By Stephen Whyno
AP Sports Writer
OXON HILL, Md. — Ned Yost enjoyed watching the Cleveland Indians’ lights-out bullpen go to work in the playoffs, because it was so familiar.
“It was amazing to see — to watch games and kind of understand the feeling that other teams had against us,” the Kansas City Royals manager said.
Like the Royals on the way to the World Series in 2015, the Indians mixed and matched relievers, leaning on Andrew Miller for multiple innings in different spots and turning to Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw in big situations. And while the Chicago Cubs even kept closer Aroldis Chapman in longer than usual on the way to the title, managers don’t expect the 2016 postseason to change the way bullpens are managed.
“The postseason management of the bullpen is extremely different than the regular season management,” incoming Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black said Monday. “But what does work (is) if you have those types of relievers that have multi-inning performance, who can throw parts of innings and continue, that’s very valuable.”
Miller pitched two innings or more in seven appearances, and Chapman went 2 2/3 in Game 5 of the World Series — mostly out of necessity. Cleveland manager Terry Francona conceded at the time he wouldn’t be able to use Miller like that during the regular season.
“Terry is right: You can’t do that during the regular season, you’re going to blow somebody out,” Yost said. “But in the playoffs, it’s a lot easier to do. You got to understand, Andrew Miller, these guys don’t grow on trees. They are few and far in between, guys that are that durable that can pitch like he did, especially down the stretch.”
Miller’s example isn’t changing how teams approach the offseason, either. Boston Red Sox general manager Dave Dombrowski said his priority was getting an eighth-inning guy, filling a specific role in front of closer Craig Kimbrel, and did so by acquiring right-hander Tyler Thornburg from the Milwaukee Brewers.
Manager John Farrell considers it important to define roles over 162 games.
“If you look at our usage over our last couple of years the one thing that we have had is that one guy other than the closer where we’ve used (him) at the highest-leverage point in the seventh or eighth inning,” Farrell said. “Ideally, yeah, you can give the seventh, eighth and ninth inning to three different relievers and let it run out regardless of where you are in the lineup and what the score is on the winning side. I think our main goal is to identify a guy that it’s not so much a matchup situation.”
Francona’s theory — an evolving one around baseball — is that the three biggest outs aren’t always the final ones. There’s still value in closing, but if the heart of the order is up in the seventh, eighth or even the sixth inning, that could be the spot for a team to use its best reliever.
While playing bullpen bingo became popular in the postseason, Philadelphia manager Pete Mackanin doesn’t think it’s practical during the regular season. It just requires depth and talent, which the Phillies now have more of after signing Joaquin Benoit.
“The deeper you are in a bullpen the easier it is to go to a real good stopper type pitcher in the sixth or seventh or fifth inning like they were able to do in the World Series,” Mackanin said Tuesday. “Over the course of a six-month season certainly it’s harder to do, but the deeper you are in the bullpen the easier it is.
Stacking a bullpen with two or three “closer” types like the Indians gives them a leg up in employing that strategy.
“I think what teams are trying to do or what successful teams have done have had a seventh- or eighth- or ninth-inning guy, and all three of them can pitch in the ninth inning,” Yost said. “All three of them can close. When you have that, man, that’s a huge advantage late in the game.”
Even though the new MLB collective bargaining agreement didn’t include the addition of a 26th player to rosters, New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said there’s a trend toward using more bullpen arms. Phillies GM Matt Klentak thinks more off days built into the schedule will help teams if they want to lean more on top relievers, who have more value thanks to the lessons of recent postseasons.
“As an industry, we’re appreciating the value that those players can bring,” Klentak said, a day after the Giants gave closer Mark Melancon a $62 million, four-year deal, the richest ever for a reliever. “During the postseason, as we watched the games and we saw these managers using their elite arms in the higher leverage situation but in earlier innings, we talked a lot internally in the office about whether we thought that was something that might become more mainstream during the regular season. …
“I think the fact that some teams had some success with that in October would lead us to think that a lot of managers will probably try that.”