The Legacy of the 2016 Postseason

One day, when we look back upon the 2016 postseason, mostly positive memories will be evoked. The end of longstanding World Series droughts for both combatants, the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs, culminating in a classic seven-game battle. The underdog Indians laying waste to the remainder of the AL field. The heavily favored Cubs scrapping to get past both the Dodgers and the Giants. The emergence of Francisco Lindor, Corey Kluber, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and others on the postseason stage, etc.

Let’s not kid ourselves, however, regarding the enduring legacy of this postseason; it will be Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, and yes, Zach Britton, and the way they were used, and not used. It will be the way that one of the underpinnings of modern sabermetric thought busted into the mainstream in a big way: the postseason that ace relievers, not “closers” per se, became used more more optimally, in “game” situations rather than merely “save” situations.

In the game’s earliest days, complete games were the norm, and relievers were simply the pitchers not good enough to start. With rare exceptions like Walter Johnson, Dazzy Vance and Lefty Grove, the game was contact-oriented through the 1920s, with most pitchers not throwing nearly as hard or requiring as much rest between starts as they do today. The game trended even more toward contact in the 1930s and 1940s, with Bob Feller representing one of the few flamethrowing exceptions.

The odd ace reliever — the Garland Braxton, Wilcy Moore or Joe Page — would show up from time to time, but never had staying power. The modern reliever didn’t really exist until Hoyt Wilhelm, who actually pitched in both the 40s and the 70s. With him came Roy Face, Don McMahon, Ron Perranoski and others. Most had trick pitches and logged heavy duty in terms of appearances — and, just as importantly, innings. Though managers weren’t armed with reams of sabermetric data in those days, they seemed to have a pretty good feel for doing what was necessary to win ballgames — i.e., have your best pitchers throw as many high-leverage innings as possible.

Sportswriter Jerome Holtzman had yet to “invent” the modern save statistic, which eventually began to drive arbitration awards for relief pitchers, indirectly causing managers to make decisions based on save accumulation moreso than on win protection.

My earliest baseball recollections are of the early 1970s. Now that I have a perspective of an adult who has spent a lot of time around the game, I consider it an underrated, classic period in the game’s history. Yes, Astroturf became an almost universal presence during that decade, but the time period’s positives more than compensate. Teams won with power, and teams won with historic amounts of speed. They won with durable, ace starting pitchers, and with relievers like Rollie Fingers, Mike Marshall and Bruce Sutter, who dominated over multiple innings.

The All-Star Game still meant something much more than home-field advantage in the World Series; those games were wars. My first vivid baseball memory was the 1971 All-Star Game, with an astronomical number of Hall of Famers involved, most of them homering, highlighted by Reggie Jackson’s iconic shot off of the transformer atop Tiger Stadium.

By the end of the 1980s, things had started to change. Complete-game totals started to dwindle. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing: big velocity wasn’t limited to a few Nolan Ryans and Steve Carltons anymore. It was becoming more universal, and extreme overuse severely impacted or halted the careers of potential all-time greats like Frank Tanana and Teddy Higuera. Relievers were becoming more vital and more talented. Unfortunately, they were also becoming less efficiently utilized. Their workloads declined, and the modern closer was truly born, with his innings directed toward the individual save, rather than the team win.

My first foray into baseball writing, in SABR’s “Baseball Research Journal” annual, in 1993 or so, actually covered this topic. It compared the effectiveness and save totals of primary team closers of the present to the past, and found a strong inverse relationship. Closers in the early 90s had way more saves but pitched way fewer innings and were far less effective than in years past. Dave Smith — a fine reliever for many years — was the poster child. Signed by the Cubs as a free agent in 1992, he posted an abysmal 6.00 ERA, allowing 58 baserunners in 33 innings… while accumulating a team-leading 17 saves.

Since then, the situation has only gotten more acute. Teams have employed an exclusive closer, and generally deployed him strictly in line with the parameters of the save rule. They have overly focused on lefty-righty matchups with the remainder of their bullpen, resulting in an entire population of relief pitchers largely averaging less than an inning per appearance. This is simply a waste of resource — and roster spots. The game’s newest market inefficiency has been screaming for decades now: find a way to save a roster spot, or even two, by utilizing a pitching staff more efficiently, and you can add precious offensive versatility to your 25-man roster.

Even in 2016, the evidence is stark that clubs aren’t getting the most from their best relievers. Of the 13 pitchers with 75 or more appearances this season, only three — Jeurys Familia, Mark Melancon, and Seung Hwan Oh — were primary closers. It can be argued that Oh wouldn’t be on that short list if he had been the Cards’ closer all season.

