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Postseason provides profiles in bullpens (and their management)

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Bruce Bochy looks like Robin Ventura, and nobody looks like Terry Francona

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Bruce Bochy, unlike Robin Ventura, is a well-regarded manager. Bochy, unlike Ventura, has three World Series rings and four pennants. Bochy, unlike Ventura, has a Hall of Fame case, even if he’s one ugly season away from being a below-.500 manager in the regular season.

But on one October evening, Bochy, like Ventura, used five pitchers in an inning out of panic.

That’s kinda redundant, because there really isn’t a way to use five pitchers in an inning without panic if you have any semblance of confidence in any one pitcher. But the panic needs to be underlined, because using four pitchers for the first four batters in the ninth inning of an elimination game and not recording one out for the trouble escalates the sense of confusion and desperation.

He opened the inning with Derek Law, who gave up an ordinary single to Kris Bryant. Bochy then called for LOOGY Javier Lopez to face Anthony Rizzo ... and Lopez walked him to bring the tying run to the plate, which is close to the worst thing he could’ve done. Bochy then went to Sergio Romo to face Ben Zobrist, but that only turned around the switch-hitting Zobrist. Likewise, when he brought in lefty Will Smith to face Chris Coghlan, Joe Maddon countered with Willson Contreras to regain the advantage.

Once Lopez failed to get an out, Bochy stopped having guys for situations, and was more or less blindly throwing pitchers against the Cubs to try and stop them. The Cubs came back to win 6-5, advancing to the NLCS and handing the Giants their first loss in 11 elimination games.

It’s not entirely Bochy’s fault, because the Giants bullpen is the chief reason San Francisco had one of baseball’s worst second-half records, and the good parts of it were taxed from a 13-inning Game 3. Going back to the game in May where Ventura used five White Sox pitchers in one inning while blowing a lead to the Royals, Ventura looked worse because he didn’t use Nate Jones while he had the lead, and didn’t look at Zach Putnam once. Bochy would’ve killed to have a guy like Jones available, I reckon.

But from reading McCovey Chronicles and other Giants fans, he compounded problems by relying too long on Santiago Casilla in save situations (this post was written more than a month before Casilla lost the job), and not trying out other credible pitchers in high-leverage situations when order was hard to find (Dave Cameron wondered why Bochy didn’t like Smith more). That missing sense of scale snowballed on one of the game’s best managers when the stakes were the highest. We didn’t get a chance to see the White Sox in a postseason game over the last five years, so you'll have to settle for this incredible simulation.

Star-divide

On the other side of the bracket, Terry Francona knows who his two best relievers are, and he’s riding them until they collapse.

Cleveland paid a hefty cost at the deadline to acquire Andrew Miller, who was the Yankees’ eighth-inning man. Francona is making it worth the front office’s efforts, because he isn’t waiting for a lead to get to Miller.

In Game 1 against Boston, Francona brought in Miller with two outs and the bases empty in the fifth inning. Trevor Bauer gave up a homer to start the inning, which cut Cleveland’s lead to 4-3, and Francona didn’t take any chances. It almost backfired when Miller gave up a double and a walk (Bauer could’ve done that), but he struck out David Ortiz to end the fifth.

And then Francona used Miller to record a 1-2-3 sixth. And then he used Miller to retire the first two batters of the seventh, finally pulling Miller in favor of Bryan Shaw for the righty-righty matchup after two innings and 40 pitches.

When Shaw gave up a homer that cut Cleveland’s lead to one to start the eighth, Francona went back to the playbook. He called for closer Cody Allen with one out, and he gave up a double to Ortiz (Shaw could’ve done that). He came back to get a groundout and a strikeout, then struck out the side in the ninth around a two-out single.

To review: Once Bauer left the game, Fracona needed his bullpen to get 13 outs. His two best relievers recorded 11 of them.

Francona did the same thing in Game 3. He got five acceptable innings out of Josh Tomlin and a 4-2 lead, and when Tomlin started wobbling, Francona went to Miller while he still had the lead. Miller made it through the sixth and seventh scoreless (if you don’t count Tomlin’s inherited runner), and when Shaw stumbled in the eighth, Allen walked a tightrope for the last four outs. Francona needed 12 outs from his bullpen, and his two best relievers recorded 10 of them.

Francona previewed this strategy by using Miller in irregular situations in the two months after the deadline. Ben Lindbergh wrote a great post on The Ringer about the benefits of not only having a guy like Miller, but that Miller-like guy embracing pliability and a manager who is confident enough to fail that way.

Francona knows the Miller model may backfire at times. Although analysts can come up with theoretical models for flawless bullpen management, Francona has to take into account the need to have the right pitcher ready in time to come in, and the competing desire not to have the same pitcher prep multiple times. "Even the way we use Andrew, there’s going to be a game where we have him warmed up in the sixth and something goes awry, and we’re going to have arguably our best pitcher coming in in a situation where we’re down a run," Francona says. "And people are going to be like, ‘What are you doing?’ That’s the fallout that can happen, and I know it’ll happen at some point, but … in my opinion, it’s worth having him ready to impact the game the most amount you can." It helps that Francona has a rich résumé and the support of an analytically inclined front office, but ultimately, he goes with his gut. Fortunately for the Indians, his gut says something different from most managers’. "I think you open yourself up to be second-guessed by bringing somebody in early, but I’m OK with that because I know down deep it’s putting us in the best position to win," he says.

A couple outside elements enabled Francona to deploy his high-leverage guys super-aggressively in the ALDS. In between Game 1 and Game 3, Corey Kluber threw seven shutout innings and left the bullpen with a 6-0 lead, and Hurricane Matthew added a day off.

The Indians haven’t announced their starter for Friday’s Game 1 with the Toronto Blue Jays. Traditionally, you’d want Kluber to start as many games as possible, but maybe Francona's focus is on making his firemen as available as possible.