Andrew Miller turned the middle innings into a major stage last October, earning AL Championship Series MVP while pitching the Cleveland Indians into the World Series.
This postseason, he’ll have company — a crew of shutdown arms trained to do more than close out a lead in the ninth.
Managers have taken their cue from Indians skipper Terry Francona, keeping some lights-out pitchers in long relief roles that once existed outside of the spotlight. With starter workloads continuing to shrink, these playoffs could be when those middle men become household names.
There’s Yankees fireballer Chad Green, who has a 1.83 ERA but routinely pitches in the fifth or sixth innings. Same with Houston’s Chris Devenski, an All-Star who worked up to four innings per outing this season. The Cubs have a steady long man in Mike Montgomery (2.49 ERA in relief), Arizona can call on Archie Bradley (1.73 ERA), and Colorado’s Chris Rusin (2.65 ERA) has reliably gotten six or more outs in the middle innings, too.
“Especially with what you saw with Miller last year, sometimes the big out is in the fifth inning,” Green said. “That might be the big inning.”
The threat of playoff elimination is often a catalyst for creativity. Last year, traditional one-inning closers like Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman were stretched for eight or nine outs at times, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts called on ace Clayton Kershaw for a save in Game 5 of an NL Division Series, and Cubs lefty Jon Lester made his first relief appearance in nearly a decade during Game 7 of the World Series.
Francona is as bold an innovator as any manager, and Miller might be his most fruitful playoff trial. Miller’s transition to middle relief last fall keyed Cleveland’s run to the Series, with Miller — formerly an elite closer — eagerly entering games as soon as the fifth and powering through two-plus innings.
Miller’s success has put long relief in a new light.
“It is changing the perception, for sure. I guess people look at long relief as the mop-up duty. I guess him and maybe with the help of me, we’re changing it to where you can pitch long relief in higher leverage situations.”
Pitcher usage is changing across the board. Starters covered an all-time low 5.5 innings per game this year, and teams have been even quicker with the hook in recent postseasons. Some of that is about pitch counts and injuries, but it’s also because managers want certain relievers in the game sooner.
Take it from the hitters’ perspective: facing someone like Miller, Green or Devenski isn’t much of a reward for chasing away those starters.
Green has been particularly dominant in those middle innings this season. The 26-year-old has quietly dominated in a bullpen headlined by All-Stars Chapman, Dellin Betances and David Robertson. He has the best ERA out of that group this year despite averaging more than five outs per appearance.
Green has struck out 40.7 percent of his batters, trailing only closers Craig Kimbrel, Jansen and Corey Knebel among pitchers with at least 60 innings. He’s also earned manager Joe Girardi’s trust in big spots by consistently throwing strikes.
“He doesn’t beat himself,” Girardi said.
A starter in the minor leagues, Green hasn’t ruled out a return to the rotation one day — he says he’ll go wherever New York wants him. In the meantime, he’s bought into the idea that he can make critical contributions in the middle of games.
“Games can be won or lost in the fifth or sixth innings because you’re getting to guys in the back of the bullpen that are lights out,” he said. “Teams might use their pinch hitter in the fifth or sixth and not wait until the ninth.”
A look at some of the other fireman relievers who could shine this postseason:
1. CHRIS DEVENSKI, HOUSTON ASTROS
Devenski grabbed baseball’s attention by opening the season with a pair of overpowering four-inning relief appearances and pitched his way into the All-Star Game. A right-hander with a devastating changeup, he’s thrown over 80 innings out of the bullpen each of the past two years and ranks seventh among relievers with 3.6 wins above replacement in that span, per Fangraphs . The names ahead of him? Jansen, Miller, Roberto Osuna, Kimbrel, Chapman and Betances.
Devenski has become a fan favorite in Houston, too, despite only saving five games in his career. He got his own bobblehead doll in June, and some supporters have even worn “energy dome ” hats, popularized in the 1980s by the band DEVO, as a nod to Devenski’s “Devo” nickname.
Also of note: Devenski isn’t Houston’s only quality long relief option. Joe Musgrove has a 1.44 ERA as a reliever this season while working 1.4 innings per relief outing.
2. ARCHIE BRADLEY, ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
The bush-bearded Bradley has a 1.73 ERA over 73 innings, averaging more than three outs per appearance while pitching anywhere between the fifth and ninth innings. He’s been used in a more traditional setup role of late, but after throwing 182 1/3 innings last year, Bradley should have the stamina for a heavy workload in the playoffs.
3. MIKE MONTGOMERY, CHICAGO CUBS
Montgomery got a one-out save in Game 7 of last year’s World Series, but he also had three multi-inning relief outings in the playoffs and could get even more of those this year after an impressive season of bullpen work. Montgomery moved in and out of the rotation but had a 2.49 ERA while pitching 61 1/3 innings over 30 relief outings.
4. CHRIS RUSIN, COLORADO ROCKIES
Rusin has been a workhorse in Colorado’s bullpen, finishing second in the majors with 85 relief innings while posting a 2.65 ERA, including 1.88 away from Coors Field. The left-hander is a groundball machine and keeps his pitch count down by challenging hitters early. Four times this year, he pitched at least three innings out of the bullpen without topping 37 pitches, and he’s even gone multiple innings while throwing on consecutive days.
5. DAVID PRICE, BOSTON RED SOX
Price’s situation is different, but his impact could be similar.
Price has struggled, been hurt and feuded with the media this year. But since ending his most recent DL stint, he’s proven useful in the bullpen, pitching shutout ball over 8 2/3 relief innings in September. Long relief might not be the role Boston envisioned when Price signed a $217 million, seven-year deal prior to the 2016 season, but the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner could be an asset there. Plus, he has experience as a playoff reliever — in 2008 as a rookie with Tampa Bay and in 2015 ALDS Game 4 with Toronto.