In A Year That Has Been So Improbable . . .

Tampa Bay Rays ace Blake Snell won the American League Cy Young Award in 2018 after going 21-5 with a 1.89 ERA, an extraordinary breakout for a 25-year-old left-hander in just his third Major league year. Snell is a rare breed–a power left-hander with a 97 mile-per-hour fastball to go with a curve ball that has several feet of break. As far as pitching style goes, his closest comparison may in fact be Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ modern-day Koufax now adjusting at age 32 from pantheon-level to mere greatness. After an injury-marred and somewhat unlucky 2019 season,1Snell’s ERA was a full run higher than his FIP–Fielder Independent Pitching–rate. Look, we’ll discuss it later. Snell’s shortened 2020 season was solid, though partially because his luck appeared to even out.2This year, his 3.24 ERA was a run lower than his FIP. Keep up.

Whatever the case, Snell proved a buzzsaw to Dodger hitters in Game 6, a must-win for the Rays down 3-2 in the World Series. Through four innings, nine of the Dodgers’ 12 outs were strikeouts. Besides a Chris Taylor single to left to start the third, no Dodger hit left the infield. In the fifth, Will Smith’s routine fly to right was the first ball to the outfield since Taylor’s single.

Fortunately for Dodger fans like myself, the Dodger pitching staff had matched Snell’s efforts to that point. After a Randy Arozarena home run made it 1-0 in the first, the Dodger bullpen escaped from jams in the first two innings and shut down the Rays. Thus, it stayed 1-0 going into the sixth, when Dodger rookie left-hander Victor Gonzalez3Who started one of the spring training games my boys and I attended in February, approximately 20 years ago. matched Snell by striking out the Ray side.

Snell answered in the bottom of the inning by inducing an A.J. Pollock popup to start the inning. The next batter was the Dodgers’ ninth hitter, catcher Austin Barnes. Barnes was a surprise star of the 2017 season, playing catcher while hitting nearly .300 and displaying some surprising pop. Disappointing years in 2018 and 2019 nearly cost Barnes his roster spot, but his plate-handling skills are highly valued, and he has become the go-to catcher for Kershaw and Walker Buehler. And though he has settled into life as a light-hitting, defense-first catcher, Barnes had an excellent 2020 postseason, capped by slapping a pitch into centerfield for a single, the Dodgers’ second hit of the night.

At this point, Snell had been cruising as he prepared for his third run through the Dodger lineup. In his 5 1/3 innings, he had thrown 73 pitches, struck out nine, given up two hits, and walked nobody. Nevertheless, Ray manager Kevin Cash shot out of the dugout like a cannon. Snell was not happy to be removed, and vocalized his feelings to the abyss, in the usual manner, as he trudged to the dugout.

Called in to replace Snell was middle reliever Nick Anderson. Anderson’s story is remarkable in its own right. He attended St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, where he got in a bar fight, ended up in jail for a week, and transferred to an even smaller school in North Dakota. He was drafted in the 32nd round, failed to sign, and played in independent leagues for a couple of years before learning to throw a breaking ball. In 2015, the Minnesota Twins picked him up and put him in their minor league system, then traded him in 2018 to the always short-armed Miami Marlins organization. Anderson blossomed there, particularly because of his late-developed breaking ball, a pitch that is not quite a slider, curve, or changeup, but whatever it is, it reminds of Eric Gagne’s devastator. After Anderson struck out 69 in only 43 innings of work for Miami in 2019, the Marlins traded him to the Rays, where he has since pitched 37 regular-season innings, while giving up just six earned runs and striking out 67. And yet, this postseason, Anderson had given up eight runs, and runs in six straight appearances.

