It took all of one inning of the 2017 playoffs for bullpen tactics to announce their latest evolution. With the Yankees already trailing in the AL wild-card game, and with two Twins runners in scoring position and only one out in the first, manager Joe Girardi summoned reliever Chad Green. The righty escaped the jam with two strikeouts, and by night’s end, he, David Robertson, and Tommy Kahnle had pitched a combined 7 2/3 innings of one-run ball, during which time New York turned a 3-0 deficit into an 8-4 lead. The Yankees’ playoff hopes nearly unraveled before they even had a chance to bat; instead, they advanced to the next round, where that very bullpen-oriented approach makes them a threat to knock off World Series favorite Cleveland.
Coincidentally, it was those Indians who might have inspired Girardi’s quick hook on Tuesday. Entering last year’s playoffs with an injury-ravaged rotation, Cleveland skipper Terry Francona adopted an aggressive “fireman” philosophy, inserting star reliever Andrew Miller into games as early as the fifth inning to maintain leads. That approach brought an underdog team all the way to extra innings of Game 7 of the World Series.
Miller and Francona didn’t pioneer the concept. Decades ago, the likes of Goose Gossage and Mike Marshall snuffed out rallies before the ninth inning (as Gossage would gladly tell you now), and, like with all relieving feats, Mariano Rivera was the best at it. The Yankees great amassed a 0.70 career playoff ERA and recorded four-plus outs in 58 games in his playoff career. No other pitcher has ever appeared in 58 total postseason games.
But Miller’s fireman turn revitalized the tactic, as he was the best and most visible example of a strategy that—like Miller’s own Indians over the Red Sox—went on to sweep the sport, with teams in 2017 all searching for their own version of Miller. Last postseason he went more than an inning in all 10 of his playoff outings and therein shouldered an unprecedented workload: In MLB history, there are 62 other occurrences of a pitcher throwing in at least 10 games in a single postseason, but none matched Miller’s 19.1-inning total.
It’s unlikely that any individual reliever will capture national attention quite like Miller did last year, but there are plenty of options to follow his lead as managers embrace the zeitgeist. Here’s a ranking of each division series team’s likelihood of winning games with this strategy, along with a rundown of which fireman candidates to watch this month. (Hint: Expect a lot of bullpen trips in American League ballparks.)
8. Washington Nationals
The fireman philosophy isn’t predicated just on giving a reliever more and higher-leverage innings, but rather on giving a team’s best reliever more and higher-leverage innings. That nuance suggests that Washington is unlikely to use the strategy at all this month, as the bullpen’s top three pitchers—all acquired in July to patch the roster’s greatest weakness—have stuck to regimented roles in D.C.
Sean Doolittle has thrown exactly one inning in all 30 games he’s pitched with the Nationals. The same goes for Ryan Madson in his 20 games, save one outing in which he lasted only two outs. Brandon Kintzler collected four outs in his first appearance after being traded but hasn’t exceeded a single inning since. Manager Dusty Baker is still a traditionalist in many respects, from lineup construction to starter pitch counts, and it appears his bullpen usage will follow that pattern.
7. Chicago Cubs
Putting the Cubs this low may seem odd, as Joe Maddon is the optimally savvy manager to tinker with typical bullpen usage, and did so en route to winning last season’s World Series. His roster in 2017, though, doesn’t lend itself to such experiments; Carl Edwards Jr. hasn’t been as consistent as his flashes of potential might suggest, and Mike Montgomery, while possessing enough stamina to record 14 starts this year, isn’t dominant like the best relievers on teams atop this list.
One possibility outside the middle relief corps is a pitcher who didn’t appear before the ninth inning of a game all year until September 15. Last October, Maddon extended Aroldis Chapman past his regular limits—apparently against the pitcher’s wishes—and new closer Wade Davis, who like Chapman last year will be a free agent after the season, could fill the same role in 2017.
