With aggressive postseason bullpen use, MLB managers going for broke
- It's been the playoffs' most notable trend: Managers like Joe Maddon and Dave Roberts going early and often to their bullpen. But what's behind the sudden spate of reliever roulette, and is it a strategy that is paying off?
After his team’s 8–4 win in Game 1 of the NLCS, Cubs manager Joe Maddon was asked to explain the thought process behind some of the curious strategy that both he and Dodgers counterpart Dave Roberts had employed in the instant classic. "Play the game three times—before, during and after,” said Maddon. “Gene [Mauch] told me that many, many years ago."
That a manager pursuing a championship would quote the skipper who set a record for the most games managed without winning a pennant—let alone a World Series—is one of the 2016 postseason’s more interesting ironies. But what Maddon spoke of is the method to what has to some seemed like madness when it comes to managing in the postseason, particularly regarding bullpen usage.
Maddon has no monopoly on forethought, of course. Particularly in this day and age, with analytically-inclined front offices providing dugouts with an increasing amount of input, managers have the data at their fingertips to augment what years of experience and observation tells them about which batter-pitcher matchups to exploit. The use of closers in the eighth inning—or even the seventh—and setup men in the fifth (or in one case the third) have been the clearest illustration of this. Three of the four managers whose teams are still alive—Maddon, Roberts and Indians skipper Terry Francona—have shown a willingness to depart from the increasingly rigid orthodoxy that may have reached its reductio ad absurdum in the AL wild-card game, when Orioles manager Buck Showalter held dominant closer Zach Britton in reserve for a save opportunity that never came in an elimination game just because it happened to be a tie game with his team on the road.
Despite having lost two of his four playoff-caliber starters in September, Francona has guided the Indians to a sweep of the Red Sox in the Division Series and a two-games-to-none lead over the Blue Jays in the ALCS thanks in large part to his aggressive usage of Andrew Miller and Cody Allen. Miller, who struck out a major league-high 44.7% of all batters faced during the regular season, has whiffed 60.7% of the hitters who have stepped in against him in the postseason while pitching 7 2/3 innings in four appearances, all of either five outs or six. Francona brought him into the fifth inning in the Division Series opener and let him throw more pitches (40) than he had in any regular-season game, unconcerned about whether he would be available the next day, then used him in the sixth in Game 3 for 35 pitches, one shy of his regular-season high. Allen, who ranked seventh in the majors with a 33.0% strikeout rate, has saved each game that Miller pitched, going long twice in the Division Series and throwing 40 pitches each time.
“You don’t save a pitcher for tomorrow,” said Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher. “Tomorrow it may rain.”
Five of the 13 saves in this postseason have been of four outs or more; not coincidentally, each of the four teams still standing has at least one. Even in the era of the one-inning closer, this isn’t abnormal: The Yankees’ dynasty under Joe Torre owed plenty to Mariano Rivera going long in 31 of his record 42 postseason saves (four of his five blown saves went long as well).
Beyond those long saves, we’ve actually seen closers enter and exit earlier than usual in a few cases, with the Cubs’ Aroldis Chapman doing so twice after blowing saves and the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen doing his best to take his team to the finish line in an elimination game.
That game, Game 5 of the Dodgers-Nationals series and the two games of the NLCS are worth closer looks for how those managers approached using not only their closers but also their entire bullpens.
In the Division Series, recall that Game 2 was pushed back a day by rain, which meant that starter Rich Hill would have to pitch on short rest for Game 5—something he’d never done before—instead of regular rest. With Clayton Kershaw having started Game 4 on three days’ rest, Roberts’s choice to start came down to Hill and rookie Julio Urias. He chose the more experienced starter but didn’t hesitate to go to setup man Joe Blanton in the third inning, after Hill had thrown just 55 pitches and with the Nationals already up 1–0 and with Trea Turner on third base. Roberts ordered Hill to intentionally walk red-hot lefty Daniel Murphy so that Blanton could instead face righty Anthony Rendon, not only because the latter was slumping but also because he’s particularly vulnerable to Blanton’s best pitch: the slider. Rendon hit .175 and slugged .227 on the 97 sliders he put in play this year and whiffed 23% of the time when he swung at one. Blanton held batters to a .171 average and .285 slugging percentage on the 158 sliders batters put in play, with 40% of those swung at missed (all data via Brooks Baseball).
Blanton got Rendon to line out to end the inning, and after he pitched one more frame and Urias two more, the Dodgers took a 4–1 lead in the seventh against Washington starter Max Scherzer and a parade of five relievers, as Dusty Baker chased platoon-minded matchups that in this case largely didn’t pan out. After watching Grant Dayton instantly give back two of those runs via a leadoff walk, a Chris Heisey pinch-homer and then a Clint Robinson single, Roberts skipped his other middlemen and went straight to Jansen for what could have been a nine-out save. That's something that hasn’t been attempted during the wild-card era except by pitchers who normally start, and even then, it's been done just twice, most notably by Madison Bumgarner in 2014.
