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Playoff relief strategy might change face of baseball

Kenley Jansen #74 of the Los Angeles Dodgers

Kenley Jansen #74 of the Los Angeles Dodgers works against the Washington Nationals in the seventh inning during Game 5 of the National League Division Series at Nationals Park on Oct. 13, 2016 in Washington. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Rob Carr

CHICAGO — From the very first game of these playoffs, when Orioles manager Buck Showalter left closer Zach Britton in the bullpen while the season went up in flames, October has become a referendum on the way baseball’s best relievers have been deployed.

In Cleveland, Indians manager Terry Francona defied convention by leaning on relief ace Andrew Miller in the fifth inning to help secure a victory in Game 1 of the ALDS. In Washington, with the season on the line in Game 5 of the NLDS, Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts used setup man Joe Blanton to quell a rally in the third inning. In the seventh, he gave the ball to closer Kenley Jansen, leaning upon him to pitch more than one inning.

The bold moves paid off, with the Dodgers and Indians reaching their league championship series.

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

Yet, baseball remains a sport slow to change. And even though breaking free of orthodoxy has become the theme of this postseason, managers around the game expressed skepticism about whether the trend would continue into next season.

“It would be much more difficult to be consistently successful by moving people around that often and having them throw that much,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said on the eve of the NLCS against the Dodgers. “However, this time of the year’s a different animal, and I think that I get it. It’s the way it should be.”

Within some baseball circles, the use of relievers has long been a point of contention. The argument revolves around the saves statistic, which assumes that the most important outs of a game are always the final three.

Statistically, that assumption has been disproved. It is possible for a game’s outcome to occur far earlier in games. Yet, baseball’s salary structure continues to reward those who accumulate saves. And the sport responded by creating dominating one-inning specialists such as Dennis Eckersley, who became the modern standard for the position before the likes of Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera.

Francona believes financial incentive is part of the reason the novel bullpen usage of the playoffs might be contained only to October games.

“I don’t think you’re going to see as much as people think, just because of the way . . . people are rewarded for saves,” Francona said. “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.”

Indeed, managers for years have saved their best relievers for the end of the game. Consider Showalter’s controversial decision in the AL wild-card game against the Blue Jays.

With the Orioles playing in Toronto, Showalter followed convention, waiting to use Britton if the Orioles took the lead in extras. So, with Ubaldo Jimenez on the mound, the Blue Jays walked off to end the Orioles’ season.

Nevertheless, aggressive bullpen usage has become more of an occurrence in recent years, with the Giants and Royals proving the worth of placing the game in the hands of relievers. That pattern has only continued this postseason.

With Cody Allen locked into the closers’ role for the Indians, Francona has been freed to employ Miller in the middle innings because of what he called the lefthander’s “uncommon” willingness to be flexible. Such a mentality runs contrary to the widespread preference of relievers to be slotted into a defined roles, allowing them to anticipate when they will be used in games.

Francona hinted that the Indians might be set up to be the exception.

“We couldn’t do this with Andrew if we didn’t have Cody back in the back finishing it,” he said. “It wouldn’t work.”

But Roberts believes it’s possible for the idea to catch on, so long as managers take the extra step of ensuring buy-in from the relievers who would be asked to break free from defined roles.

“I think in theory it’s phenomenal,” Roberts said. “And it’s really not outside the box, it really makes sense.”

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