The Other Guys: How Benches and Bullpens Are Shaping the MLB PlayoffsEd Zurga/AP Photo
There was never much reason to believe that Kansas City’s Terrance Gore would make it to the big leagues.
Sure, the 5-foot-7, 165-pounder could run as fast as a politician from a sex scandal, stealing 168 bases with a 91 percent success rate in the minors, but he owned no other notable baseball skills. The 20th-round 2011 draft pick hit just .237 in the minors, with an even more abysmal .271 slugging average. So when the Royals called up Gore after 1,245 mostly futile minor league plate appearances, it was a small miracle.
What has happened since has been even more miraculous: Gore appeared in 11 regular-season games in September, and though he logged just two plate appearances, he stole five bases and scored five runs. He’s been lethal in the playoffs, pinch running late in three of K.C.’s four playoff games and stealing a base each time.
Of course, a lot of what’s happened so far in October has been hard to believe. The best pitcher in the world got clobbered, and the best position player in the world barely hit a lick. Instead, these playoffs have been largely decided by the guys in the shadows, the bench players and middle-inning bullpen arms who rarely earn headlines but have proven pivotal more often than not this postseason. We’ve seen a series-swinging hit from an ace pinch hitter in Baltimore, games won and lost by non-closers across both leagues, and derring-do on the basepath from Gore and others. It’s enough to spark debate over why more teams don’t focus on building deep rosters, and on whether this October’s replacement heroics might prompt GMs to change the way they do business in the future.
For the clearest sign of the impact that bench and bullpen players have made this postseason, just examine the innings that have decided each game: In four of the 12 total games, the winning team took a lead that it would never relinquish between the first and fifth innings; in eight games, that happened in the sixth inning or later.
Taking a closer look at those eight instances of late-inning heroics sheds further light on relief players’ value — either with their active contributions or by their notable absences.
AL Wild-Card Game: Royals 9, A’s 8
Call this the prototype. K.C. trailed 7-3 entering the bottom of the eighth inning, down to its final six outs, thanks mostly to Ned Yost’s Achilles’ heel. But the Royals managed to score three in the eighth, an inning that included Gore’s first playoff swipe.
In the ninth, they tied it in an oh-so-Royals way: First, pinch hitter Josh Willingham reached on a bloop single. Then, light-hitting shortstop Alcides Escobar dropped a sacrifice bunt, a curious move considering the Royals had sent another blazingly fast pinch runner, Jarrod Dyson, into a tailor-made steal situation. Dyson got his glory one batter later, stealing one of the biggest bases in franchise history1 and then trotting home on Nori Aoki’s sacrifice fly.
After the Royals’ usually sharp bullpen gave up the go-ahead run in the top of the 12th, reserve infielder Christian Colon came to bat in the bottom of the inning and promptly knocked in the tying run, stole the Royals’ playoff-record seventh base, and scored the winning run on catcher Salvador Perez’s double.
In K.C.’s masterpiece, reserves Gore, Willingham, Dyson, and Colon were key.
ALDS Game 1: Royals 3, Angels 2 (in 11)
After its uncharacteristically poor showing in the wild-card game, the Royals bullpen was at its best in the series opener against the Angels. After six quality innings from starter Jason Vargas, seven relievers (Kelvin Herrera, Brandon Finnegan, Wade Davis, Tim Collins, Jason Frasor, Danny Duffy, and Greg Holland) combined to blank the highest-scoring offense in baseball for five more frames, setting the stage for Mike Moustakas’s game-winning blast in the 11th.
NLDS Game 1: Cardinals 10, Dodgers 9
Officially, this one was on Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher in baseball and a deserving MVP pick, who now holds the ignominious distinction of being the only pitcher in baseball history to give up seven runs or more in consecutive playoff starts. Kershaw wouldn’t have been in the position to fail if not for the Dodgers’ bullpen woes, though. As great as Kershaw normally is, it’s hard to imagine Don Mattingly or any other manager sticking with his starter after four straight singles to start the seventh inning unless there was no other reliable option. And aside from closer Kenley Jansen — who sure as hell wasn’t coming in for the seventh, because no manager is willing to break from orthodoxy — the Dodgers have nada. So Kershaw stayed in even though he was clearly tapped,2 and this happened:
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ALDS Game 2: Orioles 7, Tigers 6
Detroit’s bullpen had been a gigantic problem all year, ranking 27th in both ERA and FIP, and it imploded in the series opener against the Orioles. Since Baltimore had already been in front, Game 1 doesn’t quite fit this narrative. Game 2, though? The Orioles were trailing 6-3 entering the bottom of the eighth, but scored four times off Tigers relievers to take the lead, which they maintained for a 7-6 win.
