A Defense of Kevin Cash Pulling Blake Snell in the World Series

Sometimes we allow hindsight to cloud our judgment and fall into a trap of second-guessing when assessing managerial decisions. That wasn’t much of an issue last night when discussing whether Kevin Cash should have removed Blake Snell in the sixth inning. That’s because the decision was universally derided as it was happening, just before the Rays blew their lead and the Dodgers won the World Series. As Rachael McDaniel noted:

The Dodgers’ powerful lineup, so productive in this World Series — the Dodgers, you may recall, had held a lead at some point in 27 consecutive innings prior to tonight — seemed utterly useless against Snell. Their fearsome top-of-the-lineup trio of Betts, Seager, and Turner were all 0-for-2 with two strikeouts against him through the first five innings; he was at a very reasonable 73 pitches on the night. Snell’s CSW% on all his pitches was an eye-popping 40%. In short, he looked fantastic. It’s hard to imagine a pitcher looking much better than Snell did for most of Game 6; it’s hard to imagine how the outcome might have differed had he stayed in the game.

Snell was pitching incredibly well up that point in the game, and there was considerable criticism of Cash’s decision as it seemed to be based on numbers, particularly the third time through the order (TTO) penalty, rather than actually paying attention to the feel of the game and just how good Snell was pitching. Cash specifically mentioned the TTO penalty in his postgame comments:

“The only motive was that the lineup the Dodgers feature is as potent as any team in the league,” Cash said. “I felt Blake had done his job and then some. Mookie [Betts] coming around the third time through, I value that. I totally respect and understand the questions that come with [the decision]. Blake gave us every opportunity to win. He was outstanding. These are not easy decisions. … I felt it was best after the guy got on base — Barnes hit the single — I didn’t want Mookie or [Corey] Seager seeing Blake a third time through.

If Cash’s decision had come purely from relying on Snell’s prior history the third time through the order and had ignored what was happening in the game, then the criticism would be justified. Cash did address this somewhat after the game: Read the rest of this entry »


Randy Arozarena Couldn’t Do It By Himself

Facing elimination in Game 6 of the World Series on Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Rays were in desperate need of some offense. As he has so many times, rookie outfielder Randy Arozarena delivered. With one out in the top of the first inning, Los Angeles starter Tony Gonsolin threw a slider running off the plate outside that wasn’t able to evade the bat of Arozarena, who launched it over the right field fence to give the Rays a 1-0 lead. It was his record-setting 10th homer of the postseason; no other player in history has more than eight in any playoff run.

But in a game that would see the Dodgers tally three runs, one solo homer wasn’t going to cut it for the Rays. And in spite of Los Angeles using seven pitchers in a bullpenning effort, one solo home run was all Tampa Bay was going to get. After Gonsolin exited just five outs into the game, Tampa Bay totaled just two hits and zero walks over the final 7.1 innings. It was the third game of the series in which they scored two runs or fewer, and the second time they totaled five or fewer hits. Given those numbers, it’s hardly a surprise the team in the other dugout was the one celebrating a championship on Tuesday.

During and after the loss, much of the discussion surrounding the Rays had to do with the pitching staff — both the way it performed and the way it was managed. There was the controversial decision to lift Blake Snell in the midst of a shutout in the sixth inning, the sudden struggles of Nick Anderson, the disappointing pair of starts made by Tyler Glasnow in this series, and plenty of other points to dissect. The focus on the pitching side makes sense. The Rays are a team known not only for the lights-out arms they boast, but also for the unconventional-yet-typically-successful ways those arms are utilized. Tampa Bay’s pitching staff was the reason the team had made it this far, and if the team won the title, the pitching staff would probably be the reason for that too. It isn’t, however, the reason it lost. Read the rest of this entry »


The Dodgers Have Chased the Ghosts Away

The Dodgers are world champions! On Tuesday night in Game 6 of the World Series, they capitalized on a shockingly quick hook of Blake Snell, who in a must-win game for the Rays had utterly dominated them for 5.1 innings. The decisive rally started with a single by number nine hitter Austin Barnes, just the second hit surrendered by a 27-year-old lefty who had summoned the form by which he’d won the AL Cy Young award just two years ago. The turnover of the lineup was the script to which Rays manager Kevin Cash insisted upon sticking, that despite Snell striking out nine over the course of his 73 pitches while limiting the Dodgers to a paltry 78.4 mph average exit velocity on the balls with which they did make contact.

