Did Game Seven Delay the Bullpen Revolution?

For much of the postseason – with the exception of Buck Showalter’s decision to strand Zach Britton in the visiting bullpen at Rogers Centre in Toronto – it seemed the game might be on the cusp of a new revolution, a bullpen revolution.

For many, the major takeaway from October was how some managers were employing their top relief arms. Kenley Jansen recorded at least five outs in four of his seven postseason appearances, pitching three innings in Game Six of the NLCS. Aroldis Chapman entered seven playoff games before the ninth inning, and nowhere was the trend more dramatic or effective than in Cleveland.

Trying to piece together a pitching plan with an injury-depleted rotation, injuries in part allowing him to operate unconventionally, Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona turned Andrew Miller into perhaps the most valuable player of the postseason.

Miller made 10 appearances and each began before the ninth inning. He entered most often in the seventh inning (four occasions), but entered as early as the fifth three times. The lefty also entered in the sixth twice. He appeared as late as the eighth. Miller recorded at least four outs in every appearance and went at least two innings six times.

Everything was going so well for the revolution until Game Seven…

And later, this…

Miller pitched 19.1 postseason innings. He allowed 12 hits, three runs, walked three and struck out 30. But all three of the runs he allowed occurred in the World Series, including two costly ones in Game Seven, when he was pitching for the fourth time in the series.

Chapman allowed six total runs in the postseason in 13 appearances but three of those were allowed in Game Six and Game Seven when he recorded at least four outs for the second and third time in four days.

Despite the success of the relief-ace model for much of the postseason the industry, will recency bias have an impact on decision makers? Will the events of Game Seven delay a change in the way relievers are deployed? Will managers continue to save their best arms for the ninth inning and save situations?

Game Seven is probably not going to help the case for a move away from traditional bullpen usage and alignment.

A number of managers were asked about bullpen tactics at the Winter Meetings in December in Washington, D.C., and there seemed to be little hint of any significant carry-over effect in 2017.

Said Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black at the Winter Meetings: “Managing a bullpen during the regular season is different.”

Black added that, because Cleveland had the luxury of a deep and talented bullpen, Francona had multiple trusted arms to handle multiple high-leverage situations.

“If you have the versatility and you have guys who do perform and you can sort of mix-and-match, and if, again, like the Cleveland model, per se, with Miller and Cody Allen they had two good guys, and you throw in another really good guy like Bryan Shaw, it’s really nice.

“I think with what you saw Joe [Maddon] do late in the year with Chapman, he felt as though he might not have other weapons.”

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus told reporters at the meetings the structure of the postseason simply warps the way games are played.

“The playoffs are going to change the way a bullpen is used, even the way starters are used,” Ausmus said. “Starters are often taken out earlier, as a result, if you have a stronger bullpen. Just doesn’t happen in a regular season because you get to August and the bullpen would be shot…

“You know, Tito did a great job with his bullpen, but if you can find me another Andrew Miller, let me know, we’ll stick him in our bullpen and see if it works. It’s not that simple. I don’t know that you could throw that many innings on a regular basis.”

Even Francona in speaking with reporters during the postseason expressed his doubts about the strategy he was employing carrying over to the regular season, though for a different reason: economics.

“I don’t think you’re going to see as much [change] as people think, just because of the way our — like the arbitration system. The way people are rewarded for saves. Again, I’d love to see that 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.

So long as saves are rewarded in the arbitration process, many pitchers will want to accrue them, and managers have interest in harmonious clubhouses and in avoiding the creation of disgruntled players.

So arbitration is an issue that might need to be addressed before any significant structural changes are made to bullpens. (While arbitration is not kind to a non-traditional reliever role, perhaps such a pitcher’s open-mindedness and versatility would be more valuable than saves to clubs on the open market.)

Regardless, after listening in December to managers, it doesn’t seem like we are headed for a sea change in April. It seems the non-traditional bullpen usage will mostly remain a postseason tool. There’s perhaps too much skepticism on trying to extrapolate the strategy over six months. There’s too much comfort in leaning on the starter-setup-closer model, which can also reduce second-guessing in postgame press conferences. Perhaps too many decision-makers saw Chapman and Miller’s diminished velocity, location and results in Game Seven. Perhaps that’s the lasting image that will guide decision-making.

But if there isn’t league-wide change, that means there’s a competitive advantage for a team with decision-makers and relievers who are willing to buy in.

Few ,if any, are proposing that a pitcher like Miller or Chapman would pitch two innings every other game like in the postseason, where the stakes and off days are greater in number. Even without drastically increasing workloads there are still opportunities for clubs to spike win probability throughout the season by employing their best arms in difficult situations, or in facing difficult stretches of lineup.

In an era where every team is trying to reduce inefficiency, much inefficiency remains in the bullpen. But if Game Seven is the lasting image, if Chapman and Miller are thought to have been worn down due to workload and lack of routine, then those wanting to see change might have to wait.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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7 years ago

Fans sometimes forget that relievers often warm up without getting in a game, and that impacts their fatigue factor. They simply can’t be used as often in the regular season as they are in the post-season.