Buck Showalter and Managing the Postseason

The Orioles finished off the Detroit Tigers yesterday, winning their division series three games to none, though the primary story of the series still seems to resolve around the Tigers and their disastrous bullpen performance. Despite throwing $10 million per year at Joe Nathan over the winter, and then trading for Joakim Soria at the deadline, the Tigers bullpen combined for 19.29 ERA in this series, and that includes two shutout innings from regular season starter Anibal Sanchez. If you look at just the Tigers postseason pitchers who were relievers in the regular season, they combined to allow 11 runs in just three innings against the Orioles, good for an ERA of 33.00.

The Orioles likely would be up 2-1 in this series even if the Tigers relievers had pitched well — Detroit’s starter left with the team down 4-3 in Game 1 and down 2-0 in Game 3, and the Tigers never managed to make up those deficits in either game — so it’s not accurate to say that the Tigers bullpen cost them the division series. However, on the other end of things, we could put together an argument that the Orioles bullpen, and more specifically Buck Showalter’s management of his relievers, won this series for the Orioles.

That isn’t to take away from the other parts of the Orioles roster that performed well in the first round, but the stark contrast in bullpen management between between Showalter and the other postseason managers is difficult to miss. Over the first week of the postseason, we have seen numerous instances of managers sticking with tiring starting pitchers until they start getting into trouble, and asking their bullpen to put out fires rather than to prevent them from ever occurring in the first place. But we didn’t see that in Baltimore, and it’s one of the primary reasons the Orioles are advancing and the Tigers are not.

In the postseason, starting pitchers are averaging 25 batters faced per start, the same number as they averaged during the regular season. Nine of the 24 starting pitchers who have taken the hill so far have faced 27 or more hitters, getting through the line-up three times, and in some cases, facing hitters for a fourth time in their start.

The Orioles starters? They’re averaging 21 batters faced per start, the second lowest total in the postseason — the Angels number was dragged down significantly by C.J. Wilson’s first-inning hook yesterday — despite the fact that they actually pitched pretty well. Usually, a low batters faced total for a starting pitcher means he got chased early, but Buck Showalter has been aggressive in removing his starters before their starts could go too far south.

In Game 1, Chris Tillman was removed after facing just 20 batters, even though he’d recorded 15 outs in the process. He’d given up two home runs in the second inning, but had just completed three straight scoreless innings when Showalter went to the bullpen, asking his three best relievers to finish the final four innings.

In Game 2, Wei-Yin Chen forced Showalter’s hand a bit, getting knocked around in the fourth inning, but even here, we don’t see Showalter messing around too much. The first five batters of the inning went single-double-single-homer-homer, so there wasn’t really much time for the pen to get warmed up in time to prevent the five runs that Chen allowed, but even after he settled down to record two outs afterwards, Showalter still replaced him with Kevin Gausman once he gave up one more baserunner.

In Game 3, Bud Norris became the first Orioles starter to pitch beyond five innings, as Showalter allowed him to get 25 batters deep before going to Andrew Miller. But even then, we can still see a relatively quick hook, as Norris had taken just 100 pitches to get through those 25 batters faced, and was pulled for a lefty even though the next batter due up, Andrew Romine, is a switch-hitter who has historically been much better from the right side of the plate. In the most extreme case of Showalter pushing his starter, he still removed him before he got through the line-up three times and after throwing just 100 pitches, and he surrendered the platoon advantage in order to do so.

The Orioles bullpen is excellent, and Showalter undoubtedly feels more confidence in handing the ball to his relievers than Brad Ausmus did in calling on the Tigers relievers, for instance, but Showalter’s aggressive bullpen usage isn’t just about having better arms than everyone else; it’s about realizing that his fresh relievers are more likely to get outs and protect leads than one of his tiring starters. And perhaps he’s emboldened in that belief by the fact that the Orioles don’t exactly have a traditionally dominant starting pitcher or two at the front of their rotation, making it easier to justify removing a guy like Tillman or Norris, even when they are performing well.

Historically, the belief has been that teams with dominant starting pitching have the biggest advantage in October, and the Tigers and A’s both loaded up on front-line pitchers at the trade deadline, while the Orioles — with an inferior rotation but a strong bullpen — loaded up on yet another reliever instead. Obviously, you don’t want to draw conclusions based on the results of one series — or in the A’s case, one game — but both Bob Melvin and Brad Ausmus leaned heavily on their high profile starting pitchers in the playoffs, and they combined to win exactly zero games between them.