Davis has shaken off preseason injury concerns to produce another excellent stat line, running a 2.30 ERA and converting 32 of 33 save chances, and in recent weeks Maddon has hinted at lengthening his closer’s outings. Before September 15, Davis hadn’t pitched more than an inning a single time this year, but he recorded four-plus outs three times from that date on as the Cubs fought for the division title. He also has a history of expanding past his traditional three-out status in the playoffs, albeit under a different manager in Kansas City.
Wade Davis Usage From 2014–16
|Split||Outs Per Appearance||Appearances Longer Than Three Outs|
|Split||Outs Per Appearance||Appearances Longer Than Three Outs|
6. Los Angeles Dodgers
How manager Dave Roberts decides to deploy Kenley Jansen is one of the more intriguing playoff subplots. The two longest outings of Jansen’s career came in last year’s playoffs, and, despite L.A.’s enviable pitching depth, the best closer in baseball might have to sustain a similar workload this year. The Dodgers have several relievers who can go long, and plenty who can get outs, but Jansen is the only arm at the center of that Venn diagram. Of the seven healthy Dodgers relievers who recorded a sub-3 ERA this year, he was the only one to average more than an inning per appearance.
He appears up for the challenge, at least. In his postseason career, Jansen has recorded more than three outs six times; in those appearances, his total tally reaches 11.2 innings pitched with a 0.00 ERA, 0.69 WHIP, and 44.2 percent strikeout rate. And in this regular season, he exceeded three outs in 14 games, during which he amassed 13 scoreless outings and a 28-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Jansen might not pitch early enough in games to qualify as a true fireman, but almost no pitcher in the majors can hope to match his effectiveness on a batter-by-batter basis.
5. Boston Red Sox
A late addition to the Red Sox’s relief corps single-handedly moves Boston up this list. Upon returning from the disabled list in mid-September, David Price moved to the bullpen, as there wasn’t sufficient time to stretch his arm out for starting duties. The veteran left-hander is now the most expensive middle reliever in MLB history, but he’s also excelled thus far in the pen and is back in the role in which he first appeared in the playoffs; as a Rays rookie in 2008, he recorded the final outs of Tampa Bay’s seven-game ALCS win over Boston.
In five relief outings last month, Price struck out 13 and allowed just three hits in 8 2/3 scoreless innings. He also met all the fireman check marks: He entered games in the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings; he threw on back-to-back days; and he came into games in the middle of innings and on one occasion with a runner on base.
Outside of Craig Kimbrel, Boston’s bullpen is a mélange of middling options, and even the best of that bunch—Addison Reed and Carson Smith—haven’t exhibited the ability to last multiple innings. In the short term, Price’s injury could prove a boon to Boston’s pennant hopes.
4. Arizona Diamondbacks
Read my colleague Michael Baumann on Archie Bradley, Arizona’s exquisitely bearded and best—on both a per-inning and extended basis—reliever. While Bradley allowed two homers to Colorado in Wednesday’s wild-card game, he still should have manager Torey Lovullo’s trust after going the entire regular season with an ERA below 1.75. As a recent starter, he has the stamina to go multiple innings, even if he transitioned to more regular single-inning stints as the regular season progressed. Given the shaky state of the rest of Arizona’s bullpen, he’ll need to put up Miller-lite numbers to help the Diamondbacks navigate a treacherous NL playoff field.
Supporting Bradley in this role should be whichever of the Diamondbacks’ five starters—lefty Patrick Corbin (3.26 second-half ERA) or righty Zack Godley (3.37 full-season mark)—leaves the shortened playoff rotation. Arizona might have had the best one-through-five rotation in the majors this year, and while a solid fifth starter might have been cast aside in previous playoff eras, he still has a role in the 2017 postseason.
3. Houston Astros
The sabermetrically inclined A.J. Hinch is the most likely to join Francona in utilizing this strategy throughout a series, and, given the composition of his Astros rotation, he is also the most likely manager to need to this October. Beyond Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel, Houston’s starters are far more effective in shorter stints than six-plus-inning starts.
