Bullpen Follies cost the Milwaukee Brewers | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

Through the first 6 innings on Wednesday, the Brewers and Pirates played to a 2-2 stalemate between the game’s starters, Yovani Gallardo and Edinson Volquez. Then the bullpen got involved and things got out of hand quickly. When the carnage was over, the Brewers were on the wrong end of an 11-2 decision, their first road loss of the year. The Brewers entered the game with a league leading 1.33 relief ERA, but saw that balloon to a still-above-average 3.16.

It was inevitable that the Brewers pen was going to regress at some point. No modern bullpen is that good, and the Brewers pen was due for a clunker or two regardless. What’s more, the pen has been stretched somewhat thin by a few important factors:

  • The injuries to Brandon Kintzler and Tom Gorzelanny have removed two important relievers from last season from the equation and left the bullpen somewhat thinner than it probably will be much of the season. In their place are Rob Wooten and Zach Duke, neither of whom is  particularly outstanding.
  • The Brewers have been carrying young lefty Wei-Chung Wang all season to avoid having to give him back to the Pirates, despite the fact that they clearly didn’t trust him enough to use him except in cases of being down a significant margin late in games. Since the Brewers got out to a 11-4 start and have only been well behind once before Thursday, it was only his second chance to pitch.
  • Finally, the Brewers best setup men, Tyler Thornburg and Will Smith, have both been over pitched this year. Both have gotten into 8 games so far, with Thornburg throwing 9 2/3 innings against Smith’s 7.

As a result of all of the above factors, when the time came for the Brewers bullpen to enter the game in the 7th, manager Ron Roenicke turned first to Rob Wooten. He promptly allowed a decisive two-run home run and then put the next two men on base before retiring Andrew McCutchen and allowing a third run in the process. Southpaw Zach Duke was then brought in to face the Pirates back-to-back lefties. He walked Pedro Alvarez, who was then caught stealing and finally ended the inning by striking out Neil Walker.

In the 8th inning, still trailing by the same 5-2 score, Roenicke elected to go with the young Taiwanese lefty Wei-Chung Wang for only the second time this year. He quickly demonstrated just why the Brewers had hesitated to use him with any lead whatsoever by giving up six runs on a pair of homers, with the Pirates just missing another round tripper off the bat of Jose Tabata. Wang looked every bit the guy who never had pitched above rookie ball before the Brewers nabbed him in the rule 5 draft last December.

Games like this are never fun, but they do happen to just about every team at some point in the season. The good end of a team’s bullpen gets used heavily protecting a number of leads in the preceding weeks, maybe a guy or two is hurt and the team ends up turning a late tie or even a lead over to a less-than-stellar reliever who then puts his team well behind. Then the worst pitcher on the staff is called on for mop-up work, and he puts the game completely out of reach. There is nothing particularly odd about any of this.

The question always comes up, though, whether or not the manager in this situation really needed to hand over a close game to pitchers so obviously out of their depth. There are no clear cut answers to that. Of course, Roenicke could have plausibly turned to Smith, who hasn’t been used all that much the last week after getting in six games the first 11 days of the season and almost certainly was available. Thornburg has been used more in recent days after Kintzler went on the disabled list, moving from a more multiple-inning role to a setup one. Ideally, one of those two would have been the choice in a tie game, but managers have to deal with less-than-ideal circumstances all the time, and this was one of those cases.

With Jim Henderson‘s early struggles with the home run ball, Kintzler’s injury and both Thornburg and Smith being heavily used protecting leads early in the year, it was inevitable that some sort of close game was going to have to be handed over to Wooten and Duke eventually. As much as fans don’t like to hear it, managers must leave their best relievers on the bench in close games from time to time so they don’t end up over used and thus become no longer the team’s best relievers. It’s just part of the game and if it didn’t happen this time, it was bound to happen eventually.

The major question going forward after this bullpen implosion is whether or not the team can really afford to leave Wang in the major leagues all season if he’s going to look like a batting practice pitcher and only be usable when games are basically out of reach. At what point do the Brewers simply have to say “enough” and bring up a less talented but more major league ready arm to use in his “mop up” role?

It’s not a particularly important job, but one of the reasons the team is in this current situation is that they simply didn’t feel comfortable allowing Wang to pitch with any of the late four, five or six run leads that the Brewers had on the last road trip. It should be fairly obvious now why that was, but a team can only tie its hands behind its back like that for so long before the effects start to spill over into close ball games. It’s a delicate balancing act the team is trying to pull off right now for the sake of retaining Wang’s rights and not having to offer him back to the Pirates, but it hardly seems sustainable.

General Manager Doug Melvin said recently that Kintzler was progressing well in his rehab and should be able to come back immediately when his 15 days on the disabled list are up late next week. That should certainly help matters by allowing either him or Thornburg to pitch multiple inning stints in close games like this, but in the meantime Ron Roenicke is going to have some tough decisions to make like this one from time to time. Protecting leads is always going to take precedence over tie or closely trailing situations when it comes to a team’s best relievers, but at least more depth allows teams to deploy better relievers to still-important situations like Thursday night’s.

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Tell us what do you think.

  1. Derek says: April 18, 2014

    Capt Ron forced himself into this corner last night through an accumulation of questionable choices.

