The Indians came into the playoffs as underdogs in the national media. The team came from a small market, at least by baseball standards, and quietly went about their business securing the AL Central early in the final month. After sweeping the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS, the Indians are once again in the lead for the ALCS. What has Terry Francona been doing to carry these underdogs to the World Series?
The Indians have won on the backs of good starts from the rotation. Staff ace Corey Kluber has pitched very well all playoffs, not crumbling under the pressure of being the backbone of the Tribe’s rotation. Two of his three starts have been quality starts, with his third getting there before being pulled early for the bullpen, which has been a reoccurring theme all playoffs for Terry Francona.
Andrew Miller, who the Indians gave up the #15 prospect in all of baseball for at the trade deadline, has been receiving plenty of the national media attention as well. Andrew has pitched 9 innings altogether this playoff in five appearances, three of which occurred in the first three games of the ALCS respectively. Miller has done it all this postseason, coming in the fifth to build a bridge between middle innings of the game, all the way to securing the save for the Indians in the 9th inning of Game 3 of the ALCS. In the 9 innings pitched this postseason, he has yet to give up a run, has accrued only 2 walks and 6 hits, and have accumulated 20 k’s for the Tribe. Miller, however, is not the only one dominating American League hitters this postseason.
Cody Allen, the Indians reliever with the title of “closer”, has been pitching nearly as well as well as Miller this postseason. A 23rd round pick in the 2011 amateur draft, the man ended the game for the Tribe in four of his five appearances, earning a hold in his last appearance to give Miller the save. Allen has yet to give up an earned run as well in close to seven innings, striking out 7 and maintaining a WHIP right near 1.
Terry Francona has been going to the bullpen early and often, which has seen short term success for the manager as all the members of the Indians bullpen have been pitching well. This was most prevalent when the bullpen had to come in for Trevor Bauer in Game 3 of the ALCS after his stitched up finger started bleeding to the point of no return. Francona had to utilize six relievers over 8 1/3 innings, and the bullpen came through for them, only giving up 2 earned runs in the process. That specific instance was more due to necessity, but provides a decent example of what Francona has been doing all season.
Francona’s heavy reliance on his bullpen has generated quite a buzz around the MLB. Relievers are relatively inexpensive compared to some of the money aces are getting paid yearly.The aforementioned Miller was highly contested in free agency, and ended up signing a 4 year deal worth $36 million ($9 AAV). In comparison, the top two pitchers in the rotation for the Minnesota Twins not named Berrios are making around $14 million a year (Phil Hughes and Ervin Santana) each. Both Santana and Hughes would be nothing more than middle to back end rotation pieces on a contending team.
The financial savings, especially for small market teams, is a big reason, but not the only one, to rely on relievers. Using relievers for more innings each season would save starter’s arms, who are not only worth more on the current market (a trend that may change if relievers are used more frequently), but could also lead to a decrease in Tommy John surgeries league wide. Many teams rely on young arms that are arbitration eligible to fill out a bullpen, an idea that is both cost effective and give the young guys a chance to earn their place in the MLB.
Most importantly though, Francona’s style of bullpen management relies on the idea that the team pitches their best reliever in the situations needed most. It makes no sense to have a closer if your team cannot bridge the gap from the starter to the 9th inning. If a team has the heart of the order coming up in the 8th, does it not make the most sense to use your best relief pitchers against the best bats on the opposing team?
Francona has been unconventional with his bullpen use, a move that could pay off for the Tribe in the upcoming weeks. It is a strategy that has not been as prevalent in modern day baseball, but could become more prevalent if the Indians succeed this postseason. If it works, it will be addressed all offseason, but only time will tell if more teams adapt the Francona way.
“From Our House to Yours”
All stats courtesy of baseball reference.