Brad Peacock and Charlie Morton are Hinch’s likely choices to start Games 3 and 4 against Boston. As a starter, Peacock had a 0.92 ERA the first time through an opposing lineup—the best among the 156 pitchers who reached at least 30 innings in that split. Morton was third-best on that list, with a 1.25 ERA the first time through the order. The third time through a lineup, though, Peacock and Morton ran 8.84 and 7.18 ERAs, respectively.
Hinch is surely aware of these drastic splits, so it’s unlikely that any Astro other than Verlander or Keuchel will pitch more than four or so innings this month. That limit will leave plenty of innings still to go around. At midseason, the top option to take those extra frames—specifically the higher-leverage ones—was Chris Devenski, the second-year reliever with a career 2.38 ERA. But perhaps due to fatigue from his heavy first-half usage, Devenski has looked like a different pitcher over the last three months. Since early July, he’s been used like a typical reliever rather than a multi-inning ace, while producing league-average rather than All-Star–caliber results.
Chris Devenski 2017 Season Splits
|Split||Outs Per Appearance||ERA||Strikeout Rate||Walk Rate|
|Split||Outs Per Appearance||ERA||Strikeout Rate||Walk Rate|
|Through July 5||4.6||2.09||36.9%||6.7%|
|Since July 5||3.1||3.72||23.1%||10.7%|
Fortunately for Houston, Hinch has other fireman options. Erstwhile starter Joe Musgrove has been one of the majors’ most effective relievers this year, with a 1.44 ERA that sandwiches him between Craig Kimbrel (1.43) and Andrew Miller (1.44) on the MLB leaderboard, and Lance McCullers has the high-octane arm to perform well in a relief role. While this fleet of firemen might seem a luxury, the state of Houston’s starters makes the group a playoff necessity. Now, Hinch can ride one for 40-plus pitches in a game and still have a fresh replacement for the next day, and the only reason Houston doesn’t place higher on this list is that its relievers aren’t as dominant as those on the next two teams.
2. New York Yankees
Those pinstriped pitchers from Tuesday night also showed how they can excel in this fashion. Like the Astros, the Yankees’ potential firemen are multitudinous; the difference between the two is that New York’s options are better. David Robertson threw a career-high 3.1 innings against the Twins and hasn’t allowed a run in his last 16 games; Tommy Kahnle threw 2.1 perfect innings Tuesday, his longest outing in more than three years, and has allowed just one run in his last 16 games; and Chad Green was the best reliever not named Kimbrel, Jansen, or Miller this year. Add to that mix Adam Warren, who posted a 2.35 ERA this year while recording four-plus outs in nearly half his appearances, and New York has a quartet of stretched-out relievers whose per-inning work rivals that of any MLB ace.
They might not be able to go 7 2/3 innings every night in bridging the gap from starter to Chapman, as they did Tuesday, but they have the arms to get close, and that’s a revolutionary roster-construction strategy in and of itself.
1. Cleveland Indians
In the end, the team with Miller on its roster beats the teams with hopeful Miller facsimiles. His strikeouts are down a smidge this year and his walks a bit more frequent, but he has been just as effective at maintaining leads in the late innings. Last year, his ERA was 1.45; this season, it was 1.44.
And it’s not only Miller on whom Francona could call. Cleveland’s playoff bullpen also includes Danny Salazar, basically Cleveland’s version of McCullers, and Mike Clevinger, who made mop-up appearances last October but profiles as a shutdown option this year. On August 26, Cleveland won its third consecutive game in a streak that eventually reached 22. Clevinger threw six shutout innings and struck out nine in that game, and, from that date on, his 0.81 ERA was second-best in the majors. (Fellow Indians Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco ranked third and sixth, respectively, over that span; Cleveland’s late-season run was absurd.) That Trevor Bauer is starting Game 1 of the ALDS and Josh Tomlin Game 4 suggests that Francona has built bullpen aggression into his game plan, and, like last year, it wouldn’t be a surprise for him to ride that strategy to October glory.