With one out in the sixth inning of Game Six of the World Series, following a single to Austin Barnes, Kevin Cash pulled Blake Snell with a 1-0 lead before he could face Mookie Betts a third time. In his stead came Nick Anderson. After missing up and away with two fastballs, Anderson left a third over the heart of the plate, and Mookie made him pay, ripping a hard grounder past Joey Wendle at third for a double, moving Barnes to third. After Corey Seager swung through a sharp curve down in the zone, this happened:
Although Mike Zunino sets up at the top of the zone, apparently expecting a fastball, Anderson bounced a curve a foot short and to the right of home plate. Zunino couldn’t corral it, as Barnes scored from third, with Mookie moving up to third. On the next pitch, Seager pulled a chopper to Ji-Man Choi at first. Flexing his speed and baserunning chops, Betts beat Choi’s throw to the plate, with runners safe all around, taking a lead they’d never relinquish. After inducing Justin Turner to fly out, Anderson was pulled, finishing his one-out appearance with a blown save and letting in Snell’s lone earned run in addition to one of his own.
In sharp contrast to his regular season successes, during which he finished first in wOBA and fourth in xwOBA allowed to opposing batters, and allowed just one earned run in 16.1 innings, Nick Anderson gave up a run in his final seven playoff appearances. Anderson’s playoff malfunctioning begs the question: what happened to Kevin Cash’s best boy?
The first marker of Anderson’s waning competence came when he pitched 2.2 innings of Game Five, allowing a solo shot to Aaron Judge for the Bombers’ only run in their final contest of the season. As each following appearance went increasingly poorly, some Yankee fans concluded, “Aaron Judge broke Nick Anderson.”
More likely, however, is that Kevin Cash broke Nick Anderson, wearing him to the bone by the time they needed him most in the latter rounds of the playoffs. By the regular season’s end, Nick Anderson had pitched just 16.1 innings over the course of eight weeks. From Kevin Cash’s perspective this makes sense—why blow out your ace reliever when you have a loaded “stable” and a comfortable first-place lead?
By the start of the playoffs, however, injuries to Chaz Roe, Jalen Beeks, Jose Alvarado, and Colin Poche eroded the Rays’ ridiculous bullpen depth to a mere handful of above average-to-great arms. In the first round against the Blue Jays, Cash used Anderson in both games. In Game One, Anderson came in for a shaky 1.2 innings with a three to none lead. When he exited, he’d given up a run on two hits, drawing on his manager’s confidence, but more importantly, his own, as the Rays crept on through the playoffs. At the end of a Game Two blowout, likely to give him a chance to reassert himself as the Rays’ top dog, Cash brought Anderson in for a scoreless ninth inning.
Without having to pitch for another week, Anderson got the opportunity to rest up, and prepare for their series against the more formidable Yankees. In his first opportunity in the ALDS, Anderson threw two full innings in Game Two, striking out four. He looked as dominant as ever, seemingly affirming Cash’s decision to double down on Anderson during the Wild Card series against the Jays. But his next outing was the start of his demise. Anderson recorded the latter two outs of the third inning of Game Five, before allowing that fateful bomb to Aaron Judge. He didn’t allow another run, pitching through the entire fourth and fifth innings before turning the ball over Pete Fairbanks.
Then, having advanced to the ALCS, Anderson had thrown 4.2 innings on two separate occasions over a four-day stretch. Just three days later, he threw another inning in Game Two against the Astros* (one earned). In Game Five, another three days later, he threw an inning and a third (one earned), followed by two full innings two days later in Game Seven (two earned). After appearances in Games Two and Four of 1.1 innings each, between Game Two of the ALDS and Game Six of the World Series, Anderson had thrown 11.2 innings over the course of just 18 days. Though a workload of that magnitude would be manageable for many well-conditioned big-league arms, it marked over two-thirds of his regular season’s innings in less than a third of the time.
While there’s certainly something to be said for saving your best arms for when it counts, it seems as though Anderson’s rapid ramp up during the playoffs overwhelmed his ability to sustain his dominant form. Though Anderson’s fastball velocity, spin rate, in-zone rate, and swing rate all remained relatively stable between his regular season and playoff marks, his ability to get batters out with the pitch plummeted. After generating swings and misses with his fastball a whopping 19 percent of the time during the season, batters swung and missed at only nine percent of the fastballs he threw in the playoffs.
Further, although regular season batters posted a .176 batting average and .194 slugging against Anderson’s fastball in the playoffs, they stroked it to the tune of .323 and .548 during his seven-game playoff stretch of ineptitude. Further, it seems as though Anderson was aware of the problem, throwing his only other pitch, his curveball, nearly seven percentage points more in the postseason. The most eye-opening statistic is that after throwing zero middle-middle fastball during the regular season, Anderson threw ten just during those seven games.
As Anderson tired, he lost his ability to place his fastball exactly where he wanted, neutering the foundation of his regular season supremacy. When he missed high and outside the top of the zone twice to open that fateful at bat against Mookie Betts, Anderson’s lack of control set him up for failure. Also, the cross-up that followed between him and Zunino, is very possibly a result of fatigue; Anderson missed his sign, and then his spot by a couple dozen inches. Further, as reported in Marc Topkin’s piece for the Tampa Bay Times, Anderson himself admitted to mounting fatigue as the playoffs wore on. Kevin Cash likely could have gotten greater production out of the remains of his “stable” had he taken a more democratic approach, rather than wearing out his best arm early by leaving him on the mound for more than an inning, over and over again throughout the playoffs.