Dave Roberts’ utilization of Kenley Jansen in Game 5 of the National League Division Series proves that traditional bullpen managerial methods need to change.
It’s not every day that one has the chance to destroy the established norm and investigate if we’re sure it’s the most practical.
Yet, after watching the brilliance of Dave Roberts management during Game 5 of the National League Division Series, we were handed a golden opportunity to question whether the traditional use of a closer is, in fact, effective.
In the seventh inning, the Dodgers’ manager saw his oh-so-delicate lead fall to one after Washington Nationals’ pinch hitter Chris Heisey propelled a two-run homer off Grant Dayton.
In response, Roberts turned to Kenley Jansen, his closer. Yes, in the seventh. Why? Because he knows that his best reliever — a title that, for some reason, merits a designated inning — would give Los Angeles the best chance to advance to the NLCS.
Jansen went on to throw 51 pitches and allow just one hit in 2.1 innings before handing the ball to Clayton Kershaw, who sent the Dodgers to the NLCS and recorded his first save since 2006, when he registered one against the Gulf Coast Nationals.
FUN FACT: Jansen was his catcher.
However, Roberts set a sensational example by steering away from the “closer-pitches-the-ninth” cliche and proving that it’s a bunch of malarkey. Instead, his best reliever avoided further damage in the seventh and his best pitcher slammed the door shut. Take that, normalcy.
Just because it’s the final three outs, does not mean that they are the three most decisive outs of the game. In fact, more often than not, the most consequential situations come as soon as the fifth inning.
Rarely do managers realize the role of assigning their best reliever the ninth inning has surpassed its expiration date. Yes, Buck Showalter, that message is aimed directly at you.
In the do-or-die extra-inning Wild Card game in Toronto, the Orioles’ manager used six relievers and none of them were named Zach Britton, a man who owned a 0.54 earned run average and was 47-for-47 in save opportunities during the regular season.
Instead of going to his best reliever, who also ranked first in Win Probability Added, with the season on the line, he went to Ubaldo Jimenez, who served up a walk-off three-run bomb to Edwin Encarnacion, ending Baltimore’s season with Britton standing in the bullpen wondering “why.”
There’s also the reverse side of the spectrum. You know, those who aren’t still stubborn about utilizing their closer to record the final three outs.
An example, other than Roberts on Thursday night, was Cleveland Indians’ manager Terry Francona, who used the nastiness of Andrew Miller to record six outs (and no earned runs) in both Games 1 and 2 of the ALDS during what were arguably the most critical innings of the series.
Sure, one could argue that this insanely intelligent strategy only works in the postseason, but it’s about time that the “fireman” role used in the early-mid 20th century returns to the modern game. Why? Because it has proven to be more effective than an ordinary closer.
In the 2016 regular season, teams with a lead in the later portion of the game actually saw a greater increase in win percentage when their seventh inning lead is carried over into the eighth than when the eight inning lead is carried to the ninth.
From the seventh into the eighth, win probability took a 5.92% increase while the ninth sees a 5.26% increase in win probability.
Managers, like Francona with Miller and Roberts in Game 5, should be prepared to use their best reliever even earlier in games, whenever the matchups dictate.
It requires a massive change in philosophy. And will make general managers stop throwing money at the save statistic. However, when you’ve got your best pitcher and in a position where you don’t get that next inning or even lose a lead if you refuse to pitch him in that scenario, you’re just doing it wrong.
Baseball is a copycat game, and some are catching on. But the rest of the league needs to get with the program and maximize the closer role and let their guy face the most dangerous batters in the closest of games, April through October.
After all, whether you’re trapped on the third floor, seventh floor, or ninth floor, you would still need a fireman to save you, right?
Christian Kouroupakis covers the New York Yankees and Major League Baseball for ESNY. Interact with him and view his daily work by “liking” his facebook page and follow him on Twitter. All statistics are courtesy of Baseball Reference.com unless otherwise noted. Don’t hesitate to shoot him an email with any questions, criticisms, or concerns.