Over the past three seasons, the Royals’ method of putting together wins has become in-vogue. Not only has the MLB started emphasizing bullpen dominance, but some teams have taken to the contact rate method of success as well.
It makes sense that postseason success can have that influence around the league. Just eight teams make it into the divisional rounds of the postseason, and are granted the opportunity to play more than one playoff game. And that’s after a 162-game slog of a season helped unequivocally weed out the weaker teams.
Of those eight teams, any can get hot enough to win a World Series. But rarely do teams get as hot as the Cleveland Professional Baseball Team. The Blue Jays just handed Cleveland their first loss of the postseason on Tuesday evening, after winning six consecutive games. Going 6-0, sweeping the division series, and taking a 3-0 lead in the championship series is a feat unto itself. Add the fact that Cleveland hadn’t even trailed since the third inning of the first game against the Red Sox, and you have as dominant a postseason as you can imagine.
So, what new methods of winning—perhaps as soon as this offseason—will be founded in Cleveland’s wake?
If Royals’ GM Dayton Moore perfected the building of a bullpen, then Cleveland skipper Terry Francona seems to have perfected the method of deploying his relievers.
Andrew Miller—arguably the best reliever in all of baseball—has pitched 9 innings this postseason. To help put that into context, that’s as many innings as Kyle Hendricks has managed over two starts for the Cubs. To help put his dominance in the context, Miller has as many strikeouts as teammate Corey Kluber, who has pitched twice as many innings. Both are tied for second in postseason strikeouts behind the incomparable Clayton Kershaw, who has pitched 19.1 innings. Sweetening the deal a bit more, Miller is the only pitcher with at least 9 innings pitched without allowing a single run. In short, he’s great.
What’s kind of amazing then is that, of the five saves Cleveland has earned as a team this postseason, Miller has only accounted for one of them. Instead, Francona has deployed Miller much earlier in games—as early as the fifth inning—while Cody Allen has been responsible for the other four saves.
Using your best reliever early certainly bucks the regular season trend of saving them for the sometimes arbitrary ninth inning. Francona is capitalizing on a managerial inefficiency by being one of the only skippers to use their reliever in the most high leverage opportunity—regardless of inning. Sure, the ninth inning may be the most high leverage at times, but getting out of a jam in the sixth or seventh might be the difference between playing with a lead, or playing from behind in the ninth.
Whether this translates into the 2017 regular season will remain to be seen. Managers will probably opt to use relievers the same amount they did this previous season, not in every game like Francona has during the always-high-leverage playoffs. However, some may begin to call on their better relievers at earlier moments in late and close games. Would you really rather see your closer used in the ninth inning up by three runs, or with runners on and one out in the seventh?
Heavy workloads for starting pitchers
With Wednesdays starter announced as Ryan Merritt, Cleveland will finally be using a fourth starting pitcher a full seven games into the postseason. The Dodgers are the only other team to have rolled with three starters so far this offseason and, while they have played more games, they haven’t had the luxury of not facing elimination.
While the reliever trend Francona is working to set is great, it’s also been thought of as better game management for quite some time. Leaning heavily on starters though—in the age of pitch counts and innings limits—is much more remarkable.
Francona shouldn’t get all the credit here though. The loss of Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar to injury likely forced his hand to rely much more heavily on his remaining cast: Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer (lacerated finger and all), and Josh Tomlin. This is largely conjecture, but if everything went the exact same this postseason, but Carrasco and Salazar were healthy, Cleveland has probably already used a fourth starter by now.
This one definitely won’t factor into regular season play ever again. Gone are the days of the 300 inning starting pitcher. Even Justin Verlander’s 250 innings from 2011 seems like a distant memory. However, if Francona can roll with three starters and have them pitch this effectively on short rest—thanks at least in part to a dominant bullpen—then the 2017 postseason may look a bit different.
Cleveland’s storybook postseason is far from over, and it could still certainly go either way. Even if they do close it out against the Blue Jays, getting by the Dodgers or Cubs is no easy task. However, Francona seems to be managing for the win at every given moment, which is more than can be said of other teams’ managers. Whether the roles of bullpens and starters changes in the near future may depend on the extremely dominant postseason management of Francona.