Max Scherzer watched Kevin Cash walk to the mound and Blake Snell shout an expletive.
Tampa Bay led Game 6 of the World Series, 1-0, with one out in the sixth inning. Snell muted the Dodgers offense to that point: he allowed two hits, struck out nine and threw only 73 pitches before his manager emerged from the dugout.
Cash’s choice to follow the Rays’ script -- a process which landed the low-payroll team in the World Series after once again winning a bevy of regular-season games -- has trickled into the winter as an ongoing discussion point. Major League Baseball is ruled by analytics. Those models inform organizations of how and when to make moves. There is expansive and distinct information that shows pitchers facing the same batters for a third time tend to regress. The “eye test” has been replaced by computer-generated predictive information.
Which led Cash to the mound, Snell to be irritated and everyone in the baseball world to take notice.
Multiple GIFs of a sneering or shouting Scherzer have defined how he is perceived when it comes to being removed from a game. He even once half-jokingly threatened to create a list of shame for reporters who asked him about pitch counts.
However, the situation is more nuanced. He has a deep understanding of analytics and their role, using them himself. Davey Martinez has at times pushed him back out to the mound. Scherzer has told Martinez in between innings he was done. Trust, math, human nature -- they all exist in this process and are not restricted to a manager’s opening step out of the dugout. It’s cumulative.
“I understand that every team has their process and that’s what makes them great,” Scherzer told NBC Sports Washington. “Obviously, the Rays have a process on how they think and they really push the envelope in a lot of different ways and sitting back and watching from the other side, they really do a lot of experimental things with openers and shifts -- they were the first team on the shifts -- so it’s tough to be critical of another organization, especially when you’re in one of those matchups. But, it was painfully obvious to realize, from my vantage point, Blake Snell was still good enough to be in that game -- I think we all can agree to that.
“Hindsight is 20-20. It’s really unfair to sit there and say, hey, you really made a mistake here when that’s been your process. So, if that’s their process and that’s how they’ve been winning -- and they’ve been winning a lot of ball games, so it’s tough to argue with what they’ve been doing. You really don’t want to open your mouth and get in the middle of that. You watch from afar and you appreciate the success the Rays have had.”
Part of head-butting between the analytics community and the Era of the Eye Test exists because of the believed infallibility of each position. Having a tangible, predictive document makes decision-making, in the brain of many, clear. Meanwhile, legacy folks will hold to their perception of institutional knowledge and its value. Which often creates an impasse.
Cash is perhaps an extremist. The documentation works for him, so he is not deviating, even if the live game presents a singular suggestion to do so (i.e. Snell demolishing the Dodgers and making it appear he was, in fact, operating as an outlier). Martinez has mixed math and gut. He walked Max Muncy to put the tying run on base in the 2019 NLDS, something predictive models would chide him for. He left Scherzer on the mound in Game 7. He allowed Daniel Hudson to pitch to left-handed Michael Brantley -- with a four-run lead and no one on base -- when the map in his hand said to bring in Sean Doolittle, who was ready and watching from the bullpen.
“The piece of paper comes down to how well the analytics are, how well their models are and how well they can predict the future,” Scherzer said. “So, if you have models that can predict the future better than the eye test does, that you’re going to win more ball games following a piece of paper, I guarantee you everybody’s going to follow the piece of paper.
“That’s where you come back to reality and you realize, OK. everything that the analytics say and how they view the game, it’s not 100 percent right. Just like the eye test and how we’ve always played baseball and how we’ve conceptualized baseball, that’s not always 100 percent right either. From my vantage point, it really takes a blend of both. Of really trying to understand what the analytics are trying to tell you and what the instincts of the game -- the human element of the game that just gets lost in today’s verbiage and today’s writing in how we discuss baseball, that a lot of that, to me, has gotten lost, so it really takes a combination of both, the human feel of it and what the analytics are trying to tell you.”
Removing a pitcher carries a lot of background decision-making. What was happening in the regular season? What has been discussed among the manager, front office and veteran pitcher? Who is available to replace him that day and in the future? The team always has more information -- on health and in depth of analytics -- than the general public ever will.
“To me, it’s never just one incident,” Scherzer said of pitchers becoming upset with removal. “It’s never this one time and you’re frustrated. It’s usually this culmination of multiple things that led up over time.”
So, yes, there were times when Matt Williams approached the mound and Scherzer lambasted him. There were other times when Martinez urged him for more. And, there was watching Snell being extracted from a dominating World Series performance, prompting the competitive thoughts to override any understanding, producing a league-wide question: What is happening here?