CHICAGO — The save statistic was born here. It was created in 1960 by respected Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman. He thought it unfair that there was no way to recognize Don Elston and Bill Henry, a pair of Cubs relievers who showed a knack for protecting leads, a highly valuable skill.
Now, nearly six decades later, in the very place in which it was created, the save statistic is under attack.
Its tormentor, Indians manager Terry Francona, does not worry about saves. He reserves his brain cells for agonizing over “leverage,” an acknowledgment that the most important outs of a game are not always the last ones.
Because of this, he has refused to be bound by the rigid set of bullpen management rules that have sprung from Holtzman’s creation. And with the Indians one win away from their first championship since 1948 entering Game 5 of the World Series on Sunday night, Francona continues to be ready to defy convention.
Lefthander Andrew Miller, perhaps the best reliever in baseball, has been used as the all-purpose fireman, deployed anywhere in the middle innings, frequently for more than three outs. Righthander Cody Allen has been used as the traditional closer, tasked with slamming the door in the ninth.
But on Saturday night, after the Indians’ 7-2 thumping of the Cubs in Game 4 gave Cleveland a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, Francona again showed the mindset that he’s used to distinguish himself as one of the game’s top tacticians. He’s 10-2 in this postseason as he attempts to win his third world championship, and he again is dispensing with the staid roles that handcuff his 29 counterparts.
“We might flip-flop [Miller] and Cody tomorrow, let Cody do some of what maybe Andrew’s been doing.” Francona said. “We’ll see how the game’s going.”
Francona was fielding a question about Miller’s availability for Game 5. The lefthander had just thrown 27 pitches to work two innings, the only blemish coming when Dexter Fowler hit a solo home run that made it 7-2 . It was the first time in 25 1⁄3 postseason innings that Miller allowed a run, and it came one night after he threw 17 pitches to get through 1 1⁄3 innings.
With that workload, Miller likely wouldn’t be available to pitch multiple innings for a third straight day, so Francona figured to simply flip the script. In case of fire, Allen would get the call.
It doesn’t matter that Allen posted 32 saves during the regular season, when the earliest he entered a game was in the eighth. In Game 5, he figured to be used when the Indians needed him most, and if necessary, he would work more than an inning, with Miller ready to finish it off in the final inning.
Said Francona: “As good as Andrew is, there’s a lot of other guys down there that have done a really good job.”
Such a statement ordinarily would be greeted with skepticism, another instance of a manager saying what he’s supposed to say. But it’s clear that Francona means it, and most importantly, that the Indians have bought it.
Consider Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. To that point, the Indians had left it to Miller to dispense with the middle of the Blue Jays’ dangerous lineup, but Francona decided it was time for a different look. So when the bottom of the seventh rolled around, with the Indians protecting a two-run lead and Jose Bautista & Co. looming, the call went to Allen.
Entering with a runner on base, the righthander recorded the next four outs before handing off to Miller, who nailed down the final four. The Indians won and Miller’s name appeared in the boxscore next to the save. And it’s most likely that few in the Indians’ bullpen noticed.
“I don’t think we think of things that way,” Miller said. “Honestly, we’re just following what he asks us to do.”
Francona has earned that support from his players in the simplest way possible. His method has worked. It is fully backed by an organization that long has been unafraid to break from convention.
Sure, the save statistic will endure. After all, it’s how relievers are measured, how they get paid. Change in baseball comes slowly, and most managers treat convention as a loyal ally, never to be abandoned. But Francona has proved that there is another way, perhaps a better one, for players who are willing to embrace it. The Indians have, one of the reasons they entered Sunday night one win away from becoming world champions.
“They trust Tito because he’s the best manager in the game,” Indians pitching coach Mickey Calloway said. “He communicates with these guys, he cares about them so much, and he puts them in such a good opportunity to succeed every night, that they’re going to do whatever he asks. Because it’s the right thing.”