Wake up, baseball. Bullpen management is changing, and we’re witnessing the revolution right now.
On its face, things could not have gone worse for the Cleveland Indians at the start of Game 1 of the ALDS. Already dealing with a decimated starting rotation because of flurry of late-season injuries, starter Trevor Bauer started to lose whatever he had and looked finished before the fifth inning concluded.
The Red Sox had done enough to get to Bauer, which would force Cleveland to go to its bullpen for half of the game.
With the game — and quite possibly the series — hanging in the balance, Terry Francona went to the phone to get out of the jam.
Instead, he entrusted Andrew Miller, who happens to be not only the best reliever on the team but maybe one of the best left-handers in the game.
Conventional wisdom written, I think, by former baseball demigod Tony LaRussa, says that you save your closer or best reliever until the ninth inning when there’s a save situation. For years, bullpen specialization made sure that closers would only enter late in games with a lead to protect — whether this lead was one run or three.
Following things by the book and Francona would have turned to someone else and hoped for the best that Miller would get into the game at some point.
But alas, Tito broke the rules and did things his own way. And he can’t be lauded enough for it.
Just on pure results, the move speaks for itself. Miller pitched two dominant innings, using his other-worldly slider to strike out four Red Sox hitters, including David Ortiz in that fifth inning with a runner in scoring position. Without Miller coming in and shutting down the door, it’s hard to say if the Indians would have won the game.
Save be dammed, Francona wanted what was most important, and that was winning Game 1 of the ALDS.
Let’s reiterate what most of us know: Game 1 is important, especially for the home team.
Coming into this season, 42 home teams had lost Game 1 of a best-of-five series. Just 13 of them went on to win said series.
Francona knew what he was doing, understood the importance of the game and made what proved to be the right decision. Miller and his 0.686 WHIP and .160 batting average against were too good not to use in a tight spot. Why would the Indians choose to hold Miller for a hypothetical save chance that never happened if they could use him in a high-leverage spot that could decide the game? It doesn’t matter if that happens to be the fifth inning.
In any game, and even more so in the postseason, what makes the ninth inning more important than the fifth or sixth? Every out, every run and every inning are created equal, after all. If the Red Sox had scored three or four runs in that fifth inning, they probably would have won the game. Miller would have rode the pine in the bullpen, and we’d be left to wonder why Francona didn’t turn to his best arm when he had the chance.
The same can be said for Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who used his bullpen similarly in Game 1 of his team’s Division Series matchup. Clayton Kershaw didn’t have his best stuff, which forced a four-inning effort from the relief corps.
Joe Blanton (2.48 ERA, 158 ERA+) in a career-resurrecting season in 2016 rarely pitched before the seventh inning this season. Roberts turned to him in the sixth.
And after a one-out hit in the eighth and LA clinging to a one-run lead, Roberts called for Kenley Jansen. It worked, Jansen got the five outs necessary, retiring the Nationals’ heart of the order with ease in the ninth. Roberts didn’t mess around and essentially grabbed home-field advantage away from Washington (though the Nationals would take Game 2).
What’s refreshing to see from Roberts and Francona is the fact that they deployed a relief ace when needed, putting the inning or a save situation to the side. Even Terry Collins tried this in the Wild Card game against the Giants in a tie game, but Jeurys Familia couldn’t pull his usual Houdini act.
Contrast these views with the old warhorse in Baltimore, Buck Showalter. In the Orioles’ Wild Card matchup with the Blue Jays, Showalter had multiple opportunities to turn to Zach Britton, who just happens to be an American League Cy Young frontrunner.
It’s like Buck played a game of Russian Roulette with himself with a fully loaded gun. The ending was inevitable. Edwin Encarnacion’s three-run walk-off home run felt cathartic.
After the game, many (myself included) felt maybe Britton was dealing with an injury, which would have deterred Showalter from turning to his best reliever. But no, that wasn’t the case at all. Apparently he was fine and could have pitched.
It boggles the mind why a guy with a 0.54 ERA would be left unused in what is basically played like a Game 7 of a playoff series. Maybe he was saving Britton for spring training games in Sarasota.
Well, while Buck and Britton get to rest up for March, Francona and Roberts continue to play for a championship, with much credit due to savvy bullpen management.