Marlins manager Don Mattingly is prepping David Phelps not as a starter and not as a short reliever, but as an arm available to try to win the game from the fourth inning onward.
Astros manager A.J. Hinch figures if he is going to shorten Chris Devenski to a one-inning-at-a-time reliever, “I might as well start him.”
The aggressive use of elite late-inning relievers last postseason — notably Andrew Miller — raised the issue whether teams were going to use their closer types earlier and for more innings come the 2017 regular season.
The answer, in general, is no. The Indians, for example, might use Miller as early as the sixth inning, pitching coach Mickey Callaway said, but do not anticipate pushing him more than three outs, particularly in the early months of the season.
Nevertheless, many clubs are prepared to deputize a reliever or two for a hybrid role that is more valuable than long man and not constrained by one-inning-at-a-time comfort levels. There seems to be less concern than ever about having a starter go five innings to qualify for a win and rather an emphasis on what is the best way to get 27 outs for a team to win.
The model for this is essentially Ramiro Mendoza from the Yankees championship years. In the six seasons from 1997-2002, Mendoza appeared in 265 games, including 46 starts. As a reliever, he was deployed as a long man, setup man and even a closer now and then.
In that period, he was 50-29 with a 3.86 ERA and 16 saves. But the two most pertinent stats might have been these:
1) He averaged 108 innings a season.
2) On 91 occasions, he relieved for at least two innings, and the Yankees were 58-33 in those games.
There has not been a 90-inning reliever since Dellin Betances and Carlos Torres in 2014. But it would be no surprise to see several relievers top that mark this season, and the first 100-inning reliever since Scott Proctor in 2006 is in play.
I have sensed that more and more front offices/managers see the folly in putting their worst relievers into winnable games to soak up innings when the starter is knocked out early. Better to save them for blowouts.
Instead, multiple managers and GMs indicated a growing desire not to limit the innings on quality relievers who can handle the workload and help win, say, two games a week by pitching multiple innings. This would perhaps mean using a reliever, say, 50 times for 90-100 innings rather than, say, 65 times for 65 innings.
For example, because injury-prone Brett Anderson needs a standard starter warmup and has limited reps as a reliever, he probably will win the Cubs’ No. 5 starter job. But Chicago will take advantage of the fact his main competition, Mike Montgomery, is stretched out and use him as a spot starter and attack reliever for multiple innings, which was often his role last year after being obtained from Seattle.
But Chicago has a strong rotation. Where we more likely to see this tactic is among teams that are trying to contend and have starter concerns.
The Yankees could have Luis Cessa and Luis Severino in the rotation, and Bryan Mitchell and Adam Warren ready after a turn or two in the lineup. The Angels are looking at Bud Norris, Yusmeiro Petit and, especially, J.C. Ramirez for this role.
But Phelps and Devenski stand out because they excelled last season in something akin to this position, and their teams are set up ideally to allow their managers to employ them in a variety of ways.
Both righties started five games last year and were good, but excelled out of the bullpen. And both teams have stocked qualified relievers for the traditional one-inning-at-a-time jobs from the seventh through ninth innings.
In closer Ken Giles, Luke Gregerson, Michael Feliz and Will Harris, the Astros have a quartet that can handle the final nine outs. Thus, Devenski can be used as a life preserver for Houston’s questionable rotation.
Devenski tied for the major league lead with 20 relief outings of at least two innings last year and led with 10 relief outings of three innings, going 2-0 with a 1.01 ERA and a save in those games.
“Not every reliever is built for a versatile role,” Hinch said. “[Devenski] is.”
Phelps, the former Yankee, was excellent as both a reliever (2.31 ERA in 59 appearances, 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings) and starter (2.22 ERA and 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings). As a reliever, he was mainly used one inning at a time.
But in the offseason, Miami signed Junichi Tazawa and Brad Ziegler to join closer A.J. Ramos and Kyle Barraclough. The Marlins recognized a weakness in their rotation, exacerbated, of course, by the death of ace Jose Fernandez.
So they also plan to have multiple long relievers — likely guys such as Jeff Locke and Jose Urena.
“For us, we have to be willing to make a call in the fourth inning,” Mattingly admitted. “In the fourth, if the pitch count and quality is good [from the starter], we are not going to pull a guy just to pull a guy. We are going to have to read the day.”
And when he reads the situation and believes the game is winnable, his weapon of choice is going to be Phelps, whom Miami is stretching out to 50 pitches as a reliever this spring.
“I look at Phelps like Andrew Miller,” Mattingly said. “I can use him in multiple ways. I can pitch him a few innings or I can have him close a game. You can’t do it on a daily basis. He still needs his rest. You know in bigger situations in the fifth and sixth innings you can see him.”
In 2017 we have to be prepared for a hybrid reliever to emerge that is not fireman or long man, but rather a man for all innings.