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Terry Francona’s unique bullpen usage is key to Indians’ postseason hopes

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The Indians skipper will need to be creative in the postseason to have a shot at the World Series.

MLB: New York Yankees at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Terry Francona has been the perfect fit for the Cleveland Indians. During his four years managing the team, Tito has the Indians at 352-294 — the best record of any team in that same span. He has done a lot of things really well in those four years, all of which are worth their own posts, but something in particular will be noteworthy over the next few weeks: his bullpen usage.

When the Indians acquired Andrew Miller at the trade deadline, they instantly transformed their bullpen from middle-of-the-road to one of the best in the league.

Many expected Francona to use Miller as the team’s closer and many still were concerned, or even filled with laughter, when he dared to use Miller in the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings instead of a dedicated closer role. As one of the league’s best relievers, it seems natural to the old school of baseball to put him at the end of the bullpen to close out games.

Andrew Miller won’t get saves, but he’ll save games

But that is not always the best use of your best closer. In fact, putting them into the game with no one on base, a three-run lead, and no outs is probably wasting them more often than not. Sure, they get a save, but wouldn’t it have been better to use them in a situation that required a better pitcher?

Say, for instance, a 1-1 game in the top of the eighth with a runner on and one out? You know, just off the top of my head. Then you could maybe let him stay in the game to close out the ninth when the heart of the order is up to bat. Just a random example here.

In 29.0 innings since joining the Indians, Miller has a win probability added of 1.89. WPA, a cumulative stat, measures how much a player contributed to a team’s win. It is a statistic completely dependent on context. Where most stats are attempting to strip out context, WPA wants to find out how a player did in crucial situations and reward them for it.

Miller’s 1.89 WPA in just 29 innings would be 11th among American League relievers over the full season. Overall, including his time with the New York Yankees, Miller has a 4.79 WPA in 2016, behind only Zach Britton for the AL reliever lead in the category. Two other Indians also make the top-10, as well: Dan Otero at No. 6 with a 2.10 WPA and Cody Allen with a 2.09 WPA. It goes to show who Terry Francona is using in the most important situations and who is consistently succeeding.

A lot is riding on Tito’s use of “bullpen days”

Outside of just bullpen use, Tito has a chance to go down in history for his use of the starting rotation. The Tribe rotation is in tatters with the loss of Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, but Tito has kept the team afloat with a mix of short starts, or what he calls “bullpen days.”

The results from bullpen days are not great so far, but they could work in the postseason. Matt Schlichting wrote a fantastic post about it already, about how the Indians could rethink their use of starters. I doubt Francona will go that far with it, but we could absolutely see a planned short start for someone like Mike Clevinger or Cody Anderson like we already have down the stretch.

If the Indians advance out of the ALDS, it will be up to Francona to figure out how to win a best-of-seven series with essentially three dedicated starting pitchers (Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and Josh Tomlin), and a handful of great bullpen arms.

We will know more when the postseason rosters are finalized, but for now one thing is clear: Terry Francona has a chance to do something great this postseason.

Every move he makes, every times he points to the bullpen, is going to be over scrutinized. A few decisions that turn out right, a few wins in October because of who he chooses to use in key situations, and suddenly everyone is talking about the greatness of Tito.