Opportunity knocked, and the Dodgers let it in, converting Cash’s ill-fated decision into a lead they would not surrender via yet another tour de force by their marquee offseason acquisition and new franchise cornerstone, Mookie Betts. The 28-year-old right fielder greeted reliever Nick Anderson with a ringing double, took third on a wild pitch, and scored on a fielder’s choice. Betts would later provide insurance with a solo homer, and Julio Urías would cap a stifling 7.1-inning, 12-strikeout effort by an oft-rickety bullpen with his second hitless, multi-inning, series-clinching outing of the fall.

The Dodgers are world champions! I was 18 years old when I could last say those words, a college freshman struggling to stay afloat in my new surroundings some 2,350 miles from home. I had briefly fallen in with a couple of beefy football players who owned a 27-inch television. Somehow, they didn’t mind the near-nightly company of an engineering nerd living and dying with the team he’d grown up rooting for, and clung to extra-tightly amid one of life’s rites of passage.

Seven years earlier, I’d seen the Dodgers chase away the ghosts by vanquishing the Yankees, whose consecutive defeats of them in the 1977 and ’78 World Series marked the birth of my baseball fandom. Watching the likes of Mike Scioscia, Kirk Gibson, Mickey Hatcher, and Orel Hershiser conquer the Goodens and the Eckersleys didn’t carry quite the same psychological weight, but it certainly helped to combat the homesickness.

Clayton Kershaw was just seven months old when Hershiser capped his magical run — a 23-8 regular season with a 2.26 ERA, a record 59 consecutive scoreless innings, a 3-0, 1.05 ERA postseason punctuated by a 12th-inning save in the NLCS — with the last of those victories over the A’s. The vast majority of his current teammates, including Barnes, Betts, Urías, Cody Bellinger, Walker Buehler, and Corey Seager, weren’t even twinkles in their parents’ eyes when Hershiser and company hoisted the World Series trophy. None of that bunch, and only a few current Dodgers, were even in the majors when Kershaw began carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders as his team failed to add another championship, despite opportunity after opportunity.

“When you don’t win the last game of the season and you’re to blame for it, it’s not fun,” said Kershaw after serving up back-to-back homers against the Nationals’ Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto in Game 5 of the Division Series last year. The latter tied a game they would lose in 10 innings. “It’s just a terrible feeling.”

As much as anything this side of the golden voice of Vin Scully, it’s been the fate of Kershaw that has cut through the emotional distance I’ve cultivated while walking an improbable career path, from engineering student to biology/pre-med student to graphic designer to professional writer. Thirty-two years ago, there was no way I could have imagined writing about baseball for a living; there was barely even an internet, at least as we understand it now. Though I was assigned an email address when I arrived at Brown University, I never once used it, didn’t connect my computer to a modem until I’d moved from Providence, Rhode Island to New York City at age 25. With the exception of the postseason, baseball had receded into the background in the years since the Dodgers’ 1988 win, and it was the late-’90s Yankees — of all the teams! — that pulled me back in, as the first major league team whose games I could attend regularly.

When I began The Futility Infielder in 2001, I blogged frequently about both the Dodgers and the Yankees, exploring the contradictions of my dueling loyalties when I wasn’t ranting about relievers and managers and free agent busts and labor strife and Hall of Fame ballots. Even as I began writing with increasing professionalism at Baseball Prospectus and Sports Illustrated, nobody told me I had to surrender my fandom, though the need to tamp it down arose once I was admitted to the BBWAA in December 2010. There’s no cheering in the press box, and while I’ve never come close to maximizing the privilege of covering games in person, emotional detachment and a solid veneer of objectivity have become much easier to maintain in that context. Particularly so as the players for whom I rooted most fervently began to dwindle, and my own profile as a national writer, adept enough at grappling with the arcs of all 30 teams, grew to the point that somebody paid me real money to do it.

