Three Strikes: Indians' aggressive style pays off; teams turn to low-cost pitchers; more
- Terry Francona and his players have taken an aggressive approach that could result in the franchise's first World Series title since 1948.
Now this is how you manage a postseason game. You manage for the moment. You don’t manage for the next game. You don’t manage for extra innings that might never come. You don’t manage by a bullpen “formula” because “that’s the way we did it all year.” When you have a postseason win in your grasp you squeeze tightly to it. So let ALDS Game 1 managed by Cleveland’s Terry Francona stand as a tutorial for his dugout brethren.
Francona managed so aggressively that he was prepared to close the game with a journeyman named Dan Otero, who is 31 years old and has saved exactly two games in his major league life. Otero was warming in the bullpen, perhaps one batter away from coming in, when Cleveland held on for the last out of a 5-4 win over Boston.
Otero was next man up because Francona had the—what, temerity? Guts? Intelligence?—to pull his starting pitcher and force his best reliever, Andrew Miller, into the game in the fifth inning to protect a one-run lead. Moreover, Francona asked Cody Allen to do something he hadn’t done all year: get a five-out save.
The point is not that Francona’s aggressiveness worked. The point is that he did it at all. He defied the cookie-cutter mentality of today’s cover-your-butt and protect-the-player’s-egos managers. The model of how to use your bullpen is outdated. Tony La Russa popularized the specialized bullpen as Oakland's manager in the late 1980s, and ever since then managers have treated their best reliever, their closer, like a 1958 MG Roadster: only to be used under optimum conditions.
The problem with that thinking today has something to do with what David Ortiz told me last month. We were talking about how the game has changed in his 20 years in baseball. Ortiz said when he first came up, there was only one Randy Johnson. But now there are many Randy Johnsons, populating bullpens everywhere. Translation: many, many guys now have the stuff to close, not just one man per team.
In the last decade, 94 different pitchers have saved 25 games in a season. Andrew Miller, Brian Shaw, Cody Allen, Dan Otero . . . Cleveland has one power arm after another. The idea is to keep the lead, not just to hope you still have it in the ninth.
Cleveland is state of the art. On the heels of the 2014 Giants and 2015 Royals, the last two World Series title teams, the Indians also have a better bullpen than rotation. As long as a club has a manager who will use those arms aggressively—and thanks to all the off days in the postseason calendar—it can win a championship this way. (Warning: Don’t try this over a 162-game season.)
Keep in mind, too, that Cleveland's aggressive approach isn't limited to bullpen strategy. “They’re the most aggressive baserunning team in baseball,” said one veteran manager. “Watching them play is like watching an old-school National League team run the bases.”
The Indians won Game 1 because of Francona and because of their bullpen, but they also won it because of their baserunning. Roberto Perez, a catcher with no career stolen bases, put himself into scoring position in the fifth by tagging up on a routine flyball to Boston leftfielder Andrew Benitendi. The aggressiveness should not have surprised Benitendi, but it did. He was caught flat-footed. Boston had to alert all of its fielders before the series that Cleveland always looks to take an extra base. But Benitendi is a rookie and had a brain cramp. Those 90 feet became a run when Jason Kipnis followed with a single.
It was Cleveland’s fifth run. It was the run that stood up as the difference-maker. Francona made sure of it.
2. Cheap Pitch
Toronto righthander Marco Estrada pitched a gem Thursday, teammate J.A. Happ starts today, Dodgers lefthander Rich Hill starts tomorrow, Dodgers righthander Kenta Maeda starts Monday and Cubs righthander John Lackey starts Tuesday. What do they all have in common? All were free agents last winter and none of them were among the nine highest paid starting pitchers on the market.
