Contrary to the popular belief on Twitter dot com on Friday night, Craig Counsell didn’t destroy the Brewers’ chances of winning the series opener in St. Louis against the Cardinals. The simple truth of the matter is that their odds of winning that game were very low before Counsell made a single decision as to whom to call on to pitch in relief. Those chances only marginally improved late in the game when the Brewers scored a couple runs to cut the lead to 3-2 in the top of the 8th.
There has been a lot of scrutiny of late on Craig Counsell’s management of the bullpen. This is natural, as, outside of the daily lineup, it’s the main way that managers can influence outcomes of their teams. Any manager in a pennant race is bound to be scrutinized for their bullpen use, especially when so many of the pitchers in it are struggling like the Brewers’ pen has of late.
Friday night felt like a confluence of events on that front. Going into the series opener against the Redbirds, there was quite a bit of talk of this series being “make or break” and “must win” on social media and sports talk radio. Given that, it’s understandable that people were a little on edge for the game and a disappointing outcome, but the collective freak-out simply isn’t warranted.
The best way to break down the decisions made in this game, as is so often this case, is to take a peek at the Fangraphs Win-Expectancy chart:
When Marcell Ozuna singled in a pair of runs in the bottom of the first inning, the Brewers odds of winning the game dropped to about one in four or about 25%. Fortunately, starter Freddy Peralta stabilized after some characteristic first inning struggles and the score remained the same until the fourth inning when Jedd Gyorko hit a solo homer and stretched the lead to 3-0 Cards. Ultimately, Peralta worked six innings allowing three runs, the bare minimum for a quality start, but progress for him given his recent struggles.
What all that meant in terms of the Brewers odds of winning the game wasn’t great, though. Outside of a brief dip into the 60’s during a Brewers rally in the top of the 3rd, that Cardinals wouldn’t be under about 75% favorites to win the game until the top of the eighth when the Brewers scored a pair of runs thanks to Jesus Aguilar‘s two-run single. Even then, though, the Brewers topped out at 34.2%.
So what does this mean practically for Counsell? At no point in this game after the Cards took the lead in the bottom of the first did Counsell send a pitcher to the mound with better than a 25% chance to win the game. It got worse as the game wore on too, with one notable exception, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
When Counsell sent Jordan Lyles out to pitch the seventh down 3-0, the Brewers odds of winning were a paltry 5.6%. Given those types of odds, it’s hard to argue that he should be using anyone but the most suspect of relievers available to him and to save his better arms for more meaningful chances of winning.
What happened next is the situation that launched a thousand Twitter hot takes. Aguilar plated two runs and cut the deficit to 3-2. What’s more, he took what seemed a pretty desperate situation and made it feel much more reasonable to everyone watching. That was mostly a mirage, though.
When Lyles took the mound for the bottom of the eighth, the Brewers odds were still only 13.0% to win. That may seem low intuitively, but it’s based on a massive sample of baseball history. It’s also important to remember that the Brewers 7-8-9 spots in the order were due in the ninth, so it’s not like they were sending out their offensive powerhouses to try and tie or win the game.
Given that, and the fact that so many of the relievers in the bullpen have struggled lately, it’s hard to say with any sort of certainty that the decision to send Lyles back out for the eighth made any real difference in the outcome.
Yes, Counsell could have used his remaining legitimate relief aces, Josh Hader or Jeremy Jeffress, but he would be doing so in service of trying to win a game where history says he has worse than a one in six chance to pull it off, and he’d be doing that on the first day of six straight days of games to play. A manger that does that very often runs the risk of rendering those arms less effective or possibly hurt, and it’s just not great practice.
Beyond that, Counsell had a number of pitchers who have struggled to prevent runs recently in Taylor Williams, Corbin Burnes, and Corey Knebel. Perhaps he could have turned to lefty Dan Jennings for the eighth and gotten a better outcome, but four straight right-handed batters with power were due to start the inning, so there’s plenty of ways that might have gone wrong as well.
Counsell maybe could have been a bit quicker on the trigger to move on from Lyles in the eighth, pulling him for Jennings to face the lefty Kolton Wong. But even then we’re looking at a situation where Wong’s double only moved the Cards odds of winning from 92.0% to 98.6%, hardly an earth shaking turn of events. Perhaps if he had a deeper pen to work with things would have been different, but Joakim Soria‘s injury and Knebel, Burnes and Williams’ struggles have limited the managers options in situations like this. That’s just something he has to deal with, even if fans don’t want to acknowledge it when there are rivals to be beaten.
The reality of the situation is that the team went into play on Friday in a playoff spot and with 39 of their 162 games to play. Even if they’re swept by the Cardinals, the worst case scenario finds them no more than a game and a half out of a playoff spot. So this isn’t the end of anything, even if it is disappointing. It’s a good thing for Crew fans that they have a manager who recognizes this and is willing to take the heat that comes with making correct decisions, even when they’re unpopular.