Managers rewrite rules on bullpen usage

Francona's fearlessness in 2016 World Series a blueprint for future

March 24th, 2017

PHOENIX -- If you want the real lesson baseball people took from the way bullpens were managed during last fall's postseason, it's this: Indians manager Terry Francona is very good at his job. Spectacularly good. Hall of Fame good.

Francona was creative, aggressive and fearless in leading his team on an improbable run to Game 7 of the World Series, and if there's a blueprint for how to manage postseason baseball, he surely has written it.

Sure, every team would like to have an or . Yes, every team would like to have high-velocity arms stacked in their bullpens.

Nothing new there.

Royals general manager Dayton Moore revolutionized bullpen construction several years ago as his solution to a problem that had stumped mid-market clubs for years.

"For us, it just kind of evolved," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "We couldn't spend a lot of money on starting pitching. So Dayton said, 'We're going to try and build a power bullpen.' If we're tied or have a lead from the fifth inning on, we should be able to close it out."

D-backs manager Torey Lovullo said: "It changed the game, because you're not trying to get through the starter and into the bullpen anymore. You have to be a pretty complete team now. Offensively, the dynamic is different."

Other teams followed. For instance, the Astros put two of the organization's best young arms -- right-handers and -- in the bullpen last season and used them in a variety of roles.

Whenever Houston's eighth- and ninth-inning relievers struggled, there would inevitably be questions about sliding one of the kids into that role.

"Is that where they'd have the most value?" Astros manager A.J. Hinch would ask. "Or would it be better to have them for multiple innings two or three times a week?"

When the Indians acquired Miller from the Yankees at the Trade Deadline last season, he seemed to be an imperfect fit for a club that already had quality late-inning guys in and .

Miller's second appearance for the Tribe came in the sixth inning of a game against the Twins on Aug. 4. As he was trotting in from the bullpen, this is the conversation Francona had on the mound with his second baseman, :

"So we gave up a big piece of our farm system [four prospects] for a guy that's going to pitch the sixth inning?" Kipnis asked.

"I've got a plan," Francona said.

Indeed, he did, carving out an invaluable role that became even more critical after two Cleveland starters, and , were injured late in the regular season, and a third, , was hurt in the postseason.

Miller appeared in 10 of the Tribe's 15 postseason games. He was used in the fifth inning three times and in the sixth inning twice. Only Indians ace pitched more postseason innings than Miller.

As Francona said later, "Nobody ever said you have to be conventional to win."

In carving out a unique role for Miller, Francona sent a message that he was unafraid to think outside the box, and because of that, he sent an important message to his players about the urgency of postseason baseball games.

"He just is so good at setting the right tone," Miller said of Francona.

As MLB Network's Brian Kenny pointed out, it's not completely unique for a manager to play to his team's strengths. In the A's championship years in the 1970s, Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers entered games as early as the fifth inning and as late as the 11th.

In the end, the bottom line has not changed. Starting pitchers who get their teams deep into games are still the thing every team covets most. But having strengths in other areas and a manager who utilizes those strengths at the expense of tradition is just as important.

"I think there's always been an appreciation for the ability of pitchers to get meaningful outs," Indians president Chris Antonetti said. "In some cases, that can be a starting pitcher that's capable of going deep into the game. There's a reason is as revered as he is within the game.

"There has been an appreciation for relievers and their ability to impact games. Where that will go from here will be interesting to see."

Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi said that the history of paying big money exclusively to starters and closers needs to change.

"We have to compensate relievers based on their value," he said, "and that value may not necessarily be pitching the ninth inning. There are other high-leverage innings and outs."

As Rangers manager Jeff Banister said, "When do you use your best guy? Is it when you're seeing the best part of the lineup? Or is it for those final three outs?"

Banister has a traditional belief that the most important outs are the final three. But he also believes that baseball's best teams will have other relievers capable of getting important outs and that bullpens can no longer simply have a closer, setup man and lefty specialist.

The Giants won three championships in five seasons from 2010-14 with a core of four relievers on all those teams. In Bruce Bochy, the Giants also had a guy who, like Francona, managed his bullpen expertly.

"We all understand there's nothing more frustrating than losing a game late," Moore said. "There is a hangover effect the following day. The other side of that is there's nothing more motivating than winning a game late. It gives you momentum for the next day. That's what we're all working for."