning their ability to do their job. The job that they are getting paid to do and do at a high caliber.

Just imagine…..

What if Kevin Cash went to the mound, took the ball from Snell and started rubbing the ball in his hands, gave the ball back to Snell and said “you were born for this moment, you are prepared, go get ’em”. Even if they lost that game. In the interview, people would have understood, felt, and seen exactly why a coach made that choice to leave him in the game. Cash could have used this moment to express how much he trusts Snell and the caliber pitcher he is.

He’s our guy…
He’s the reason we are here…
He’s the best pitcher in baseball right now…
He’s the best player on the field right now…

And if we lose the World Series that’s fine. I am not going to take the ball out of a pitcher’s hand who was born to pitch in this situation.

This choice is on me. And If you asked me to make this choice 100 times with Snell I wouldn’t change a thing.

That would have been a defining moment.

Post Game Cash Conference

After losing game 6 of the World Series Cash was interviewed about his call. During this interview, he talked about how talented the Dodgers line-up was and showed absolutely no emotion. He didn’t speak from his heart nor did he take ownership for the call. This was a textbook PR firm answer which leads me to think that this call was based solely on data gathered from previous months ago and ignoring all the game right in front of him.

If I had the opportunity to sit down with Cash and talk to him, I’d want to ask him what he thought of his 2020 team. The work that went into hand selecting these players to get them to this point.

Some questions to think about:

Did the data show that your players are incapable of adapting over the course of the season? What data markers are you using to make this call?

Do you think Snell didn’t do his homework on this Dodgers team?

Is live game data garbage? Does expired data trump what’s actually happening right now in the moment?

What about trusting your pitcher?

What about competitive fire?

What about heart?

What about the head to head battle of competition in sports and why we play?

Snell was at 73 pitches that day. They didn’t even allow him to get to little league standards with a 85 pitch count. You gotta believe that the best pitcher in baseball has more than 73 pitches in the tank. What about believing in your players that they can get the job done?

Let’s look at other sports…

In basketball, as a coach do you not give the ball to Lebron because he’s sinking too many 3 pointers and everyone in the arena knows the balls going to him……

In football, do we take the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands because the other team has seen him and they know what his strategy is?

Absolutely not. You give these competitive leaders the ball because they are playmakers. When you make a choice to take the ball away from these guys the entire team feels this negative energy.

Your starting pitcher is the most important position on the field. When this guy is on fire your entire team is fueled by his performance. Just imagine, this same game happening 10 years ago and Greg Maddux was pitching. Do you really think they would have taken the ball out of his hands after pitching 73 pitches and dominating the opposing team? It would have never happened.

The Statistical Analysis

The data used to make the final decision to take Snell out of the game was simply irrelevant data. This data was collected in a game during April, May, June, July. It’s a different time, different place, different moments, different stakes, it’s a different game against different hitters and it’s not the World Series. We are not counting cards. The variables are always changing and can never be fully replicated. Think about all the variables that can change within the game and not to mention each individual player. Data can’t tell you what new insight a player has learned or observed. Who knows, Snell might have seen something in those hitters and it gave him an advantage and he knew how to pitch to them to beat them.

Going to data is going to fear. There is no courageous decision going to data. The data is void of the human. Because the human is always changing, it’s always evolving and adapting. The past is a limited predictor of the future.

Talk with any professional athlete that has played in The Super Bowl, The Stanley Cup, The Wimbledon, The NBA Finals and I can guarantee you they tell you it’s a different animal. There are no words to describe it nor “predict” what will unfold. You see it all the time. Players who usually thrive in certain situations will collapse under the stress. Unexpected players will become key playmakers. Teams compete at another level that can’t be replicated during normal in-season games.

