Last season, despite owning the fifth-lowest ERA, the Brewers’ bullpen held the ninth-highest FIP and sixth-lowest WAR. It wasn’t an elite group, but it wasn’t terrible, either. They only walk 3.04 batters per nine innings, stranded 77% of base runners, and posted a fairly league -average 11.4 HR/FB rate.
There wasn’t much to praise outside of Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler, which is why the bullpen will look far different on Opening Day this season than it did in 2013 at that time. John Axford, Burke Badenhop, and Mike Gonzalez are gone. Francisco Rodriguez left and then returned (again).
Going into camp, the Brewers have a lot of arms–especially young arms–vying for a bullpen role at the major league level. Let’s break it down.
Locks: Henderson, Kintzler, Rodriguez, Will Smith
Henderson seems to have the closer’s role on lock to start the season. He got empty swings on over 13 percent of his strikes, which led to his 11.25 K/9. I have no argument that he should be the relief ace in the bullpen, but Kintzler should see lots of high-leverage use, too. While Kintzler doesn’t strike out nearly as many hitters, his ability to get weak contact is just as valuable. Instead of relying on the strikeout (6.78 K/9), Kintzler keeps the ball in the zone and last season, in 77 innings, induced a 3.12 GB/FB rate with a miniscule 0.23 HR/9. He has a strong opportunity to close out games for the Brewers this season.
The Brewers recently inked Rodriguez to a deal, making it two straight seasons of signing the veteran reliever late in the winter when it seems nobody else was really going to do so. The lack of demand for him shouldn’t turn anyone off to the move, however. He’s got the track record and actually improved his K and BB numbers, largely because opponents’ swings were up and contact was down. It’s also a good insurance policy in what is a relatively inexperienced group.
The Matt Garza signing all but guaranteed Will Smith a spot as the lefty in the bullpen. The difference in how he approaches left-handed hitters versus right-handers is worth noting, According to the data at Brooks Baseball, Smith relied on a fastball/slider combo for 71 percent of pitches to left-handers. Against righties, those two pitches only accounted for 39 percent of his pitch makeup, as 34 percent of his pitches were sliders diving into right-handers’ hands. Hitters swung and missed at a remarkably high 36.05 percent of his sliders, clearly making it his best pitch. Will Smith will be a nice addition to the bullpen this season.
Probables: Tyler Thornburg, Tom Gorzelanny
Both pitchers who started for the Brewers out of necessity in 2013, Thornburg and Gorzelanny, barring something unforeseen, will be at the core of the Brewers middle relief this season. While Gorzelanny was highly effective against left-handers last season, he is by no means limited in that aspect. His 3.53 xFIP against righties was better than his 3.87 mark against lefties.
Thornburg has a three-pitch arsenal that would serve him well both as a starter and in the bullpen. His changeup and curve keep hitters off-balance and have been the source of high strikeout numbers throughout the minors.
The Rest: Michael Blazek, Mike Fiers, Alfredo Figaro, Donovan Hand, Rob Wooten, Johnny Hellweg, Zach Duke, Kevin Shackelford, Michael Olmsted, David Goforth, Brooks Hall
Pick one. Anyone. We could try to handicap this, but I don’t even think Ron Roenicke and Doug Melvin know what direction this is going.