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What Francona Can Learn from Buck's Britton Blunder - by Colin Gawel

I recently finished the book "Ahead of the Curve - Inside the Baseball Revolution" by Brian Kenny. It was one of the best books on baseball I have ever read. It lays waste to old school baseball thinking - that in light of new information - just doesn't make sense anymore. I could go on and on, and if you have had the misfortune of sitting next to me in the past month, chances are I have gone on and on about dispelling one baseball myth after another. But for the purposes of this tidy essay, let's focus on just two ways "conventional" baseball wisdom hurts a team's chance to win: bullpen use and the preference of "Starting Pitchers" to "Bullpenning." 

Tuesday night, Orioles manager Buck Showalter left his best pitcher - the top relief pitcher in all of baseball, Zach Britton - on the bench to watch inferior O's pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez give up a game-winning 3 run HR in the bottom of the 13th inning. The Orioles season was over and their best pitcher never even got in the game. Or - to put it another way - Jimenez gave up 3 runs in that one inning, Britton only gave up 4 runs ALL SEASON. 

Now, Showalter is a fine manager and fairly progressive-thinking one at that, so I apologize for singling him out, but he fell victim to the myth of saving his best pitcher to close out the game once they had a lead. I won't bore you with numbers, but it is a fact that the moment when the game is on the line could be the 4th inning or 9th or 13th. The situation dictates the level of importance. Somehow, it has become conventional thinking that you save your closer for the end. Managers rarely take heat for this poor strategy (or bunting for that matter) so they continue to do it. This time, at least people are questioning Buck's decision, which shows a little progress from the sports media concerning baseball analytics.

In fact, one day, in the not too distant future, the baseball dugout will have an "Analytics" coach that simply runs the numbers and tells the manager, "the computer says now is the best time to put in Britton", no matter what the inning.  This not only will increase the team's chances for victory but provide a scapegoat for the manager if the move backfires. "I went with the nerd on that decision so why don't you ask him?" It's sort of like an offensive coordinator in football, a little fire wall between the head coach and unemployment line. 

Kenny points out in his book that using relievers in such a narrow fashion is unique to the past twenty years. In the '70's teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, and A's would regularly insert their "Closers": Sparky Lyle, Mike Marshall and Rollie Fingers as early as the 4th inning. It's called the "Fireman Of the Year" award because these guys would put out fires. Not just pitch the 9th with a three-run lead and nobody on base. The top relief pitchers in baseball as recently as the '80's all pitched around 120 innings a year. Now it's down to about 70. Do the math, that's a lot of innings thrown by inferior pitchers. But easy saves make for big money and both players and agents get behind that. Less work and less stress for more pay? Sign me up. 

So what does this have to do with Terry Francona and the Cleveland Indians? With injuries to their pitching staff, the Tribe have turned to their own "Nuke LaLoosh," Trevor Bauer to start Game One against the far superior line-up of the Boston Red Sox. Trevor has good stuff but often comes unglued if he feels an umpire has missed a call. (Which happens all too often and can be fixed, but that's another story for a different time.) With Indians ace Corey Kluber set to pitch Game Two at home in Cleveland, a game one win would be huge. 

What we know for sure: every time a pitcher goes through a line-up, the next time around batters have more success; a third time even more. Once again, I'm not going to trot out numbers, it's just math. "Bullpenning" is a concept where no pitcher throws more than 75 innings and you make the opposing line-up face a new pitcher each time they bat around. In a perfect world, the Tribe would start their 3rd best reliever, bring in Baurer in the 4th and then go straight to their best pitcher, Andrew Miller, to close out the game from the 7th on. 

I know that scenario is too mind blowing for the 2016 baseball fan so I would suggest this. I would let Bauer go through the line-up one time and after that he would be on a very short leash. At the first sign of real trouble, go immediately to your best arm, Andrew Miller. Then work it out from there. If the Tribe can bullpen their way to a win in game one, you hand the ball to a true starting pitcher in game two. And Francona better tell Miller to plan on pitching both days. He is a grown man. He can handle it. The series takes an off day on Saturday.

Terry Francona is a smart cookie himself and has already been using Miller to get the important outs while using league average closer Cody Reed to mop up in the 9th inning. (click here to read the story) But sometimes, in the post season spotlight, progressive-thinking managers revert to conservative ways and in the blink of an eye, the season is lost. Look no further than Buck Showalter for proof of that. 

Colin Gawel wrote this at Colin's Coffee when he probably should have been cleaning. He loves playoff baseball but rarely sees the end of the games because they start and end too late.