Why MLB's 2016 postseason was a game-changer

ByJayson Stark via ESPN logo
Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The most significant postseason of modern times didn't just crown a champion, bust a curse and leave millions of Americans wondering what they could do to get that "Go Cubs Go" song out of their heads.

More than that, it opened a window -- a window into where the sport of baseball has evolved and where it is going. So if you looked through that window, what did you see?

You saw a sneak preview of the stars of the future on parade, for one thing. If you don't believe that players such asFrancisco Lindor, Corey Seager, Noah Syndergaard, Aaron Sanchez, Julio Urias, Roberto Osuna and those young Cubs studs are going to leave a major impression on this game, you were clearly paying way too much attention to your fantasy football lineup.

But beyond those bright young faces, there was much more to see through that window. So let's hone in now on two of those sights. One could have a gigantic impact on this sport off the field. The other could signal a profound change on the field. Here's what we mean:

Could the Cubs be the Warriors of baseball?

More than 40 million people watched the baseball game that decided the World Series -- the most in a quarter-century. An estimated 5 million people showed up at the Cubs' World Series parade -- the largest gathering of human beings for any reason in the recorded history of the Western Hemisphere.

So ... get the impression that there's a little interest in this team?

Oh, maybe it will turn out that the Cubs are just trending because they did something that hadn't exactly been the specialty of their house for the previous century. But inside Major League Baseball, it feels like more than that.

This sport has been waiting for years for a team like this to come along. A team that moves the needle in a way that other champs don't. A team that transcends its city, its market or any sort of traditional geographic blip on the radar screen.

Well, if baseball can't turn this team into That Team, then it might be time to conclude it can't be done. Not in this sport, at least.

But all the evidence suggests it can. And it's happening. Right before your eyes.

The data verifies it: ratings, social media traffic, merchandise sales. And every force baseball could ask for to make this sustainable is all lined up to keep this meteor shooting through the American sky.

Staying power: Is there any reason to think this club isn't built to last? It had seven position players, age 26 or younger, who got more than 250 plate appearances. That's the most by any World Series champion since the 1942 Cardinals, a team that went on to play in three straight World Series and four of five -- and win three of them. Every one of those Cubs players is under control through at least 2020.

Star power: Maybe there's no one Cub who is the baseball equivalent of Stephen Curry. But for sheer quantity of transcendent personalities, what team in baseball compares with this one? It employs two of the top four finishers in the MVP voting (Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo). And two of the top three in the Cy Young balloting (Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester), plus last year's Cy Young winner (Jake Arrieta). Not to mention the runner-up for NL Manager of the Year (Joe Maddon). And the World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist). And a whole array of rising stars beyond that group, in Javier Baez, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras. But in a moment, you'll see that this isn't just about their star power as baseball players.

The power to connect with fans: Face it. One of the biggest problems baseball has had in attracting people outside its core fan base is that way too many franchises and way too many players say no when they should be saying yes -- to stuff that Curry, LeBron James, Peyton Manning and stars in other sports have done for years. But this is a group that gets it. Has there been a single day, since they won the World Series, where you haven't seen a delegation of Cubs showing up in front of somebody's camera with everyone from Jimmy Fallon to Ellen DeGeneres? It doesn't feel like it. And that means more in popular American 21st-century culture than you'd think.

"When you see them dancing on 'Saturday Night Live' and you see them laughing on Ellen and Jimmy Kimmel and 'The Tonight Show,' these are all the things that go with being a crossover team and crossover personalities," one baseball official said. "They've really embraced the moment."

Study after study has shown that what the casual fan wants most from its stars, in this culture, is access. Well, have you checked out your social media streams lately? This team is out there, letting its personality show -- and letting the world in to share their fun.

And what has been the upshot of all that Twitter merriment? The Cubs have exploded on social media. That's what. According to statista.com, it took them four years (2011 to 2015) to reach 500,000 Twitter followers. This year, they've gained more than 500,000 just since Opening Day. So they're now up to more than 1.36 million, the third-most followers in baseball (behind the Yankees and Red Sox). That's more than the Royals and Indians combined.

What's the magic formula for any team to reach breakout orbit, the point where it begins turning nonsports fans into sports fans, nonbaseball fans into baseball fans and non-Chicagoans into Cubs fans? I think we're looking at it.

So it turns out the Cubs didn't just leave their mark on this postseason. They appear to have left their mark on future seasons. And if that's how it turns out, their sport will be eternally grateful.

Are the days of push-button managing over?

If there was any doubt that there is more deep, outside-the-box thinking going on in baseball these days than at any time in history, this postseason sure cleared that up.

For four riveting weeks, we watched games that were being played and managed in a style that often bore zero resemblance to the way this sport has operated for the past two decades. And that's a tribute to how many people in baseball now look at the way things have been done for a century and ask: Why?

