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Closing Time Comes Early: Is Change Finally Coming to the MLB Bullpen?

The 2016 MLB postseason has seen managers turn to their closers earlier and in high-leverage situations. Does that mean the stubborn nature of bullpen usage will finally evolve in the regular season too?

by Christopher Crawford
Oct 19 2016, 1:30pm

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

The brightest star of the 2016 postseason hasn't been MVP candidate Kris Bryant, future Rookie off the Year Corey Seager or potential Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber.

No, the star of this year's playoffs has been Andrew Miller; a reliever who has picked up just one save so far in Cleveland's six wins, but has been the stabilizing—and dominant— force behind his team's six consecutive wins to start the postseason.

It isn't unheard of for a reliever to become a celebrity in October—Mariano Rivera will never have to buy another drink again in New York—but Rivera earned the title of greatest postseason pitcher ever by pitching in the typical "closer" role, occasionally coming into the game the eighth but mostly making his living by retiring the side in the ninth inning to finish a win.

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Miller has come in early and often in postseason games to secure outs in high-leverage situations, and he's not alone. Dodgers relief ace Kenley Jansen famously was brought on in the seventh inning of the game five clincher, and two days later he finished off a two-inning save in the NLCS. Perhaps the most dubious playoff decision this postseason was Baltimore's decision to not use closer Zach Britton in the one-game Wildcard playoff against Toronto; a decision that was highly criticized by players and on social media.

The attention that has come to the bullpen may not be entirely brand new, but the way teams are using their bullpens this October is certainly turning heads. They are being aggressive, and letting go of the traditional closer role that defined guys like Rivera. But is this just a postseason phenomenon? I spoke to some front office executives and learned why it might actually be the wave of the future:

The Importance of the Middle Innings

The application of sabermetrics in baseball is nothing new. The application of these ideas onto the field, however, has been a slower process. It appears that might be changing.

"These managers are starting to get it a little bit," an NL front-office member said. "I think they're starting to understand two things. The big thing that they're starting to understand is that these outs in the fifth, sixth inning, they are just as big as the outs in the eighth or ninth. If you don't get those guys out then, the outs in the latter innings don't mean nearly as much, so what's the point in saving the big guns for a situation that may never come? Some of these guys are coming with a front-office background, too, so I think that is helping further the progress.

When the bullpen is your friend. Photo: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports.

"I think they're also starting to understand that asking starters to go through a lineup three times is really difficult, particularly when you're in the postseason and the lineups have a lot fewer weaknesses than most clubs. When you have a chance to give a hitter a different look early, I think it's a real benefit, assuming you're not facing a Clayton Kershaw or a Jake Arrieta or someone like that."

Return on Investment

Assuming you've paid even a smidgen of attention to baseball over the past few years, you may have noticed that pitching has become expensive. Not only are pitchers costing a pretty penny on the open market, the cost of acquiring them in trade continues to grow. Relievers are now getting annual salaries in the eight figure range.

"It's not just the financial aspect of the price of these arms, it's the price you have to pay to get them," said one AL executive. "Cleveland gave up a future 55 [on the 20-80 scouting scale] outfielder [Clint Frazier] and a 55 starting pitching prospect [Justus Sheffield] to get Andrew Miller, along with a couple of other interesting pieces. If I'm moving that much to get a guy, you better believe I want to get that guy in the game as much as possible. We had interest in Will Smith, but we didn't have close to what San Francisco gave up [right-handed pitcher Phil Bickford and catcher Andrew Susac]. You're talking about giving up core pieces here, so you have to use those guys early and often if you really want to get all of your asset's worth."

Quicker Return on Investment

The "old-school" way of thinking was to give a pitcher a chance to start, knowing that the bullpen was a possibility if things didn't work out. That thinking isn't going away, but as teams see more and more value in the bullpen arm, they're becoming more open-minded to letting prospects make their introductions as relievers.

"There is still more value in a starting pitcher than a reliever, that's pretty obvious," the NL front-office member said. "But let's be honest, waiting for a pitcher to become a starter is not only a long-term thing, it's also something that isn't a guarantee. If you've got a guy who you're waiting for a third pitch to come or for the command to be good enough to handle pitching more than a few innings, why not see what that guy can do in short stints?

Edwin Diaz of the Mariners might be proof that team's approaches to bullpen construction are evolving. Photo: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports.

"Look at what the Royals did with Brendan Finnegan. That was a guy who was clearly drafted [in the first-round] to be a starter, but the Royals saw that this was a guy who had two plus pitches and a funky delivery that would give southpaws fits. He made a huge impact on that Royals team in the postseason. Or look at Edwin Diaz. Seattle drafted that kid to start, but they obviously saw that the third pitch wasn't there, and likely had some concerns about the body. All that kid did was strike everyone out. If they waited for a third pitch or for him to put on the necessary weight, they don't see that kid pitch in the big leagues for another couple years. Maybe not ever. I think it's safe to say they did the right thing."

While Diaz did close for Seattle, there were instances that he was brought in earlier when there was a chance to face the heart of the order. Had Seattle made the postseason you likely would have seen him pitch in a similar role to what Jansen and Miller have this October.

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So, there are your reasons for why this could be the future of the bullpen, but there are some things that could keep this from becoming a the new normal in baseball.

It's a Long Season

Baseball is played six to seven days a week for six months a year with the exception of a four-day break. Say what you will about the cardiovascular parts of the game, but no one can deny that playing that often takes a toll on a player, and relief pitchers might pay the biggest price.

"When you're playing as much as we do, I don't think you have a choice but to have defined roles," the NL front-office member said. The postseason is a lot of baseball, but you're getting a day off every two games. I think it's a lot easier to manage a bullpen knowing you have that off day coming. In the regular season, you're getting one off day a week. Are you really gonna ask your $10 million dollar prize to come pitch in the fourth and fifth inning on a Thursday in July against Atlanta? I don't think so."

Are ninth inning closers like Mariano Rivera soon going to be relics? Photo: Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports.

Counting Stats Still Matter

There's no other sport that values its stats quite like baseball does. And it's not only a pride thing, it's a financial thing.

"Guys want to be the closer," the AL executive said. "Guys want to be the guy finishing the game in the ninth inning. You certainly have some guys who are going to be unselfish and pitch whenever the skipper tells 'em to, but in reality, they want the ball in those late-innings situations. And I can't really blame them. It's messing with their bottom line. The arbitration figures for closers are always higher than those who aren't. You're not gonna see guys who aren't piling up the saves in the Hall Of Fame, either. That only comes into play with a small percentage of players, of course, but you want to keep these guys happy. If they think they should be getting saves, they're gonna wanna play somewhere they can them. Teams aren't gonna wanna lose guys over that, not in the regular season, anyway.

There is, of course, an argument to be made that the counting stats are another reason to manage the bullpen differently than what we've previously seen. By not having these young players close, you are potentially saving millions of dollars by not having them pile up the saves. Ultimately, it's probably a wash when it comes to the financials for club-controlled players, but that certainly doesn't apply to the veterans.

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Whether or not this is a paradigm shift remains to be seen, particularly in the regular season. And perhaps there shouldn't be a major shift. There's definitely some logic to not overusing a player in the regular season when the short-term gains won't necessarily outweigh the costs.

Someday we may just see a world where the best relief pitchers are pitching in the most critical situations, and not being "saved" for a save. So far we've mostly seen this type of thinking only in the playoffs, but for all the reasons outlined above, we may not be far away from seeing bullpens used in a radical way. In the meantime, it's fascinating to watch this October.