Manager Brad Ausmus stuck to the script he had followed all year and called on Joba Chamberlain to start the inning, despite the 5.82 ERA Chamberlain had posted in his final 24 appearances of the season. Chamberlain recorded one out, then hit a batter and allowed two singles, surrendering a run and setting the stage for the Orioles’ game-winning hit.
That hit, a three-run double from pinch hitter Delmon Young, came on a hanging slider from normally excellent reliever Joakim Soria, suggesting that maybe this just wasn’t going to be Detroit’s year, no matter what Ausmus did. Still, if the Tigers had better high-leverage bullpen options, they might still be playing.
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Young’s huge hit also reminded the baseball world how valuable a skilled bat off the bench can be. Young has famously been a big-time playoff performer over the years,3 with nine postseason homers to his name and six straight playoff appearances with four different teams. Though he’s no longer a starter, he remains a legitimate hitter who’s a serious weapon late in games, and having that bench bat proved pivotal for the Orioles in the ALDS.
Sample sizes are always going to be small for pinch hitters, but it’s still worth noting that Young’s double raised his career batting average as a pinch hitter to .354 (17-for-48). Of course, Young has a terrible track record as a defender and as a human being, and we shouldn’t forget either of those things. But his performance this postseason could inspire other teams to go find their own poor man’s Matt Stairs.
ALDS Game 2: Royals 4, Angels 1 (in 11)
Back in his usual starting role, K.C. flamethrower Yordano Ventura redeemed himself in a big way following his wild-card game blowup out of the pen, firing seven innings of one-run ball against the Angels. Once again, though, the Royals bullpen made the win possible, as Davis, Frasor, Finnegan, and Holland combined for four scoreless innings before Eric Hosmer’s homer in the 11th sealed the victory.
NLDS Game 2: Giants 2, Nationals 1
Unsurprisingly, the longest game in playoff history included all kinds of amazing feats from bench and bullpen players. The San Francisco bullpen in particular was incredible, posting zeroes for 10.2 innings thanks in large part to six scoreless frames from Yusmeiro Petit, the swingman turned starter turned reliever. But the man who got the final three outs and helped lift San Francisco to the brink of a sweep was a no-name rookie named Hunter Strickland.
The 26-year-old right-hander was an 18th-round pick by the Red Sox way back in 2007, and wasn’t particularly good for much of his time in the minors, posting mediocre numbers as a starter and bouncing around with three organizations. When he made his way to the Giants in 2013, they figured Strickland could better harness his stuff as a full-time reliever, but after 21 terrific innings, he tore his UCL, adding Tommy John surgery to an injury history that already included season-destroying shoulder surgery two years earlier. But he returned this year and was a monster, striking out 55 batters and walking just four in 38.2 minor league innings, then whiffing nine more batters (with no walks) in seven scoreless September frames with the big club.
And though the Giants’ Game 1 victory wasn’t technically decided late, they might not be where they currently are without Strickland’s overpowering performance in the sixth inning of that contest. Bruce Bochy, who always seems to push the right buttons in October, tossed Strickland into the fire, pitting his rookie righty against Ian Desmond with the bases loaded and two outs. Strickland threw four pitches to Desmond, all fastballs: 99, 98, 99, 100, sit the F down. Strickland gave up two solo shots in the next inning, but he obviously recovered in time for Game 2, and if the Giants are going to go far again this postseason, Strickland and the playoff-ready pen will be a big reason why.
