Three years ago, I was sitting in the visitors dugout at Tropicana Field along with another veteran baseball scribe, Hal Bodley, of MLB.com and formerly USA Today. We were talking to a prominent baseball person who shall remain nameless here about the state of the game. “You know what’s really sad,” this third person said, nodding at Cash in the opposite dugout. “We will never know how good a manager that guy really is.”
In all likelihood, Cash will be a runaway winner of the American League manager of the year award. He guided the Rays (payroll $74.8 million) to an AL East title over the Yankees (payroll $165.7 million). But throughout the course of the season, during the playoffs and most especially in Game 6 of the World Series, Cash made no bones about the fact that he manages strictly by the plan set up by the Rays’ analytics department.
With one out in the sixth of that fateful game, Cash came to get his ace Blake Snell, who was pitching the game of his life. Snell had just given up his second hit of the game, to the Dodgers’ No. 9 hitter, Austin Barnes, and it was evident just how thoroughly the soul of the game has been destroyed.
As Cash explained, he didn’t want Snell facing the Dodger lineup the third time around, the prime tenet of modern analytics for starting pitchers. It didn’t matter if Snell had thrown only 73 pitches to that point, or that the first three batters in the Dodgers lineup, Mookie Betts, Corey Seager and Justin Turner had been a combined 0 for 6 with six strikeouts against him. The stats say over the last five years opposing batters’ slash lines jump from .252/.317/.422 the first two times around the order against a starting pitcher to .269/.333/.463 the third time.
Those are the hard, cold facts — which have absolutely nothing to do with how the starting pitcher is pitching to that point, how stressful his pitch count, or perhaps most importantly his heart and his makeup. “I am definitely disappointed and upset,” Snell said after the game. “I just want the ball. I felt good. I did everything I could to prove my case to stay out there and then for us to lose, it just sucks.”
So the baseball audience was deprived once again from potentially seeing the kind of great postseason pitching performance which has been all but obliterated. Somewhere up in Baseball Heaven, Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson were looking down and throwing up.
Meanwhile, a direct contrast to the Snell pulling was Dusty Baker, one of the few remaining old-school managers in the game. In the sixth inning of Game 5 of the ALCS, the red-hot Randy Arozarena was coming up with two men on, one out. Baker strode to the mound, had a brief conference with his ace, Zack Greinke, and elected to leave him in.
After Greinke struck out Arozarena, the Rays were able to load the bases with an infield single by Ji-Man Choi and still Baker, managing with his gut and trusting Greinke’s heart, didn’t make a move. His confidence was rewarded when Greinke struck out Mike Brosseau to end the inning.
If you ask me, you could make just as strong a case for Baker for AL Manager of the Year — for very different reasons than Cash. Baker took on one of the most unenviable jobs imaginable this year, the cheating Astros being the most hated team in baseball. He had to create an “us-against-the-world” mentality while also convincing his players to put all the outside noise out of their heads and just play their game — which they did all the way to one game from the World Series.
This is more than just the analytics’ emasculation of starting pitchers. It’s also the neutering of managers, who are no longer allowed to come on the field to argue plays. And beyond that, it’s another example of salary repression in baseball. For the longest time, owners have been trying to drive down the salaries of managers and they’ve slowly been able to do that by hiring analytics-driven GMs who, in turn, hire inexperienced managers on the cheap who are perfectly willing to allow the front office to run the games for them.
It is no coincidence the five highest paid managers in baseball — Terry Francona ($4M), Joe Maddon ($4M), Bob Melvin ($3.25M), Joe Girardi ($3.25M) and Baker ($3M) — are all what you call their own men, mostly old school, who are able to manage as much with their gut as by the numbers. Joe Torre was the first old-school manager to sound the alarm when Yankee GM Brian Cashman began intruding on his turf. “You can’t remove the human element from the game,” he said.
But more and more they have, turning players into numbers. It got far worse for Girardi, Torre’s successor, and in particular his pitching coach Larry Rothschild, as they found themselves regularly second-guessed by the analytics people for their pitching moves. As for Aaron Boone, like was said about Cash, we will never know how good a manager he can be.
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