GMs weigh impact of Miller's postseason

Indians leaned on ace reliever in unconventional manner en route to World Series

November 10th, 2016

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The way the Indians deployed in the postseason helped them reach Game 7 of the World Series. It also defied convention. The 6-foot-7 lefty with a firm fastball and wipeout slider pitched high-leverage innings -- often in the middle of the game, not just the eighth or ninth -- and recorded at least four outs in all of his 10 postseason appearances.

Can one month impact the way the industry thinks about how relievers are used?

A number of executives at the General Managers Meetings this week said they simply can't replicate Cleveland's Miller model in the regular season. It would be incredibly difficult to sustain that kind of workload without all the off-days provided in the postseason, and Miller possesses a unique skill set, along with a four-year, $36 million contract.

Hot Stove Tracker

"It's very different than what you can do in-season," Pirates GM Neal Huntington said. "Andrew Miller, one, is a special guy and, two, got paid."

But is there something to be learned from Cleveland using its best reliever in the biggest moments?

"I hope so," Phillies GM Matt Klentak said, "because I think it's smart and it's making the game better."

October can influence baseball's collective thought process and spark copycat ideas. This year, the topic de jour is how Miller's high-profile, high-leverage success might change the game.

Timing is everything

The last two years, clubs sought to mimic the Royals' model: Get to the seventh inning with a lead, then let elite relievers close the door.

"They didn't have success because their relievers were pitching in the fourth and fifth inning," Huntington said. "They had success because their back three was absolutely wipeout, and their starters were getting them to their back three."

But Indians manager Terry Francona may have popularized the idea that key moments, spots suited for elite pitchers to get big outs, don't all come after the seventh inning. Sometimes, they're in the fifth or sixth.

For some, pitcher wins and saves remain barriers because they still get paid for compiling those numbers. Relievers also value routines that might not exist in a bullpen without designated roles.

"Managers are not only managing the back few innings of the game, but also managing the personalities of the pitchers themselves," Klentak said. "It's not always as simple as it sounds."

Perhaps that will change, however, as analytically inclined front offices -- and advanced stats, like Win Probability Added -- find value where it was previously unseen.

"Ultimately, when you're looking at end-game results -- wins as a team versus wins as a starter -- what's most important? The team," Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said. "Now, you're looking at innings and high-leverage situations getting more play than ever before."

Making the most of it

There are three prominent free-agent closers available this offseason: , and . All three will be paid handsomely, most likely to serve as traditional ninth-inning pitchers.

But could this renewed focus on building bullpens eventually change how relievers are pursued and paid?

"You're looking at lock-down closers. Maybe it's not that they're going to become more expensive; it's maybe how they're used," Mozeliak said. "The evolution of a bullpen is going to likely change as we move forward, but the cost of running one inherently goes up as you redeploy. If you're getting more innings out of it, it probably should cost more."

"As starters are able to take down fewer innings, then those guys that pitch in leverage situations become more valuable," Huntington said. "And there's need for more of them."

The increasing size and importance of bullpens could affect how pitchers are developed and how clubs choose to maximize their talent.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Cardinals will stretch out two hard-throwing right-handers next spring -- and -- with the idea that they could serve as swingmen out of the bullpen.

The Cardinals could afford to move those arms into the bullpen because they already have a crowded rotation. But what if a Minor League starter shows significantly more potential as a reliever? Will clubs get more aggressive in converting potential back-end starters into front-line relievers?

In other words, can a team cover for a weaker rotation by building up its bullpen instead? Hey, if it worked for the Indians ...

"You can't ever replace the value of quality starting innings," Huntington said. "But when you're not able to get those, you better pick up those innings in some way, shape or form."