Certain to be on Kevin Cash’s mind at the time was the hitter in the on-deck circle after Barnes, Dodger star Mookie Betts. Betts had an MVP-caliber year, but with one anomaly: Betts couldn’t hit lefties in 2020. For the season, he hit 11-55, slugging a miserable .218. This is not a pattern—Betts has hit lefties well historically—so it likely represents the kind of small-sample size fluke we learn about in stats class. In any event, the right-handed Anderson was called in to replace the left-handed Snell, ignoring Mookie’s weird 2020 reverse splits.

On the second pitch, Betts lined a double down the left-field line, putting runners on second and third, still with one out. A wild pitch brought home Barnes and advanced Betts to third. Anderson then induced eventual World Series MVP Corey Seager to ground a ball directly to the drawn-in first baseman. For most situations, this would have been mission accomplished for the pitcher. But with the speedy Betts at third, the throw home was way late. Two batters after Cash removed Shell, a seemingly insurmountable 1-0 lead had become a 2-1 deficit. The Dodgers closed it out, with Betts adding a magnificent home run to left field in the ninth inning to win 3-1. The winning pitcher was our spring training friend, Mr. Gonzalez. Julio Urias picked up a dominant seven-out save, finishing out his postseason at 4-0 with that championship-clinching save to boot.4For comparison, Orel Hershiser in 1988 went 3-0 and saved Game 4 of the NLCS when he came on to induce Kevin McReynolds into a bases loaded pop-up.

Did Cash cashier Snell too soon? History will say that he did—the Fox postgame show featured Alex Rodriguez direly accusing computer geeks of destroying baseball—and yet Cash was not without evidence. Snell’s ERA rises precipitously on the third pass through the opposing team’s lineup. Betts’ struggles against lefties in 2020 were in a barely cognizable sample size—there’s no particular reason to believe the lefty-righty matchup doesn’t advantage the Dodgers if one considers Betts’ entire body of work.

But to be fair, history is probably right. Snell likely doesn’t often get to the third turn through the lineup at only 73 pitches, and his breaking ball was electric enough that Dodger hitters were swinging through every high fastball Snell deigned to throw them. Part of any analysis is analyzing and adjusting to on-field events in real-time. This is true in war, and law, and sport. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts made his adjustments, riding Urias’ dominance to the championship. Indeed, Roberts must have seen himself walking up to Rich Hill at the moment that Cash took the ball from Snell.5I sure did, having been traumatized by suffering through that debacle live. Funny coincidence: The winning pitcher for the Red Sox that night was Joe Kelly, whose Dodger uniform I was wearing tonight. It must have been a relief to have someone else be scrutinized for a change.

The Dodgers are not sympathetic, but they are easy to root for. Though a team of stars—Kershaw, Buehler, Bellinger, Seager, Betts, and Urias are all high draft picks or super-hyped talents—they are supported by a bunch of castoffs, (former) no-names, and baseball vagabonds. Max Muncy, the People’s Slugger, was released by the A’s, of all teams, who would seem to value more than anyone his ability to work full counts on nearly every at-bat. Chris Taylor was acquired from the Seattle Mariners in an unheralded trade of minor leaguers. Justin Turner was acquired after being released by the Mets, and has anchored third base for nearly all of the Dodgers’ seven-year playoff run. Gonzalez nearly quit the game after struggling in the minor leagues.

And its still these stories that make sport poignant—the stories of men that once wondered if they would have any baseball future, and now find themselves celebrating immortality. It must be a grand feeling. There will be more to celebrate. But we should also give a thought to 30-year-old Nick Anderson. Once the owner of a 7 ERA in the independent league, Anderson has earned, if not immortality, call it—notoriety. A disappointment, yes, but hardly a curse to pitch on the world’s greatest stage, or to get beat singlehandedly by the best player in baseball. It can’t feel like victory now. Maybe it never will. But to go from one foot out of the game to the guy the computer told Kevin Cash to replace his Cy Young pitcher with in the sixth inning of a do-or-die, 1-0 World Series game? Sorry, folks. That’s a success in every possible way you can define it.

See you in 2021 for the title defense.

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