Kershaw, though… watching his regular season ups — the three Cy Youngs and MVP award, the five ERA titles, the no-hitter, the path to Cooperstown — and postseason downs has cut through all of that. I’ve wanted the Dodgers to win a World Series during his time with the team, wanted him to chase away his season-ending despair as badly as I’ve wanted anything in baseball. Not for myself, but for him, so he wouldn’t have to endure the endless questions and bad-faith hot takes about why he can’t win the big one. So his teammates and manager weren’t left wondering what they could have done differently this time around. And so my family and far-flung friends who have pulled for him so fervently and for so long didn’t have to wait ’til next year.

I did not want Kershaw to become baseball’s equivalent of Karl Malone or John Stockton. Having grown up in Salt Lake City, I rooted for the Utah Jazz as they rose from franchise-relocation ignominy into one of the sporting world’s most agonizing near-misses — to hell with you, Michael Jordan — even while the pair asserted themselves as all-time greats. Disciplined to the point of obsession, they spent decades expending every last ounce of energy and effort to shed the can’t-win label, yet still came up agonizingly short. Watching it all pay off for Kershaw as he slayed those particular demons with some dominant October showings and some all the more admirable for his survival when he wasn’t dominant… I’ll never forget that.

In the annals of baseball history, there exists a very short list of teams who within a five-year span lost back-to-back World Series, then returned to win it all. The 1921 and ’22 Yankees, the first World Series teams with Babe Ruth, lost twice to the Giants before avenging those defeats in ’23. The 1952 and ’53 Dodgers — Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Don Newcombe and the rest of the Boys of Summer — lost twice to the Yankees before beating them in ’55. The 1977 and ’78 Dodgers, those of the longest-running infield of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey, lost twice to the Yankees but then finally won in ’81, fueled by the additions of Fernando Valenzuela and Pedro Guerrero. The 1991 and ’92 Braves, with young John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, lost to the Twins and the Blue Jays before adding Greg Maddux and beating the Indians in ’95. And then these Dodgers, who lost to the Astros in 2017, and then the Red Sox in ’18, before defeating the Rays.

My baseball DNA runs through that last paragraph. My paternal grandfather, Bernard Jaffe, was born in Brooklyn in 1908, and brought baseball history to life for me by regaling me with stories of watching Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit home runs. The Jaffe family of Walla Walla, Washington huddled around the radio during those 1950s World Series, and I came to understand baseball as something beyond a backyard sport with those ’70s teams; by the end of the 1978 season I could read a box score, recite a batting order from memory, and retrace the climax of the NL West race through a stack of old Salt Lake Tribunes. I didn’t see a single pitch of the 1990 World Series, but it was the riveting ’91 classic, capped by the epic duel between Smoltz and Jack Morris, that brought me back to watching postseason baseball.

The 1981 Dodgers won in a season cleaved by a seven-week players’ strike. Guaranteed a playoff berth by their standing atop the NL West when the strike hit on June 12, they did not need to muster the same urgency in the second half of the season, and so they didn’t finish with the division’s best overall record, but they did own the majors’ best run differential. They survived an unprecedented three-tiered playoff format by overcoming a two-games-to-none deficit in a best-of-five Division Series against the Astros, a two-games-to-one deficit in a best of five Championship Series against the Expos, and a two-games-to-none deficit in the World Series against the Yankees. Somewhere, some assholes may have affixed their own asterisks to that accomplishment because of the shortened season, but the fire those Dodgers walked through in that October, to claim the title that had long eluded them, made them as worthy as any other champions.