Perhaps there is a hidden cost to having a starter-heavy pitching staff in October. As we’ve talked about numerous times, the times-through-the-order penalty makes even the best starting pitchers an inferior option relative to a solid reliever by the the time the sixth or seventh inning rolls around, but it is possible that having a strong rotation makes it less likely that a manager will take advantage of this in the postseason. Showalter has done a fantastic job of managing his pitching staff, but I wonder if the team’s okay rotation/great bullpen construction has emboldened him to follow this strategy more than he would have if he was given David Price or Jon Lester.

Of course, having those guys is great, but everything in baseball is a trade-off. The Orioles don’t have a legitimate #1 starter, but instead of using their prospects to go get one, they used a quality prospect to go get Andrew Miller instead. Trading for a reliever at the deadline isn’t a guarantee of landing a dominant bullpen arm in October — Joakim Soria says hello — but relievers can have a significantly larger impact on the game in the postseason than they do in the regular season. And if a team has a strong group of lights-out bullpen arms behind a group of decent-but-unspectacular starters, perhaps it creates a freedom for the manager to handle his pitching staff in a more aggressive manner, rather than sticking with a tiring starter for too long when better bullpen options exist.

Buck Showalter’s Orioles are in the ALCS in part because Showalter was willing to use his relievers to prevent rallies rather than simply extinguish them. Not only was his ALDS management style a great example of how postseason baseball should be handled, but perhaps the Orioles are evidence of an inherent advantage of a bullpen-heavy pitching staff. Give this kind of pitching staff to a manager who isn’t afraid to exploit potential advantages, and you find things like the Orioles running over a team that threw the last three AL Cy Young winners at them.

The players deserve credit too, of course. Showalter wouldn’t look like as much of a genius if Miller had pitched like Soria in this series, but his aggressive bullpen management gave his team their best chance to win.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

55 Comments
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hookstrapped
7 years ago

Thanks for the thoughtful article!

Do you think there is a market inefficiency being exploited here with the relative abundance and low cost of high quality relievers compared to number 1 or 2 starters?

Nate
7 years ago
Reply to  hookstrapped

To me, it seems like a situation that can be used in the post-season, but not so much for the regular season. It might be harder to do that if your team played say, 15 days in a row, etc.

Nice article.

hookstrapped
7 years ago
Reply to  Nate

I see your point, but in the regular season, using the Orioles as an example, in addition to Miller, O’Day, and Briton Showalter has Hunter, Brach, McFarland, Matusz. All those guys are decent to good, so for this to work in the regular season there has to be a lot of depth.

Orsulakfan
7 years ago
Reply to  Nate

That, to me, is the main difference between the 2012 regular season and now. O’Day, among others, was overused in 2012 and 2013, and Showalter has eased up on his usage. He is also very careful about “dry-humping” (warming up without using) his relievers. It’s a huge part of his managerial strategy, and the players remark on it.

What makes it work in the regular season is that Buck and Duquette use the whole 40-man roster to ensure that no one reliever gets overused, and is smart about leverage. They are very careful about that if there is a long extra-inning game, or a doubleheader, or if a starter gets knocked out early, and immediately call for help from the minors in those cases. What makes this strategy not too dangerous is that the Orioles have pretty good depth in their system, a bunch of pretty-good guys rather than stars and scrubs. McFarland and Matusz didn’t even make the postseason roster (for the ALDS anyway, they may be back for the ALCS), and they were solid pitchers in the regular season.

Matt P
7 years ago
Reply to  hookstrapped

The problem is that it’s hard to determine who will be a high quality reliever before a season starts and you can only have seven relievers on the active roster. If you get a high end reliever and he completely busts then you’re stuck.

Bill
7 years ago
Reply to  Matt P

That’s certainly true, but I think the Orioles counter this by stockpiling a large number of relievers. Hunter wasn’t effective this year, so in came a converted starter. McFarland wasn’t great, so in came a depth guy in Brach to pick up the slack. Miller was clearly a better reliever than Soria. Had the Tigers gotten Miller and the O’s Soria, this would have been a completely different series.

Wobatus
7 years ago
Reply to  Bill

Miller was great but at the break Miller’s xFIP was 1.89 and Soria’s 1.99. Soria had a good year but he got injured right after the Tigers got him.

John Thacker
7 years ago
Reply to  Bill

The Orioles also repeatedly sent starters down to the minors between starts in order to roster another reliever during the season.

pass the Buck
7 years ago
Reply to  hookstrapped

When are they going to tear down that ugly stadium in “charm” city? that ugly wearhouse is nicer looking than the ballpark

thebamoor
7 years ago
Reply to  pass the Buck

“pass the Buck”, an opinion shared by no one.