This article originally appeared in FanGraphs.
The Orioles finished off the Detroit Tigers on Sunday, winning their division series three games to none, though the primary story of the series still seems to resolve around the Tigers and their disastrous bullpen performance. Despite throwing $10 million per year at Joe Nathan over the winter, and then trading for Joakim Soria at the deadline, the Tigers bullpen combined for a 19.29 ERA in this series, and that includes two shutout innings from regular-season starter Anibal Sanchez. If you look at just the Tigers postseason pitchers who were relievers in the regular season, they combined to allow 11 runs in just three innings against the Orioles, good for an ERA of 33.00.
The Orioles likely would be up 2–1 in this series even if the Tigers relievers had pitched well—Detroit’s starter left with the team down 4–3 in Game 1 and down 2–0 in Game 3, and the Tigers never managed to make up those deficits in either game—so it’s not accurate to say that the Tigers bullpen cost them the division series. However, on the other end of things, we could put together an argument that the Orioles bullpen, and more specifically Buck Showalter’s management of his relievers, won this series for the Orioles.
That isn’t to take away from the other parts of the Orioles roster that performed well in the first round, but the stark contrast in bullpen management between Showalter and the other postseason managers is difficult to miss. Over the first week of the postseason, we have seen numerous instances of managers sticking with tiring starting pitchers until they start getting into trouble, and asking their bullpen to put out fires rather than to prevent them from ever occurring in the first place. But we didn’t see that in Baltimore, and it’s one of the primary reasons the Orioles are advancing and the Tigers are not.
In the postseason, starting pitchers are averaging 25 batters faced per start, the same number as they averaged during the regular season. Nine of the 24 starting pitchers who have taken the hill so far have faced 27 or more hitters, getting through the lineup three times, and, in some cases, facing hitters for a fourth time in their start.
The Orioles starters? They’re averaging 21 batters faced per start, the second lowest total in the postseason—the Angels number was dragged down significantly by C.J. Wilson‘s first-inning hook on Sunday—despite the fact that they actually pitched pretty well. Usually, a low batters faced total for a starting pitcher means he got chased early, but Buck Showalter has been aggressive in removing his starters before their starts could go too far south.
In Game 1, Chris Tillman was removed after facing just 20 batters, even though he’d recorded 15 outs in the process. He’d given up two home runs in the second inning, but had just completed three straight scoreless innings when Showalter went to the bullpen, asking his three best relievers to finish the final four innings.
In Game 2, Wei-Yin Chen forced Showalter’s hand a bit, getting knocked around in the fourth inning, but even here, we don’t see Showalter messing around too much. The first five batters of the inning went single-double-single-homer-homer, so there wasn’t really much time for the pen to get warmed up in time to prevent the five runs that Chen allowed. But even after he settled down to record two outs afterward, Showalter still replaced him with Kevin Gausman once he gave up one more base runner.
In Game 3, Bud Norris became the first Orioles starter to pitch beyond five innings, as Showalter allowed him to get 25 batters deep before going to Andrew Miller. But even then, we can still see a relatively quick hook, as Norris had taken just 100 pitches to get through those 25 batters faced, and was pulled for a lefty even though the next batter due up, Andrew Romine, is a switch-hitter who has historically been much better from the right side of the plate. In the most extreme case of Showalter pushing his starter, he still removed him before he got through the lineup three times and after throwing just 100 pitches, and he surrendered the platoon advantage in order to do so.
The Orioles bullpen is excellent, and Showalter undoubtedly feels more confidence in handing the ball to his relievers than Brad Ausmus did in calling on the Tigers relievers, for instance. But Showalter’s aggressive bullpen usage isn’t just about having better arms than everyone else; it’s about realizing that his fresh relievers are more likely to get outs and protect leads than one of his tiring starters. And perhaps he’s emboldened in that belief by the fact that the Orioles don’t exactly have a traditionally dominant starting pitcher or two at the front of their rotation, making it easier to justify removing a guy like Tillman or Norris, even when they are performing well.
Historically, the belief has been that teams with dominant starting pitching have the biggest advantage in October. The Tigers and A’s both loaded up on front-line pitchers at the trade deadline, while the Orioles—with an inferior rotation but a strong bullpen—loaded up on yet another reliever instead. Obviously, you don’t want to draw conclusions based on the results of one series—or in the A’s case, one game—but both Bob Melvin and Brad Ausmus leaned heavily on their high profile starting pitchers in the playoffs, and they combined to win exactly zero games between them.
Perhaps there is a hidden cost to having a starter-heavy pitching staff in October. As we’ve talked about numerous times, the times-through-the-order penalty makes even the best starting pitchers an inferior option relative to a solid reliever by the time the sixth or seventh inning rolls around, but it is possible that having a strong rotation makes it less likely that a manager will take advantage of this in the postseason. Showalter has done a fantastic job of managing his pitching staff, but I wonder if the team’s OK rotation/great bullpen construction has emboldened him to follow this strategy more than he would have if he were given David Price or Jon Lester.
Of course, having those guys is great, but everything in baseball is a trade-off. The Orioles don’t have a legitimate No. 1 starter, but instead of using their prospects to go get one, they used a quality prospect to go get Andrew Miller instead. Trading for a reliever at the deadline isn’t a guarantee of landing a dominant bullpen arm in October—Joakim Soria says hello—but relievers can have a significantly larger impact on the game in the postseason than they do in the regular season. And if a team has a strong group of lights-out bullpen arms behind a group of decent-but-unspectacular starters, perhaps it creates a freedom for the manager to handle his pitching staff in a more aggressive manner, rather than sticking with a tiring starter for too long when better bullpen options exist.
Buck Showalter’s Orioles are in the ALCS in part because Showalter was willing to use his relievers to prevent rallies rather than simply extinguish them. Not only was his ALDS management style a great example of how postseason baseball should be handled, but perhaps the Orioles are evidence of an inherent advantage of a bullpen-heavy pitching staff. Give this kind of pitching staff to a manager who isn’t afraid to exploit potential advantages, and you find things like the Orioles running over a team that threw the last three AL Cy Young winners at them.
The players deserve credit too, of course. Showalter wouldn’t look like as much of a genius if Miller had pitched like Soria in this series, but his aggressive bullpen management gave his team its best chance to win.
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