Cody Allen’s Postseason Dominance Cannot Go Overlooked

The dominant storyline of this postseason is reliever usage — well, the dominant storyline aside from the length of championship droughts, at least. Cleveland manager Terry Francona has freed himself to use elite reliever Andrew Miller when necessary rather than constrain himself to such trivial guidelines as save opportunities. Miller’s success (and Francona’s resultant success) has led people to ask whether this is a watershed moment for standard relief pitcher usage. Has Francona made it acceptable to more closely align optimal reliever usage with leverage rather than inning?

There are a few big reasons to think Miller’s 2016 postseason isn’t going to change bullpens as we know them. First of all, Miller’s contract status makes him immune from the reality that relief pitcher’s earnings are intimately tied to save totals. Like it or not, save totals are of real consequence to relief pitchers who aren’t already receiving hefty salaries. Secondly, managers can do things in the postseason that simply aren’t practical during the 162-game regular-season grind. As an example, consider: even though Francona has utilized Miller in a notably flexible relief-ace role ever since Cleveland acquired him from the Yankees at the end of July, Miller also entered a game in the sixth inning or earlier just once in his 26 regular-season appearances. In the postseason, however, he’s entered in the sixth or early in four of his nine outings.

Perhaps the biggest reason, though, that Miller’s case is unlikely to cause any immediate radical changes in bullpen management, is one discussed by an aptly titled article at by Sam Miller: “Cody Allen makes the Andrew Miller experiment possible”. To avoid confusion (and the resultant mass hysteria) likely to be caused by their shared surname, we’ll refer to the illustrious writer as Sam, and continue referring to the pitcher as Miller. Sam rightfully points out that the mere existence of another elite reliever is what frees up Francona to utilize Miller in such unconventional ways.

“If there were no Andrew Miller, [Cody] Allen might be the talk of this postseason… But Miller’s brilliance has ensured that Allen’s brilliance has gone overlooked. The irony is that Allen’s brilliance had ensured that Miller’s brilliance has been possible.”

Although the ship has long since sailed on making Allen “the talk of this postseason”, we still can (and should) spend some time talking about the other elite reliever who’s helped to situate Cleveland one win away from their first championship in 68 years. Allen has pitched 11.2 innings this postseason — or, to put it another way, has recorded 35 outs. Of those 35 outs, 22 have been via the strikeout — giving him a positively obscene 17.0 K/9 rate. To put that in perspective, uber-reliever Miller is sporting a 15.4 K/9 this postseason and the only reliever ever to top 17.0 K/9 in a regular season is some guy named Aroldis Chapman, who reached 17.7 K/9 in 2014.

Of course, K/9 only tells you the rate at which outs were recorded via the strikeout. The stat which is a better descriptor of dominance is strikeout rate (K%) since it tells you the rate of strikeouts being recorded across all plate appearances, not just on the outs. In that category, the numbers balance out in a more expected way. So far this postseason, Allen has a 44.9% strikeout rate; Miller is just ahead of him, with a 46.8% figure. This is essentially par for the course for Miller, who posted a 44.7 K% during the regular season, but represents a big improvement in results for Allen who struck out “just” 33.0% of batters this season.

Eleven innings aren’t meaningful in a predictive sense — Allen didn’t suddenly turn into a guy who strikes out nearly half of all batters faced — but in the most obvious, practical sense, getting results in those eleven October innings is extraordinarily meaningful for its significance towards the ultimate goal of getting that ring. The postseason matters inasmuch as any baseball game truly matters — and Allen has performed brilliantly.

During Cleveland’s postseason run, Allen has made nine outings — six of which have been save opportunities he successfully converted. He also recorded the final three outs in Cleveland’s 6-0 win over the Cubs in Game One of the World Series and kept the game within one run for 1.2 innings during the 3-2 loss in Game Five on Sunday night. But in Game Three of the ALCS, Francona’s non-traditional bullpen management extended to his otherwise traditional closer. Allen entered the game in the seventh inning, went through the heart of Toronto’s order and then watched Miller record the save by getting the final four outs.

That type of flexibility isn’t asked of many successful postseason closers, but any impact it had on Allen certainly hasn’t shown up in his performance. His current postseason ERA is a perfectly pristine 0.00 ERA. (A quick trivial note: out of curiosity, I checked and Allen is nowhere near setting the record for the most innings pitched in a postseason without giving up an earned run. The record holder in that department during the post-WWII era is Kenny Rogers who posted 23 shutout postseason innings for Detroit as a 41-year-old in 2006.)

There have been countless reasons to enjoy this postseason, but for me, the focus on relief pitching has been a big one because I’m fascinated by the relative simplicity of it. Generally speaking, starting pitchers have complex repertoires and have to consider the best approach for facing hitters multiple times during a game. Relief pitchers, though, aren’t bogged down by times-through-the-order concerns. Mariano Rivera had a cutter and opponents would either hit it or they wouldn’t. Same with Zach Britton and his sinker. Allen’s approach is only slightly more complex than that of Rivera and Britton in that he utilizes a more traditional two-pitch repertoire of a fastball and a breaking ball — just like Andrew Miller.

As far as bullpen duos go, Miller and Allen are really intriguing complementary pieces. The table below shows their two pitches — four-seam fastballs plus a slider for Miller and a curve for Allen:

Cody Allen and Andrew Miller’s Two Pitches, 2016
Miller FB Allen FB Miller SL Allen CB
Velo (mph) 95.5 95.2 84.6 85.2
Horiz mvt. (in.) 6.1 (-)5.6 (-)5.2 6.5
Vert mvt. (in.) 8.0 10.7 -2.0 -4.1
Whiff/Swing 12.3% 23.2% 48.4% 47.8%
Usage 39.5% 63.3% 60.5% 36.7%
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball
2016 regular season totals
Positive horiz. break is to the RHB box; Negative horiz break is to the LHB box

These breakdowns are a lot more similar than I expected before I pulled the numbers. The biggest similarity that I didn’t know existed is the whiff/swing rate on their breaking pitches. To know Andrew Miller is to know his devastating wipeout slider, but Allen’s curve is its equal in whiff-inducement. Of course, the critical difference is the pitch usage. Miller is able to go to his slider nearly twice as often as Allen uses his curve. The heightened slider usage is what elevates Miller’s strikeout rate and ground-ball rate beyond Allen’s and makes him one of the best five relievers in the game.

The additional unmentioned, but also obvious, wrinkle which allows them to complement each other is handedness: Miller is a lefty, Allen a righty. Both pitchers are relatively platoon neutral, so the combination of the two has the potential to frustrate the opposition with different looks but similarly dominant repertoires.

Whether in Game Six or a potential Game Seven, Miller and Allen are both all but guaranteed to have at least one more outing this postseason. Considering what’s at stake — in addition to the fact that starting pitchers Josh Tomlin and Corey Kluber will both be on three days rest — there’s no way Francona doesn’t go to his relief aces at some point to put Cleveland in the strongest possible position to secure their first title since 1948. Whether it’s Miller and then Allen or Allen and then Miller, Francona has one of the best relievers in the game in Miller and a great reliever in Allen who’s matching Miller’s production step for step this postseason. What each pitcher is doing on his own this postseason is phenomenal, but it’s the combination of those phenomenal efforts that enables each of them to fill their assigned roles and has been so critical in putting Cleveland one win away from a ring.

Corinne Landrey writes for FanGraphs and's Cut4 site. Follow her on Twitter @crashlandrey.

Comments are closed.