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Yanking starters early in the playoffs is no longer heresy — it’s baseball’s newest conventional wisdom



It was exactly two years ago that John Gibbons walked to the mound in Arlington, in the fifth inning of Game 4 of the ALDS, and confused the hell out of everyone.

Toronto had soundly thumped Texas starter Derek Holland, R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball was dancing in the Texas heat and the Blue Jays had a six-run lead. Gibbons pulled Dickey anyway and brought in David Price. This set off all sorts of wondering about whether the Toronto manager was afraid of using Price in Game 5, whether he had insulted Dickey, whether he had insulted Price, whether he had basically lost his mind. Taking out an effective starter so early was just Not Done.

Gibbons would say afterward that the explanation was perfectly simple: he was trying to win.

Two playoff seasons later, the early hook has become standard practice. Cleveland manager Terry Francona pulled Corey Kluber in the fourth inning of Game 5 on Wednesday night, going to his now-familiar routine of deploying reliever of doom Andrew Miller out of the bullpen as early as he deems necessary. Miller struck out five of eight batters and gave Cleveland a chance for a comeback that they couldn’t quite pull off. And while Francona is being second-guessed for his later decision to pitch to Brett Gardner instead of the slumping Aaron Judge — Gardner hit the back-breaking two-run single that all but salted the game away for New York in the ninth — no one is fussed by the move to pull Kluber, the likely AL Cy Young winner this year.

How many seasons ago would such a decision have been considered lunacy? Three? Four? Starting pitchers, especially those with a resume as impressive as Kluber’s, were to remain in the game as long as possible, and hard-throwing relievers were to be stashed in the bullpen until the late innings.

But that attitude has changed with alarming speed. In 2014, Kansas City lost a seven-game World Series in which their bullpen pitched more than half the total innings. Cleveland did the same thing in last year’s World Series, pulling starters at the very first sign of trouble, and Chicago manager Joe Maddon responded by going early — twice! — to his bullpen in that epic Game 7.

Both of those Maddon moves backfired, by the way, but the strategy has endured because the logic behind them is sound: fresh relievers are more effective than tiring starters, a conclusion backed up by piles of data. With playoff baseball being notoriously fickle — entire series outcomes can swing on a couple of at-bats — it’s in a manager’s interest to get the best possible matchup at all times, even if that might cause some wounded pride among starters who still think of themselves as nine-inning horses.

Francona has said that his situation with Miller is unique; Cleveland already had a closer when they acquired him, and Miller is already getting closer money, so he doesn’t need saves to bolster his contract leverage. This playoff season, though, it’s not just Francona pulling guys early, but Joe Girardi replacing C.C. Sabathia in the fifth and Dusty Baker yanking Max freaking Scherzer early and A.J. Hinch giving Justin Verlander his first relief appearance after more than 2,600 innings as a starter, in a game in which Boston starter Chris Sale also came in from the bullpen.

This is the first MLB postseason going back to 2000 in which relievers have thrown more than 50 per cent of the available innings. The average starter’s start is well under five innings for the first time in that span, sitting at about 4 1/3 innings. Roles are being rapidly defined. It’s the product of math, and probabilities, and managers more willing to play the odds even if it’s contrary to old-timey attitudes, and front offices willing to back them up.

It also makes one wonder where it might end. There is research that suggests starters should never go more than twice through a batting order, so will some team develop three-inning specialists who could bridge the gap between the fourth and seventh? Will a manager bring in his best relievers even earlier, in hopes of turning over a lead to a “starter” who could finish the last several innings? Could closers start? I saw a research paper presented last spring that proposed visiting teams burn a reliever for the first batter of each game, allowing their starter to warm up in the bullpen and immediately enter, rather than warming up and then sitting in the dugout for the top of the first. (Visiting teams have a distinct scoring disadvantage in the first inning, which could in theory be a result of the starter cooling off in the dugout after his warmup.)

This strategy would, I imagine, drive many parties crazy, and I doubt any manager would try it. But that’s probably the outer limit of where managers will be willing to change pitching strategy in the future. The days of the starter who stares daggers at the approaching manager are nearing their end, and the complete game, especially in the playoffs, is becoming obsolete.

We’ll still see the odd manager who leaves the starter in too long, who waits to see if his big guy can battle out of high-leverage trouble. He wanted the ball, the manager will say ruefully later. And sometime later than that, the manager will be looking for a job.

Email: sstinson@postmedia.com | Twitter: @scott_stinson



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