Postseason Redefining the Use of Relief Pitchers

One trend that’s become clear this postseason is that managers will not hesitate to use their bullpens in unconventional ways. Managers, specifically Terry Francona and Dave Roberts, have not been afraid to push their bullpen aces past their comfort zones, utilizing them for multiple inning or putting them in the game much earlier than usual.

No disrespect to Cody Allen, who is a fantastic relief pitcher, but Andrew Miller is the unquestioned best reliever the Cleveland Indians have. Traditional baseball theory says that you’re supposed to save your best reliever for the end of the game to close it out. But Francona has realized that some of the highest leverage moments his team has faced in the postseason have come earlier, such as in the sixth or seventh with men on base. The formula has been to go to Miller in those situations, let him pitch as long as he can, and have Allen, or maybe Dan Otero or Bryan Shaw, ready to back him up. The strategy has worked wonders for the Indians to this point, and Francona’s bullpen management is arguably the biggest factor as to why they won six consecutive playoff games before losing in Toronto last night.

Dave Roberts has also decided to throw traditional bullpen roles out the window. The Dodgers may not have the same depth of bullpen arms as Cleveland does, but they do have Kenley Jansen. Roberts made a statement in the epic fifth game of their NLDS series against the Nationals by pushing Jansen to his limit and having him throw 51 pitches. Jansen was effective as usual, but was put into the game so early that he didn’t even finish, instead handing the reigns over to Clayton Kershaw, who had pitched two days prior.

The must-win factor of playoff baseball obviously affects the way the games are managed, as you are both forced to, but due to the frequent off days, also able to do things you normally wouldn’t. It wouldn’t be feasible to use your best relief pitcher for two innings every single game in the middle of June. But it’s fair to wonder if going forward, we will see managers take a much different approach to their bullpen usage. The save is an overvalued stat, and whereas at one time, relievers would only land big contracts if they were closers with high save totals, teams have begun to place an increasing value on middle relievers. Nearly every team still has a single closer that’s rarely used before the ninth inning, but will we start to see managers break away from that strategy? Say you are holding on to a one run lead in the seventh, when the starter puts two men on base to start the inning. It might not be a bad idea to go with your best reliever in that spot rather than your typical “seventh-inning guy”. It’s unlikely that there will be a spot in the game of even more pressure or importance later on.

What we are also seeing more and more in the playoffs is that teams are willing to pull their starters earlier to get to their bullpens. It happened the last few years with the Royals and again this year with the Indians. Time will only tell if these trends will continue, but it will certainly make for a fascinating offseason in regards to the pitching market. The pool of top level starters is scarce, but relievers such as Jansen, Aroldis Chapman, and Mark Melancon should be lined up for huge paydays, not to mention the usual selection of quality middle relievers.

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