Traditional bullpen management has taken a back seat to a much more aggressive style of play this postseason.
Four teams faced elimination this week as the division series came to a close. Those that were selected to outperform seemed flat, and in some instances, the underdogs prevailed. Despite key match-ups and statistical analysis, major decisions ultimately came down to the sole discretion of the manager. While continued postseason success is predominantly attributed to players on the field, managers—and their moves—are just as valuable as any of them, if not more.
The Longer You Wait For The Future, The Shorter It Will Be
The road to the postseason can be a short one. Since the introduction of the new wildcard game setup, celebrations have been few and far between. In the American League Wild Card matchup, the Toronto Blue Jays hosted the Baltimore Orioles. With the season on the line in a tie-game into extra innings, Orioles manager Buck Showalter refrained from bringing in his powerhouse closer.
In his arsenal, Showalter had the equivalent of a left-handed Mariano Rivera in his prime. The 28-year-old Zach Britton posted a .053 ERA in 67 inning—the lowest by any pitcher in MLB history with that many innings pitched. He struck out 74 batters and allowed just 38 hits. Since May, he held the opposition to a line of .160/.222/.195 with one earned run (.016 ERA) and has been in talks to receive both the MVP and Cy Young award. Yet somehow, Showalter found reasons to use everyone except Britton with the season on the line.
Showalter continued to survey his options as the heart of the Blue Jays order was coming up. Britton, a pitcher who gave up one run in 58 appearances, was overlooked, leaving Ubaldo Jimenez to give up the walk-off home run. As Britton remained idle in the Orioles’ most important game this season, many found themselves dumbfounded at Showalter’s decision.
The media collectively asked the same question: ”Why wouldn’t you use your best player?” Showalter admitted to holding back for a save opportunity. ”Playing on the road had something to do with it,” he said. This move, or lack thereof, was seen as the deciding factor in the Orioles’ 5-3 loss.
Ditch The Textbook
For years, managers have followed the same methodology of Showalter. The notion that closers should sit tight until they are able to get a traditional save opportunity can make or break a game. Even with a game on the line, skippers have preferred to rely on the textbook approach to managing, as opposed to tailoring their approach to the situation at hand.
For Terry Francona, manager of the Cleveland Indians, Game 1 of the ALDS against the Boston Red Sox had the exact opposite sequence. Not only did Francona call on his best reliever, but he did it in the fifth inning. Starting pitcher Trevor Bauer was pulled from the game after 4 2/3 innings, which made way for Francona to bring in noted closer Andrew Miller at a very unorthodox time. Miller—known as the most intimidating, towering left hander since Randy Johnson—went on to pitch two solid innings, totaling 40 pitches before passing the torch to relievers Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen for a Cleveland win.
Francona utilized his most feared bullpen weapon when the game was in jeopardy. If “in-game saves” was a viable statistic, Miller and his short time with the Indians would be an exemplary model of that. Certain closers underperform when brought into non-save situations, and many believed that would be a cause for concern for Miller, Francona, and the Indians. But, in a postseason interview, Miller confirmed he is willing to pitch whenever.
Upon his trade from the New York Yankees to the Indians, many assumed Miller would have been a sure lock-in for the traditional closer position. But surprisingly, Francona’s bullpen strategy has meant something a bit more unconventional. Miller entered games in the seventh inning eight times, and entered in the ninth inning a mere five times. As we have seen so far this postseason, his entrances have come even earlier.
Despite pitching matchups and scouting reports, Francona has used his innate baseball knowledge and chose to bring in his best available pitcher when the stakes were highest. “No one said you have to be conventional to win,” stated Francona after the game.
By Any Means Necessary
In his first professional season as a manager, Dave Roberts has proven himself capable. As a frontrunner for the National League manager of the year, Roberts has followed in line with Francona’s unconventional methods of bullpen management. Game 5 of the National League Division Series between the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers proved to be Roberts’ defining moment to date.
One night when Rich Hill failed to perform past the third inning, Roberts found a way to piece the game together in an unusual, but brilliant way. After removing Hill from the mound, the Dodgers elected to use six pitchers. The most noteworthy was setup man Joe Blanton in the third inning. Roberts called upon his closer Kenley Jansen in the seventh inning, and he opted to use his ace Clayton Kershaw in the ninth inning.
“His way of thinking was, ‘We’re going to do everything we need to do to win today.’ Today was the ultimate example.”
- Adrian Gonzalez, first baseman of the LA Dodgers
Jansen, who threw 51 pitches and allowed one hit in 2.1 innings of work, showed tremendously resiliency.
“I wanted that ball in the seventh. I wasn’t thinking about the ninth.”
- Kenley Jansen
With one runner on base and no outs, Roberts chose to ignore traditional bullpen norms and brought in Jansen, who managed to get out of the bases, loaded inning unscathed. After gutting through the eighth inning, Jansen worked his way into the ninth, where he became noticeably more fatigued.
However, prior to the game, Roberts made it very clear to the media that Kershaw was completely unavailable. When asked if he would bring him in for even one out, Roberts said,“Absolutely not.” But having been teammates since their days in the Gulf Coast League, Jansen knew first hand just how much of a competitor Kershaw can be.
“When Kenley was sticking his neck out there in the seventh, I felt like i need to have his back.” - Clayton Kershaw
“It’s an awesome feeling to know that you have the best pitcher in the game to have your back,” Jansen said. That’s precisely what Kershaw did, as he was just two days removed from throwing 110 pitches on short rest. He locked in the final two outs of the game that sent the Dodgers to the championship series.
Change Is Good
Roberts set a tremendous example in favor of unconventionality. Many times—as Francona and Roberts showed—the most decisive outs come earlier in the game than many would anticipate. The most consequential situations can become a save opportunity as early as the fifth inning. Forward-thinking decisions allowed teams like the Dodgers and Indians to continue throughout the postseason, while the less aggressive styles of Showalter and even Dusty Baker were on the losing end.
Baker, in particular, is not a fan of these changes. When J.P. Hoornstra of the Los Angeles News Group asked whether the nontraditional use of relievers would become a trend, Baker was not shy about his feelings:
“I’d be interested to see — they won the war — but the effects of Jansen and Kershaw when they get to Chicago. It’s not a trend that I’d like to be a part of anytime.”
-Dusty Baker, manager of the Washington Nationals
Some can argue that these strategies and tactics only work in the postseason due to the urgency for immediate results. Yet they certainly prove to be most effective and can be transferred through to the regular season as well. In 2016, teams with a lead in the later innings of a game saw a greater increase in win percentage when the seventh inning lead is carried over into the eighth (5.92%), than when the eighth inning lead is carried over to the ninth (5.26%).
This might not make Dusty Baker or Buck Showalter happy, but the change in bullpen philosophy is fast approaching. If your best pitcher is ready, willing, and available, and you’re in a do-or-die game/series, you have to think outside the batter’s box before time runs out.
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