Though Jansen loaded the bases in the seventh and gave way with one out in the ninth after throwing a career-high 51 pitches, he held the Nationals scoreless, and Kershaw came back on a day’s rest to get the final two outs. Afterwards, Baker, who had largely stayed one step ahead of the game with his bullpen management through the series’ first four games, offered sour grapes in defeat. "I’d be interested to see—they won the war—but the effects of Jansen and Kershaw when they get to Chicago,” he told reporters, then adding of Roberts’s early use of Jansen, "It’s not a trend that I’d like to be a part of anytime."
Maddon, on the other hand, relished the chess match with Roberts in the NLCS opener, even when his first key decision—to pull starter Jon Lester after six innings and 77 pitches—backfired. After Travis Wood, Carl Edwards and Mike Montgomery teamed up to get through the seventh, Montgomery yielded a leadoff single to pinch-hitter Andrew Toles, a lefty, in the eighth (with the lineup stacked with righties against Lester, the Dodgers’ bench had only lefties save for Yasiel Puig, who’s now the team’s emergency catcher). With righty Howie Kendrick due up, Maddon called upon righty Pedro Strop; Roberts countered with lefty Chase Utley, who walked. Justin Turner followed with a single.
Only then did Maddon bring in Chapman, and as in Game 3 of the Division Series against the Giants, when the fireballer blew the save by allowing a two-run triple, it can be argued that he should have gone to his closer even earlier. This time, lefty Adrian Gonzalez, who posted just a .602 OPS against lefties this year, responded with a game-tying–two-run single, then stole second before Chapman extricated himself.
Roberts went to Blanton in the bottom of the eighth, which began with cleanup hitter Ben Zobrist doubling. After Addison Russell grounded out, Roberts then attempted a curious set of moves that drew raised eyebrows in first-guessing, to say nothing of the second-guessing that followed. First, he ordered Blanton to intentionally walk lefty Jason Heyward, who not only was coming off his worst major league season but was also just 2-for-15 in the postseason (albeit with a triple earlier in the game) and had shown particular vulnerability to the slider this year (.175 AVG, .286 SLG). That left Blanton facing the much hotter righty Javier Baez, who stung sliders at a .289 AVG/.443 SLG clip. He connected with Blanton’s first pitch, a low-and-away slider, but popped out to shallow rightfield.
So far, so good for the Dodgers. But when Maddon sent up lefty Chris Coghlan to hit for righty David Ross, Roberts ordered Blanton to walk him as well, which didn’t just put another runner on base but also pushed Zobrist and Heyward to third and second, respectively—something done only three other times in the postseason, all between 1996 and 2010. That brought up Chapman’s spot, and rather than go to Dayton—which Roberts believed would lead Maddon to counter with righty Willson Contreras (.282/.357/.488 this year, .311/.354/.500 in 79 PA against lefties)—Roberts stuck with Blanton, leaving Maddon to send up lefty Miguel Montero (.216/.327/.357 overall, .221/.340/.387 against righties) instead. Roberts got the matchup he wanted, but by putting a runner on third base, he also took away Blanton’s ability to bury a slider in the dirt for fear of a wild pitch or passed ball. Blanton hung a slider, and Montero clubbed a game-breaking grand slam.
Afterwards, Roberts said of the moves, "Obviously in that situation, you've got to walk Heyward with the open base," though the justification was anything but obvious to most of those viewing. The decision blew up in his face, and in the results-oriented world of postseason baseball, it looked bad. Still, Roberts stuck to his guns, concerned more with process than outcome because he believed the risks involved going in were worth sparing his upcoming lefty hitters (Toles, Joc Pederson and Utley, due up second, third and fourth) an encounter with Chapman.
In Game 2, Roberts got to enjoy the best of both worlds, a moment where he went against his own process and saw it succeed, then was rewarded for going back to it. Kershaw had dominated the Cubs for six innings, holding them to just two hits on 72 pitches, but he began the seventh—his personal postseason house of horrors, in case you haven’t heard—with four straight balls against the slumping Anthony Rizzo. He rebounded to get two quick outs, but Roberts, who had Jansen warmed up, went to the mound bent on getting his ace before he faced Baez—only to be talked out of it by Grandal and Kershaw.
On his second pitch, Kershaw threw a 93-mph fastball high and on the outside edge of the plate; Baez smoked it to centerfield. The Wrigley Field crowd thought the ball was out, and so did the pitcher (“My throat went into my stomach,” he said afterward), and it’s tough to blame them. Via Statcast, the ball was hit with an exit velocity of 103 mph and a launch angle of 24 degrees—shots that have produced an .899 batting average this year, as well as a home run 67% of the time. This one was slowed by the wind, however, and Pederson hauled it in 387 feet from home plate. For a moment, the results trumped the process, but even having avoided using Jansen for the seventh inning, Roberts went to him for the eighth. This time, the closer needed just 18 pitches to get the final six outs and nail down the series-evening victory.
With the NLCS tied at 1–1, both Maddon and Roberts should get plenty of opportunities to continue tinkering with their bullpens. That's particularly true for Roberts, who faces the prospect of another reliever-heavy strategy in Game 3 with Hill on the mound and likely again in Game 4, depending on who the Dodgers' manager tabs to take the ball. Likewise for Francona, who must figure out how to deploy Miller as needed but without overworking him in a potential three-games-in-three-days stretch in Toronto. Expect, then, all three managers to continue to experiment and push the boundaries of conventional bullpen management in the quest for long-elusive titles.