Surely you’ve heard the buzz by now. When faced with holding a slim 4-3 lead in the fifth inning of Game 1 of the ALDS, Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona turned to his best reliever as the heart of the Red Sox order came to the plate. Andrew Miller, as he has done all so often this season, got out of a self-induced jam and recorded six big outs. The Indians won 5-4, and are now up 2-0 after a big win in Game 2. When asked why he brought Miller in during the fifth inning in Game 1, Francona said “Because he’s really good.”
As simple as it sounds, this mindset just might change how relievers are used around Major League Baseball. Francona has been fairly aggressive with Miller since the Indians acquired him at the trade deadline, using him as early as the sixth inning in regular season action. Francona backed off this a bit as the season went on — the Tribe’s big lead in the AL Central could be a reason for letting off the gas — but his liberal bullpen use in the playoffs could finally break MLB teams out of the rigid bullpen structure that has driven fans crazy for the past couple decades.
Most importantly, teams and players are finally starting to realize how silly these roles are. Miller himself acknowledged this after the game, saying “Maybe as more and more stats come out, we realize there’s bigger moments in the game than the eighth and the ninth inning, and that can be appreciated.”
Of course, this won’t mean much if the Indians don’t advance deep into the postseason. MLB teams are quick to copy those who have playoff success, and only a run to the ALCS or World Series — with Miller serving as a prominent reason — will lead teams to reflect on their bullpen structure.
We have seen this copycatting before. The Kansas City Royals made bullpens great again when they rode the three-headed monster of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland to a World Series berth in 2014, and teams started to see the benefit of having multiple top-flight relievers. Miller himself was a beneficiary, signing a four-year, $36 million contract that offseason despite having just one career save on his résumé at the time.
Others have followed suit — Darren O’Day and his 17 saves got $31 million from the Orioles last year, for instance — but their rigid usage remains. O’Day’s teammate, Zach Britton, is a prime example after his mysterious absence in the AL Wild Card Game. Even the great Buck Showalter fell victim to the “manager’s book” as he failed to use his best reliever in hopes of saving him for a potential save opportunity that never materialized.
There are some differences in the two situations. Francona still had his closer available after using Miller, while Showalter had already burned through the meat of his bullpen in earlier innings. However, Francona even out-shined Showalter here, using Cody Allen for a five-out save after Bryan Shaw faltered in the eighth inning.
This type of hyper-aggressive bullpen management isn’t sustainable over the course of a 162-game season, of course. Miller threw 40 pitches on Thursday, something he never did in the regular season. Allen’s 40 pitches were also a season-high. However, if the Indians continue to use their top relievers in big situations regardless of which inning they occur in — especially if they go to Allen early in a non-save situation — it could spur other teams to use their best relievers in more context-dependent situations. Not everyone has an Andrew Miller, but everyone has a reliever their fans wish they would use better.
Imagine what the Tigers might be able to do if they start to copy this structure. Maybe they are more apt to use Alex Wilson or a healthy Justin Wilson in the sixth inning with runners on base. Maybe those two get more multi-inning opportunities if the situation calls for it. Maybe they even go to Francisco Rodriguez in a tie game on the road. It won’t take much tweaking to further optimize what they are doing in late-game situations — Brad Ausmus was already pretty good at this in 2016, it seems — but there is always room for improvement.
Unfortunately, we might have to endure an Indians championship to see it unfold.