Read Part 1 of Twilight of the Closers.
For anyone paying attention, the tell came in the top of the 8th during Game 1 of the ALDS between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. From the time manager Alex Cora pulled Chris Sale in the top of the 6th inning with two men on base, the Red Sox had burned through three relief pitchers. They needed to put a stop to a Yankee charge that saw their rivals cut a 5-run lead down to two. Rather than roll the dice by calling another middling reliever into the game, Cora played it safe. He brought Rick Porcello to the mound. A starter.
The strategy worked. Porcello faced three dangerous batters — Miguel Andujar, arguably the true Rookie of the Year, Gary Sanchez, a powerful bat, and Gleyber Torres, a solid number nine hitter — and retired them all. Ship steadied. Victory back on track. Mission accomplished. In the 9th inning, Boston’s everyday closer, Craig Kimbrel, retired the top of the Yankee lineup unceremoniosly.
Cora’s decision to go with a starter in place of a reliever went against the way modern baseball management has evolved over the past few decades. Under normal circumstances, the accepted formula goes something like this. During Ideal situations with ideal bullpens, managers call on their set-up man, a lights out pitcher who’s not the closer yet. He’s sort of an understudy. And in the 8th inning, he’s expected to do what the closer does in the 9th, namely shut down the offense. The use of the two presupposes a quality outing by the starter and run support from his batters. The combination of set-up man and closer reduces a baseball game into a seven inning affair, at least in theory.
In the event a team doesn’t have the luxury of having a bonafide set-up man, the formula changes and the closer is called on to get up to six outs, or two innings worth. And while putting away a half dozen batters might not seem like much, for 9th inning specialists, it often proves one out too many. Nonetheless, during important, high pressure situations, most managers opt for the sure hands of their closer.
As a one off, the fact that Cora turned to one of his starters rather than his bullpen could be viewed as playing it extra-safe. That wasn’t the case. The next time a similar situation arose, this time in Game 4 of the ALDS, the Red Sox once again turned to a starter in the 8th inning, this time Chris Sale. (This goes without even mentioning that Eduardo Rodriguez, a regular starter during the season with over 20 starts, pitched out of the bullpen because Nathan Eovaldi narrowly beat him out for the last spot on the rotation.)
On and on it went. Against the Houston Astros, their opponents in the ALCS, Rick Porcello came out of the bullpen in the 8th inning to pitch to Tony Kemp, Marwin Gonzalez, and Carlos Correa, the 5,6,7 hitters respectively. In game 5, David Price pitched deep into the 7th and handed over to Nathan Eovaldi in the 8th. For what it’s worth, Kimbrel pitched the 9th in games 2,4, and 5. The Red Sox won the series convincingly so there wasn’t much arguing with their approach at the time.
Cora and the Red Sox braintrust must have figured they stumbled onto a good thing because the World Series against the Los Angeles featured still more liberal usage of starter-relievers. Eovaldi in Game 1; Eovaldi again in Game 2; Price and Eovaldi (6 innings) in the 18-inning Game 3; and finally, Chris Sale closed out the World Series by pitching the 9th in the deciding-Game 4 — while Craig Kimbrel watched on, mind you.
It was clear that Cora did not hold his bullpen in the highest esteem. What slowly became evident was that the Red Sox organization didn’t think much of relief pitchers. Full. Stop. If they had, they wouldn’t have so flippantly let Kimbrel, arguably the best closer in the game, walk without so much as an invitation to remain. Suddenly, the bullpen strategy Cora employed during the post-season makes much more sense.
Now’s a good time to return to Dombrowski’s statement to the New York Times, “You can find relievers, and relievers have a tendency to come from anywhere. History shows you that right now, short of the premium guys, there’s a lot of inconsistency in relievers from year to year. Part of it is they get used so much when they’re pitching well that one season. For me, I just choose to go with the starting pitchers, assuming they’re of quality nature.”
The Red Sox can live without bonafide relievers as long as they have quality starters. It calls to mind one of the many truisms floating around the baseball ether: Good starters make better relievers. However, since it would be impossible for the Red Sox starters to play starter-reliever for the entire length of a season, by default, Boston is engaging in “closer by commission.” In 2019, the task of putting out fires falls on Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier. According to Cora, allowing Kimbrel to leave works to Boston’s advantage as it allows for more “flexibility,” whatever that means. It’s worth quoting the Red Sox manager at length regarding the topic.
Per MLB.com, “I think stuff was different back in the day. I don’t remember who was involved but I guarantee you it wasn’t 95 with cutters and breaking balls the way guys have now,” said Cora. “If you take a look at bullpens now, stuff is at a premium. I think compared to before I played and when I played and now, that’s a big difference. You wanted to get to the bullpen. You wanted to get to the righty who threw 87, 88 with a sinker and a slider. Those are the guys you wanted to face… Now, if you want to face a bullpen, it’s 98, 99, spin out of the zone. I think today’s bullpens are much better than back in the day.”
On a recent MLB Tonight Pedro Martinez, the de facto spokesperson for all things Red Sox, tried to explain the starter-reliever strategy to Greg Amsinger and Harold Reynolds who voiced open skepticism about the approach. All Martinez could say was basically that Cora and Dombrowski know what they’re doing and if it works, it works. Not really bursting in confidence, that.
The thing that makes this lastest development so intriguing is that Alex Cora is not the first manager to use a starter in relief and Chris Sale is not the first pitcher to do it. Picking one example out of a very big hat, Randy Johnson played a similar role in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series when he was with the Diamondbacks. They beat the Yankees that year. That didn’t mean that Diamondbacks manager made the leap into thinking he didn’t need a quality bullpen because he could just use starters in relief whenever he needed them. So the question is: Why has baseball reacted differently this time? Moreover, are relief pitchers a thing of the past?
Ironically, Boston, the town that is arguing that relief pitchers are no longer necessary, gave birth to the relief pitcher as we know it. Back then, the main team in Beantown wasn’t the Red Sox, but rather, the Boston Americans aka the Red Caps. History would record them as the first team to be credited with having a pitcher come out of the bullpen and register a “save.”
WORDS: Marc Landas
SOURCES: mlb.com; baseball-reference.com; the New York Times; YouTube
IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons
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