TORONTO – Aaron Sanchez has watched enough post-season games over the past few years to know that relievers can be leaned on heavily in the playoffs, and not always in the spots you might expect.
That’s why as the Toronto Blue Jays set-up man prepares for Thursday’s American League Division Series opener against the Texas Rangers, he’s repeating one mantra to himself over and over: “Always be ready.”
“I can’t stress the importance of that enough,” the 23-year-old right-hander says Wednesday. “You never know in a playoff game, these are games that are win or go home, so roles might be different, you might be seeing guys coming in before other guys you’d normally see in the regular season, but that’s what these games are about.
“It’s all or nothing, it’s go get them, really.”
Playoff baseball can certainly be cut-throat, with shorter leashes on starters, heavier loads on trusted relievers, and more pressure to go around as reputations can be both built and destroyed, money either made or lost, jobs secured or endangered.
To that end, there’s been a trend toward aggressive use of bullpens in recent seasons.
Take 2014 as an example – starting pitchers covered 64 per cent of the 43,613 innings thrown during the regular season, but that total shrunk to 59.8 per cent in the playoffs (356 innings for starters, 239 for relievers). The World Series champion San Francisco Giants were right at 60 per cent (96, 64) of their innings from starters in the playoffs, while the American League champion Kansas City Royals were at 55.7 per cent (78.2, 62.1).
In 2011, both the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals and finalist Rangers got just 57.5 per cent of their innings from starters, while in 2012, the National League Championship Series finalist Cardinals covered only 51.6 per cent of their 113 innings with their starters.
The Detroit Tigers were somewhat of an anomaly in 2012, with their starters logging 72.5 per cent of their innings en route to a World Series loss to the Giants, who were at 62.7 per cent.
The bottom line, as Sanchez says, is that relievers better be ready.
“You’ll see a lot of times the starting pitcher won’t get a leash like he would in the regular season because you’re trying to win every single game, you’re not just trying to get him through 100 pitches and you can give him time hoping he gets in a groove,” says Blue Jays reliever Mark Lowe, who pitched for the Rangers’ World Series clubs in 2010 and ’11. “[Former Cardinals manager] Tony La Russa is one of the guys that comes to mind when I think about that. If his guy doesn’t have it in the second or third inning, the bullpen is going the first jam he gets into.
“If you’re the seventh- or eighth-inning guy you might be going in the fifth or sixth if there’s a big situation where the game could be decided. You put a guy in and let him take care of it. Hopefully that move pays off, and the rest of the bullpen can do their job.”
The Blue Jays this year covered 965.1, or 67 per cent, of their 1,441 innings with their rotation, slightly above the big-league average, which stood at 65 per cent of the 43,407.1 innings thrown in the regular season.
While that suggests manager John Gibbons gives his starters some rope, he hasn’t hesitated to pull them early, either. He’ll have a seven-man bullpen in the division series, with closer Roberto Osuna, LaTroy Hawkins, Liam Hendriks, plus lefties Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup joining Lowe and Sanchez.
“Really, it depends on who’s starting for you that game, where they’re at. Are they strong? They may be giving up hits but they’re still making good pitches and guys are finding some holes, you watch for if they’re starting to lose it, that kind of thing,” says Gibbons. “If the guy that’s out there on the mound is better than what you’re going to bring in, then you leave him out there. As far as roles, you can definitely go to different guys earlier in the game depending on the situation.”
The Rangers clocked in with 940.2, or 65 per cent, of their 1,442.2 innings coming from the rotation. Closer Shawn Tolleson anchors a relief corps that was bolstered at the trade deadline by the additions of Sam Dyson, the ground ball-inducing former Blue Jays draft pick, and lefty Jake Diekman, who came over in the Cole Hamels deal.
“We had a formula that we liked that worked very well for us down the stretch and really, throughout the last month,” Rangers manager Jeff Banister says of handling his bullpen. “One of the things that we do look at is that the highest leverage inning based on the lineup and who our guys are going to face, and we have certain guys that we like in certain spots, so we’ll pay attention to that and try to find the appropriate time to bring in the right guys.”
With both teams delivering strong finishes to overcome large deficits at the trade deadline and win their division – the Blue Jays finished the year at a 43-18 clip, the Rangers closed out the year at 41-22 – playing with little margin for error is old hat. Now with things maybe set to kick up a notch, their relievers may be called upon to shoulder more of the burden.
“Honestly, I feel like since I’ve been here we’ve played playoff-type baseball,” says Lowe, who was acquired from Seattle on July 31. “Gibby will get someone going right away [if the starter struggles] and it’s been a playoff-type run bullpen from the trade deadline. We’re all well accustomed to that, the starters know, the bullpen knows, everybody knows their role. I don’t think a whole lot is going to change, because that’s the kind of baseball we’ve been playing.”