MASTER NOTES: The beginning of the end for saves?

Terry Francona has fired what might be the first shots that eventually sink the save as a fantasy stat. And I say to Captain Francona, “Full speed ahead, sir!”

I’ve fulminated before in this space about what a poor stat the Win is. And if anything, the Save is even worse—more capricious, more lucky, more inconsistent, and even less valuable than wins to a team. A win, for all its numerous warts, requires that the pitcher at least stay in the game through 15 outs. A save requires the pitcher to get as few as one out, or to get three outs against the weakest part of the opponent’s order.

A few years ago, I asked my BHQ colleague Matt Beagle, a diehard Strat-o-Matic junkie, about the secret to his success. He said, “I never draft a closer. Just get the best relievers.” At that time, in Strat-o-Matic, you see, you could simply assign any of your pitchers to the closer role, so any quality relief arm would do. The case is same in Scoresheet and other simulation formats. 

More recently in Strat-o-Matic, I think the rules were adjusted to give “real closers” better cards for the game. If I remember what Matt said, the Strat owner could also use his best reliever—even if he was a "closer" in the big leagues—in the most useful situations. 

Which, of course, are often not in the ninth inning.

That is what Terry Francona has done with Andrew Miller. Joe Sheehan wrote in his newsletter that one of his readers had tipped him to Miller’s usage patterns since he came to Cleveland at the trade deadline. Instead of locking into the mythology about the “closer” and “the ninth inning,” Francona has used his formidable lefthander to get key outs in the most critical situations—as early as the sixth inning—and left him in the game for more than three outs.

Here’s what went down after Miller got his feet wet in a blowout loss to Minnesota:

Aug. 4: With Cleveland leading 4-2 in the top of the sixth, Miller came in with two out to face Byron Buxton, and struck him out looking. Francona left him in for the seventh, to face the top of the Twins’ order: RHH Brian Dozier and then lefties Joe Mauer and Max Kepler. Groundout, strikeout, strikeout, inning over. Cleveland scored three in the bottom of the seventh and coasted to an easy win.

Aug. 6: Leading the Yankees 5-2 in New York, Francona brought Miller in for the save situation in the ninth, again facing the top of the order. After a Brett Gardner single, Miller fanned lefty Jacoby Ellsbury and switch-striker-outer Mark Teixeira, then got lefty Brian McCann on a groundout. Cleveland won.

Aug. 9: With Cleveland ahead 2-0 in Washington, Miller entered in the seventh with a runner on second and one away. He popped up a pinch-hitter and fanned leadoff man Trea Turner to strand the runner. He stayed in for the eighth, with Francona managing through RHH Jayson Werth towards LHH Daniel Murphy. Werth threw a wrench into the plan by homering, but Miller got the hot-hitting Murphy to fly out. Francona brought in righthander Bryan Shaw to successfully face a string of RHHs. Cleveland wins.

Aug. 13: After three days off, Miller was brought in for the top of the eighth with Cleveland ahead 5-1. He struck out the side with a walk. Cody Allen got the “Save.” Cleveland won.

Aug. 14: With Cleveland leading the Angels 5-4, Miller came in for the top of the seventh to face the bottom of the order. In a planned move, Francona also left him in to face the top of the order in the eighth. Three total groundouts, a lineout, a flyball and a strikeout (of Albert Pujols) later, Miller’s work was done. Cleveland won.

OK, it’s only the Angels, but still.

Aug. 16: With Cleveland leading the White Sox 2-1, again Miller came in to face the bottom of the order in the seventh, and again stayed in to face the top of the order in the eighth. Five groundouts and one whiff later, Miller left with another job well done. Cleveland wins.

One of the arguments against flexible use of relievers is that the pitchers like to know their "roles," which has always been interpreted to mean which inning they pitch. Miller thought he was going to be pitching the ninth in New York with the departure of Aroldis Chapman.

After Cleveland acquired him, Francona and GM Chris Antonetti met with him and with incumbent closer Cody Allen to assess their mindsets with the new bullpen talent. According to media reports, both Allen and Miller said they would willingly take different "roles," namely the role of doing what is best to help the team win games.

Miller appears not to be pouting with his “demotion,” nor with being pushed into games on relatively short notice, another supposed bugaboo about using relievers flexibly. In these six games, Miller has accumulated one save and five holds, and has pitched exceptionally well. His ERA in these games is barely over one, his WHIP well under 0.50. His Dom is 12 K/9, his Ctl is 1.1 bb/9, and his Cmd is 11.0 K/bb. Miller is living his commitment.

That still leaves Francona to do likewise. After the deal, he told reporters, “We have guys at the end of the game that are a little bit interchangeable. Not only in their willingness, but different kind of skill-set, different arm actions, left-right, and we’re going to have a chance to leverage guys and believe me, we will.”

Well, seeing is believing. So far, he has been willing to at least use Miller flexibly, but it will be more interesting to see if Francona is willing to follow Miller in the sixth with Allen in the seventh if necessary, and leave Shaw or some other bullpen arm to take the easy ninth-inning mop-up save.

If he does, and if he succeeds, the rest of baseball is bound to take notice. The Royals inspired a bunch of imitators with their fixed World-Series late-game bullpen lineup. (Not least, the Yankees set up their bullpen to go 7-8-9 with Dellin Bettances-Miller-Chapman.)

If Francona continues to innovate in bullpen use—and, more importantly, if he succeeds—it would be nothing but good for fantasy baseball. At best, norms and expectations would change and the saves category would be replaced with some other measure of reliever effectiveness. Even saves-plus-holds would be an improvement.

A second-best outcome would be the de-emphasis of “the closer” as a value repository. Flexible bullpens would mean a wider distribution of saves, reducing the value of the one-guy "closer," and adding value to the other skilled guys in every bullpen.

Of course, all of this stinks for Andrew Miller owners, who were expecting a bumper crop of late-season saves and will instead get holds, good decimals and the thin satisfaction of possibly owning a guy on the cutting edge of baseball strategy.

Me? I can hardly wait.

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.