Toronto Blue Jays Will Face a New Kind of Bullpen in ALCS versus Cleveland
Few transactions said as much about how the baseball world had changed in recent years than Cleveland’s acquisition of reliever Andrew Miller at the trade deadline.
Where once the mighty New York Yankees would use the deadline to pluck valuable pieces from also-ran teams, with money no object, now they were casting off the better parts of their bullpen in exchange for prospects.
And then Cleveland took that unexpected trade and did unexpected things with it. Manager Terry Francona has deployed Miller in essentially the manner that analytics people have long insisted elite relievers should be used: not at the end of games, when win probabilities are already leaning heavily toward the team in the lead, but at the crucial spots in earlier innings, when the outcome is very much in doubt. Francona was able to do this in part because he already had a good closer in Cody Allen, but whatever the rationale for it, Miller’s usage has been a laboratory setting for the argument that the closer is an outdated idea: use your best reliever when the game is on the line, and that will give you the highest probability of eventually winning.
In the ALDS against Boston, Francona bet harder on that strategy. He used Miller twice in three games for two innings at a time, and a total of 75 pitches. Miller, who threw more than one inning in a game just 15 times in 70 appearances, only cracked 35 pitches three times over the course of the 2016 season. Now he did it twice in a row. For Blue Jays fans who watched in a state of baffled glee when Baltimore manager Buck Showalter left menacing closer Zach Britton in the bullpen — twice! — in crucial late-inning situations, prepare yourself for the fact that Francona will make no such mistake. Miller’s ERA in the ALDS: a tidy 0.00.
The total percentage of plate appearance that Cleveland’s three best late-inning relievers — Miller, Allen, and Brian Shaw — handled in the ALDS against Boston, according to Fangraphs. That compares with a rate of 12.5 per cent for the three relievers in August and September, and it shows how much Francona has come to rely on his key arms in the playoffs, where every at-bat is amplified just that much more.
The combined outs recorded by the four pitchers at the bottom of the Toronto bullpen in the ALDS against Texas. Aaron Loup, Scott Feldman and Danny Barnes did not appear in a game, while Ryan Tepera came in for two batters’ worth of mop-up duty in Toronto’s 10-1 Game 1 blowout win. (And retired both!) While manager John Gibbons hasn’t quite rivalled Francona’s ultra-analytics approach with his bullpen deployment, he has clearly shown a heavy reliance on using only the guys he really trusts in close situations. Witness the decision to stick with Roberto Osuna in the 10th inning of Game 3 against Texas, effectively burning him for a possible Game 4. Had the Jays not scored in the 10th, one of Loup or Tepera would have pitched the 11th. Crisis, though, averted.
The number of consecutive clean appearances for Roberto Osuna. After Toronto’s closer had a disastrous late-season stretch that included eight hits allowed in three innings and three straight blown saves, the 21-year-old has sorted himself out just fine, earning the save against Boston on the final day of the regular season and throwing five innings in the playoffs with just one hit allowed, no walks and six strikeouts. Gibbons has also leaned on him a lot: having recorded more than four outs in an appearance only once before Sept. 28, Osuna has now done that in four of his last five appearances.
The combined innings pitched this season of Cleveland starters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, both of whom are injured and are not expected to be on the ALCS roster to face Toronto. After ace Cory Kluber, Carrasco and Salazar were the next best two starters in the Cleveland rotation, by just about any statistical measure. They each had an ERA below 4.00 and an ERA+ of well over 100, where 100 is average. Instead, after Kluber, Toronto will face Trevor Bauer (4.26 ERA) and Josh Tomlin (4.40 ERA) and then … someone else. There is talk of using various relievers in Game 4, which would be a very strange thing to have happen in a League Championship Series. The non-Kluber starters were reasonably effective in the ALDS, though. Bauer gave up three runs in 4.2 innings — and struck out six — while Tomlin gave up two runs in five innings in the series-clinching Game 3. Tomlin’s performance came against the Red Sox, the best offence in the American League by some distance, at Fenway Park, where runs are generally scored by the bushel. Have we mentioned recently that the baseball playoffs are unpredictable? Because they are.