Creative bullpen usage turning tradition ‘upside down’ this post-season

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CLEVELAND — In a sport as tradition-bound as baseball, managers don’t have to veer far from the norm to get noticed. Tell your players to shift on defence, skip batting practice or sleep in and you’re making headlines.

So when Cleveland manager Terry Francona called on Andrew Miller in the fifth inning on Oct. 6, the entire industry took note. By the time Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts called on Kenley Jansen in the seventh inning a week later, the momentum seemed to be building past a point of no return.

Instead of letting saves dictate reliever usage, many managers have started ignoring baseball orthodoxy by calling on their best pitchers in the biggest spots.

“It’s turning the baseball world upside down,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “The game’s gonna change.”

This may well be remembered as the October that save-oriented bullpen management goes out of style, but it’s not quite as simple as saying that analytics have officially displaced tradition. More likely, the 2016 playoffs will be a significant step toward a new way of deploying bullpens, just not the final one.

“We’ve seen an evolution with the way relievers are used,” Cleveland president Chris Antonetti said. “Not just with us, but with other teams over the course of the last handful of years.”

For that evolution to continue into the regular season, a few obstacles will have to be overcome. There’s the issue of workloads, the challenge of getting buy-in from players and the fact players continue to be paid for saves.

It’s not a coincidence this shift in reliever usage has happened in October. Because there are more off-days during the playoffs, managers can rely on their top relievers to record a higher-than-usual percentage of outs. Miller, for example, pitched 7.2 innings in Cleveland’s first five playoff games alone, setting a pace that could never be sustained over six months. We may be less likely to see him in the fifth if he’s limited to one inning, and multi-inning stints just aren’t that common during the regular season.

“You still have to be careful with that somewhat, too,” Gibbons said. “They’re tired, fatigued.”

And while Cleveland’s entire bullpen has enabled Francona’s creative bullpen usage with total buy-in, that wouldn’t be the case for every manager, or with every pitcher. Relievers often say they prefer having the structure created by defined roles. That makes the Cleveland bullpen an exception.

“It only works if you have the right people with the right mindset,” Antonetti said. “There’s the thought out there that anybody can do it, anybody could go and perform. If I said ‘OK, you have a deadline tomorrow at five o’clock’ and then I called and said ‘no, no your deadline’s eight minutes from now. Turn your story in.’ What’s going to through your mind? What’s your body reaction? Panic, right? Pitchers are human beings just like the rest of us.”

Getting that buy-in may be a little easier for managers around baseball now that Francona, a two-time World Series winner with 16 seasons managing in the big leagues, has asked his bullpen to stay flexible. Still, it’s not every elite reliever who wants to pitch the fifth inning.

“I guarantee everybody’s not,” Gibbons said. “People don’t understand that. They may do it reluctantly.”

As for Miller, he welcomes the challenge of pitching at any time.

“It’s a lot of fun to finish a game off,” Miller said. “But it’s pretty rewarding to be successful in big situations earlier in the game. Flexibility’s something that’s valuable.”

Of course Miller’s flexibility doesn’t cost him a thing; he’s making $9 million per season either way. Those seeking their first significant payday are motivated by an arbitration system that rewards pitchers for saves. One player agent suggested that an average setup reliever might earn $8 million over his arbitration years, while a closer with comparable peripheral stats might earn $20 million for that same period. No wonder pitchers prefer the ninth inning.

“The save stat is what gets you paid in arbitration, gets you paid in free agency in a lot of cases,” Miller said. “Players are certainly aware of that.”

Added Francona: “If you’re a young kid and you haven’t made any money, the best way to make money is to get saves.”

To be fair, the free-agent market does change over time. Look no further than Jason Heyward’s $184-million contract for evidence of that. There’s no chance a defence-first outfielder would have earned that kind of money 20 years ago. The arbitration process is far more rigid, though, and could limit the pace of change on the field.

“I don’t think you’re going to see as much as people think,” Francona said. “I’d love to see (arbitration) changed because I think if that was changed you would see how pitchers are used differently and I think we’d have a better game.”

Already, the sport’s decision-makers are adjusting. It’s not as simple as saying that there’s a new model of bullpen management, but we may be reaching a tipping point. Those wondering what it’d look like if teams stopped managing by the book no longer need their imaginations. Watch a game this October and there’s a good chance you see the best relievers in the biggest spots.

“Now if you don’t do it, you’re going to get crucified,” Gibbons said.

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