Many Oriole fans watching Blake Snell’s premature exit from Game 6 of the World Series had flashbacks. They’re still complaining, four years later, that Buck Showalter should have found a way to pitch Zack Britton in the 2016 wild-card game instead of Ubaldo Jimenez.
The situations were entirely different—except both were highly controversial and hard-to-defend moves—and neither worked out.
But there was a huge difference.
There was no debating whether the move to save Britton was Showalter’s decision. In Snell’s case, there’s ample evidence that the move was preordained.
Few people came to Showalter’s defense at the time. Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette even referred to that game in this space as “an inflection point for the organization.”
The Tampa Bay Rays scored just one run in Game 6, on Randy Arozarena’s first-inning home run against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Snell was pitching brilliantly, and manager Kevin Cash was asking his bullpen to get him 11 outs.
The Dodgers ended up with a 3-1 win and their first World Series title since 1988. The Orioles haven’t been back in the postseason since that night in Toronto and have been entirely remade.
Cash hasn’t come under that much criticism. It’s those unnamed and unseen analytics gurus in the Tampa Bay front office.
In the 60-game 2020 season, Snell never even finished six innings, and he’d thrown just 73 pitches. While the move wasn’t shocking, and was talked about beforehand by Joe Buck and John Smoltz on the FOX telecast, it was still stunning.
What’s more fun — watching seven pitchers combine for nine innings or stars such as Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw pitch seven or eight innings followed by a strong closer and an effective setup man in between?
It was certainly disconcerting watching experienced big leaguers pull cheat sheets from their caps or back pockets to see where to play hitters.
The Series again showed Mookie Betts’ ability to steal bases and justify the 12-year, $365 million extension he signed with the Dodgers. Brett Phillips’ fun night was unforgettable for any who watched, but as MLB emphasized in their 2019 ad campaign, “Let the Kids Play.”
No one comes to the ballpark to watch the shift or multiple pitching changes. They come to watch great players. There’s nothing that can be, or should be done, to stop the creep of analytics into baseball.
The hope here is that teams recognize that going against the analytics book is sometimes more entertaining and rewarding. Just a year ago, the Washington Nationals, who still emphasize authentic scouting, won the World Series.
Much has been written about the Orioles being late to the analytics game, and if stats help players understand what they need to improve on, that’s great, but they still need to be themselves.
There were two hopeful signs that the Orioles understand this. Analytics has long frowned upon the bunt, but Cedric Mullins added some excitement to the team by bunting for base hits.
Instead of a bullpen full of pitchers who’ll throw as hard as they can for as long as they can, 35-year-old junkballer César Valdez was added to the bullpen mix for the last month of the season. Valdez was the most effective reliever and, while he’s not the long-term answer as closer, it was fun to see something different.
The low Series ratings: As Showalter was always fond of reminding the beat writers, baseball is entertainment, and watching pitchers continually removed early from games isn’t entertaining.
The Dodgers used seven pitchers, none of whom recorded more than seven outs, to win Game 6. The three-batter rule to speed up the game hasn’t worked, and a 3-1 game, even in the deciding game of the World Series, shouldn’t take 3 hours, 28 minutes.
The commercial breaks during the postseason are longer than during the regular season, and each pitching change—there were 10 relievers in all—means another long break.
World Series ratings were the worst on record, and there are many reasons for that.
Casual fans didn’t follow their teams as much as they usually do in the postseason. The stress of the Covid-19 pandemic could be a factor, and so could the games being played in neutral sites with limited crowds.
This isn’t the Super Bowl, which has always been played at a neutral site. This was MLB’s first experience, an unwanted one, at playing vital games away from home ballparks.
The bandwagon fans didn’t see crowds of fans gathering near the home ballparks, people wearing gear, mayors making bets and office buildings lit up with team colors. The excitement came from the hardcore.
Hopefully, 2021 brings a return to home ballparks with as many fans as can safely attend. Then perhaps World Series ratings will trend up again.
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