Terry Francona's Brilliant Use of Andrew Miller Should Be Emulated
Over the last two decades, baseball has become a highly specialized sport.
Starting pitchers throw five or six innings before handing balls off to middle relievers, all of whom have a very specific role. One is the long man, and a couple are there to get teams through the fifth and sixth innings.
You have a "LOOGY," a left-handed specialist who only exists to get out tough left-handed hitters. You have a seventh-inning man, a set-up man in the eighth, and then your closer in the ninth.
And as Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter showed in the American League Wild Card game, there are times you're not supposed to bring in your closer, who is usually your best relief pitcher. As in, you never bring in your closer unless it's to secure the last three outs of a baseball game in which you already have the lead on the road or are at least tied at home.
But as we saw in the Orioles' loss to the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday night, traditional thinking cost the O's their season. That is why what Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona is doing is so special.
Tito is bringing back the traditional "fireman" relief pitcher.
In the Indians' 5-4 Game 1 ALDS win over the Boston Red Sox last night, Miller, perhaps the best relief pitcher in the game (with all apologies to Zach Britton and Kenley Jansen) entered -- but not at the time you would expect. Yes, his team led, but it was not the ninth inning. It was not the eighth, nor the seventh, or the sixth.
Francona brought Andrew Miller into the game with two outs in the fifth inning of a game he led 4-3.
Starter Trevor Bauer threw 80 pitches and, because he will be needed on three days' rest for a potential Game 4, left at that point. Francona could have gone to one of his middle relievers. That's what any other manager would have done.
Instead, Francona called on Miller. FanGraphs' win probability chart says, at that point in the game, the Indians had a 70% chance of winning the game. And Francona's main goal was to make sure that happened.
Boston had the middle of their lineup coming to the plate for the third time. Teams as good as the Red Sox tend to wail on pitchers the third time the order, something Francona knows all too well. Boston was tied for second in baseball this year with an .870 OPS against starting pitchers the third time through the lineup.
Of course, that strategy almost blew up in Francona's and Miller's faces when Brock Holt doubled and Mookie Betts walked. But he got David Ortiz to strike out and then gave the Indians another 1 2/3 innings, acting as the bridge to Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen, who finished out Cleveland's Game 1 win.
In all, Miller went two innings and gave up no runs on one hit and one walk with four strikeouts.
But this isn't some newfangled approach developed for the postseason. This is something Francona did during the pennant race as well. Miller recorded only three saves with the Indians, mainly because he wasn't restricted to pitching only the ninth inning. Francona saw the light, realizing that the most important three outs may happen in the seventh, eighth, or -- in the case of Game 1 of the ALDS -- fifth and sixth innings.
By the time Miller left, the Indians were at 88.1% to win the game. Doing the right thing actually yielded good results.
This is how the best relief pitchers used to be utilized. They weren't restricted to pitching the ninth inning and only if their team had a lead. Relievers such as Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, and Jeff Reardon used to earn their money by routinely racking up multiple-inning saves. In fact, the multi-save inning has all but died in baseball.
From 2010 to 2016, there were 170 saves of two innings or more, many of them resulting from relievers finishing blowout victories. In 1980 alone, there were 300 such saves.
This is the way it used to be, and perhaps Francona's use of his bullpen will start a trend because, while his approach helped Cleveland win a playoff baseball game last night, Showalter's by-the-book approach helped cost his team one a few nights ago.