Saturday in Cincinnati, the Brewers’ shutout an opponent for the first time all season. They were the last MLB team to do so in 2013. Yovani Gallardo led the charge by going six innings, striking out five, and giving up three hits and two walks. The Brewers’ bullpen continued their strong season by providing three innings of scoreless relief courtesy of Tom Gorzelanny, Donovan Hand, and Jim Henderson.
After a disastrous 2012 season, the Brewers’ bullpen was successfully rebuilt in the offseason. So far, the bullpen has covered 229.1 IP for the Crew, which is the third most in the National League. Yet, the bullpen’s ERA is a stellar 2.98. Only the Braves’ bullpen has been better, in the NL, with a 2.81 ERA. As the Brewers’ organization worked to plug the hole in the bullpen, another problem sprung up in their starting rotation. In fact, the Brewers’ have traded the worst bullpen ERA, 4.66 in 2012, for the worst starting rotation ERA, so far this season, at 5.14.
Recently, the starting pitchers has been better. Gallardo’s six scoreless innings on Saturday resulted in the Brewers’ sixth straight quality start. That is now tied for the team’s longest streak of the season – the other streak occurred from April 23rd to April 29th. Over this most recent stretch, the Brewers’ starting rotation has been great and posted a 1.10 ERA in those six games – five earned runs over 41 IP. Of course, three of those games were against the anemic Miami Marlins’ offense but the Brewers’ kept the streak rolling for two more games against a Reds’ offense that has managed the third most runs in the NL. So I began to wonder, was the Brewers’ starting rotation just going through a particularly good turn in the rotation or has the rotation been either Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde all season?
Quality starts is far from a perfect stat. To get one, a starting pitcher must go, at least, six innings and allow three or fewer earned runs. So a pitcher going nine innings and giving up four runs, a 4.00 ERA, doesn’t earn a QS, while the opposing pitcher would get a QS for going six innings and giving up three runs, a 4.50 ERA. That said, it’s still a superior metric than the Win/Loss record in accessing whether a pitcher’s performance put his team in a position to win the game.
And that’s what I was wondering — when the starting rotation did their job, how good where they and how did the team fare? And, when the starting pitchers struggled, how deep of a hole did they put the rest of the team in? Based on my question, I knew that the starting pitchers’ numbers would be better during QS than non-QS, but I was surprised by how big of a difference it was. After crunching all the numbers, it became obvious to me that, this year, the Brewers’ starting pitchers have either been really good or really bad.
To start, I dug through all the box scores and separated out when a Brewers’ pitcher threw a quality start and when they didn’t. The Brewers have managed 30 quality starts this season. That’s fifth worst amongst all teams and five QS below the league average of 35. Halfway through June, the Brewers have already thrown eight QS. That beats their entire total of seven QS from the month of May. The Brewers did manage 15 QS through 25 games in April and finished the month with a record of 14-11.
When the Brewers’ starting rotation has been good, they’ve been very good. In the 30 games that they have pitched a quality start, the Brewers’ team has managed a record of 18-12 (.600 WP%) and, combined, the starting pitchers have posted these numbers –
As a frame of reference, so far this season, Cliff Lee has a 2.55 ERA and is allowing 5.93 hits per game. Now, the Brewers’ starting rotation isn’t a bunch of under-performing Cliff Lee-esque pitchers. But it goes to show that the rotation has the stuff to pitcher very, very well.
Meanwhile, check out how bad the starting rotation has performed in the 38 games where they haven’t earned quality starts. In those games, the Brewers are 10-28 (.263 WP%) –
For reference, Roy Halladay has managed an 8.65 ERA and Ryan Vogelsong a 7.19 ERA, this year, before injuries shut down both of them.
The Brewers knew they did not have an exceptionally strong starting rotation this season. They hoped that the young and inexperienced rotation could hold serve for an above-average offense. But the injury bug has DLed some of the Brewers’ biggest bats, Aramis Ramirez and Ryan Braun, and sidelined Corey Hart for what looks like the entire first half of the season. Add in the early struggles of Rickie Weeks and Jonathan Lucroy with the team’s inability to find any source of consistent production at first base, and what you get is an offense that scores 4.18 runs per game, which is below league-average.
That’s a huge problem when the starting pitchers, in the 38 non-QS games, allow earned runs totals that look like this –
- 1-3 ER allowed – 9 times
- 4-6 ER allowed – 27 times
- 7-10 ER allowed – 2 times
Of course, a bad performance or two can go a long way to inflating the starting rotation’s ERA. So I gave the starting pitchers a break and wiped out their two worst game of the season to see how much of a drag they had on the rotation’s ERA –
- May 5th – Marco Estrada goes 3.1 IP against the Cardinals and allows 8 ER
- May 11th – Hiram Burgos goes 3 IP against the Reds and allows 10 ER
Yet, if we strike those 6.1 IP and 18 ER from the record, the Brewers’ starting pitchers still have a 7.34 ERA in those non-QS starts.
All major league rotations will have good and bad starts. In fact, San Francisco starting pitchers have combined for 29 quality starts, one fewer than the Brewers, but their team record is 35-33. The issue for the Brewers’ starting rotation is not that they aren’t throwing enough quality starts, though the more the merrier. The issue is that when they don’t throw a quality start, more often than not, the result isn’t just bad but also extremely ugly.