Remember the way relievers were used during last year’s postseason and how that was maybe going to lead to a revolution in how managers use their bullpens during the regular season?
Yeah. Not so much.
Terry Francona is not bringing Andrew Miller into the fifth inning in April the way he did in the postseason. Joe Girardi isn’t following Joe Maddon’s lead and bringing Aroldis Chapman in for two- or three-inning appearances. Dave Roberts isn’t calling on Kenley Jansen in the seventh inning and then following him up with Clayton Kershaw for the final two outs, as he did successfully in NLDS Game 5 against the Nationals.
One manager — Cincinnati’s Bryan Price — has been using his relievers all over the place and for multiple innings to help the Reds get off to a surprising 9-9 start. But Price admits the multiple-innings part is not sustainable. It has been done out of necessity because the Reds haven’t been getting quality length from their starters, although he said he will continue to eschew traditional roles for his relievers.
“I know a lot of stuff has been written about the bullpen stuff and the utilization and how long can these guys do this, etc.,” Price said last week, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. “I would say I agree with that as far as we’re not getting the distance or length from our starters.”
Managers, for the most part, are back to having designated-inning guys. On the Yankees, Dellin Betances owns the eighth. Chapman owns the ninth. And that’s the way Betances — one of the most heavily used relievers in baseball in the previous three seasons — would like it to stay.
“For longevity, I think it’s better to do one inning,” he said. “You can do multiple innings here and there. I feel like my first couple years, that’s what I did. But I don’t think that’s the right way to do it just because you want to know when you’re coming in. You want to know when you’re coming in and prepare yourself mentally for that. I think with the guys we have, I don’t feel like we have to go multiple innings all the time. When it comes to the playoffs, obviously that will change. We’ll be ready earlier. It’s hard for a whole year to maintain that.”
There is a school of thought in analytics circles that it’s madness for managers to restrict their best relievers to the last two innings when the game could turn in a so-called “high-leverage situation” in the middle innings.
That’s why statheads were thrilled with Francona’s use of Miller, in particular, during the Indians’ run to the World Series last year. Miller made 10 appearances in three rounds and threw 19 1⁄3 innings, earning ALCS MVP honors along the way.
But so far this season, Francona has used Miller in a more traditional manner. In seven appearances, the lefthander had thrown a total of 8 1⁄3 innings through Friday.
Girardi, who called on Betances for an average of 82 1⁄3 innings from 2014-16, has used his setup man seven times in 2017 for a total of six innings. He picked up two key outs in the seventh inning Saturday, stranding a runner at third and keeping the score tied at 5-5 in the Yankees’ 11-5 victory over the Pirates.
Chapman, who said Cubs manager Maddon “abused me a bit,” has been used as a traditional closer by Girardi. In seven appearances, Chapman has thrown a total of 6 1⁄3 innings.
“You can’t do it for a whole year because you play day after day after day,” Girardi said. “[If] guys have a couple days off, if it’s a game we feel like we need to throw them two innings, then we can. Andrew Miller threw I don’t know how many innings in the postseason. If you were to total it up, you’re asking him to throw 120, 130 innings during the season. I don’t think pitchers would stay healthy. They just can’t. We’ve stretched our relievers at times in the regular season, but we’re willing to do it more in the postseason.”
Jansen, who re-signed with the Dodgers after the season, threw 51 pitches in that Game 5 appearance. He’s back in the ninth inning this year, having thrown six innings in six appearances.
And what about the “high-leverage” idea? Would it be better for Girardi, say, to bring in Chapman in the seventh to stop a rally and then use Betances or Tyler Clippard to close the game? Turns out it’s not just managers who are traditionalists. Players can be, too.
“Honestly, I think we have the weapons, but it’s hard to do that,” Betances said. “I don’t see why Chapman needs to come in early. He’s the closer. I don’t think that should really be messed with.”