Sabermetricians must be in heaven during these MLB playoffs with managers bucking conventional wisdom and using their best relievers when they are most needed – and not just being saved for the traditional save situation.
Sabermetrics believers have long called out managers who waited until the ninth inning to use their closer to get the save. They urge managers to go to their top pitcher in the highest leverage situation – regardless of the inning. Managers who saved their closers solely for the save are condemned as old fashion and out of touch with the new world of sabermetrics.
Well, the 2016 MLB playoffs have definitely been a fun study in the whole concept of when to use a closer.
Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter was bashed in the media for his tactics in the American League wild card game as he did not even use his closer Zach Briton in the 11-inning thriller, which Edwin Encarnacion ended on a walk-off three-run homer. Briton has received legitimate American League Cy Young consideration as one of the best pitchers in the game. Yet it was Ubaldo Jimenez on the mound serving up the pitch that Encarnacion crushed to send Blue Jays fans into heaven.
Terry Francona etched his all-time place in the hearts of sabermetricians’ hearts when the Cleveland Indians manager brought on Andrew Miller – right up there with Briton as the game’s best reliever – with two outs in the fifth inning of Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Red Sox. Miller was called upon to protect a one-run lead with the heart of the Red Sox lineup coming up. After initial struggles, Miller retired the final six batters – four on strikeouts – including Boston’s biggest weapon David Ortiz. And Miller’s 40 pitches thrown over 2.0 innings were a season high.
“The playoffs are a different animal,” Miller said. “It’s something that whenever Tito (Francona) asks anybody to pitch we’re all ready to go.”
Francona then ordered his closer Cody Allen in with one out in the eighth – again a high leverage spot with Ortiz up again. Allen gave up a double to Ortiz but then got the next two batters out and struck out three batters in the ninth for a five-out save – also on 40 pitches.
The Chicago Cubs, who are the favorites to win the World Series, also pulled off some bullpen spin in Game 3 of their National League Division Series against the San Francisco Giants. Manager Joe Maddon brought on closer Aroldis Chapman in the eighth inning with two runners on and none out, looking for his flamethrower to get a six-out save. After striking out the first batter, Chapman gave up two hits, a walk and the lead as the Giants tallied three runs and eventually won in 13 innings.
The Los Angeles Dodgers where the next team to change up their bullpen tactics in the win-or-go-home Game 5 of their NLDS series with the Washington Nationals. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts called on his closer Kenley Jansen with none out in the seventh inning and a runner on, clinging to a one-run lead. Jansen escaped the seventh without giving up the lead and allowed just one baserunner in the eighth.
Jansen was already approaching his career high in pitches when he went back out for the ninth. After striking out the lead-off hitter, Jansen walked the next two batters when Roberts came out to bring in his ace starter Clayton Kershaw, who had just one day rest after pitching Game 4 in Los Angeles. Kershaw got the final two outs to save the game and Roberts had gained a spot in sabermetricians’ hearts – just like Francona and Maddon had before.