Flash Back to Pedro Martinez & Little

In 2003, the Yankees and the Red Sox were battling it out in Game 7 of the ALCS. Pedro Martinez was on the mound in the bottom of the 8th. Pedro’s pitch count stood at 110. With five consecutive switch hitters up and Little chose to leave Pedro in instead of bringing in Embree. Bernie Williams was up and lined a single to center to make it 5-3 which finally brought Little out to the mound. Little asked Martinez if he had enough to face Matsui. Martinez told Little he wanted to continue to fight and Little having the utmost faith and trust in his ace left him to fight. This decision did not result in a win for the Red Sox however, it did showcase Littles’s amazing soft skills. When he went out to the mound he accounted for Pedro’s body language, he involved him and their catcher in the process and asked what he wanted. He took into account who Pedro was and his capabilities and put all of his trust and support behind his team instead of making a decision solely based on data. At the end of the day, I’d rather lose having my players know I gave them a chance and that I trust them and their input versus having them know that I would choose numbers over them every time.

Flash Back to Andy Pettitte & Torre

The scenario I am about to layout is almost the exact situation Snell encountered before he was taken out of the game.

The 1996 Atlanta Braves and the New York Yankees are tied 2-2 going into game 5 of The World Series. Andy Pettitte is the starting pitcher after getting blown up in game 1 with the Yankees losing 12-1. Fast forward to the 6th inning. It’s one nothing and Pettitte is facing the number 9 hitter John Smoltz (who by the way was the announcer for game 6 of the 2020 World Series!). Pettitte gives up a single to Smoltz and now the tying run is on 1st and now he’s facing the top of the order for the third time. Torre makes the call to leave Pettitte in to face Marquis Griffen. Griffen ends up hitting a single. Now, its first and second, Torre still decides to leave Pettitte in. The second baseman Mark Lemke is up. Lemke attempts to bunt Smoltz over. What happens next is one of the greatest plays in baseball history. Pettitte fields the bunt with his bare hand and throws it to 3rd just in time to get Smoltz out! Now, its first and third with Chipper Jones up. Pettitte forces Jones to ground out into a double play and the Yankees make it out of the inning untouched. Pettitte ends up pitching 8 1/3rds innings and the Yankees go on to win game 6 taking home the World Series Title. If Torre had only used the data from Pettitte’s first outing in game 1 who knows what would have happened. Maybe, he takes Pettitte out and they lose the World Series. Gut and feel matters! Nowadays it’s almost like managers are trying to find ways to take their pitchers out of the game.

Click here to watch Pettitte get the yanks out the 6th inning jam.

Is data actually making anyone better? Where are the super players, the super teams?

Data is what matters today. Players and parents at every level from amateur through the ranks of professional baseball are obsessed with collecting data with high hopes that it will transform them into elite ballplayers.

You would think the more data we have the better outcomes we should get. We should be winning more games, we should be developing super players, we should be decreasing injuries and the fact of the matter is we are not.

There are no teams winning more than 140 plus games
Kids are throwing harder but they are also getting injured at higher rates
Starting pitchers are being pulled in the 4th and 5th innings

There is a point where data can most certainly help you elevate your game and give you a strategic advantage. But then there’s a point of diminishing returns. Data is just part of the pie; it shouldn’t be the entire pie. These other parts of the game are parts that take time to develop. They are developed through hands-on experience, watching other players and competing.

The Players

The players are going to train for what they are being used for. If organizations change their demands for starting pitchers the players will adapt. It’ll be extremely hard for organizations to find pitchers who can stretch into the 6th and 7th innings. Now, due to this strategy, we need to ask ourselves; why should we be paying this guy 30 million dollars to work every 4th day?

The Fans

Organizations make their money from a long history of family baseball. Grandparents bring their sons and daughters and so on and so forth. It’s a family tradition. Families will stop attending games if they know what the outcome is going to be. If they come to see their favorite starting pitcher and they know no matter what he’s not pitching past the 4th inning why would they stay?

The Future Role of the MLB Manager

The future role of the MLB manager will change. A manager was a highly sought after position. You need years of experience, you need to have a high baseball IQ, you need to be able to remain stoic in high pressure situations and take risks and inspire your athletes. If all you have to do is listen to a guy in the box tell you exactly what to do and execute commands then really anyone could be a manager.

In Closing

The greatest moments in baseball defy data. There is no data to tell you to put Kirk Gibson in during the 1988 world series. What about Don Larson, Sandy Koufax, Josh Becket’s performance. What about Curt Schilling’s bloody sock performance? If data was the gatekeeper during these decisions none of these moments would have happened. Now, The real question is: What were we robbed of on October 27th?