Another Bullpen Implosion in St. Louis | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

For the second-consecutive evening, a Brewers pitcher carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning and the team ultimately lost the game.

Right-hander Marco Estrada was brilliant, throwing strikes and generating 13 swings-and-misses. He and Jonathan Lucroy had an effective gameplan for the Cardinals, working primarily with a fastball-curveball combination against righties and a fastball-changeup combination against lefties. It wasn’t just the sequencing, either. Estrada also changed eye levels very well by working the upper and lower parts of the zone. That only made his changeup more effective.

Since coming off the disabled list on August 7, the 30-year-old Estrada owns a 2.39 ERA and is striking out almost a batter per inning. It was encouraging to see him find success against the Cardinals. He’s severely struggled against the division rival this year. In four previous starts against the Red Birds, Estrada had given up 19 earned runs in 21 innings. A stark contrast to the quality 6.2 innings he twirled on Wednesday night.

In the end, though, it was all for naught.

Brandon Kintzler, who has been tremendous all season, was unable to shut the door in the seventh or eighth innings, but the knockout blow came on a two-run, two-out home run by Matt Adams off southpaw Michael Gonzalez. These types of performances from the bullpen have become an all-too-common occurrence this season — much like last season when it derailed what was a pretty good team.

In some respects, that’s not a fair assessment. The Brewers’ bullpen has improved dramatically from last season’s dumpster fire. The relief corps went from a league-worst 4.66 ERA in 2012 to a 3.18 ERA that ranks fifth in Major League Baseball. That’s a massive step in the right direction, and Doug Melvin deserves credit for successfully rebuilding the bullpen without throwing money at the problem. Credit should also be given to Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler, who have become key cogs in the Brewers’ bullpen after being non-prospects through the majority of their careers.

The question then becomes: how can a bullpen that’s had so much success feel like it’s blown so many games this season? Or, if not blown, at least made potential comebacks unrealistic, as Michael Gonzalez did by serving up a two-run blast in the eighth inning to put the Brewers down four runs heading into the ninth?

It’s because both are true. The Brewers’ bullpen has compiled a very solid earned run average this season, yet they also rank among the league-worst in reliever meltdowns.

Rank Team Meltdowns
1 Astros 82
2 Angels 78
3 White Sox 77
4 Indians 74
5 Brewers 73

By the nature of the word, we can probably assume this isn’t a positive statistic for the bullpen, but let’s get at what this is really telling us. The meltdown (MD) is championed by FanGraphs as a way to better determine a reliever’s impact on the game than the standard save, blown save and hold. From their glossary:

Shutdowns and Meltdowns strip away these complications and answer a simple question: did a relief pitcher help or hinder his team’s chances of winning a game? If they improved their team’s chances of winning, they get a Shutdown. If they instead made their team more likely to lose, they get a Meltdown. Intuitive, no?

Using Win Probability Added (WPA), it’s easy to tell exactly how much a specific player contributed to their team’s odds of winning on a game-by-game basis. In short, if a player increased his team’s win probability by 6% (0.06 WPA), then they get a Shutdown. If a player made his team 6% more likely to lose (-0.06), they get a Meltdown.

Shutdowns and meltdowns correlate very well with saves and blown saves; in other words, dominant relievers are going to rack up both saves and shutdowns, while bad relievers will accrue meltdowns and blown saves. But shutdowns and meltdowns improve upon SVs/BSVs by giving equal weight to middle relievers, showing how they can affect a game just as much as a closer can, and by capturing more negative reliever performances.

Meltdowns and shutdowns are useful because they add context to the equation, which is important for relievers. It places more weight on performances when they matter, while attributing less weight to outings during blowouts. Thus, it becomes very much like a story-telling statistic for the Brewers. The bullpen possesses a top-five earned run average, yet has racked up the meltdowns. That leads one to believe the bullpen has been stellar when it doesn’t matter and has struggled when the situations get tight.

This does seem to have some correlation to overall team performance, which would make sense. Take a look at the eight teams with the fewest meltdowns on the season: Braves (36), Reds (47), Pirates (47), Rangers (48), Yankees (49), Athletics (52), Cardinals (54) and Tigers (55). Each of those eight ballclubs are in the postseason hunt, and of that list, only the Yankees would miss the postseason if the season ended today. In 2012, none of the 10 teams with the fewest meltdowns had a below-.500 record. Possessing a bullpen that protects leads in key situations is understandably important when trying to compete for the postseason.

As I noted last night:

John Axford and Burke Badenhop are the other two relievers who have compiled more than 10 meltdowns for the Brewers this year, and looking forward to next season, there’s a chance none of the three will be on the roster. Badenhop is arbitration-eligible, but he could be a non-tender candidate given his uninspiring performance this season. He hasn’t been terrible. He’s just expendable and will be due a raise in arbitration from his $1.55M contract.

On the bright side, the Brewers relievers with the most shutdowns — Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler — will return next season and should be joined by Tom Gorzelanny in the back-end of the bullpen. It should give Milwaukee a very inexpensive relief corps to build around, which is a boon for any small-market franchise.

In the end, this proved to be a very interesting line of inquiry for me. I saw many fans and media members on Twitter commenting that last night’s bullpen implosion pretty much defined the season, and that immediately struck me as unfair because the bullpen has done a solid job limiting runs. After more research, though, it’s pretty clear the Brewers bullpen has done a lot to decrease the team’s chances of winning this year, despite that above-average earned run average. That’s why contextual statistics are valuable. They help tell a better story.

And the story for the Brewers bullpen is very similar to the story for the rest of the team. It’s been one of overarching disappointment, but with some encouraging performances from unexpected places that has helped ease the blow of being 20-games under .500.

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