For me, this past weekend was spent in Arlington, Texas, at the Final Four. I was a giraffe. The Badgers lost to Kentucky. I ate my feelings away at Chick-Fil-A and Rudy’s Texas BBQ.
On a less-depressing, Seth Davis-deprived scene, the Brewers swept the Red Sox in their first series back at Fenway Park since defeating the Evil Empire, black magic, Mount Vesuvius, and the Trojan army all combined into the team that is the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. The starting pitching was dominant. The offense woke up in a big way after scoring four runs in three games. The other major bright spot from the weekend was the bullpen’s performance.
Over the span of 11.2 innings, Brewers’ relievers posted a 0.00 ERA, silencing the Red Sox lineup in the late innings of close games on Friday and Saturday before shutting the deal in a 4-0 shutout on Sunday.
On Friday, the Will Smith-Brandon Kintzler combo kept Boston off the board after Marco Estrada threw 5.2 strong innings before the offense erupted for four innings in the ninth, allowing for Francisco Rodriguez to close the deal in a (gasp!) non-save situation. Smith got four outs after Estrada’s exit before Kintzler and Rodriguez sat down all six batters they faced to close the window.
The next night, the stakes were higher and the performance even more dominant. Wily Peralta exited after throwing 97 pitches over five innings and Jim Henderson gave up one unearned run to tie the game in the sixth. It turned into a battle of which bullpen would give in first (Clay Bucholz didn’t do so hot). Zach Duke, Tyler Thornburg, Kintzler, Smith, and Rodriguez pitched six scoreless innings, surrendering only two hits and striking out seven while walking none.
Even prior to Sunday’s 2.1 scoreless frames, FanGraphs listed the Brewers bullpen was fourth-most valuable in baseball. They’ve posted 14.2 scoreless innings in the team’s four wins this season. Despite the offseason (and even in-season) shuffling, the bullpen has emerged as one of the strongest, deepest units on the team. And it’s been awesome.
Why has the bullpen been so dominant? Let’s take a look at two of the unsung heroes of the ‘pen.
Our own Jonathan Judge tweeted out one major reason for Thornburg’s performance this season: his fastball velocity is up to 95 mph from 93 mph last season, and his changeup has upped to 85 mph from 83 mph last season. That changeup, which has accounted for nearly 29 percent of his 49 pitches thrown this season has been well-located to go along with the increased velocity. Take a look at these graphics that show his improvement in the latter area.
Thornburg pitch location frequency 2013 (top) vs. 2014 (bottom)
Thornburg has been consistent in keeping his changeup down in the zone–the most frequent location is actually out of the zone. The movement he has on his changeup makes it effective even as far down in the zone that it is. His swing rate on changeups in that “hot” spot in the second graphic sits around 70 percent, which is far higher than the league average of 15-25 percent. Locating the pitch where he has down in the zone isn’t effective in its own, which is why it makes the swing rate equally crucial. And hitters that swing at that pitch in that location probably aren’t going to have fun. Thornburg has both of those aspects going for him this season.
Through four innings, the lefty Smith hasn’t been scored upon and has only given up one hit. He’s posted a 1.00 WHIP while striking out 11.25 K/9. He’s been aided by a .125 BABIP and 100 LOB%, but the empty swings are there. Plus the Brewers aren’t using him as a LOOGy, which is even more awesome.
Per Brooks Baseball, he has a whiff rate of 22 percent on sliders, which is even down from his career mark. He recorded the final out in the sixth on Friday against Boston and came back out to pitch a scoreless seventh inning. The Brewers aren’t just using his ability to get lefties out, which makes sense, considering how his slider bears in on right-handers.