This Dodgers team only played 60 games due to the coronavirus pandemic, and in a schedule further limited by geography. Within those boundaries, they steamrolled opponents, winning at a 116-game full-season pace, and then seating all comers in playoffs that included an unprecedented fourth round as well as a relentless schedule that eliminated off days within the first three of those series. They blew away the Brewers in the Wild Card Series, routed the Padres in the Division Series, and overcame a three-games-to-one deficit against a strong Braves team in the Championship Series. Facing a tough-as-nails Rays team whose smarts helped to overcome a massive gap in payroll, they rebounded from one of the most improbable, gut-wrenching defeats in Series history to claim the championship that they might have won in 2017 or ’18 had not their opponents been illegally stealing signs. They’re just the fifth team this millennium to win the World Series after finishing the regular season with the majors’ best record, and by the look of things, they might have earned a spot in the debate alongside the mid-’70s Big Red Machine and the late-90s Yankees among the top powerhouses in recent memory. Damn straight they are worthy champions.

Due to a pandemic that has killed upwards of 225,000 in this country alone, and that has not been contained due to an utter failure of leadership at the federal level, 2020 has largely been a miserable year for most of us. The deciding game of the World Series did not escape the shadow of the virus, as Justin Turner was removed in the eighth inning due to the belated reporting of a positive COVID-19 test, yet inexplicably and indefensibly allowed to return to the field to celebrate with his teammates — often unmasked, at that. In a season that sometimes looked as though it would not and could not be played to completion, MLB’s eight-week long winning streak, without a positive test among players, came crashing to a halt just as its ultimate trophy was being hoisted. The league is hardly without culpability, having sent a very mixed message about its own protocols and punctured the bubble by admitting over 10,000 paying fans to each NLCS and World Series game at Globe Life Field. We can only hope that the Dodgers’ celebration was not also a super-spreader event.

In this grim and fraught year, however, no joy is so small that it shouldn’t be savored. Seeing Kershaw and teammates with that trophy won’t salvage 2020 by any means, but nobody should begrudge the relief and exhilaration that the Dodgers and their fans feel right now. Nobody can take this moment away.


The RosterResource Depth Charts and Payroll Pages Are Now in Offseason Mode

The RosterResource Depth Charts and Payroll pages are now officially in offseason mode, meaning that all free agents have been removed from their 2020 teams and a projected 26-man roster for Opening Day 2021 is displayed. As roster moves occur and news is reported, I’ll update these projections almost immediately and announce them on my Twitter account.

As of now, we will operate under the roster rules that were to be in place for the 2020 season prior to the league shutting down in March, meaning these projections assume a 26-man roster with a 13-pitcher limit and no designated hitter in the National League.

If you find yourself scratching your head about a particular projection, it’s very likely that you’ve discovered a team need. If you disagree with a projection, we might just have differing opinions. It’s also possible that I’m overlooking something, and would greatly appreciate hearing your opinion on the matter. Twitter is the easiest way to make a suggestion or report an error.

It’s important to note that these are Opening Day roster projections. Once we incorporate 2021 statistical projections, you will notice that certain players listed in the Minor League section have a significant amount of projected playing time and are expected to play an integral role for the upcoming season. Read the rest of this entry »


Caleb Thielbar’s Curveballing Comeback Came Courtesy of Low-Hanging Fruit

Caleb Thielbar didn’t come out of nowhere, but he did return from a form of baseball oblivion. A reliable reliever for the Minnesota Twins in 2013 and 2014 (103 appearances with a 2.59 ERA), the 33-year-old southpaw had spent all but six innings of the next five seasons in the minors or indy ball. His 33rd birthday fast approaching, he re-joined the Twins organization last December with designs on resurrecting a career that had regressed, then found itself stuck in neutral.

Thielbar’s return went better than many had expected. Featuring the game’s slowest curveball — a mesmerizing 68.8 mph on average — the Gopher State native fashioned a 2.25 ERA, and a 2.34 FIP, over 17 appearances covering 20 innings. A dark-horse contributor coming into the season, he instead was a godsend for the Minnesota bullpen.