If you want more proof of the inefficiency of spending huge dollars on starters as they age through their 30s, just revisit last winter. Of the top nine most expensive free agents, five of them were below average (adjusted ERA better than 100) or didn’t pitch enough innings to qualify. Check out the table below; asterisks indicate a pitcher did qualify for the ERA title (one IP per game game played by his team).
|David Price, Red Sox*||7 years, $217 million||118|
|Zack Greinke, Diamondbacks||6 years, $206.5 million||101|
|Johnny Cueto, Giants*||6 years, $130 million||147|
|Jordan Zimmermann, Tigers||5 years, $110 million||85|
|Jeff Samardzija, Giants*||5 years, $90 million||108|
|Wei-Yin Chen, Marlins||5 years, $80 million||80|
|Mike Leake, Cardinals*||5 years, $80 million||87|
|Ian Kennedy, Royals*||5 years, $70 million||80|
|Scott Kazmir, Dodgers||3 years, $48 million||85|
Those top nine free agents signed for contracts worth $842.5 million. Everybody else signed for $245.5 million, which includes $132.25 million for Estrada ($26 million), Happ ($36 million), Hill ($6 million), Maeda ($25 million, plus incentives), Lackey ($32 million) and the Mets'Bartolo Colon ($7.25 million)—bargains all.
Estrada threw a season-high 48 cutters in ALDS Game 1, while baffling Texas with his fiendish changeup in a 10-1 win. The Rangers swung 21 times at his changeup and missed on eight of them.
3. News and Notes
• First-base umpire Phil Cuzzi got the call right for the final out in Cleveland Thursday. Cuzzi ruled that Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia swung at a 3-and-2 curveball, failing to check his swing in time. While there is no clear definition of a swing in the rulebook, I learned years ago when I umpired a spring training game—after a week of tutoring from the real umpires—that the base umpire will use the foul line as a guide. Standing on the line, the umpire can see if the hitter’s barrel crosses the plane of the foul line (it has nothing to do with “intent,” as the old myth goes). If the barrel crosses the plane, it’s a swing. Pedroia swung—and game situation is not part of the decision-making. You call what you see, and you don't mitigate it according to game situation.
• A (not-so) final word on The Showalter Game, which will live in infamy among managerial blunders. Orioles manager Buck Showalter had multiple opportunities to put the AL wild-card game in the hands of star closer Zach Britton. The last occurred when Edwin Encarnacion came to bat with runners on first and third and one out. Showalter actually played the infield in against the league’s top RBI man while leaving the game in the hands of an erratic pitcher (Ubaldo Jimenez) who already had given up two hits and never before in his life had entered a tie game as a relief pitcher. The proper play there: walk Encarnacion (allowing Britton time to warm) and summon Britton to throw a groundball double play sinker to Jose Bautista. Britton’s sinker is so hard to lift that he allowed only 11 flyballs all year.
• If you counted the money the Dodgers are paying players not to be on their postseason roster, it would rank as the 27th highest payroll in baseball—ahead of the Opening Day payrolls of the Athletics, Rays, Phillies and Astros. Los Angeles has $82 million of dead money on its books, which includes injured, released and traded players.
• But one thing the Dodgers do well is find under-the-radar relief pitchers. L.A.'s postseason bullpen is comprised of two converted position players (Kenley Jansen and Pedro Baez), three minor trade acquisitions (Luis Avilan, Grant Dayton and Josh Fields), one low-level free agent (Joe Blanton) and one fifth-round pick (Ross Stripling).
• Roll this around your head for a bit: The Texas Rangers are the No. 1 seed in the American League and after 163 games they have been outscored, 767-766.
• Lonnie Chisenhall cost Cleveland a potential run with an awful headfirst slide into second base. He hit the ground awkwardly, then left the bag while the tag was still applied. He was called out upon replay. Next time: slide feet first and hold the bag the way David Ortiz did on a hustle double in the eighth. Ortiz, at 40 years and 323 days old, became the seventh oldest player to get an extra-base hit in the postseason, trailing only Julio Franco, Rickey Henderson, Harold Baines, Dave Winfield, Pete Rose and Enos Slaughter.