Evolving role of the pitcher
It was exactly two years ago that John Gibbons walked to the mound in Arlington, in the fifth inning of Game 4 of the ALDS, 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 that the explanation was perfectly simple: he was trying to win.
Two playoff seasons later, the early hook has become standard practice. Cleveland manager Terry Francona pulled Corey Kluber in the fourth inning of Game 5 on Wednesday night, 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 that they couldn’t quite pull off. And while Francona is being second-guessed 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? Three? Four? Starting pitchers, especially those with a resume as impressive as Kluber’s, were to remain in the game as long as possible, and hard-throwing 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 sevengame World Series in which their bullpen pitched more than half the total innings. Cleveland did the same thing in last year’s World Series, pulling starters at the very first sign of trouble, and Chicago manager Joe Maddon responded by going early — twice! — to his bullpen in that epic Game 7.