    On Wed night he had Peralta bat for himself with a runner on in the bottom of the 6th and a 4-1 lead. In vacuum, this seems harmless enough. He had a low-pitch count and was throwing well.

    In the top of the seventh Jay leads off with a slap single, Descalso promptly grounds out and now Ron pulls him with his pitch count getting into the high 80s. Again, not a terrible decision in a vacuum. But why have Peralta bat in the 6th if he is going to pull him at the first sign of trouble (is a single and a groundout even a sign of trouble?)

    He brings in Smith to get two batters and then pulls him to run out Thornburg and K-Rod for an inning each. Burning through all these pitchers with a 3 or 4 run lead (the final was 5-1).

    Going back to Tuesday’s game he similarly burned up multiple pitchers (Thornburg, Duke, and Henderson) for one inning each in a game where the Brewers were down multiple runs.

    Thornburg, Smith, Duke, and Kintzler are all capable of going multiple innings. It would serve the Brewers better to have their manager think ahead at least a day or two and consider the possibility that one of these guys might be needed in a close game going forward.

    • BIG LANCE says: April 18, 2014

      Excellent point- Also if the Brewers don’t get a first baseman and another outfielder their chances of contending are slim and none. They certainly have upgraded their starting pitching which gives them a chance but a lot of holes in that lineup

      • Ron says: April 18, 2014

        I agree need another outfielder/1st baseman, but I think Melvin is commited to Overbay or he wouldn’t have made it out of camp, I think he is hoping Morris gets hot, also you have some descent outfielders in minors, but who do you cut or send down to bring one up. Melvin may still be looking outside the org. for that 1st baseman.

      • 2ndHS says: April 18, 2014

        I’ve never read a comment that makes less sense or that I disagree with more than yours.

      • Nicholas Zettel says: April 19, 2014

        I enjoy the fact that the Brewers are off to a white hot start and have a fanbase that says they have no chance to contending.

    • Ryan Topp says: April 18, 2014


      There is some merit to the idea of using relievers for more than 1 inning at a time. The tradeoff, though, is that you run a guy out there for 40-50 pitches, you really must give them the next day off. Do it twice in 3 days, and you’re probably looking at leaving the guy on the shelf at least 2 days following that, if not 3. Otherwise, the inning totals are going to start piling up big time.

      This is why you don’t see many managers doing this very often with their primary setup men and closers. They want to be able to turn to them on back to back days and not have them be unavailable. It’s worth noting that RRR WAS using Thornburg for multiple inning stints before Kintzler got hurt and Thornburg moved into more of a setup role.

      Frankly, no manager is really using their RP to the best possible advantage right now. The fear of criticism has created this current system that makes the decision making process as clear cut and simple as possible for a manager. When they have a close lead, the choices are generally pretty clear cut for who they’re going to use. So even though there surely are better ways to deploy relievers than the current model, it is the one that basically everyone is using. So holding one manager’s feet to the fire for a decision they basically all make is something I just can’t do.

      On the positive side, when they do get back Kintzler and Gozelanny, it’s going to make the pen much deeper and should hopefully free up someone (probably either Kintzler or Thornburg) to pitch multi-inning stints in situations something like what we saw last night. I still think the bullpen is one of the strengths of the club, but last was just something that happens to everyone at some point when circumstances pile up the way they did.

    • Nicholas Zettel says: April 19, 2014

      I think this is true front, back, and sideways — regardless of how Roenicke decides to use his relievers, he is going to need to put guys like Wooten into close games at some point. Hell, even Wang is going to get into a close game some time. There just won’t be a choice after a while.

      We should look at this as a positive: the Brewers have been in a ton of games because of their starting pitching. If the pitching keeps going this well, we’re going to see more Wooten in tie games in the 7th.

  2. Okinawan Gorman Hai says: April 19, 2014

    Maybe the only way to keep Wang is to let him take the lefty specialist role and let go of Duke. Then we could see Figaro or Blazek called up to give Roenicke some more options in the pen. I think the Crew is a definite contender even without an upgrade at 1st – provided they stay healthy. The lack of bench depth is worrisome.

    • Ryan Topp says: April 19, 2014

      I think Duke will probably go when Gorzelanny returns, and my guess is Wang is going to wind up “hurt” pretty soon and sent down for a month of “rehab”

      As for bench depth, I tend to agree…but fixing the bench is one of the very easiest things to do at the deadline, and even into August. Not worried there, though it may cost them a bit in the meantime.

  3. Okinawan Gorman Hai says: April 20, 2014

    Yeah, either way I think Duke’s days are numbered. I think the bench depth needs to be addressed now. For example, we had already used Bianchi, Herrera, and Gennet by the time Aramis got dinged in the elbow with a pitch. What’s left if he can’t go? Moving Reynolds to 3rd and asking Maldonado to play 1st? With Wang and Weeks, we’re effectively a 23 man roster. If Wang gets “hurt,” that will help, but at some point we may have to just eat Ricky’s contract and clear a roster spot. He’s a good guy, but he’s not the same since the injuries and clearly doesn’t seem able to adjust to a bench-type role. Something has to give.

    • Al says: April 20, 2014

      Rickie is a defensive liability and he might have more gidp than hits this season.


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