There were 10 games in this postseason in which at least one team used at least 18 of the 25 players on its roster. We also saw games in which the Dodgers and Indians almost seemed to be changing lines on the fly, fueled by data and the constant search for platoon advantages. If rosters expand to 26 or 27 players, as seems likely to happen in the next labor agreement, that trend toward maximizing platoon advantages could be a bigger focus than ever.

But the most significant development of this postseason was clearly the emergence of the "Multi-inning Super Reliever." And by the middle of next season, we should know definitively that when we utter that phrase, we won't be talking about onlyAndrew Miller. Just ask Miller himself.

"I think it's maybe a little harder to do that for 162 games," the Indians' left-handed game-changer said during the World Series. "But I think we're heading in the direction."

Wait. Are we really steaming toward an age in which teams ask their best relievers to face six to eight hitters, at any point from the fifth inning on, every couple of days, over a six-month season? To be honest, I don't think anyone sees that coming -- unless they want the whole bullpen to wind up in traction by the Fourth of July. But here is what baseball front offices do see coming:

More freedom to use impact relievers at different points in the game, in moments of maximum leverage. That could be the closer. Or it could be the best setup man, who wouldn't necessarily be considered just "the eighth-inning guy" anymore.

A different approach to what was already an emerging trend, at a time when many starters are no longer allowed to go through the lineup three times: Rather than use the seventh or eighth man in the bullpen as the "multi-inning reliever" (previously known as "the long man"), teams could target a whole different type of pitcher to work multiple innings in more high-leverage spots. Think about guys with big arms who keep flaming out as starters because they don't have the ability to get through lineups more than once.

A newfound interest in paying relievers "closer money" even if they're going to be used in situations where they won't be getting a save on the old stat sheet.

And, in a related development, a newfound willingness by some big-name relievers to pitch in those situations, whether they get a save to show for it or not. In fact, one club executive reports that "there are [prominent free-agent] relievers out there who have sent the message this winter that, 'If you pay me, I don't really care where you pitch me.'"

Whoa. Could all of that really be coming to a ballpark near you by 2017? Well, to be honest, it's too soon to say. Frankly, when we've surveyed veteran relievers about this trend, many have expressed great skepticism that anyone could make it through a season healthy while assuming a workload remotely similar to Miller's postseason role.

But they should know that, in their very own front offices, the folks who are gazing into baseball's future aren't so sure of that. Not anymore.

"Go open a baseball encyclopedia, or baseball-reference.com," said one AL executive. "Look up Goose Gossage and Sparky Lyle. And you'll see that the concept of a relief ace who throws 70 games and 120 innings is not new. It's something that's been done before to great effect.

"When I hear you can't have a guy throw 40 pitches every couple of days, my reaction is, 'Why not?'" the exec went on. "We have amazing pitchers in this game who are only throwing 60 innings in a year. I don't know how 60 innings would be considered overworking anybody. ... I don't see why you can't ask a guy to go two innings Tuesday and two innings Thursday."

Indians manager Terry Francona said during the American League Championship Series that he'd love to see young relievers get valued for their work, not their save totals, in their arbitration-eligible years, "because I think then you'd see bullpens used differently." But one veteran reliever says that unless there were strict controls on multi-inning usage, that would still be a tough sell.

Otherwise, he said, "you're going to take a guy and use him in a way where he could potentially break down before he ever gets to six years of service time. So he'd never get to free agency. The agents would be furious."

But if teams already have decided that this is the way relievers are going to be used in the future, that veteran reliever went on, managers need to alert those men now.

"If it's going to happen, it can't start in midseason, or even on the first day of spring training," he said. "It probably has to be communicated in an offseason phone conversation. I'd need to know that far in advance, so I can approach my conditioning for the season in a different way."

If the game is really going down this road, it actually increases the pressure on managers in many ways. You recognize that, right? They need to understand who on their staff is capable of going multiple innings and who isn't. They need to be extra conscious of getting their multi-inning guys plenty of rest.

And most important of all, they need to know exactly what a high-leverage situation really looks like, because -- and here's the biggest headline of the day -- it looks as if the days of push-button managing might be about to go the way of the Brontosaurus. And won't that be a boon for second-guessers everywhere?

But thanks to what we just saw this October, all of that deep thinking is going on as we speak, in front offices across the country -- because the benefits are greater than you've probably contemplated.

"If you can start using your best guys more aggressively, you're making your whole team better," said the exec quoted earlier. "If you can take 60 innings away from the 12th pitcher on your staff and give it to your best relievers, that's a huge difference. And then there's an even deeper concept. Do you need to carry 13 pitchers -- or can the better guys absorb those last 50 to 80 innings? If you can assign those innings to your better pitchers, maybe it actually creates another roster spot and you can give your manager a better bench because of that."

So the ripple effects of Miller's October run thick and wide. And virtually every team in the game is already trying to figure out how just how thick, just how wide and just how practical this could be over the course of a season.

Now, maybe this change was coming anyway. Eventually. But all of a sudden, it's full speed ahead -- thanks to the most significant postseason of modern times.