KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It's a common baseball refrain that elite starting pitching dominates in the postseason and power pitchers dominate most of all. That helps explain the glowing reviews for Oakland general manager Billy Beane when he traded for Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester in July and the euphoria emanating from Detroit when David Price joined Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander in a made-for-October rotation.
Now that the Tigers and Athletics have been eliminated, the focus in the American League playoffs has shifted. Starting pitchers aren't hanging around very long, and the relievers are doing the heavy lifting.
In the first two games of the AL Championship Series, Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost squeezed 10⅔ innings out of James Shields and Yordano Ventura and received 8⅓ innings out of his bullpen. His Baltimore Orioles counterpart, Buck Showalter, would have been happy with that breakdown. Orioles starters Chris Tillman and Bud Norris have combined to throw 8⅔ innings, while Showalter has divvied up 10⅓ frames among his bullpen contingent.
Kansas City's Jeremy Guthrie and Baltimore's Wei-Yin Chen will try to change the dynamic in Game 3 on Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium, but anything more than six innings from either starter would qualify as a pleasant surprise.
Although the line between the bullpens and rotations is distinct, some pitchers on the Kansas City and Baltimore rosters have more than a passing acquaintance with both roles. Orioles reliever Darren O'Day jokes that starters who have transitioned to the bullpen have officially come over to the "dark side." Some of his penmates are familiar with a less sinister, yet equally pejorative, term.
"I hate using the term 'failed starter,'" Orioles reliever Andrew Miller said, "but that happens to be the common terminology with most bullpen guys."
Two games into the ALCS, three converted starters in particular are playing central roles -- and attracting attention for both good and bad reasons.
• Kansas City's Wade Davis, the principal setup man for closer Greg Holland, has continued the dominant run he displayed during the regular season. Davis has allowed one earned run while striking out nine batters in 7⅓ innings in the postseason, and he's scavenged both wins against the Orioles in the ALCS.
• Miller, a wipeout lefty, has been a multiple-out weapon for Showalter this month. He's thrown 6⅓ one-hit shutout innings against Detroit and Kansas City in the playoffs and been so overpowering that one scout observed, "I'm amazed when somebody hits a ball fair against him."
• Baltimore closer Zach Britton is having an impact on the series in a less desirable way. Britton threw 12 straight balls at one juncture and walked the bases loaded in the ninth inning of Baltimore's 8-6 loss in Game 1. He did a better job inducing ground balls with his signature sinking fastball in Game 2, but several of those balls found holes and Kansas City broke a 4-4 tie in a 6-4 win Saturday.
If there's a saving grace for Britton and his bullpen buddies, it's that they don't have time to sit around and dwell on bad experiences the way they did when they were starting.
"If you have a bad outing as a starter, you really hang the team out to dry," Miller said. "There's no worse feeling. As a reliever, you know you might always get another chance tomorrow. And most of the time, unless you're the closer, there's backup out there."
Striking bullpen gold
Starting pitchers -- even those with the most promising stuff -- gravitate to the bullpen for a variety of reasons. Maybe they have trouble repeating their delivery three times around a batting order and find it easier to harness their mechanics in limited increments; or they lack a changeup or usable third pitch that will allow them to navigate their way through a lineup several times; or maybe their fastball goes up a tick when they can simply let the ball fly rather than having to worry about pacing themselves for 100 pitches.
Davis, a third-round draft pick by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2004, started 29 games for the Rays with middling results in both 2010 and '11. He had trouble commanding his fastball, ran up some big pitch counts and lacked the ability to put hitters away as a starter. When Davis lost out to Jeff Niemann in the competition for the fifth starter job in 2012, the Rays shifted him to the bullpen, from which he showed glimpses of things to come in 54 very impressive outings.
When the Royals acquired Davis from Tampa Bay in the big James Shields-Wil Myers trade in December 2012, they envisioned him as a starter, only to change course relatively quickly. "A couple of our scouts felt he could start but that he would certainly be more dominant in the pen," general manager Dayton Moore said. "He's got great angle and a lot of power, and he's more aggressive and more on the attack in this role."
Davis posted some astonishing numbers this year at age 29. He went 9-2 with a 1.00 ERA, averaged 13.6 strikeouts per nine innings and allowed five extra-base hits (none of them home runs) in 279 plate appearances. Davis also induced a 14.1 percent swing-and-miss percentage. For sake of comparison, Clayton Kershaw posted a 14.1 swing-and-miss rate while going all Sandy Koufax in the Dodgers' rotation.
"His numbers are better than video game numbers," Royals reliever Tim Collins said of Davis. "He comes off the mound and you shake your head, whether he's throwing the ball down the middle or guys are swinging at balls that aren't even there."
Davis's fastball averaged 95.7 mph this year compared to 91.4 mph when he was starting for Tampa Bay three years ago, but he doesn't buy into the conventional wisdom that a pitcher's velocity will automatically "play up" in limited doses. It's not that simple.
"It's not like you go to the bullpen and go from 92 to 96 overnight," Davis said. "When I first went to the pen I tried to throw as hard as I could, and I didn't throw any harder. Over time, your body gets wound a little tighter and your arm adapts to something different. It doesn't just happen. You have to work at it, and it takes time."
Miller, 29, knows all about the impact of time on a player's career arc. He broke into pro ball with big expectations after Detroit chose him sixth overall in the 2006 draft out of North Carolina and signed him to a $5.45 million big league contract. But the Tigers sent him to Florida with Cameron Maybin in the Miguel Cabrera-Dontrelle Willis trade a year later, and Miller couldn't stay healthy long enough or throw enough strikes to be a consistently effective starter. He didn't begin to thrive until he moved to the bullpen with the Boston Red Sox in 2012.
The Orioles took a risk in July when they traded prospect Eduardo Rodriguez to Boston for Miller, who pitched a mere 20 regular-season innings in Baltimore. But Miller's dominant performance helped the Orioles get within four wins of a pennant, and now he might have the luxury of shopping himself as a closer when he becomes eligible for free agency in November.
The Baltimore closer's job already belongs to Britton, who took a capricious route to the role by any standard. Britton was rated the No. 2 prospect in the Orioles farm system by Baseball America behind Manny Machado in 2011, and he was ticketed as a starter for several years before this season. Britton never had a clue the Orioles considered him closer material until Brady Anderson, the team's vice president of baseball operations, broached the topic during a casual conversation in spring training.
Britton happened to be available when the bullpen phone rang on May 15 in Kansas City, and he retired the Royals in order for his first major league save. He proceeded to convert 37 of 41 save opportunities and post a 1.65 ERA while showing the focus and even-keeled demeanor teams generally value in a closer. Oddly enough, he has yet to be formally anointed the Orioles' resident ninth-inning guy.
"They've never really told me, 'Hey, this is your gig,'" Britton said, laughing. "So I'm still waiting."
Does Britton think of himself as a closer, or as a starter who is merely keeping the spot warm until he returns to the rotation? At this point, he's too busy pitching to look that far ahead.
"I think back to when I played a position in high school," Britton said. "It's fun to show up every day knowing you had a chance to play. As a reliever, you're more engaged than you would be on those off days as a starter. You have a chance to help out almost every game."
Or you have to live with the alternate scenario, which is making one bad pitch or two in a postseason game and sweeping up the debris. Like his fellow starters who have moved to the "dark side," Britton shows up every day ready to pitch -- and prepared to live with the consequences.