This postseason, perhaps more than ever, is shining a light on the importance of optimal bullpen management. Orioles manager Buck Showalter refused to use closer Zach Britton in the American League Wild Card game against the Blue Jays and it cost his team as Edwin Encarnacion blasted a walk-off three-run home run off of Ubaldo Jimenez. Giants manager Bruce Bochy had no confidence in his bullpen, shuffling through basically everyone in the bullpen… except Santiago Casilla.
For years, those of a Sabermetric bent have been illustrating how anachronistic the save statistic is and how outmoded current bullpen strategy is. Still, in 2016, managers adhere to rigidly-defined roles for their relievers, rarely ever venturing to use their closers outside of a situation or a tie game at home. Indians manager Terry Francona broke that mold in the ALDS against the Red Sox, using Andrew Miller — one of the three best relievers in baseball — in the fifth inning of Game 1 and in the sixth inning of Game 3.
That leads us to Game 5 of the NLDS between the Dodgers and Nationals on Thursday night. Lefty reliever Grant Dayton started the seventh inning but struggled, walking Danny Espinosa before serving up a two-run homer to pinch-hitter Chris Heisey to pull the game to 4-3. Dayton gave up a single to Clint Robinson before manager Dave Roberts decided to bring in his closer, Kenley Jansen. Jansen is, somehow, an underappreciated reliever still despite posting a 1.83 ERA with a 104/11 K/BB ratio over 68 2/3 innings during the regular season.
Leverage index is a statistic used to note how important a particular situation is. According to FanGraphs, a “high” leverage situation is anything with a Leverage Index above 2.00. The six at-bats Jansen had against the Nationals had LI’s of 3.14, 2.59, 4.14, 3.97, 4.52, and 6.24. In the eighth, they would be 2.46, 3.98, 3.33, and 2.40. His final three batters in the ninth had LI’s of 3.40, 2.55, and 4.61. If you’re going to use your best relief arm, those were the spots to do it.
Also worth noting: yes, Jansen pitched into his third inning of work. He threw 51 pitches in total, by far surpassing his previous single-game high of 42, set back on April 2, 2011.
If you thought Roberts’ bullpen management couldn’t get more unorthodox, ace Clayton Kershaw walked out to the bullpen after the end of the eighth inning and began warming up. Jansen got into some trouble in the ninth inning, issuing back-to-back walks to Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth. So Roberts brought in Kershaw on two days’ rest. I need not recall Kershaw’s stats to explain why this was the right move. Kershaw got Daniel Murphy to pop up (7.13 LI) before striking out Wilmer Difo (6.56 LI) to send the Dodgers to the NLCS to face the Cubs.
The storyline in 2014 and ’15 with the Royals was that a lights-out bullpen was crucial to postseason success. This postseason is going a step further. A team needs not only a great bullpen, but the ability to strategize optimally to get the most out of the roster. That’s part of the reason why the Indians and Dodgers have advanced to the League Championship Series.