At this point, anybody who follows the Brewers understands what the problem with this year’s club is. It’s the bullpen, stupid.
There have been worse bullpens in history. There have even been worse bullpens this season, in terms of just allowing hits and runs. The Astros (4.78), Cubs (4.78) and Mets (4.75) all have worse ERAs than the Brewers’ 4.67 out of the bullpen. Milwaukee’s 3.81 bullpen FIP is almost good — average sits at 3.76 for relievers this season. But timing has been the issue — the Brewers have combined being bad in general with being worse when it matters most. There’s the 26 blown saves, there’s 0.6 and 0.7 runs allowed in the eighth and ninth innings respectively. And there’s the -7.11 Win Probability Added (WPA), the 11th-worst since 1974 (all stats entering play Wednesday).
The Brewers have otherwise been a pretty good team, which typically comes with the territory of having the worst WPA. In order to blow games, you first have to lead them. The Brewers have the third-best run scoring output in the NL (and the second best by a team that doesn’t play half its games at Coors Field), and the starting pitching has been fine (4.06 ERA, 3.81 FIP).
It isn’t much of a stretch to say the Brewers would at least be in the playoff hunt, if not outright leading it, with a half-decent bullpen. Even with this season’s disaster, they only trail the last Wild Card team by 7.5 games, and much of the core of the team will be around for 2013. But can they get around the awful bullpen in just one season? Let’s take a look at some of those other terrible bullpens and how their next seasons went:
Of these 25 teams, the average squad won 67 games and improved all the way to .500 the year after. Seven reached the playoffs, an especially notable mark considering the Wild Card didn’t exist for 12 of the 25.
We don’t see a normal distribution in terms of win change, either. Fifteen of the teams saw improvements of 13 wins or greater, with the other 10 sitting at six or lower. Ten of the 25 saw improvements of over 20 games. Why the big spread? Likely, some of these teams decided to blow it up after a horrible season. Others recognized a team that was a few pieces away and went for it on the free agent or trade markets.
This isn’t to say the Brewers can just stand pat and things will fix themselves. But the players already in tow are likely to pitch better next season, and it shouldn’t be difficult to improve on the current crop of relievers given the starting point. Enough of the offense is around, and the free agent market for starting pitchers (to replace Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf) coming up this season is one of the deepest we’ve seen in years. We’ve seen it happen before. If the Brewers play their cards right, they could be the next team to rise up from the ashes left by a historically bad bullpen.