Forgive me. I need to talk about baseball.
On October 27, 2020, the Dodgers faced the Rays in Game 6 of the World Series. The Dodgers were leading the series 3-2; a win would secure their first championship since 1988. The Rays were playing to stay alive and for the chance to win the first championship in the team’s history.
Tampa Bay scored in the first inning for an early lead. Meanwhile, their pitcher, Blake Snell, was dealing. He made the Dodgers hitters look foolish, and heading into the sixth inning had allowed just one hit. Along the way, he struck out the three hitters at the top of the Dodgers’ batting order—including a perennial MVP candidate and the eventual World Series MVP—twice each.
In the sixth inning, Snell got the first batter he faced to pop out to second base. Then, Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes hit a single to centre field.
It was just the Dodgers’ second hit of the night. But it brought the top of the Dodgers up for their third time around.
That’s important. In baseball, pitchers’ effectiveness can vary dramatically depending on how many times they’ve faced a hitter. In Snell’s case, the data showed that he was far more effective facing hitters the first time than he was their second or third times around.
Now, the Rays manager Kevin Cash was facing a difficult decision. His pitcher was dealing and had looked nearly unhittable all night. But, the odds were shifting. Snell was about to face some of the best hitters in baseball for the third time that night. And he’d just given up a hit.
If Cash leaves Snell in the game and the next batter—again, quite possibly the 2020 National League MVP—gets a base hit or a home run, he’ll be castigated for leaving his pitcher in for too long. After all, the Rays bullpen has been very good, and has given the manager no reason to doubt their effectiveness. If Cash pulls Snell, and the bullpen does its job, nobody will remember the decision at all and, hopefully, the Rays get to play again the next night.
But, if Cash takes Snell out of the game and somehow the relief pitcher blows it, then Cash will be forever remembered for taking his ace pitcher out too soon and potentially costing his team the World Series.
Cash had a game plan, and he stuck to it. He removed Snell from the game before facing the Dodgers a third time through their order.
Nick Anderson came into the game and promptly gave up a double to Mookie Betts. Then, Anderson threw a wild pitch, allowing Betts to score. The next hitter, Corey Seager, makes contact as well, and Betts comes around. 2-1 Dodgers.
It was all they needed. And today, baseball fans and pundits are pulling their hair and gnashing their teeth over Cash’s decision.
But here’s my question as a strategist. Did Cash make a mistake?
Cash, known to be a particularly data-savvy manager, had all kinds of evidence telling him that Snell should come out of the game. He was able to use that data to develop a strategy that he felt should lead to the best outcome for his team. But no matter how good his strategy was, he didn’t have the one piece of information: the outcome.
It’s easy for us today to say that Cash made a bad decision. But that’s only because we know the outcome. Cash, on the other hand, was operating under conditions of extreme uncertainty. He could only make a decision based on the best information that he had, which told him that Snell was not as effective a pitcher the third time through the order, and that he was about to face some of the best hitters in baseball.
The lesson here is that strategy, and a decision, can’t be judged based on its outcome. It’s what poker player Annie Duke calls “resulting,” or evaluating a decision based on its result rather than the quality of the decision.
Cash could not possibly have known in advance that Nick Anderson was going to give up a hit, much less a wild pitch. He did know the numbers. He was able to consider what he knew about Snell, and observe his pitching going into that inning.
But, operating in a realm of uncertainty, he needed to decide: stick with the strategy? Or go with his eye?
I think it’s safe to say that none of us can say with certainty what we would have done under the same circumstances. But, if we want to judge Kevin Cash on the quality of his decision to pull Snell out of the game, we have to separate the result from the decision.
For my money, the result was bad. The decision wasn’t. And though I’m not a Rays fan, I do hope Kevin Cash gets another change so he isn’t forever remembered as the guy who pulled his pitcher too soon.