He discussed the roots of his hiatus, and the reasons behind his successful return, in the final days of the 2020 campaign.

———

David Laurila: We first spoke during the 2014 season. How would you describe what’s transpired since that time?

Caleb Thielbar: “The five years in between my last appearance [on April 30, 2015] and being back this season was a lot of experimenting and trying to find what works. I went exploring. I drastically changed my workout routine. I drastically changed my throwing program. I finally figured out something that really worked, and was actually sustainable.” Read the rest of this entry »


The Dodgers Are World Series Champions

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the results of Justin Turner’s initial COVID test were inconclusive, prompting the processing of his second test to be expedited. That test was positive, resulting in his removal from the game.

The players gathered on the field in various states of face-covering. The winning team was at home, but wasn’t; they gathered in the middle of a dark, huge, faraway stadium, with fans spread haphazardly in the stands, some gathered in jubilant, worrying clusters. And as the trophies were about to be presented, the broadcast was interrupted by an announcement: Justin Turner, one of the most important members of this team for the past eight years, had exited the game mysteriously in the eighth inning. The reason for that exit, the public was somberly told, was that he had received a positive COVID-19 test.

But then, all of a sudden, it cut back to the field, to the smiling, hugging, weeping players, the speeches and the trophies and the booing and the cheering, just as if it was a normal World Series. Even Turner got his on-field shot with the trophy, despite being removed from the game to be isolated and prevent the spread of infection; even Turner joined the team for their group photo.

The pandemic rages on, even within the confines of the diamond: a place that so often attempts to shelter itself from the realities of living in society, that had been fighting to keep their bubble — or, at the very least, its appearance — intact. Turner’s test results from yesterday were, apparently, revealed to be inconclusive in the second inning of tonight’s game. His test results from today were confirmed positive later. And yet, they kept playing baseball, right to the very end, through Game 6 of the World Series, with over 11,000 fans in attendance. The Dodgers, appearing in their third Fall Classic over the last four seasons, beat the Rays 3-1. In this truncated, bedeviled, dubious season, in a world rife with uncertainty, and heading into a dark and fearful winter, it was the best team in baseball that emerged victorious. And now, with Turner’s positive test and the questions it raises, the best team in baseball leaves their celebration not to celebrate further, but to rapid testing and quarantining — a shadow hanging over the sublime joy of a championship a long time in the making.

Just a few hours ago, though, none of this — Turner, COVID, the questions facing MLB and the Dodgers going forward — was in the game story. The game story was Randy Arozarena putting an exclamation point on his historic postseason, hitting his 10th October home run off Tony Gonsolin in the first to put the Rays up 1-0. When we look back on this October, Arozarena’s out-of-nowhere explosion into the most fearsome hitter on any postseason team’s lineup, a bonafide star carrying the Rays’ offense on his back, will certainly be near the top of the list of memorable moments.

And the game story was the Dodgers’ bullpen, so often postseason goats, who took over from the clearly struggling Gonsolin after just five outs in what was intended to be a full start from him. It was Dylan Floro, who came in with two on in the second and struck out Arozarena on three pitches to end the inning. It was the mostly-sidelined Alex Wood pitching two perfect, shockingly efficient innings of middle-relief; Pedro Báez, to whom much is always, somehow, given, redeeming the two-homer egg he laid in that wild Game 4; Victor González, who bailed out Báez after Arozarena got yet another hit; Brusdar Graterol, who overcame his wildness — and got a little help from Cody Bellinger’s superb fielding in center — to record two outs in the seventh; and Julio Urías, who closed out the NLCS, once again shutting down the opposing team over the final innings of the game. Read the rest of this entry »


World Series Game 6 Chat

8:06
Tony Wolfe: Get your snacks and drinks in order, everyone. We have our first elimination game of the 2020 World Series.

8:06
Lzfreak: I am simultaneously excited for this game and sad that it might be our last of the year

8:06
mort jelly: lets go

8:06
Kiermaier’s Piercing Green Eyes: Tuesdays are for the Chois. I hope.

