14 December 2016

Buck Showalter's Adherence to Bullpen Roles has Shown Up in the Playoffs Before

Remember when the Orioles had to win a single game to continue in the 2016 playoffs and their manager chose to leave their best reliever - and arguably the best reliever in baseball - in the bullpen? That decision relied on flawed logic, that even if the Orioles got a lead with Zach Britton on the mound, they'd still need another reliever to close the game out and he might give it away. The Orioles eventually lost with Britton sitting alone in the dugout, mostly fresh (he warmed up a few times during the game), thereby creating the new saddest six-word story in the English language: "For sale: playoff jersey; never worn."

The image of Britton sitting on the bench stood in stark contrast to the way Terry Francona and Joe Maddon managed their relentless bullpens throughout the playoffs and into the World Series. The AL Manager of the Year and the NL runner-up each deployed members of their respective bullpens in emergency, high-leverage situations for extended outings regardless of inning. Francona especially garnered a great deal of attention for his unorthodox, win-at-all-costs bullpen management. Journalists and fans around the country began to wonder if this model of bullpen management - firefighting rather than game saving - was key to season-long success (don't be ridiculous; it's incredibly taxing over a postseason, much less 162 games). It was very reminiscent of the Royals in 2014, whose bullpen shut down the Orioles in the ALDS en route to a World Series victory.

Andrew Miller, left handed relief pitcher for the Indians, seemed to be the centerpiece around which Francona deployed his bullpen. Miller was also a member of the 2014 Orioles who were dispatched in 2014, and his short stint in Baltimore made a lot of fans think that the team had a winning model going forward: stock the pen with arms, send them to the mound whenever the team needed an out, and shut down scoring opportunities before they happened. Maybe Francona's plan wasn't novel after all... in fact, FanGraphs highlighted the Orioles, Buck Showalter, and Andrew Miller himself in 2014 as examples of forward-thinking bullpen management.

Looking back at the usage of Andrew Miller in the 2014 bullpen, we find that perhaps Buck Showalter wasn't so forward thinking after all. Like in 2016, Miller was not the team's closer, and he was "free" to appear in any inning in which he was needed. Here's how that usage shook out in each year:
Showalter brought Miller into the game exactly one time before the 7th inning, and never used him for more than 5 outs. He threw 32 pitches in his first outing against the Tigers and then proceeded to throw fewer than 25 in each game afterwards. Some of that is a credit to Miller being good enough to get five outs on 20 pitches; another piece is Showalter adhering to traditional bullpen roles. Miller was used in back-to-back games twice, and only once on back-to-back days.

At face value, this paints Showalter as a more conservative manager who adheres slightly more strictly to defined bullpen roles. Even though Miller wasn't the "closer" or "setup man," he was probably safe in assuming that he would enter the game in the 7th inning if he was available that day. Francona's usage was much more variable over the course of the postseason, with Miller entering the game in each mid and late inning with an even frequency.

To be clear, this is merely one aspect of bullpen management, and only one example of it. Without knowing any context for the leverage of the situation in which Miller entered, it's possible that he was used as a fireman as much in 2014 as he was in 2016.

But such adherence to predictable late-inning entrances in 2014 probably wasn't by chance, and should have tipped fans off (if they weren't already aware) of Showalter's unwillingness to truly break away from defined bullpen roles. At least in the postseason, where every out matters to the team's very near future, the Orioles' manager needs to do a better job of firing the big guns when he needs them and not saving them for later - something he seems to have done consistently.

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