The Brewers beat the Giants 4-3 on Tuesday, thanks in large part to the heroics of the newly acquired Gerardo Parra. In the bottom of the seventh he hit a solo home run that gave the Brewers the lead and eventual winning margin. Then, in the top of the eighth with one out and two runners on he made a spectacular sliding catch in foul territory at a time when reliever Jeremy Jeffress was struggling mightily just to find the zone. Jeffress proceeded to strike out former MVP Buster Posey to get out of the jam, but it was yet another rough late inning run from the bullpen holding onto a close lead.
Nothing drives fans and media crazy faster than a leaky bullpen, and the Brewers pen has been taking on some water over the last month. Over the last 30 days, they have collectively allowed a 4.43 ERA. They were still among the top 10 teams in baseball in K:BB (3.00) ratio and top five in xFIP (3.13), so it’s not all negative indicators. Still, they have undeniably had problems, especially bridging the gap between the starters and Francisco Rodriguez.
After the game, manager Ron Roenicke let it be known things weren’t going exactly as he wanted them to when it came to his bullpen:
Roenicke says he wants one of the relievers to step up and pitch the whole eighth inning.
— Drew Olson (@DrewOlsonMKE) August 6, 2014
Setting aside for a moment all the (painfully obvious) “eighth inning guy” jokes that are running through all of our heads right now, there is perhaps a real issue to deal with here. Someone besides Rodriguez does need to step up and prove they can be relied upon to get important late inning outs against hitters of both hands, because playing match ups for an inning or two every night is a good way to burn through a bullpen in a hurry. There is also that old, often argued and never proven thing about relievers being best off when they know their roles and can mentally prepare to come in at least somewhat ahead of time.
Of course, not every guy in the pen is really under consideration for the job. Rob Wooten has been up and down between MLB and AAA all year for performance reasons and certainly hasn’t earned the right to be given such a role. Tom Gorzelanny hasn’t allowed a run since coming off the DL, which makes him seem like a pretty decent candidate on the surface. Of course, it’s come almost exclusively in low leverage situations and his fastball is down almost 2 full MPH from last year at this point. It’s hard to blame them for being a little skeptical of how that might play in close situations.
So let’s take a closer look at what the various candidates have going for them:
Will Smith was outstanding the first three months of the season, posting a 1.36 ERA in 39 2/3 innings pitched. Since then, though, he’s allowed 14 earned runs in 10 innings pitched. His velocity and command haven’t really slipped in any real measurable way, but batters have been making much more consistent hard contact over the last month than the previous three.
Clearly, Roenicke would like to get back to Smith for the whole eighth because he has the kind of velocity and nasty breaking pitch that are generally associated with the best late inning relievers. Problem is, he’s developed a very nasty platoon split over the last few months. He’s still holding left handers to an overall line of .159/.237/.232, but right handers are now hitting .303/.403/.487 for the season. Those sorts of numbers just don’t work, and, unless he can find a way to more consistently get right handers out, he’s basically a left-handed specialist, at least in high leverage situations.
After working his way into the good graces of both fans and management last year with a 2.69 ERA, things have taken a turn for the worse this year for Kintzler. His strikeouts have dipped while his home run rate has spiked drastically and while the overall effect on his ERA (3.35) hasn’t been huge it’s largely because he’s stranded an absurdly high 86.9% of baserunners allowed this year. That isn’t likely to continue.
Kintzler still has his uses, like inducing double plays with runners on because of his high ground ball rate, but doesn’t really fit the overall profile of guys who lock down the late innings. Teams tend to like guys who can miss bats late in games, and that just isn’t something he’s capable of. Trying to shoehorn him into pitching every eighth inning with a close lead seems like a bad idea.
The newest member of the Brewers bullpen, Jeffress certainly has the big fastball that late inning relievers often ride to success. Unfortunately, he also happens to possess the spotty command that carries so many relievers right on out of high leverage situations. Jeffress is definitely still a work in progress at this point, and did make adjustments working with minor league coach Fred Dabney, so it’s not totally clear just what he is going to become.
Jeffress does generate a lot of ground balls and has kept the ball in the park, something most Brewers relievers have struggled with. That at least gives him some margin for error in allowing base runners. The problem is, he figures to allow quite a few runners, especially when his command is off. Turning an inning over to him and counting on him to get through it even when he struggles to locate seems like an especially bad idea. If Roenicke doesn’t want to always have another guy up and ready to go every time he puts Jeffress into the game, it’s hard to imagine this working out for very long.
On the surface, it seems like Duke is the obvious fit. His ERA for the season is a sparkling 1.83. His strikeout to walk ratio of 4.62 is among the top 30 qualified relievers in the game this year. He induces a lot of ground balls and hasn’t had much in the way of home run issues. He also happens to be just about as good against right handers (.562 OPS against) as left handers (.563). He may not possess the blazing fastball of most successful late inning relievers, but he mixes pitches and arm slots effectively and keeps hitters off balance.
At this point, it’s honestly a little hard to understand why they haven’t just given Duke the eighth inning and told him it’s his as long as he can hold onto it. His adjustments in the off season really do seem to have had some real sticking power in his performance and it’s arguable he’s been the Brewers’ best reliever this year. Is there some reason they seem so reluctant to give him the job? Something that doesn’t show up in the numbers? Some personal reason we’re not privy to from the outside?
Ultimately, I ‘m not even sure this is a conversation we need to be having. Teams don’t need a dedicated pitcher to handle the eighth inning of close games. It’s nice when they do have a guy who stands out and can handle that role, like K-Rod in 2011 because it just means that they have more good, all purpose relievers to turn to, which is always a good thing. So it’s nice if you have it, but trying to shoehorn someone into that spot (like Kameron Loe in the first half of 2011) can be pretty problematic as well.
One way or another, the Brewers are going to need to be better in the late innings over the next eight weeks than they were over the last four. Honestly, it would be best if a guy or two did step up so the team doesn’t have to constantly warm up and yank guys left and right in late innings of the stretch run at the end of the year. That’s hardly a way to build up confidence in players over the long haul. If guys do step up then the problem should largely take care of itself. If it doesn’t, we’ll just have to hope that they learned from the Loe experience in 2011 and don’t try and repeat that mistake again.