The revolution was televised, and according to Royals manager Ned Yost, it might have been slightly exaggerated.
Last fall, as relief pitcher Andrew Miller carried Cleveland to the brink of a championship, and baseball managers such as the Indians’ Terry Francona and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Dave Roberts turned bullpen orthodoxy on its head, a common narrative emerged.
The bullpen revolution was here. What began as a sleek innovation during the 2014 and 2015 postseasons — the Royals using a dominant relief corps to win two straight pennants — had matured into a full-fledged sea change. The closer position would never be the same. Managers were unshackled from convention and free to deploy relievers however they saw fit.
Need your best reliever in a high-leverage situation in the sixth inning? Use him. Feeling emboldened to use your closer for two or three innings? Why not? The freedom and flexibility were intoxicating, the possibilities endless.
“It got a lot of teams thinking about how to use their bullpen,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said.
And why not? Francona kept going to Miller, his best reliever, in the fifth and sixth innings of playoff games and riding him for as long as he could go. Roberts called upon his All-Star closer, Kenley Jansen, in a tense high-leverage situation in the seventh inning of Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Washington Nationals. Even Cubs manager Joe Maddon adopted the practice at times, using closer Aroldis Chapman for multiple innings in the final stretches of the World Series.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the revolution. The playoffs ended.
“That’s not going to happen during the [regular] season,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “Watch and see how long that happens during the season. That’s playoff baseball there, man.”
The question, one about the effects of last fall on the future of bullpen use, came during a Cactus League media day session at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in February. Yost listened for a moment, then delivered his answer with an expression that could best be described as incredulous. Even after guiding one of baseball’s most dominant relief corps, the Royals’ skipper remains something of a bullpen traditionalist. He prefers to assign a mostly rigid set of roles and offer comfort and routine to his pitchers. He views the regular season as a marathon, and bullpen decisions must be made with the long game in mind, he says. Inside the sport, he is hardly alone.
As Francona maneuvered through the playoffs, deploying his pitchers like a chess grandmaster, he questioned whether the tactic could work during the grind of the regular season. Maddon, a manager who remains devoted to statistical analysis, joined the choir, stating that the bullpen innovation had been “glamorized a bit.”
“This is not fantasy baseball,” Maddon said. “These guys are human and have only so many abilities to throw a baseball within a year.”
And yet, it was easy to let the imagination run wild, for as long as baseball has evolved, so has the use of bullpens. In the 1950s and 1960s, starting pitchers regularly twirled complete games, leaving the reliever an afterthought. In the 1970s and 1980s, relievers such as Goose Gossage and Dan Quisenberry annually logged more than 100 innings, defining the “fireman” role. But the advent of the “save” as an official statistic in 1969 — and its increasing popularity in the late 1980s, thanks in large part to manager Tony La Russa’s usage of Dennis Eckersley in Oakland — re-wrote the book yet again.
Managers began building their bullpens around the closer, a role that was generally limited to one inning and rarely used in non-save situations. The result was an inelastic definition of the position; and when Baltimore manager Buck Showalter failed to use his All-Star closer, Zach Britton, in an 11-inning loss to the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL Wild Card Game last October, the absurdity of the role was laid bare.
Showalter never used his best reliever because a save situation never presented itself. Yost viewed the managerial decisions during the rest of postseason, in part, as a reaction to that one moment.
“I think a lot of that had to do with Buck Showalter, because he caught so much [stuff] for not using his closer,” Yost said. “These guys were going to make sure that their closer got in games. Because they didn’t want to take that crap.”
The postseason moves opened eyes, but they probably didn’t change hearts, Yost said. In the opening weeks of spring training, he remained noncommittal about the makeup the Royals’ revamped bullpen, a unit that must replace All-Star closer Wade Davis. But a clear framework emerged. Kelvin Herrera, a two-time All-Star, will take over closer duties, while left-hander Matt Strahm and Joakim Soria are locks to make the club. Left-hander Mike Minor is well positioned to join them, while two of the final bullpen slots will be filled by the odd-men out in the club’s competition for the fifth starter spot — a battle among Nathan Karns, Travis Wood and Chris Young. That leaves one opening in a seven-man bullpen.
The reconfigured group, with no clear seventh- or eighth-inning pitchers, could mean more mixing and matching in the late innings. But adhering to orthodox, Yost would prefer if the group winds up with clear roles.
“It’s a lot easier when you have set, defined roles,” Yost said. “Because everybody understands what their role is, instead of guessing from day to day.”
On the whole, it’s hard to argue with the Royals’ bullpen model. In the last three season, the club’s relief corps has posted a 3.15 ERA, which ranks first in all of baseball. All around baseball, clubs have sought to emulate the model of multiple power arms in the back of the bullpen. Yet Royals pitcher Chris Young, who has worked as a starter and reliever in his career, is among those who believe players could adjust to a new relief formula, no matter the gambit.
“At the end of the day, we’re paid to do a job and we do what teams ask of us,” Young said. “That’s the bottom line. If the the team thinks that this is the best usage in terms of helping our team win, that’s the ultimate goal. It’s our responsibility to buy into that.”
Like many players, Young watched last year’s postseason with a combination of curiosity and respect. Miller was a dominant revelation. The tactics were intriguing. It reminded him, in part, of what the Royals had done the previous two seasons. But Young also pondered other possible changes. In addition to the redefining of the closer role, he imagined other ways to revolutionize the bullpen.
“I can see a situation where you carry six or seven starters and go with a four-man rotation,” Young said. “And you’re rotating through maybe 75-pitch counts and you have two or three long [relievers] pitching every third day. The realm of possibilities — there’s nothing that’s out of question.”
The idea might sound radical, of course, but that’s the point. Once upon a time, the idea of a one-inning closer also seemed strange. And then the game changed, and the players adjusted. For now, the bullpen revolution still appears in its infant stages, relegated to playoff baseball and a select few managers and organizations who believe they have found a better way. There are also limits to bullpen usage, born from the hazard of daily baseball. But in the end, Young says, there may be only one way to guarantee optimal results: Good pitchers.
“It’s really hard to predict that if you bring a guy in in the sixth that there won’t be another high-leverage situation or more important high-leverage situation in the eighth or ninth,” Young said. “I don’t know how you prepare for it, necessarily, aside from just loading up with as many closers as you can.”