Are We Entering a New Age of Bullpen Usage?
Buck Showalter did not practice progressive bullpen thinking. As a result, his team was eliminated from the Wild Card game.
Terry Francona utilized his greatest weapon, Andrew Miller, in an aggressive manner. In turn, his team fell just one game short of winning the World Series.
Eventually, Joe Maddon took after Francona and threw his top reliever, Aroldis Chapman, before the 9th inning. His team went on to win the World Series.
Francona’s usage of Miller has challenged the way we consider bullpen usage. Typically, a team’s top reliever is thrust into the game in the 9th inning as a means of definitively securing a victory. But what if a team does not have a lead in the 9th inning because it was blown earlier in the game? Suppose the most high leverage situation actually comes in the middle innings? Is a manager really supposed to wait to use his top gun?
Miller was dominant in the postseason. He did not allow an earned run in the ALDS and ALCS in 11 ⅔ innings pitched. Miller was the perfect example of a relief ace as Francona sent him out as early as the 5th inning to secure wins when the Indians had the lead.
Francona did not feel that he could wait to inject Miller into the game. Because he had other significant bullpen pieces behind Miller, Francona chose to throw Miller right into the fire. This strategy shortened the game for the opposition who were clearly overmatched by the left-hander’s ability.
The most notable gaffe of the 2016 postseason came at the expense of Showalter’s Orioles. Showalter chose not to use Zach Britton, 2016’s top reliever, in a non-save situation. Britton remained on the bench into the 11th inning as Orioles pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez surrendered a 3 run home run to Edwin Encarnacion, a season ending blow. Showalter was blasted for failing to utilize his best asset in what proved to be the most pivotal game of Baltimore’s season. Still, Showalter backed his old school stance with the belief that Britton would have gotten the ball in a save scenario.
Bullpen usage is critical in the modern game. In today’s baseball landscape, the bullpen is the single most important unit on a team. A bullpen can sway a team’s success unlike any other component on the team.
A look back at the most recent World Series champions furthers this position. Each of the last five champions had a significant bullpen piece at their disposal.
The 2012 San Francisco Giants had Brian Wilson.
The 2013 Boston Red Sox had Koji Uehara.
The 2014 San Francisco Giants had Sergio Romo and in Game 7 of the World Series, Madison Bumgarner.
The 2015 Kansas City Royals had a plethora of strong relievers including the likes of Kelvin Herrera, Ryan Madson, Greg Holland, Luke Hochevar, and Wade Davis.
The 2016 Chicago Cubs had Aroldis Chapman.
It is absolutely necessary to have a high end arm in the bullpen in order to win a championship. In the age of sabermetrics, advanced analytics, and pitch counts, the average starting pitcher possesses less of an impact than their predecessors. Managers are choosing to pull them earlier in games due to suggestions that are widely being accepted as truths. These suggestions include the notion that a starting pitcher must be pulled at roughly 100 pitches and that starters are much less effective the second, third, and fourth times through the lineup.
The question is not the importance of bullpens. Rather, it is the idea of when a manager should put his best reliever into the game.
It would be unfair to ask managers like Francona to utilize relievers exactly how he did in the postseason. Francona often pushed Miller several innings at a time, a daunting proposition for a pitcher typically tasked with recording just three outs.
This idea is clearly not doable in a regular season format in which there are 162 games to be played, most being played consecutively.
Still, we can take the basic premise of Francona’s strategy and apply it appropriately. A team’s best reliever does not have to be used in the 9th inning. It is very likely that the game’s most important situations come in the 6th, 7th, or 8th innings as opposed to the 9th. There is certainly no guarantee that the opposing team’s best hitters come to the plate in the 9th inning, either.
The best way to utilize a top reliever is with a “firefighter” mindset as opposed to how they are normally approached, as closers.
A firefighter’s role is to come to action whenever there happens to be trouble. No matter the time or location, a firefighter is responsible for saving the day when called upon.
Managers must take a similar approach moving forward. If there is a threatening situation in the 6th, 7th, or 8th innings, managers must not wait to put in their top relievers. They cannot wait for the save opportunity. It is critical to use a team’s most valuable weapon when winning the game is truly in jeopardy.
Otherwise, there might not be a save to make.