Peter Gammons: Postseason bullpen management proves more crucial than ever

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Don’t even try to explain bloody drones and seven relievers to win one game, or how Clayton Kershaw can save one game and come back 48 hours later and throw seven shutout innings in another, or how the two best regular season teams in the American League could  not win a division series game.

It is not May or August. The more postseason baseball evolves into Jim Valvano’s “Survive and Advance,” the more they live for today, it becomes playoff hockey; and at the end of every series I want to see both teams line up and shake hands. Sometime in the next few days, having watched Kershaw, Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner lay their bodies on the tracks every inning, every night, so, too Andrew Miller and Josh Donaldson, Francisco Lindor and Kevin Pillar, we can start appreciating how different the playoffs are than the regular season.

It started with the unforgettable play-in game between the Mets and Giants, Noah Syndergaard and Madison Bumgarner, Syndergaard flirting with a no-hitter, decided by Conor Gillaspie—a year to the day he was released by the Angels—hitting a tape measure home run.

The Cubs have gone through exhausting innings against the Giants and Dodgers. Los Angeles eliminated the Nationals with a game 5 that included 14 player changes. The Bloody drone game Monday with Trevor Bauer getting two outs as did the relievers for 25 outs.

What Terry Francona and Mickey Callaway have done turning Andrew Miller into an uber-rover has changed the way many who are not hard core about  analytics watch the game. Some have questioned why teams can’t have three or even four different Miller-Cody Allen types to be used at different leverage points, depending on the game, the opponent, the ballpark, etc.

“There just aren’t enough of those command, swing-and-miss pitchers out there,” says one National League general manager. “But we certainly are looking at ideas on how we develop relievers, especially those that can go three or four innings. One suggestion has been to work them on programs where they throw three innings, then have two days off. There are arguments for going 31 to 50 pitches five, six or seven times a month. But limiting starters to two times around the order is impractical, and may lead to a lot of injuries. There are starters who can handle seven innings (Josh Tomlin’s numbers get better the second and third time through the order) and those innings are important. In the post-season, you can push the envelope on relievers, but the regular season is very different.”

“You really have to have a lot of optional pitchers you can send to the minors,” says one manager. “But that means you have to have a minimum of 15 good major league pitchers.”

Francona has been blunt about his usage of Bryan Shaw in the post-season. Look, a lot of us would like to have the “save” eliminated, but the Players Association isn’t going to allow that because arbitration numbers are so heavily based on saves. Miller doesn’t care if he comes into games in save or non-save situations, the fourth, fifth or ninth innings, but as one GM says, “he’s already being paid. Shaw hasn’t, yet. “Addison Reed will be the highest paid setup man after arbitration will be Addison Reed at more than $8M,” says one baseball official;. But let’s face it, fifth starters make more than very good setup men, and relievers want to get paid. They want to close, or they want to start. It’s difficult to ask them to take a Miller role without Miller money. Their agents aren’t going to allow it.”

The fact that colleges are increasingly going to relief-based staffs. In the first 100 picks last June, several college relievers were selected (Florida’s Dane Dunning by Washington, Louisville’s Zack Burdi by the White Sox, Vanderbilt’s Jordan Sheffield by the Dodgers, Vanderbilt’s Ben Bowden by the Rockies, Florida’s Shaun Anderson by Boston) with the intent of allowing them to start and develop their secondary pitches.

What we’ve seen with the short stint tag team bullpen usage by teams like the Indians and Dodgers is how they’ve used mind-boggling preparation work to attack lineups. “Young hitters today are raised in the showcase/velo era,” says one general manager. “Most of these young hitters have been seeing and learning to hit velocity since they’re 14 years old. So the Indians have attacked the Blue Jays with curveballs. The Dodgers’ first two starters (Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill) throw more than 50 per cent breaking balls.” Of all pitchers with 100 or more regular season innings, Kershaw and Hill were 1-2 in earned run average. Take away his August (34 ER, 26 2/3 IP) and Tomlin was fourth in the American League in ERA.

“What we’re also seeing growing out of the velo development system is that there is a growth in the number of command/offspeed/preparation starters who are effective, especially in contrast to hard-throwing staffs.” Ask Dave Righetti, and he’ll rave about Ty Blach; he has contrasting mates in Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija.

The Cubs may have Kyle Hendricks win the Cy Young. One scout says his report on Hendricks in college was that he threw 95, was a tad straight, but hadn’t developed his changeup or breaking ball. Now he’s 85-90, dots his I’s and has two changeups and a curveball that are all swing-and-miss pitches.

“I think that with teams able to load up on fresh arms and great preparation we’re, going to see more early game bunting and playing for one run and the lead,” says one manager. Going into Tuesday, the postseason offense was .218/.287/.363 with  a 24.5% strikeout rate. Like playoff hockey, the game can completely change in the postseason—hold on tight, dump ‘n chase, great goaltenders…

Bunting for a one run lead isn’t going to play in the July heat. Using six relievers five days a week won’t, either.

But, as we’ve watched on the edge of our seats this October, it isn’t July. It is October. It’s different. Teams don’t hand out rings for having the  best regular season record. The best regular season record gets you to October, another season, another game, another philosophy, another level, Broadway not New Haven.

Comments

  1. I will say this, this postseason you are absolutely right, the game has completely changed and you should be going into these games expecting to see 5-7 pitchers per team before the game is out. Obviously there will always be room for a guy like MadBum, but those are few and far between.

  2. I know its not what you were getting at but the atmosphere at the Rogers Centre the last 2 seasons has been more like playoff Hockey (insanity) than anything else I have seen, its on another level when it come to Postseason baseball atmosphere.