Building & Rebuilding #3: Elite Bullpen | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

Lately, I’ve been working on arguments that the Brewers need to enhance their starting rotation for 2015. First, given the “middle rotation explosion” in the 2014 NL, one can intuit that the 2015 NL may revert to top-heavy and bottom-heavy pitchers, which places the Brewers’ average rotational core in a potentially tight position. Can the Brewers depend on Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse to break into the top rotation rankings once more? Secondly, given the Brewers’ rotational improvements from Gallardo, Wily Peralta, and Fastballer Mike Fiers, the Brewers ought to double down and bolster their middle and low rotational depth. The theory goes that as soon as one expects improvement from the top rotation, one ought to strengthen their low rotation to develop a well-rounded pitching staff (the Pirates are the best model for this approach, as they used resurgences from Edinson Volquez and Vance Worley to lead their rotation, instead of impact performances from Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano).

While I watched the Kansas City Royals dominate the Baltimore Orioles once more with their bullpen during their series clinching victory, another argument occurred to me: the Brewers ought to improve their starting rotation with a trade or acquisition because such a move immediately improves their bullpen. In an industry where a great bullpen can emerge from collecting a group of warm bodies, first and foremost, adding Fiers and Jimmy Nelson to the bullpen bolsters a group that has some potential question marks in Tyler Thornburg (health?), Jim Henderson (health?), and even Francisco Rodriguez (will he re-sign?) and Jonathan Broxton (should he be traded?). Furthermore, both Nelson and Fiers have weapons that could greatly improve the bullpen: both have strong-headed pitching approaches that rely heavily on fastball selections.

2015 Potential RP Under Contract
CL Jonathan Broxton
RP Will Smith
RP Tyler Thornburg
RP Jim Henderson
RP Brandon Kintzler
RP Jeremy Jeffress
RP Marco Estrada
RP Jimmy Nelson
RP Mike Fiers

Elite Relief
Drawing on the Royals relief model can indicate why frequent fastball throwers could achieve success in limited roles. First, let’s take a look at the results of the top Kansas City bullpen arms (50+ IP):

Reliever IP K% BB% Pitch 1 Pitch 2
G. Holland 62.3 37.5 8.3 96+ rising FB 86+ slider
W. Davis 72 39.1 8.2 96+ rising FB 93+ cutter
K. Herrera 70 20.7 9.1 98+ rising FB 88+ change
A. Crow 59 13.9 9.8 92+ riding FB 82+ slider

Notably, the most elite relievers on the Royals post gigantic strike out numbers that basically wash away most concern with potentially high walk rates. Given their fastballs, there should not be much of a surprise here: the three top arms for the Royals relief corps throw seriously hot fastballs, and even their secondary pitches are hard (Wade Davis basically threw 3-of-4 pitches at 93+ in 2014).By comparison, one can see that the Brewers’ bullpen core was actually quite good with the strike outs and walks, despite having less-than-hot fastballs:

Reliever IP K% BB% Pitch 1 Pitch 2
F. Rodriguez 68 27.2 6.7 91+ riding FB 83+ change
W. Smith 65.7 30.1 10.8 94+ rising FB 82+ slider
Z. Duke 58.7 31.1 7.1 90+ sinker 76+ curve
B. Kintzler 58.3 13.0 6.7 92+ riding FB 85+ slider

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it looks like GM Doug Melvin exploited a market inefficiency for bullpen arms: while other clubs are going after super hard-throwing aces, Melvin paid approximately $5 million for four relievers that, on the whole, delivered rather solid performances for the Brewers. In this sense, Melvin should be praised for going after junkball/slow-throwing relievers when the market tilts toward flamethrowers. Still, one can take a look at these pitchers’ stuff and strike out performances, and note that this is not the same type of bullpen core as the Royals’ aces. One key difference that explains these performances is not simply the type of stuff these relievers have, but also how their stuff is selected:

Pitcher Top Pitch Percentage
B. Kintzler 71%
W. Davis 60%
G. Holland 55%
K. Herrera 54%
W. Smith 48%
A. Crow 46%
Z. Duke 42%
F. Rodriguez 30%

What sets Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, and Davis apart from the Brewers’ top relievers is their uniform top pitch selection. Almost across the board, they throw a couple of pitches, and they throw their top selection extremely frequently. Save for Brandon Kintzler, none of the top Brewers relievers even cracked 50% with their top selection. Rodriguez was the most extreme of the bunch, as he nearly selected his change up as frequently as his riding fastball (he also threw a rising fastball, making three consistent pitches for the closer). In this case, both Fiers and Nelson could give the Brewers a fresh look in the bullpen: both pitchers are notable for their fastballs (albeit for completely different reasons), and both throw their primary pitch a whole lot (56% for Nelson, 57% for Fiers). Given these arms’ potentially extreme pitch selection, and their ability to perfect their offerings while facing a batter once in a game, both Fiers and Nelson could be key depth options for improving the Brewers’ pen (and, by extension, opening an opportunity to improve the rotation).

Counterargument
One issue with looking at a relief staff such as the Royals’ aces in the playoffs is that the short set of games influences the way those relievers can be used. In this case, one can focus too much on one basic set of relievers, rather than the full effort of a staff that must kill a lot of time during 162 games (even the Royals featured 14 pitchers that worked fewer than 50 innings as swingmen and relievers). In this case, a specific resting and usage pattern for a bullpen could be even more important than cobbling together a core of relief aces. This is something that Ned Yost consistently emphasizes throughout press conferences during the playoffs, noting that the Royals have extremely specific rest patterns for their relievers. Their game logs seem to support this idea:

Days of Rest Zero One
W. Smith 21 31
Z. Duke 19 25
F. Rodriguez 25 16
K. Herrera 17 23
W. Davis 18 20
B. Kintzler 14 23
A. Crow 14 21
G. Holland 21 10

In this case, one might argue that the Brewers simply need to rework a specific resting strategy, rather than revamping the starting rotation by moving Fiers and Nelson to the bullpen. This is an especially important point to consider after the specter of overuse overhangs the Brewers’ April success. For instance, Tyler Thornburg worked five appearances on zero-days’ rest in April, and another four appearances with one-days’ rest. Given the fact that he was basically tossing up zeroes on the scoreboard every time out, it’s difficult to blame Roenicke for staying with Thornburg (especially when one considers Thornburg’s pitch counts); yet, one could note that the general wear-and-tear of getting ready in the ‘pen ought to be considered alongside Thornburg’s actual workload. Comparing the Brewers’ resting strategies to the rest of the Royals’ aces leads one to wonder whether more rest could help the Brewers build an extremely effective pen, moreso than adding pitchers with better or more prominent fastballs (like Fiers and Nelson).

Resources
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2014.
BaseballProspectus. Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC., 1996-2014.
MLB Advanced Media, LP., 2014.

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