Of the 38 relief pitchers who made 70 appearances in 2016, fewer than half (17) averaged a mere inning per appearance, and only Roberto Osuna among that group had as many as 20 saves. Not only are the best relief pitchers used in an overly rigid manner that is based upon factors other than leverage, they are asked to carry too light a load. Sure, Joe Blanton had a nice year and all, but should he be pitching almost 20% more innings than Jansen?

The postseason has shown both the fallacy of such usage and the possibilities for change that lie ahead. It all began with Britton going comically unused in the AL Wild Card game because it was “a tie game on the road.” Instead, a collection of middle relievers and then Ubaldo Jimenez entered the game, and the result was predictable. Britton’s non-usage was actually defended by some commentators and pundits. Where are they now? A month of watching the Indians and Cubs stretch out their best relief weapons has silenced them.

We can’t expect relievers used like Miller and Chapman in the latter stages of the World Series to work in the same fashion throughout the regular season, of course. This is do-or-die time, while the 162-game slog of a regular season is a survival test of a totally different type. What we should expect to see from more forward-thinking clubs are some fundamental changes in the approach to building and utilizing a pitching staff.

First, forget the save situation, focus on the game situation. If you’re up a run in the seventh, and the heart of the order is coming up, perhaps you should use your best reliever then. If he’s rested, and you have a day off the next day, or your ace is slated to start, maybe you leave him in to finish it up. The best reliever on a pitching staff should log the most innings of any member of its pen, and those innings should be focused upon the highest-leverage situations. Maybe a closer’s appearance totals, or the number of times he gets hot in the pen, wouldn’t increase, but his innings total would. If managed properly, this shouldn’t cause an upward injury trend. Any strong reliever should be able to go once around a batting order.

Which brings me to the other major modification: with few exceptions, the pure same-handed relief specialist, the pure lefty-lefty guy for the most part, should become a thing of the past — with the exception of the very best of that ilk. Teams should focus upon filling out the non-elite portion of their bullpen with pitchers with length who can be effective against opposite-handed hitters. Right now, teams are asking about 500 innings per year out of their relievers; there is no reason that their best guys can’t give them 90 innings, and their rank-and-file types can’t give them 75-80 innings of lower-leverage work. The appearance totals don’t change, but the innings totals do. The end result could potentially be the return of the 11-man pitching staff, coupled with the aesthetic benefit of fewer pitching changes and better game flow.

The 2016 postseason has given glimpses of some of the best things the game has to offer: young talent blossoming, Cinderella stories, curse-breaking, etc. It’s also given us the spectre of the game’s foremost relief pitchers showing what they can do when liberated from artificial boundaries created by decades of group think. That, and Pedro Baez. Let’s hope some lessons were learned in the process.

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7 years ago

I don’t think this is the death of the closer yet, but I have to imagine more teams are going to at least try to find this “second closer” now, and push to use them a bit more aggressively. My guess is we’ll see more teams essentially treat their best 2 relievers as a “closer” and a “high leverage arm”. So I’d expect next year Allen will get the 9th most games, but Miller will continue to be used like they did in the regular season, find the high leverage point in the 6th inning onwards. But any team who can’t find that secondary arm to fill those spots I would expect will stick with the traditional roles.

7 years ago
Reply to  Matt

Yeah, one way it could play out is that the “true closer” — the guy who needs routine and feeds off the adrenaline of the close game/last three outs situation — remains a type, but a new type emerges: the “relief ace”, guys like Andrew Miller able and willing to come into any situation. And I think with how obviously valuable Miller has been this postseason, teams will begin recognizing that a relief ace is more valuable than a true closer.

Dave T
7 years ago
Reply to  Matt

With a strong bullpen – 2 “closers” backed up by 1 or 2 competent set-up men – I wonder if there’s scope to get a larger number of useful innings from the closers over the course of a season by using them in fewer games but for longer stretches in each game.

It would take a disciplined manager to stick to decisions about when each closer isn’t available for a game and won’t even warm up, but isn’t it possible that something like 50 appearances totaling 90 innings would keep a pitcher just as effective and rested as 70 innings in 70 games? And the safety blanket is managing games so that either “Closer A” or “Closer B” is going to be available most days. Possibly keep the set-up relievers in more traditional 1 inning usage, but potentially used either before or after the closer(s) gets his 5 or 6 outs so there’s flexibility on when a closer enters the game.

Just a thought, and I’ll concede that it’s possible that I’ve overlooked reasons that it won’t work in practice.