Whether you know it or not, you’ve been watching a big chess game since October 25, the start of the Cubs-Indians World Series, and probably for much longer than that. It’s all thanks to baseball managers’ use of the bullpen.
As is customary in the World Series, both teams, the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians, have an exciting and deep list of pitchers to call on, and they haven’t hesitated to use them.
Cubs aces Kyle Hendricks and 2015 NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta make up a solid middle rotation for Chicago, bookended by number one man Jon Lester and fourth starter John Lackey, both of whom have ample World Series experience on the hill. Then there is Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman, whose 100-plus MPH pitches seem to melt the air.
Meanwhile, Indians starters Corey Kluber and Josh Tomlin look unhittable rolling into November, as Tribe relievers Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw and closer Cody Allen lengthen a Cleveland pitching staff tempered by the injury loss of Carlos Currasco and Trevor Bauer soldiering the mound with a stitched-up finger on his pitching hand.
Both teams have great hitters, great fielding and both steal bases. Oh, and they’ve got great managers too. SO it’s no surprise Joe Maddon and Terry Francona are engaging in a contest of wills, hoping to outgun the other dugout.
Historically when it comes to accolades, relief pitchers of all stripes – from the middle reliever coming into the 5th or 6th inning, to the 8th inning setup man, and the closer – generally don’t get the recognition from baseball they perhaps deserve.
Only a handful of reliving pitchers have won the Cy Young. These include long-retired Hall of Famers like Bruce Sutter (who won in 1979) and Rollie Fingers (1981). Only one reliever, Eric Gagne, who won the NL Cy Young Award with the Dodgers in 2003 has won since Dennis Eckersley more clearly defined the role of the closer and Major League’s dependency on it.
Awards notwithstanding, the players who stock bullpens make their mark in the World Series.
Mariano Rivera, who pitched 17 seasons with the New York Yankees began his tenure in 1995 as a starter. Later, Rivera became, along with his cutter, a legend, and posted pivotal saves in the 1998, 1999 and 2000 World Series wins for the Yankees, as well as in 2001 and 2009. Surely the Yankees would not dominated those years without their bullpen, while teams like the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies would not have World Series titles without the pitchers who provided their saves. Indians’ manager Terry Francona is no stranger to this territory.
With the Boston Red Sox he got to his first World Series, not only relying on his 2004 starters like Curt Schilling and Derek Lowe, along with reliever Keith Foulke. Francona also made unorthodox moves like sending in Pedro Martinez, also a starter, as the set up man in the 7th inning of Game 7, as a bit of a mind game at Yankee Stadium, before closer Mike Timlin finished off New York with scoreless 8th and 9th innings.
This Series so far, Francona’s clever but consistent bullpen management has worked for the Indians.
Following momentum of Kluber’s early innings, Francona’s bullpen has done its job, not only holding on to leads but also have disrupted the timing of players that have been sailing all postseason, like Javier Baez, Willson Contreras and even veterans like David Ross, luring them to swing at everything and get behind in the count. Likewise Maddon has played his fair share of chess with pitchers on both, placing in Chapman to seal the Cubs’ only two leads in the series, while also being not afraid to pull Chapman out of the batting lineup in the NLCS, which lead to a Game 1 win off of Miguel Montero’s pinch hit grand slam.
Both Francona and Maddon have dished up dugout wizardry and aggressive use of bullpens. Regardless of who wins Game 6 tonight and the series, let’s hope that baseball brings us more suspense in year to come, and that eventually relief pitchers get their due.