In the old days, managers went to their best reliever in a close game as soon as the starting pitcher tired. That usually meant that he entered with runners on base, put out the fire, and then hopefully finished the game to nail down the win. For the Murderers’ Row team in 1927, that role was filled by Wilcy Moore. Fifty years later, it was Sparky Lyle, who became one of the first relievers to win the Cy Young Award.
Things changed quickly, and within 10 years the multi-inning fireman/closer went extinct. The role was replaced by a one-inning closer who typically only pitched at the end of the game in a save situation. Over time, bullpens were filled with a string of single-inning specialists, while they sometimes even included one-out guys.
Managers have often gotten themselves locked into these pre-defined bullpen roles, sometimes to their detriment. This failing is best exemplified by Orioles manager Buck Showalter’s handling of the 2016 AL Wild Card Game in Toronto.
Baltimore lost the game on a walk-off three-run homer in the bottom of the eleventh. It happened with the team’s closer — and best overall pitcher — sitting on the bench in the bullpen. Zach Britton wasn’t merely the Orioles’ best hurler. The southpaw had just produced one of the greatest single seasons by a reliever in baseball history.
After the game, Showalter said he was holding Britton back for a save situation. Unfortunately for Showalter, it never materialized, and Baltimore’s season ended with its greatest weapon watching from the sidelines. The highly respected manager was universally excoriated, and the decision became a career-defining moment for the mostly successful long-time skipper.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone did not make the same mistake during last night’s Wild Card Game against the Athletics. In fact, Boone borrowed a page from the old-school baseball playbook. He went to his best reliever as soon as starter Luis Severino tired.
Dellin Betances entered the game in relief of Severino with two on and no one out in the top of the fifth, and the Yankees clinging to a 2-0 lead. Betances threw an 86-mph knuckle curve to MVP candidate Matt Chapman for a first-pitch strike, then retired him on a line drive to Aaron Judge in right field. He fell behind 2-0 to Jed Lowrie, but got him on a fly out to Aaron Hicks in center. Betances completed the escape act by striking out MLB home run champion Khris Davis swinging on an 88-mph cutter.
Needing only only 11 pitches to shut down Oakland’s rally in the fifth, Betances returned to the mound to throw another frame. The one-two-three inning went just as smoothly as the last, with Betances getting ahead 0-2 on each of the three batters he faced. Matt Olson grounded to first, Stephen Piscotty struck out on a knuckle curve, and Ramon Laureano went down looking at a 98-mph four-seam fastball.
Betances previously made six postseason appearances for the Yankees, while never entering a game before the seventh inning. The four-time All-Star appeared in 67 games for New York this season. Again, he never entered prior to the seventh, and typically pitched the eighth, ninth, or later. You have to go all the way back to 2016 to find an example of Betances pitching during the sixth. He hasn’t made an appearance in the fifth inning since 2014.
That shows how committed Boone was to winning this game. He was so determined to win, that he threw current baseball dogma out the window. Betances was far and away the club’s best and most consistent reliever this year. During his successful bounce-back campaign, Betances set a major-league record for consecutive outings with at least one strikeout. He regained his former dominance along the way.
With Aroldis Chapman losing velocity since coming off the disabled list, and Britton showing some inconsistency as he continues to bounce back from injurr, Betances was the obvious choice to serve as closer for the Yankees during the postseason. But Boone didn’t hold Betances back for a save situation that might never materialize. He brought him in as soon as he was needed.
During the regular season, relieving the starter in the fifth inning might have fallen to Jonathan Holder, Chad Green, or David Robertson. But not in the playoffs. Not under Boone’s watch.
The gutsy move paid off. After Betances put out the fire in the fifth and remained in the game to hurl a perfect sixth, the Yankees tacked on four more runs. That enabled Boone to run down the bullpen pecking order. Robertson threw a perfect seventh, Britton was tagged for a two-run homer in the eighth, and Chapman entered with a five-run cushion in the ninth to seal the win. A save situation never materialized, thanks in part to Boone’s call and Betances coming through when he was needed the most.