Just a Bit Outside: On the Modern Bullpen

by Sam Stockton | 5/22/17 2:00am

At the end of every season, regardless of the sport, pundits sit down and analyze the postseason, seeking to identify playoff trends that might inform the coming regular season. This process tends to lead to lots of articles in the vein of “How the Atlanta Falcons’ Super Bowl Run Changed the National Football League.” On the heels of last year’s Major League Baseball playoffs, these articles tended to focus on the Cleveland Indians’ bullpen, especially lanky left-hander Andrew Miller. If you don’t believe me, The Ringer, in its coverage of last year’s playoffs and this year’s season preview, published articles entitled “The Indians and Andrew Miller Are Reshaping How We Think About Elite Reliever Usage,” “It Might Be Miller Time at a Ballpark Near You: Searching for Every MLB Team’s Andrew Miller” and “Welcome (Maybe) to the Next Phase of Baseball’s New-Look Reliever Age.”

The Indians’ bullpen, headlined by Miller, Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw, carried the Indians to within one run of their first World Series title since 1948. If the Indians could scratch out a lead over the course of a game’s first five innings, the triumvirate of Miller, Allen and Shaw consistently silenced opponent’s bats for the final four frames.

The problem for those looking to replicate Cleveland’s bullpen is that pitchers like Miller — 6-foot-7-inch lefties who throw a 97-mph heater and a slider that produces some of the worst swings you’ll ever see out of a major leaguer — are not just lying around. A team looking to glean something from the Indians’ playoff run would do better to examine how Cleveland used its relievers rather than trying to find pitchers like the ones manager Terry Francona rode to the American League pennant.

Even if you do have bullpen arms like Cleveland’s, sometimes they will falter. Miller surrendered two earned runs in his two innings in Game 7 of the World Series. Shaw gave up two more. In October, when managers’ jobs are often on the line, the difference between wins and losses often comes down to the bullpen. As such, a good tactical manager must separate himself in terms of his reliever usage. Legitimate title contenders must have several reliable bullpen arms, and managers must decide when to use them. However, Miller’s, Shaw’s and then-Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman’s Game 7 performances showed that even the best pitchers in the game are fallible. Sometimes, a manager’s star reliever will have a dud of a performance in a big moment. This reality means that a manager’s best way to ensure favorable outcomes for his pitchers is by putting relievers in the best position to succeed.

The most common statistic used to evaluate elite relievers is the save. A pitcher is awarded a save when he pitches at least a third of an inning and is the final pitcher used in a game his team won but not the winning pitcher. In addition, he has to meet one of three conditions: He pitches for at least three innings, enters with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least a full inning or enters with the potential tying run either on base, at bat or on deck.

Saves are generally reserved for closers, indicating that the best pitcher in a team’s bullpen should be its closer. It also suggests that the best way to use a closer is to get the final few outs of a game. Miller and the Indians showed that these principles, both of them axioms of baseball thinking, may require some re-thinking.

Miller dominated the postseason in 2016, throwing shutout ball in the American League Division and Championship Series and establishing himself as the alpha dog in Cleveland’s pen. However, Francona did not save his best for last out of his shut down bullpen. Instead, Miller carved out a new role for himself as a multiple-inning swingman effective against righties and lefties.

Miller, as the team’s best relief arm, did not see his talents confined to just a game’s final inning. By deploying Miller before the final inning, the Indians were able to ensure that their best reliever pitched at the game’s most important moment, not just its final one. While Francona did not ask Miller to finish games, he took advantage of his star southpaw’s talents by putting his team in a position to succeed. If Miller was saved for the final inning, Francona saw, the game could get out of hand, and Miller might not end up pitching at all. Instead, Miller entered into games in big situations, against key batters or with runners in scoring position, and left with the team needing only a few more outs to secure a victory.

Closers (as they are currently utilized, though “relief aces” more accurately describes them) should be used to record the highest-leverage outs of a game rather than the final ones. A team must lean on its best pitchers in the biggest moments, allowing less reliable relievers (though in an effective bullpen, these must also be highly effective pitchers) to come into games that are relatively under control, rather than trusting those less reliable arms to record the biggest outs of a game. To be sure, this strategy has its drawbacks, potentially making it harder for a team to close the door in the game’s final frame. But a manager who doesn’t limit his closer to the final three outs of a game will maximize the amount of times he has a comfortable lead going into the game’s final inning.