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Breslow: The truth behind postseason bullpens

Craig Breslow
September 24, 2018 - 8:10 pm

Oct. 6, 2016, the day the "Loogy" was formally laid to rest.

When Andrew Miller entered Game 1 of the ALDS with two outs in the fifth (yes, fifth) inning, the role of ultimate specialist was sufficiently replaced by the Multiple Inning Game-Changing Guy (MIGGY), at least as it relates to the postseason. Never more clearly, or with a reliever as dominant, was this strategy more apparent than with Miller, who nearly single-handedly led his Cleveland Indians to the World Series title.

Miller, in doing so, became the single most devastating weapon of the postseason.

While the strategy around Cleveland manager Terry Francona’s employment of his ace reliever has shaped bullpen trends moving forward, it gave rise to two important questions: First, is this truly the first time we’ve seen this model, and secondly, and perhaps more importantly, can this strategy prove successful over a longer sample size, say an entire season?

While the second question has a relatively straightforward path to resolution (namely evaluating and accepting the results of an organization with a willingness to run the experiment over an extended duration) the first takes a bit more ingenuity. (Disclaimer:  given my limited resources and bandwidth, all evidence presented is anecdotal.)

Looking back at the previous five World Series champions -- 2013 Red Sox, 2014 Giants, 2015 Royals, 2016 Cubs, and 2017 Astros -- we see a common footprint: dominant bullpens.

Sure, there were heroic offensive performances, gutsy starting pitching, and elite defensive plays. But truly inextricable from postseason success is the emergence of the dominant bullpen. As trends have shifted toward limiting exposure of starting pitchers to deeper lineups, expectations around quality and workloads of relievers have increased in magnitudes. If a front-line starter can impact 2-3 games in a postseason series, then shouldn’t we value the ability of a multi-inning reliever to impact 5-7 games in a series more commensurately?  

The long-standing argument that a starter can impact a game’s outcome more significantly from a cumulative volume perspective no longer holds the same weight given the diminished starter workload in the postseason. Often, the highest leverage innings are decided long after starters have been removed. Scheduled off days offer built-in recovery, such that it is rare that a key reliever is unavailable for a particular game or specific situation and thus managing fatigue is not the quixotic endeavor it once was.   

Given this phenomenon of ever-available postseason relievers, it is self-fulfilling that managers opt only to call on their most trusted few. The truly game-deciding scenarios are reserved for, in most cases, a seeming triumvirate of relievers.  

The goal of today’s manager and general manager then is simple. Use the 162-game regular season to provide both broad enough exposure and volume sensitive workloads to determine what individual or select individuals will create the core of a dominant bullpen used to win a 19-game post season.  

Simple, of course, is not always easy.  

Variables need be prioritized, track records and experience considered, and advanced reports and matchup data weighed. How does a dominant season with a late-season tail off compare to an unproven yet emergent young talent? Where may a redundant starting pitcher fall into the hierarchy of seasoned relievers? And perhaps most sensitive, how long to stick with a struggling reliever before moving on to the next best thing.  

September baseball, even after divisions are clinched and home fields established, provides a dress rehearsal for reconciling some of these conundrums. We often see unorthodox pitching matchups, players asked to stretch their versatility, and little-challenged relievers thrust into high leverage situations, all with an eye toward finding that elusive mix. The one that creates not just a formidable bullpen, but a dominant one. After all, that’s the new gold standard for postseason success.