BULLPENS ARE NOW THE TRUE ACE THANKS TO EARLY PLAY­OFF HOOK

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - SPORTS - SCOTT STINSON sstin­son@post­media.com

It was ex­actly two years ago that Toronto Blue Jays man­ager John Gib­bons walked to the mound in the fifth in­ning of Game 4 of the ALDS against the Texas Rangers and con­fused the hell out of ev­ery­one.

Toronto had thumped Texas starter Derek Hol­land but good and R.A. Dickey’s knuck­le­ball was danc­ing in the Texas heat and the Blue Jays had a six-run lead. Gib­bons pulled Dickey any­way and brought in David Price. This set off all sorts of won­der­ing about whether the Toronto man­ager was afraid of us­ing Price in Game 5, whether he had in­sulted Dickey, whether he had in­sulted Price, whether he had ba­si­cally lost his mind. Tak­ing out an ef­fec­tive starter so early was just not done.

Gib­bons would say af­ter­ward the ex­pla­na­tion was per­fectly sim­ple: he was try­ing to win.

Two play­off sea­sons later, the early hook has be­come stan­dard prac­tice. Cleve­land In­di­ans man­ager Terry Fran­cona pulled ace Corey Klu­ber in the fourth in­ning of Wed­nes­day’s Game 5 of their ALDS against the New York Yan­kees, go­ing to his now-fa­mil­iar rou­tine of de­ploy­ing re­liever of doom An­drew Miller out of the bullpen as early as he deems nec­es­sary.

Miller struck out five of eight bat­ters and gave Cleve­land a chance for a come­back they couldn’t quite pull off in what proved to be a 5-2 loss. And while Fran­cona is be­ing sec­ondguessed for his later de­ci­sion to pitch to Brett Gard­ner in­stead of the slump­ing Aaron Judge — Gard­ner hit the back-break­ing two-run sin­gle that all but salted the game away for New York in the ninth — no one is fussed by the move to pull Klu­ber, the likely AL Cy Young win­ner this year.

How many sea­sons ago would such a de­ci­sion have been con­sid­ered lu­nacy? Start­ing pitch­ers, es­pe­cially those with a re­sume as impressive as Klu­ber’s, were to re­main in the game as long as pos­si­ble and hardthrow­ing re­liev­ers were to be stashed in the bullpen un­til the late in­nings.

But that at­ti­tude has changed with alarm­ing speed. In 2014, Kansas City lost a seven-game World Se­ries to San Fran­cisco in which their bullpen pitched 271/3 of the team’s 61 in­nings. Cleve­land did the same thing in last year’s World Se­ries, pulling starters at the first sign of trou­ble, and Chicago Cubs man­ager Joe Mad­don re­sponded by go­ing early — twice! — to his bullpen in that epic Game 7.

Both of those Mad­don moves back­fired, but the strat­egy has en­dured be­cause the logic be­hind them is sound: fresh re­liev­ers are more ef­fec­tive than tir­ing starters, a con­clu­sion backed up by piles of data. With play­off baseball be­ing no­to­ri­ously fickle — en­tire se­ries out­comes can swing on a cou­ple of at-bats — it’s in a man­ager’s in­ter­est to get the best pos­si­ble matchup at all times, even if that might cause some wounded pride among starters who still think of them­selves as nine-in­ning horses.

Fran­cona has said his sit­u­a­tion with Miller is unique; Cleve­land al­ready had a closer when they ac­quired him and Miller is al­ready get­ting closer money, so he doesn’t need saves to bol­ster his con­tract lever­age.

This play­off sea­son, though, it’s not just Fran­cona pulling guys early, but Yan­kees man­ager Joe Gi­rardi re­plac­ing C.C. Sa­bathia in the fifth in Game 5 and Hous­ton Astros man­ager A.J. Hinch giv­ing Justin Ver­lan­der his first re­lief ap­pear­ance af­ter more than 2,600 in­nings as a starter, in Game 4 of their ALDS against the Bos­ton Red Sox, a game dur­ing which Bos­ton starter Chris Sale also came in from the bullpen.

This is the first MLB post-sea­son dat­ing back to 2000 in which re­liev­ers have thrown more than 50 per cent of the avail­able in­nings.

The av­er­age start is well un­der five in­nings for the first time in that span, sit­ting at about 4.1 in­nings. Roles are be­ing rapidly de­fined. It’s the prod­uct of math and prob­a­bil­i­ties and man­agers more will­ing to play the odds even if it’s con­trary to old-time at­ti­tudes and front of­fices are will­ing to back them up.

That was the point Gib­bons made a cou­ple of Oc­to­bers ago to ex­plain his move to take out Dickey with the big lead. It also makes one won­der where it might end. There is re­search that sug­gests starters should never go more than twice through a bat­ting or­der, so will some team de­velop three-in­ning spe­cial­ists who could bridge the gap between the fourth and sev­enth in­nings?

Will a man­ager bring in his best re­liev­ers even ear­lier, in hopes of turn­ing over a lead to a “starter” who could fin­ish the last sev­eral in­nings? Could closers start? I saw a re­search pa­per pre­sented last spring that pro­posed vis­it­ing teams burn a re­liever for the first bat­ter of each game, al­low­ing their starter to warm up in the bullpen and im­me­di­ately en­ter, rather than warm­ing up and then sit­ting in the dugout for the top of the first. (Vis­it­ing teams have a dis­tinct scor­ing dis­ad­van­tage in the first in­ning, which could in the­ory be a re­sult of the starter cool­ing off in the dugout af­ter his warm-up.)

This strat­egy would, I imag­ine, drive many par­ties crazy and I doubt any man­ager would try it. But that’s prob­a­bly the outer limit of where man­agers will be will­ing to change pitch­ing strat­egy in the fu­ture. The days of the starter who stares dag­gers at the ap­proach­ing man­ager are near­ing their end and the com­plete game, es­pe­cially in the play­offs, is be­com­ing ob­so­lete.

We might still see the odd man­ager who leaves the starter in too long, who waits to see if his big guy can bat­tle out of high­lever­age trou­ble.

And if he doesn’t, the man­ager will rue­fully say later, he wanted the ball. And some­time later than that, the man­ager will be look­ing for a job.

GRE­GORY SHAMUS/GETTY IM­AGES

Gone are the days when aces like Cleve­land’s Corey Klu­ber, left, were ex­pected to go the dis­tance in a play­off game.

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