The 2016 American League Wild Card Game dragged on just like the one in 2014. A contest between division rivals, the Baltimore Orioles and the Toronto Blue Jays, the game took place at a raucous Rogers Center. Both teams had been in the playoffs recently--Buck Showalter's Orioles in 2014, John Gibbons' Blue Jays in 2015--both conquered by the Kansas City Royals in their respective years.
This year, no Royals team loomed to crush their season; instead, they had to do that to each other. Neither wanted to land the final blow. The game stretched into the 11th inning.
Lurking in the Baltimore bullpen was Zach Britton, their closer, Cy Young candidate, and owner of an ERA that started with a five. With a zero in front. So, 0.54. And, miraculously, Britton was still available. Showalter was reluctant to use his closer in a tie game on the road, but had the firepower to squeeze through so he could use Britton when he was truly needed.
Britton was truly needed in the 11th inning. With the top of the order coming up, Showalter tried to squeak by again with a lesser pitcher; in this case, that pitcher was Ubaldo Jiminez. Jiminez struck out the nine hitter, Ezequiel Carrera, but predictably ran into some trouble against the top.
As Britton paced in the bullpen, Devon Travis singled, followed by a Josh Donaldson single. With runners at the corners and only one out, Edwin Encarnacion, who has hit at least 34 home runs in each of the past five seasons, hit a no-doubt walkoff homer. Britton never pitched.
In Game Five of the American League Championship Series, Cleveland Indians' reliever Andrew Miller pitched 2.2 innings to bridge the gap from the starter to the closer. Miller pitched in four of the five games, tossing 7.2 innings (yeah, at an average of almost two per appearance, and yeah, Miller was a reliever the entire year) whilst striking out 14 and walking none. Most importantly, he didn't allow a single run.
Oh, and the Indians' bullpen as a whole for the series? They pitched 22 innings with a 1.64 ERA. They pitched 49% of the innings in the series like vintage Mariano Rivera.
This postseason has been characterized by bullpen decisions more than normal. In addition to Showalter's lack of basic basic baseball probabilities and Andrew "The Circumstance" Miller with the Cleveland Bullpen of doom, we've seen poor Clayton Kershaw get dinged for runs because his own bullpen didn't bail him out. And then Kershaw himself closed Game Five in the National League Divisional Series two days after tossing 110 pitches, which in and of itself is insane--but only after manager Dave Roberts attempted to use Kenley Janson for a three-inning save.
It's actually important to look at Rivera for some reference. Yes, firemen and closers in the olden days were tasked with pitching multiple innings. But Rivera is the golden standard for the modern closer--generally a one-inning guy, put into games late, the best reliever on his team. For his career, Rivera pitched a hair over one inning per appearance, at about 1 1/6 innings. For his playoff career, Rivera pitched a little more, averaging 1 1/2 innings per appearance.
That makes sense - in the playoffs, Rivera was called on for more four and five-out saves.There are never more than three consecutive games in a playoff series (and never more than two in the divisional series), so managers are guaranteed more rest with their bullpen arms. In addition, if you lose, there are no other games to worry about. There is every incentive to use your best arms as much as possible.
Conventional wisdom is that your best arms are your starting pitchers. That wisdom says that you need great starters to succeed in the playoffs.The bullpen was the home of closers or of pitchers who couldn't be trusted starting games.
The problem with that is the 2014 and 2015 Royals didn't fit that wisdom.
You don't need to look very far. The Royals used Jeremy Guthrie, career ERA 4.37, to start Game Seven of the 2014 World Series, the deciding game of that series. They used Edinson Volquez, career ERA 4.44, to start Game Five of the 2015 World Series, that year's deciding game, in addition to Game One.
But the Royals knew something special.
Clayton Kershaw is the greatest pitcher of this generation. He has won three Cy Young awards, an MVP award, and if the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Chicago Cubs and go to the World Series, he will grab a league championship for his resume and a shot for a world championship. Kershaw is only 28. He is going to the Hall of Fame someday.
Kelvin Herrera is a very good reliever. He has been healthy and consistent, pitching well in every situation required of him. He has postseason experience and will make a lot of money when he hits free agency. But Herrera only has 17 career saves to his name, and is not the best reliever on the team, let alone the league.
Kershaw's career ERA is 2.37 in the National League. Herrera's is 2.63 in the American League. Kershaw's FIP is 2.55. Herrera's FIP is 3.01. Kershaw has struck out 27.7% of all batters. Herrera has struck out 24.8% of all batters.
What the Royals knew was this: even the best starters' raw production can be easily matched with good bullpen arms. Starters are extraordinarily important when the season lasts 1,458 innings at least and there are games every single day for a week or more at a time. But a seven game series is only 63 innings, and rest days are plentiful.
With a cabal of mediocre starters, the Royals nonetheless barrelled their way to two consecutive World Series because their bullpen was untouchable. The league noticed. More than anything, that will be the legacy of the Royals. This deal with Miller and the Indians? A middle reliever getting a league championship MVP award?
We aren't going back.
Below is a table of a collection of the Royals' most impactful bullpen arms over their two-year playoff run.