Baseball’s Bullpen Revolution

On the teams still standing in the 2016 playoffs, the managers have smashed through baseball’s fossilized conviction in traditional bullpen roles. Instead of sticking to a rigid script, managers are deploying their top bullpen arms, well, whenever they are needed.

“It’s turning the baseball world upside down the way bullpens have been used lately,” Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said.

The trend originated with the Cleveland Indians, who stormed into the American League Championship Series in part because of Terry Francona’s willingness to ignore typical bullpen usage. Twice in the Division Series, Francona brought in All-Star reliever Andrew Miller in the middle innings instead of his customary eighth-inning slot.

Then on Thursday, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts removed the managerial handbook from the shelf, doused it with kerosene and set it ablaze. In the do-or-die NLDS Game 5, he first called upon his setup man, Joe Blanton, in the third inning to escape a jam. Then he summoned his closer, Kenley Jansen, at a key juncture in the seventh.

In other words, those skippers did the exact opposite of Buck Showalter, whose Baltimore Orioles fell in the AL wild card game with closer Zach Britton, a leading Cy Young candidate, waiting for a save opportunity that never arrived.

“It’s really not outside-the-box,” Roberts said. “It really makes sense.”

The stats-minded community would certainly agree with that assessment. After spending years hurling criticisms at managers for holding their best relievers for the ninth inning rather than deploying them in the most critical moments, the numbers crowd can claim high-profile converts.
Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon, Roberts’s opponent in the NLCS, suggested that the rise of analytics both within organizations and among fans laid the groundwork for this shift. Terry Collins, whose New York Mets lost in the NL wild card game, agreed with those sentiments.

“It’s getting more play right now in regards to coverage,” Maddon said. “This is stuff that’s been out there. Thus, you’re seeing more of it in the game.”

The new craze also fits nicely within baseball’s long tradition of teams copying other successful strategies.

The whole concept of the exclusively ninth-inning closer stems largely from how Tony La Russa handled Dennis Eckersley for the Oakland Athletics in the late 1980s. It worked for the A’s, and everybody else eventually followed suit. Before Eckersley, teams employed dynamic relievers known as “firemen,” pitchers like Goose Gossage who would come in to snuff out important rallies no matter the inning and often finish the game.

In recent years, teams set up their bullpens with a collection of pitchers filling strictly defined jobs. Closers almost never entered before the ninth, regardless of the situation. Anything else would leave managers open to the dreaded second-guess—their worst nightmare.

These playoffs have opened the door for managers to take more risks. “What it does show you is a lot of these guys can do more than you think they can or what the game says they can do,” said Collins, baseball’s oldest manager at age 67.

Still, obstacles remain to ditching the “closer” concept, not least because relievers who rack up saves receive enormous sums of money based on those stats.

As a result, Francona said, “I don’t think you’re going to see [dramatic changes] as much as people think” until baseball’s financial structure undergoes a revamp. Roberts expressed a similar view, saying the challenge lies in “communicating with players to understand, to buy-in to accepting whatever situation is presented to them for that particular game.”

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