8:06
Dodger Fan: Ohmygodohmygodohmgodohmygod

8:06
Guest: I am genuinely not ready for this

Read the rest of this entry »


Ji-Man Choi, Pitch Taker

There’s a left-handed first baseman putting on an absolute clinic at the plate in the World Series. Throw him a ball? He’s not interested. He’ll take and take until you challenge him in the strike zone. Even then, he might take — it’s three strikes to a strikeout, after all, and you might walk him all the same. He’s hitting well enough to keep people honest, but really, the walks are the main event. No, it’s not Max Muncy (or fine, it’s not just Max Muncy). It’s Ji-Man Choi.

Let’s start with the basics. Here are the playoff batters who swing least often at pitches outside the strike zone, minimum 40 opportunities to chase:

Lowest Swing%, Out of Zone Pitches
Player Pitches Swing Rate
Ji-Man Choi 100 11.0%
Austin Barnes 43 11.6%
Robbie Grossman 46 13.0%
Max Muncy 204 13.2%
Marcus Semien 66 13.6%
Austin Nola 49 14.3%
Giancarlo Stanton 73 15.1%
Trent Grisham 54 16.7%
Yandy Díaz 104 17.3%
DJ LeMahieu 67 17.9%

Read the rest of this entry »


The 2020 ZiPS Projection Wrap-up, Part II: The Hitters

While there’s still a bit of baseball left to be played, this is always the time of the year when I dissect the current season’s ZiPS projections. Baseball history is not so long that we suffer from a surfeit of data, and another season wrapped means more for ZiPS to work with. ZiPS is mature enough at this point that (sadly) the major sources of systematic error have been largely ironed out, but that doesn’t mean that the model doesn’t learn new things from the results.

Last week, we looked at the team projections. Now, we turn our eyes to the hitters. Given the length of the 2020 season, the accuracy and bias of hitters’ projections this year likely offer fewer broadly applicable lessons, but they can still help us learn something about how projections ought to treat truncated seasons.

The first thing I can say with confidence is that, at least when it comes to ZiPS, there was no group tendency that could be gleaned from the projection errors. I assessed the errors using a variety of tools to see if certain types of players had more or less accurate projections or a 2020 tendency to over- or underperform the projections as a group. For instance, did fastball hitters fare better or worse? Did young players, or faster players?

The answer for these and other similar comparisons I looked at was no; none of these attributes had significant predictive value when it came to the magnitude of the errors or the bias of the projections. That’s good news in that 2020 didn’t feature any new calibration errors, but bad news in that we didn’t really learn anything new about short seasons. If, for example, my analysis had revealed that older hitters overperformed their projections as a group, it may have given us new insight into how aging players can better maintain their performance in 60 games rather than 162. On the whole, the errors were uncorrelated in this manner. The exception was the usual one: players with shorter resumés had less accurate projections than players with longer ones, but that’s always the case. Read the rest of this entry »


Effectively Wild Episode 1608: A Wild World Series Weekend

EWFI
Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller break down the exciting fourth and fifth games of the World Series, touching on Brett Phillips’ momentous hit and the Dodgers’ momentous misplays at the end of Game 4, the managerial decisions that led to that wild ending, Manuel Margot’s baserunning and Clayton Kershaw’s pitching in Game 5, and other observations, plus a preview of Game 6 and a possible Game 7.

Audio intro: Guided By Voices, "Run Wild"
Audio outro: Dinosaur Jr., "What Was That"

Link to Dan Szymborski on Game 4’s historical significance
Link to list of top plays by cWPA
Link to Mike Petriello on the biggest World Series plays
Link to Sam on single-play WAR
Link to video of Phillips single
Link to Ben Clemens on Game 4’s managerial decisions
Link to Ben Clemens’ Game 4 gamer
Link to BP’s Game 4 breakdown
Link to video of Margot’s trip around the bases
Link to Jon Tayler’s Game 5 gamer
Link to Ben on the Dodgers as a TV show
Link to FanGraphs playoff coverage

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