NLDS Game 2: Dodgers 3, Cardinals 2
The Dodgers, who have more money than some island nations, took Game 2 when $160 million man Matt Kemp hit a clutch home run in the bottom of the eighth. While this was the only late game-winning drama that didn’t provide a lesson in roster building, reliever J.P. Howell did reinforce the team’s non-Jansen bullpen issues when he spoiled Zack Greinke’s seven shutout innings by allowing a two-run homer to Matt Carpenter in the eighth.
ALDS Game 3: Orioles 2, Tigers 1
Yes, the winning runs came on a sixth-inning two-run blast from Nelson Cruz, the major league leader in home runs this year. But after Cruz and Orioles starter Bud Norris, the two biggest figures in this game hailed from the bullpen and bench. First, O’s lefty setup man Andrew Miller doused a potential rally in the seventh, inducing a groundout to eliminate Nick Castellanos from the bases and preserve Baltimore’s shutout. Miller then set down the Tigers 1-2-3 in the eighth. Prospect hounds are bullish on Eduardo Rodriguez, the 21-year-old southpaw the O’s shipped to Boston to get impending free agent Miller at the trade deadline. But even if the trade pays off for the Red Sox in the long run, no sane Orioles fan would argue with Miller’s results in Baltimore, playoffs included: 23.1 innings pitched, 37 strikeouts, five walks, eight hits, and a 1.16 ERA.
The final decisive moment, which secured the sweep for the O’s and ended the Tigers’ season, came with one out in the ninth. And it came because, as the Washington Post’s Dave Sheinin showed in his postgame column, Baltimore manager Buck Showalter is a badass:
There were no questions asked — only orders given and statements made. “We’re going to walk this guy,” Buck Showalter said to the six Baltimore Orioles he had gathered on the Comerica Park pitcher’s mound in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the American League Division Series. “The next guy’s going to hit into a double play, and we’re gonna go home.” The whole thing was less a prediction than an edict.
But while Showalter deserves credit for issuing the intentional walk to set up the game-winning double play, Detroit also deserves blame for not having a decent pinch-hitting option in that scenario. With one run in, two runners on, and two outs to go, Ausmus pulled shortstop Andrew Romine for Hernan Perez, another light-hitting infielder who’d batted .205/.234/.233 in 79 major league plate appearances and just .262/.304/.357 against much weaker minor league competition.
GM Dave Dombrowski deserves tons of credit for snapping up J.D. Martinez for nothing and getting huge production, but when the Tigers go shopping for roster help this winter, count on high-impact relievers and actual firepower off the bench being top priorities.
Few teams can call up a terminator like Strickland from the minors, drop him into a crucial playoff spot, and reap perfect results. And in today’s lower-offense environment, big bats don’t grow on trees. Plus, bench speed like what the Royals boast doesn’t come around all that often. And try as we might, no one has come up with a predictive theory for playoff success beyond “score more runs than the other team.”
Still, we can glean a few things from this wild and wacky October. Maybe the fear of making the next John Smoltz–for–Doyle Alexander deal will subside a little more following Baltimore GM Dan Duquette’s flags-fly-forever move for Miller. Moreover, maybe teams will think twice about the 12- and 13-man pitching staffs they’re assembling at the expense of better pinch-hitting and pinch-running options, realizing the security a seventh or eighth reliever offers in the event of an 18-inning game is less valuable than a boomstick or a roadrunner who can come off the bench each game. Grabbing a cheap, one-dimensional hitter like Young or runner like Gore can make a big difference, and one-dimensional contributors can be found in all sorts of places.
In the regular season, the 24th and 25th guys on the roster can help the cause. In October, they can become legends.
This article has been updated to correct the number of home runs Hunter Strickland gave up in Game 1 of the NLDS and the details of the Doyle Alexander trade.
Filed Under: 2014 MLB Playoffs, MLB, MLB Playoffs, Kansas City Royals, Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, Terrance Gore, Delmon Young, Hunter Strickland, Bullpens, Stolen Bases, Brad Ausmus, Dave Dombrowski, Dan Duquette, Andrew Miller, Joba CHamberlain, MLB Stats, Playoffs, ALDS, NLDS, MLB Wild-Card, Baseball, Jonah Keri