Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 31, 2021

The Naysayers And The Imaginary No-Hitter

As this is written, the first pitch of World Series Game 5 is still two hours away.  The longest season may end tonight, in which case this year in the Great Game will be remembered for the resiliency and perfect timing of Atlanta’s franchise, which will have overcome considerable adversity – most notably a season-ending injury to its franchise player – to sneak into the playoffs and then roll to a title despite posting the fewest regular season victories of any champion since the 2006 Cardinals turned the trick after winning just 83 times.  That will remain the irresistible story even if a celebration for Atlanta is delayed until Tuesday or Wednesday night, especially when the original postseason bracket included three clubs boasting triple-digit regular season victories.  But if, after a pair of dramatic losses at Truist Field, the Astros climb off the mat and rally to win the Series in seven games, the focus will shift to a debate about whether a Houston title presumably accomplished on the up-and-up expunges the stain on the franchise and the sport from the cheating scheme the Astros employed in 2017.

But since we don’t yet know which narrative will be the lasting one, there’s still time to dwell on what is apparently, at least for some pundits and fans, a far more important topic than winning the World Series.  That, of course, is the existential threat to the future of baseball that they saw in Game 3.  In that contest Atlanta manager Brian Snitker opted to go to his deep and talented corps of relief pitchers after starter Ian Anderson had completed five innings of work, thus robbing Anderson of his chance at immortality.  For when Snitker wielded his hook, Atlanta’s 23-year-old sophomore right-hander had not surrendered a hit, meaning he was a mere twelve outs away from tossing just the second no-hitter in World Series history, and the first since Don Larsen’s 1956 perfect game.

Never mind that Anderson was barely more than halfway to such an accomplishment, or that there is nothing “mere” about working one’s way through a powerful lineup of hitters such as Houston’s for the third and fourth time to record four more innings worth of outs.  Ignore too that Anderson needed 76 pitches to make it through five frames, meaning he was on track to require 135 or more to complete nine innings, or that such a volume of throws is something one rarely saw even in the supposedly good old days.  Or for that matter, that at 160 innings, Anderson’s season workload was already more than three times what he managed in 2020.  It’s also best not to dwell on the fact that Anderson had struggled with his control throughout the game, missing the strike zone 37 times, or nearly as often as the 39 throws that found it.  He had held Houston hitless but had walked three Astros and plunked another.  Finally, one must conveniently forget that at the time Atlanta was clinging to just a 1-0 lead.

None of those realities stopped Ken Rosenthal from opining for The Athletic that Game 3 was but “the latest example of a sport that has lost its way, valuing efficiency over entertainment.”  Rosenthal’s piece was one of the more dramatic denunciations of Snitker’s decision to relieve Anderson, but it had plenty of company.  On websites and in social media, other sportswriters and plenty of fans lamented the ruthless shunting aside of history in the making in favor of, what exactly?  For what Rosenthal called “efficiency” and lots of others decried as an overreliance on analytics, can also be described as trying to win.  Which is the point.  Yes, we fans, especially those of us without a specific rooting interest, hope these games are entertaining.  But Atlanta and the Astros aren’t Broadway troupes, and each team’s goal in the World Series is to be the first to win four games.

The critics had no choice but to concede as much, with Rosenthal acknowledging the validity of Snitker’s postgame statement that given the numbers cited above, Anderson “wasn’t going to throw a nine-inning no-hitter.”  Still, to the veteran scribe the heightened reliance of relief pitching during the postseason, with starters rarely working longer than Anderson did Friday evening, is a trend that “stinks.”  To that end, The Athletic may have just been too hasty in posting Rosenthal’s thoughts, since for both Games 4 and 5 Atlanta opted for a starter in name only.  Back-to-back bullpen games in the World Series is a first.  Saturday night Dylan Lee faced just four batters, but even if he had been effective, he would not have been asked to go more than an inning or two. 

There is no question managers now keep starting pitchers on extremely short leashes in postseason games, and the aversion to allowing a hurler to face an opposing lineup for a third time is becoming one of the sport’s unwritten rules, even during the regular season.  Some suggestions for restoring greater reliance on starting pitching have considerable merit.  These include limiting the number of pitchers a team can carry.  That is likely to be resisted by the Players Association, since it might cost some relievers their jobs, but it could be a tradeoff in the upcoming CBA negotiations for the new jobs created by extending the designated hitter rule to the National League.  If there is a universal DH, a rule stating a team loses the position once its starting pitcher leaves the game would both increase the importance of the starter and add an element of strategy in later innings, when relievers might be due to bat in key situations.  Of course, the overriding reason for finding a way for starters to consistently work deeper into games is to speed up play.

But all of that, if indeed any of it ever happens, is for the future.  This World Series will be won or lost under current rules, and both Brian Snitker and Dusty Baker will use data and analytics as it now exists to inform their decisions.  To do otherwise would be managerial malpractice.  But they will also apply their own instincts, for failing to utilize an understanding of the Great Game earned through more than ninety combined years playing and coaching at its professional level would be equally egregious.  The cries of those who see in baseball’s ultimate showcase all they deem wrong about the sport have taken on a “get off my lawn” quality.  As one fan’s social media post said of the complainers, “if they hate the game so much, why do they watch it?”  Maybe it’s because Games 3 and 4 were pretty darn entertaining.

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